Mansfield Park, by Jane Austen

This 1814 novel would be much better at about half its length. The first half merely sets up this extended family, how three sisters married at different levels of society and how various relationships developed among their children. There is no story and no tension, and at various points in the first 200 pages I was tempted to set down this novel and seek one with more interesting characters, people who were not just living but were interacting at cross purposes. That is, a story.

But it is difficult to set aside a work by such a distinguished author, an author I was reading to broaden my literary knowledge. And so I persevered. But it required considerable concentration to bring into focus the relationship among the various characters. The three sisters are Mary, who marries Sir Thomas and becomes Lady Bertram; Miss Ward, no first name, who marries Rev. Mr. Norris and is very mean-spirited; and Frances who marries a hardy naval officer named Price. It was also not easy to follow characters who are called at times by their first name and at other times by their last name.

But the novel evolves around their children. There are Thomas, Maria, Julia, and Edmund Bertram, and William, Fanny, and Susan Price. Plus there are siblings, Henry and Mary Crawford, who belong to the Bertram social circle. The first half establishes the ambitions, characteristics, and relationships among these young people, how class plays a part in their lives, how morality plays a part, and how finding a spouse plays a part. It provides an opportunity for Austen’s wit and her own social consciousness. But there is still no story.

Instead, there is preparation. Fanny is transferred to Mansfield Park to relieve Frances of one of her many children. There is Fanny’s slow acceptance into this wealthy family. There is a compatibility between Fanny and Edmund, as they discover they share important values. There is a discussion to redesign a mansion, during which Edmund and Caroline are lost. There is the rehearsal of a play that a returning Sir Thomas views as immoral and stops.

Finally, there is a hint of a story when the cavalier Henry Crawford charms daughters Maria and Julia but fails to propose, resulting in Maria marrying a boor on the rebound, and Crawford turning his attention to young Fanny. He has confided to his sister Mary that he intends to play with her affections, and then leave her. But Fanny has seen how he treated her sisters and rejects him, while he discovers that in his “pursuit” he has fallen in love with her.

So finally the novel has tension, has a story. Will she or won’t she? We read the rest of the novel to find out. Like Fanny, we don’t trust Crawford, because we also have seen him with her sisters, plus heard his plotting with his own sister, Mary. And Austen loads the dice by having Mary, Edmund, Sir Thomas, and others encouraging Fanny to accept Crawford.

But the basic problem for me is that when Crawford, ironically, falls in love with Fanny, I could not accept it. He seemed too shallow to feel so deeply, despite all the favors he does to win her over. I could not accept this irony, even if his favors do persuade Fanny to see him in a better light. In counterpoint, note, is the romance between Edmund and Crawford’s sister. He has fallen for her, and is sure he can persuade her to marry him. Meanwhile, Fanny, politely but painfully, listens to the failures of his courtship, for he is the one she truly loves.

The resolution to these courtships not only comes too suddenly for me, it also betrays the manipulation of the author. It concerns two couples who run away offstage, and the repercussions among those left behind. That it is two couples seems to be overdoing it, as if Austen needed to make sure the impact is convincing. And, lo and behold, those repercussions pave the way to happy resolutions for Austen’s main characters. Indeed, she does not even dramatize those repercussions. She simply narrates them, and quickly winds up her novel.

Austen obviously understood family relationships, small town life, and the interaction among different levels of society. But in our modern age, one has to get used to her basic technique in conveying a story such as this. First is the use of narration instead of a dramatization. One must also get used to her circumlocutions that stretch out the meaning she wishes to convey. It is Henry Jamesish before James came along, although more concerned with precision than with nuance. And while paragraphs of conversation are limited, it is not always clear who is saying what.

Some modern critics have complained about Fanny’s passive character, but I have no problem with her. She had her own standard of personal conduct, and I was comfortable with it. She also reflects the reluctance of women in Austen’s era to deal aggressively with men in a male society. One can understand how today’s feminists are uncomfortable with this; but she is honest, loyal, and sensitive, all fine qualities even today.

For me, the most interesting character is the charming Mary Crawford. She is kind and understanding with Fanny, except when Fanny refuses to accept her brother. She is also fun to be with and is idealized by Edmund, who does not see her practical bent—and that she prefers sophisticated (immoral?) London to the quiet of rural Mansfield. She is interesting because she has more contradictions than Fanny.

Just as the reader’s view of Mary keeps changing, so does it of Henry. For Austen wants us to accept her irony, that Henry is truly in love with Fanny. But it is difficult to accept that he is indeed in love with her, especially if he runs away with another woman. Fortunately, even as Fanny’s feelings change, even as she begins to see his good side, she is patient until he eventually reveals his true self.

This is low on my list of Austen novels, but I need to return to her. One day. (May, 2015)

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