Mansfield Park by Jane Austen
Having read the other five of Austen’s novels, I thought I had gained enough immunity, and was safe against an attack from Austen’s writing style and substance while I was reading Mansfield Park. But I was helpless. I was once again charmed, even more so than before, if you can believe it possible. I cannot possibly put all my thoughts in this post—it would be too long—for Austen gave me a lot to think about in this book. But here are some highlights.
Among Austen’s novels, Mansfield Park, in my opinion, is the one which presents the deepest insight and knowledge of the nuances and vicissitudes of human nature, and it presents them masterfully. In it, Austen pays tribute to a sound mind, judgment, and principles, as the compass which can safely guide us through the changes of time and circumstances. Never mind that the person who possesses these traits cannot play the pianoforte or the harp. Austen gives the young heroine, Fanny Price, a knowledge of these things. When Edmund Bertram, her cousin and secret love, promises to write to her when he has news of success in pursuing his own love, Mary Crawford, Fanny thinks:
For this letter she must try to arm herself. That a letter from Edmund should be a subject of terror! She began to feel that she had not yet gone through all the changes of opinion and sentiment, which the progress of time and variation of circumstances occasion in this world of changes. The vicissitudes of the human mind had not yet been exhausted by her.
Austen emphasizes the importance of proper upbringing and education in shaping an individual’s character, judgement, and principles, whether this education is supplied by a natural or an adoptive family. But she also acknowledges that a favorable disposition and judgement can be innate, if struggling to prevail, as in the case of Mary Crawford and Susan Price, Fanny’s younger sister.
I have this impression—though I might be wrong—that among Austen’s heroines, Fanny Price is the least liked. I love Fanny Price. Austen’s Miss Price is painfully shy, delicate, quiet, nervous, and an introvert, who derives her pleasures from books, riding, sitting and keenly observing, and the company of her cousin, mentor, and confidant, Edmund. Fanny Price also seems to be the Austen heroine whose colour changes the most—she is constantly turning scarlet or white, but mostly scarlet. She is also the most prone to almost, but not quite, faint, as if Austen is gently teasing her for her delicacy, which she also does in other ways at some points in the novel. Yet these are the words which Austen uses over and over again in the novel in their variety, as if the reader cannot be reminded enough, in relation to Fanny: gentle, sweet, tender, good, modest, soft; and with purity of mind and intentions, excellence of principles, an affectionate heart, tenderness of heart, a quick and clear understanding, mental superiority, the heart which knew no guile; and with beauty of face and figure to boot. Henry Crawford, Mary’s brother and a character that I was wholly prepared to hate until Austen botched my plans, says to Fanny:
“You have qualities which I had not before supposed to exist in such a degree in any human creature. You have some touches of the angel in you, beyond what—not merely beyond what one sees, because one never sees any thing like it—but beyond what one fancies might be.”
Even Austen the narrator, at the end of the novel, refers to the heroine as “My Fanny,” which I think is a rare public display of fondness for one of her heroines. And yet, Fanny is all too human. When Edmund and Mary have a lovers’ spat at a ball, this is how Fanny reacts:
Fanny, not able to refrain entirely from observing them, had seen enough to be tolerably satisfied. It was barbarous to be happy when Edmund was suffering. Yet some happiness must and would arise, from the very conviction, that he did suffer.
In the novel, Austen also salutes fraternal love, something which she knows much of firsthand. In speaking of the relationship between Fanny and her brother, William, and their shared childhood experiences, Austen says:
An advantage this, a strengthener of love, in which even the conjugal tie is beneath the fraternal.
For me, this is Austen’s most touching and most heartbreaking novel. There are so many scenes and passages from this novel that I love. And Austen gets so well into her characters’ heads, and succeeds too well in making me feel how they feel. My heart broke at the scene where Fanny was being confronted by her uncle, Sir Thomas Bertram, for refusing Henry Crawford’s proposal (because when it comes to whom she is to marry, she’s no pushover). But I felt the joy when Fanny was reunited with William after years of separation. I was surprised, too, at how effective Austen was in conveying Edmund’s feelings. My heart broke as much at the scenes where Fanny was reading Edmund’s letter in which he related his heartache over Mary Crawford, and the letter relating all the misfortune that had befallen the Bertram family, and the scene where Edmund told Fanny of his final meeting with Mary.
But let’s not forget Austen’s trademark biting humor, which I thought was restrained in this novel, Mrs. Norris notwithstanding. In the scene where William had just departed Mansfield Park, and Fanny was in the room where she, William, Henry, and Sir Thomas had eaten breakfast, and Sir Thomas at that time hoping for an attachment between Fanny and Henry, Austen narrates:
After seeing William to the last moment, Fanny walked back into the breakfast-room with a very saddened heart to grieve over the melancholy change; and there her uncle kindly left her to cry in peace, conceiving perhaps that the deserted chair of each young man might exercise her tender enthusiasm, and that the remaining cold pork bones and mustard in William’s plate, might but divide her feelings with the broken egg-shells in Mr. Crawford’s. She sat and cried con amore as her uncle intended, but it was con amore fraternal and no other.
The plot, I thought it was brilliant, especially Fanny’s visit with her family in Portsmouth. And Lovers’ Vows.
I didn’t think it was possible for me to have a favorite Austen novel, for I love them all, but this certainly comes closest to being one.
(The illustrations in this post are by H. M. Brock.)
I welcome your comments.