Saturday, October 24, 2020

Review: Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

 Rating: 2/5 stars

I finished Northanger Abbey wondering if I was particularly disposed to identifying with Austen heroines, but in Mansfield Park's Fanny Price I discovered at last a protagonist that I never really "got." For the first two thirds of the novel, Fanny does little more than exist as a fly on the wall, meditating disapprovingly as her cousins and their friends flirt, rehearse a play, and discuss religion and landscaping. Fanny finds much to dislike, and takes little joy in anything in life outside of her relationship with her brother William, who sees her briefly in between sea voyages, and being cared for by her cousin Edmund Bertram. Unlike Northanger Abbey's Catherine Morland, who delighted in dancing and books and discovering the world, or Emma's Miss Woodhouse, who enjoys art and wit and society, Fanny Price just seems like a bit of a dour, passive wet blanket. Even her love for Edmund is expressed predominantly in terms of acquiescent sadness as she watches him develop feelings for Miss Crawford (rather than Catherine's consuming giddiness for Mr Tilney or Emma's playful admiration for Mr Knightly). The climax of the novel is in Fanny quietly standing firm in her resolution to not marry Mr Crawford, who she views as improper and amoral. And I highly value convictions and a sense of right and wrong - in myself, in my friends, in my fictional characters - but I don't have patience for people who lack passion.

The fallout to Fanny's heroic decision not to marry a charming and wealthy man felt a little facile. Everyone who was superficial or improper or mean to Fanny met an unpleasant end, unless they were able to recognize quickly enough how right and proper Fanny was to refuse Mr Crawford. The few people who were nice to Fanny and valued her had good fortune and enjoyable lives.

Austen asks "what makes people good?" But I don't feel she satisfactorily provides an answer. Fanny's cousins, Julia and Maria, become silly and superficial women because their father cares only that they "check the boxes" of being accomplished young ladies without ensuring that they are actually godfearing young ladies. Maria is particularly spoiled (and thus meets a particularly demeaning fate) because her Aunt Norris spoils her and views her absolutely without faults. Sir Thomas Bertram pats himself on the back for polishing Fanny into being an elegant young lady, but notes that her beauty is her own. But what makes Edmund a considerate and conscientious young man? He was raised in the same toxic household as his fatuous, ostentatious cousins. Most of Fanny's siblings are self-centered, but what makes her sister Susan immune to these endemic flaws? Are some of us simply born with strong moral character while the rest of us must hope that our parents and guardians instill in us a strong sense of ethics?

 The other themes in Mansfield Park seemed a little dated and uninteresting. One of the key concepts explored was the role and the respectability of the clergy - which has changed quite a bit! The position held by the improper, hedonistic characters is that men of the cloth are hypocritical and that their only ambition is to minimize their duties. The position held by the moral characters is that the clergy plays an essential role in the health of a community and are smart and self-sacrificing. The "bad guys" believe that no one really cares about religion, and that everyone simple attends for the sake of performing piety, and that church bells are a bit of a nuisance. The "good guys" long for regular chapel services to be held in Southerton Hall and that all the servants ought to attend. I found myself rather more sympathetic towards the arguments presented by the villains.

Another concept was that of remodelling and landscaping. Some types of landscaping are virtuous. Some are silly and superficial. I was a little amused that privileged people 200 years ago were as disposed to spending an entire dinner discussing landscaping as they are now. These are not my favourite types of dinner parties. Still, conversations like these can be delightful ways of exploring characters! 

However, the cast of Mansfield Park was not as colorful or as familiar or otherwise as interesting as the casts in some of Austen's other work. The personal flaws lampooned in Mansfield Park also just seem to present themselves differently now than they did then. There are still the checked-out parents, like Sir and Lady Bertram, miserly people like Mrs Norris, and ladder-climbing superficial women like Miss Crawford and Maria Bertram. But I didn't find these flaws as poignantly presented and explored as, for example, those of Sir Walter Elliot and Mary Musgrove of Persuasion.

If there are two themes in the books I've read in the last three or four months, it would be the novels of Jane Austen and nonfiction exploring the fallouts of Colonialism and slavery (for example: Race, Women and Class or The Autobiography of Malcolm X). I had some hopes that Mansfield Park, as the only work by Jane Austen that references slavery and the colonies, to be an interesting dovetailing of these two themes. However, it played an extremely minor background role, and I feel that discussions of portrayal of slavery in this book are really trying very hard to make mountains out of molehills. Is Fanny/Austen pro-slavery? Anti-slavery? You could read the handful of lines that reference the issue either way depending on your desired thesis.

I still enjoyed Jane Austen's prose, and her ability to design a scene and portray the thoughts and emotions of her characters. There were plot points I enjoyed - Fanny making her own little space in the East Room, and finally being allowed to have a fire in the hearth there, for example. But if I were in the mood for some Jane Austen, I think I would pick up perhaps any other book but this one.

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