Austen only wrote six novels after all. Where would English literature be without Pride and Prejudice or Emma? How many writers has Austen inspired over the years? How has Austen impacted all of our ideas about romance?
I’m a fan. Really. But after putting off reading Mansfield Park for years because it was my last Austen novel, I’ll just say it: I didn’t enjoy this one. At all.
Mansfield Park tells the story of Fanny Price, a poor relation who is charitably raised by the wealthy Bertram family of Mansfield Park– Sir and Lady Bertram, sons Tom and Edmund, daughters Julia and Maria, and aunt Mrs. Norris. As a girl she is taken from her home in the city and doesn’t see her family for years, except for her brother. She’s raised with wealth, privilege, and education; on the other hand, the Bertram family treats her as little better than a servant, especially Mrs. Norris and Julia and Maria. The only person that treats her with any warmth and affection is her cousin Edmund Bertram.
When Sir Bertram leaves the country to deal with a financial issue, the rest of the family feels they have a free pass as far as behavior goes. Fanny disapproves but she’s dependent on the family so can’t really voice her own opinions. When siblings Mary and Henry Crawford move to the nearby Parsonage, their influence leads the Bertram family down a dangerous path. Fanny can do little but worry and try to keep herself on a moral high ground. Even worse, Fanny develops feelings for Edmund, who falls for the Mary Crawford.
I’m sorry to say I found this book tedious. Fanny may be the moral compass for this family but she’s also timid, sickly, and cries a lot. She shows little of the strength of other Austen heroines. Her passivity drove me crazy; she spends a good part of the book sitting by herself in a little room thinking about what she would say to people if she could.
To be fair, Austen has put poor Fanny in a terrible position. She’s raised in wealth and luxury but is constantly put down by the rest of the family and reminded of how inferior she is. She has to be nice to everyone regardless of how they treat her. She spends most of her life swallowing her opinions because the family could give her the boot any time they want to. When she does take a stand on something she feels strongly about, she’s reminded how ungrateful she is. I kept wondering, is Austen’s message that this is better than living in poverty? Maybe for a woman of that time, the answer is yes.
Fanny is hard to like. She’s a good person but lacks the spirit and wit of the other Austen heroines. Give me Elizabeth, Emma, or Elinor any day, for all their flaws — or because of them. Fanny is uptight and boring, and while she may be morally right she’s also judgmental and unforgiving. And as for romance, falling for the only person in your whole life who treats you with any decency (other than your brother) is pretty weak. Edmund treats Fanny well until he meets Mary, but after that he basically uses her as a shoulder to cry on.
Is it a problem that Henry Crawford, notorious playboy and manipulator of women, was the most interesting character for me? The story only comes to life when he’s involved. The rest of the time it moves like molasses.
Wikipedia tells me I’m not alone here, and that this book is fairly controversial among Austen fans. And a scan of Goodreads reviews tells me the same. There are readers who love this book for its thoughtfulness and complexity, and others who, like me, found it hard to get through.
Maybe if I’d read this book for a class, I would have appreciated what Austen was trying to do. There are interesting economic issues in this book, but mainly I just thought it was so sad that Fanny gets separated from her family as a charity case, then she gets treated like a servant for years, and then when she goes back home she can’t relate to her family at all. The only bright spot in her life is her brother, who’s such a paragon of virtue he’s no more interesting a character than she is.
If this book had been written by anyone but Austen, I wouldn’t have finished it. Sadly, I was relieved when it was over.