The six are the Jane Austen canon — Pride & Prejudice, Sense & Sensibility, Persuasion, Northanger Abbey, Mansfield Park, and Emma. The following is my analysis of the six, in no particular order.
I first read Pride & Prejudice in high school and didn’t like it. I picked it up again when I was 25, at loose ends with my life, and a few months away from drawing stakes and moving from Connecticut where I grew up, to Austin, Texas, a monumental move that changed the trajectory of my life.
I’ve re-read it dozens of times since, especially my several close reads prior to writing The Unexpected Miss Bennet. And I’ve grown to both like it less and appreciate it more. For one thing, over-familiarity can render even the best-loved novel a bit tattered and faded. What was once the brightly colored experience of a beloved re-read suffers from a closer examination that reveals the age marks and the water spots.
But damn, it is probably one of the most perfect novels ever written. It has just enough imperfections to make the good stuff stand out, and to keep English doctoral students in business studying what Austen actually meant when she wrote that. For instance — Lizzy’s very odd conversation with Wickham at the end. Or whether Lizzy fell in love with Darcy before or after she saw his house. Or who is the worse parent — Mr. Bennet or Mrs. Bennet?
Adaptations of Pride & Prejudice emphasize the romance, but the novel itself is not a romance, even if it makes use of a modern romance trope — The Grovel. Darcy has done a pretty unthinkable thing, by influencing Bingley to dump Jane Bennet. He redeems himself by finding Lydia, making Wickham marry her by providing the bulk of the payout, and even takes responsibility for Wickham seducing Lydia in the first place. And he does it all without expecting anything of Lizzy. When he changes Bingley’s mind again (we’ll see this crop up again in Persuasion and Emma), that’s for Lizzy, because it removes the Final Obstacle, which is another modern romance tactic. And it works, of course.
Austen wasn’t writing romance. She was writing commentary on middle class society. She’s more Anne Tyler than Nora Roberts. P&P does follow the marriage plot, but I still see it less of romance and more of a contemporary novel of manners and morals and society.
From Austen’s best-loved novel to her most misunderstood, you won’t find two novels more different from one another. I think that even Jane Austen’s contemporary readers found Mansfield Park puzzling and unlikeable. It’s a barbed commentary on smug, pompous, foolish middle-class society, whose money comes from trade. Austen isn’t just looking down on the merchant class. If current scholarship is correct, she is making a direct statement about people whose fortune came from slave labor. She is also taking on meanness, hypocrisy, and self-deceit. Nobody is likeable, even Fanny. In fact, Fanny is such a pain in the ass. She’s timid, mealy-mouthed, a milksop, no fun to be around, a killjoy, and everybody’s favorite whipping post.
And that girl stands firm. Every one of her Christian beliefs is tested and she never gives an inch. Of course nobody likes her! She lives according to her principles! She’s very un-modern, which is why modern readers don’t like her, and she is a direct rebuke to her contemporaries, who probably disliked her for the same reason.
Despite all that (“other than that, Mrs. Lincoln…”) Mansfield Park is an engaging read. It’s not an easy book but it is amazing at how modern the language is. Austen is an opaque writer, and Mansfield Park is a thick book, but some things jump out. At one point, Maria asks her aunt, Mrs. Norris, if she’s been sponging again, meaning exactly what we mean when we say someone is sponging off someone.
Mansfield Park is almost Dickensian. My favorite part of the novel comes near the end, when Fanny goes home to visit her family. They are very poor, and they live in squalor and discontent, and there is something so marvelous about that description because it is so different from P&P, and even different from Sense & Sensibility, and the Dashwoods are very poor. But this is different, and we see it. The Price family is rowdy and quarrelsome, and they don’t have even a bit of gentility, and Fanny is ashamed of them, and ashamed of being ashamed.
We have this image of Jane Austen being drawing room nice — sprigged muslin and china cups and dances at the Pump Room, and all of that. The Price family gives a lie to all that. Those people are real, and the only way to write a family like that is to know it.
One other thing that becomes very clear is that Austen loves her some sailors. This comes across in Persuasion as well. Mansfield Park comes alive with Fanny’s love for her brother, who has gone to sea, and the description of Portsmouth and the docks.
Mansfield Park is decidedly not a romance, even if it ends with Fanny and Edmund together. I think that’s why film adaptations have failed. The movie didn’t quite get at the point of the novel, and the miniseries was just plain lousy.
Next installment: Sense & Sensibility and Northanger Abbey.