Mansfield Park is Jane Austen’s least-popular novel. I recently re-read it, and I think it has this undeserved rap because of one major misconception, that it’s a romance. It’s most emphatically not. And read with that understanding in mind, I had a new appreciation for this work.

I’ve come to love Austen less for the Marriage Plot and more for the glimpse into the world of early 19th century England. She was a cultural anthropologist who was able to draw her complex society and provide great insight into her life and times. I love reading about how men and women interacted, worked, ate, shopped (yes, shopped!) spent their leisure time, parented, prayed, and lived. Mansfield Park is full of this kind of observation. Emma is also good in this way, and come to think of it, Emma is also not a romance. (Emma’s actually kind of an anti-romance.)

It is also such a realistic look at how the poor lived that it’s as close to Dickens as we’re going to get for another three or four decades. The interlude in Portsmouth is wonderful in its depiction of the poor, crude, vulgar Price family, their dirty house, and their slatternly maid. Their only consolation, Mrs. Price’s handsome family, is pitiful in its weakness.

Mansfield Park is also the most modern of Austen’s books. She has a dense literary style, but Mansfield Park is almost streamlined in comparison to Pride & Prejudice. I was struck by how often I forgot I was reading a period work, since not only the style but the cadence and word choice are spare and to the point. Austen says at one point that Mrs. Norris is “sponging” off another character. Same word, same slang, and it was startling in its effect.

To modern readers, the big problem is Fanny Price. How can we like a heroine who is so priggish and mealy-mouthed and never sticks up for herself? Edmund too, comes across as a humorless prig. Come on! It’s just a play! I wanted to yell at both of them. As for the two villains of the book, Mary and Henry Crawford, really, how bad are they? The moral repugnance that Fanny holds for Henry, after he does everything for her, got really tiresome after a while. As for Edmund, since he’s ready to forgive Mary for her shallowness if she’ll only marry him, we can’t really take his concerns seriously.

And that is exactly Austen’s point. This is her most worldly book (and anyone who ever thought Austen was sheltered is laughably wrong – this is a very sophisticated novel) and what she is saying is, yes, to most of us, even in her time, the Crawfords really aren’t that bad. They are just rich and selfish, so give it a rest already!

I bet her contemporaries didn’t like Mansfield Park any more than modern readers do. Because that’s Austen’s point – where do we draw the line on badness? And what does it say about us that we’re ready to give Mary and Henry a pass because they are charming, and Henry really is trying to be good, dear boy?

If you haven’t read Mansfield Park in a while, give it another try. I gained a new appreciation, among other things for Austen’s evident admiration for sailors. I wonder if she had as a girl ever dreamed of going to sea, before the constrictions of society ground any sense of adventure under its boot. The scenes and characters are some of her best ever. The Portsmouth interlude and the character of poor Mr. Rushworth especially are vivid and memorable. Mrs. Norris is a one-note villain, but her villainy is so within character that once again, we know people like her.

If you’ve read it, chime in here and let me know what you thought.


Matthew ( · June 30, 2015 at 10:24 am

I wholeheartedly agree that this is a sophisticated and worldly novel – Austen showing a different string to her bow than with P&P undoubtedly but very impressive. The idea of her being a cultural anthropologist interests me. I’ve just ten minutes ago read Nabokov on this, he believing that novels cannot be treated as histories and yet I remember reading a lot about Northanger Abbey when I studied it about the lengths to which Austen had gone to make it exact in so many ways. It’s a really interesting discussion.

My review: Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

Patrice Sarath · June 30, 2015 at 11:39 am

And your review as well! It’s such a difficult novel, but that’s not a bug. It’s a feature. Austen meant it to be difficult, just as she meant Fanny to be passive, yet firmly steadfast. This novel, even more than Emma, is a glimpse into the past into how people of the era lived, and I adore it for that, for the humor, and for the keen insight into human nature.

Matthew ( · July 6, 2015 at 5:38 am

Yes, I really agree. It’s great for a book to challenge the reader and force them to think about things more deeply! It’s also interesting to see Austen write about a different mode of life when Fanny returns to Portsmouth for a brief interlude.

Patrice Sarath · July 6, 2015 at 10:13 am

That’s one of my favorite sections of the novel. As I mentioned in my review, it’s almost Dickensian. And here’s the thing — for all the social stratification in Austen’s life and times, she was probably as familiar with this level of society as she was with the drawing rooms of the comfortable class. She had a brother who was adopted out and she and her family knew poverty. I keep thinking that Mansfield Park is the most Austen of novels and for that reason people who misunderstand or dislike it are missing a lot of what and who Austen is.

Matthew ( · July 9, 2015 at 10:24 am

Yes, I’ve read a little of Nabokov on Austen and I know he sees a link between the Portsmouth passage and Dickens style – almost Dickensian before the fact!

That is interesting – I wonder why she chose to focus on the drawing room drama rather than a more varied look at life. Perhaps it suited her purpose but I would have loved to see her take on different social settings.

Patrice Sarath · July 9, 2015 at 2:01 pm

Yes, although speculating on why or why not is just speculation, unless she left something to that effect in her remaining correspondence. She does it so well — illuminate the life of the poor — that I also wish she had done more of it. She certainly knew poverty herself. Many of her characters are poor (Miss Bates in Emma, for instance). And of course, society was so much less fluid then than now.

On a similar note — if you compare Elizabeth Gaskell’s North & South to Pride & Prejudice, there are some interesting things going on with female heroines. Gaskell’s a contemporary and colleague of Dickens, and Margaret Hale has plenty more agency than Elizabeth Bennet in the 40 or so years that separate them, but in other ways, Lizzy’s got way more going on in terms of emotional self-knowledge. So there’s yet another difference between Regency and Victorian era literature and it might just be that writing about the poor in Austen’s time just wasn’t done, just like writing about women’s interior lives in the Regency era wasn’t done.

Matthew ( · July 18, 2015 at 12:00 pm

Ah, that is another interesting comparison for me to look out for then. I haven’t read North & South yet but am hoping to this summer, so I shall certainly think of P&P when reading it.

You may well be right about the period and what was common for the time. I suppose in a similar way, it could well be argued (but probably by someone more well-read than me) that poor people weren’t represented in a fully realised way until into the 20th Century, when you had writers from a more diverse background tackling poor characters and moving them centre-stage.

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