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)

Persuasion, by Jane Austen

This 1818 novel is, indeed, an admirable work. It is old-fashioned, yes, in its style, Telling the reader more often than showing him. And it is obvious in its story, for we know the ending from the first chapter.

But the wisdom of the author, the understanding of the human character, the ability to create drama out of ordinary events, and the awareness that the realty of this distant world does not require detailed, realistic settings—all this contributes to the effectiveness of this novel two centuries after it was written.

This is the story of Anne Elliot, who was persuaded by her family to turn down a handsome but the poor naval officer, Captain Wentworth, whom she truly loved. Now, by apparent accident, he has returned to her life, a rich sea captain, and her heart is all aflutter. Will she or won’t she? Will they or won’t they?

Much stands in their way. Her father Sir Walter Elliot. Her adviser Lady Russell. Her sisters, beautiful Elizabeth and vain Mary, both of whom are more concerned with their own lives. And a lost cousin, Mr. Elliot, who has his own ideas about Anne’s future. Indeed, Anne herself is in her own way, having lost the bloom of youth along with her only love.

In a work of less than 300 pages, the reader absorbs this life of a distant era. There is no world here outside family estates, a seaside town, and the resort of Bath. There is no London, no Napoleon on the minds of these middle-class families concerned mainly with money, love, reputation, and social niceties.

The novel is helped tremendously by secondary characters. There are Anne’s father and sisters Elizabeth and Mary at the Kellynch mansion, which they lease for financial reasons to Admiral Croft and his wife, sister to Captain Wentworth. At Uppercross Hall, where Anne Elliot stays because her sister Mary is married to Charles Musgrove, there is Mr. Musgrove, his wife, and daughters Louisa and Henrietta. There are also Captain Harville and Captain Benwick at the sea resort of Lyme Regis, where Louisa has an accident and is cared for by them. Finally, at Bath, Anne renews her acquaintance with a former schoolmate, Mrs. Smith, who will play a key role, as well as members of a vain Bath society, from Lady Dalrymple to Colonel Wallis.

What is also admirable are the three settings: the mansions of Kellynch and Uppercross, the sea resort of Lyme, and the social life at Bath. Austen uses the first to establish family relationships, the second to introduce the change in Anne’s outlook and appearance, and the third to contrast the veneer of social life against Anne’s common sense. But in each case there is a solid, physical setting—because of the reaction of the characters to it rather than a result of detailed descriptions.

The general tone of this novel is typical Austen, a critique of family values and social values, which are contrasted here with Anne’s integrity and Captain Wentworth’s steadfastness. Whereas, Sir Walter and Elizabeth spend the family fortune and endanger Kellynch, while Mary thinks only of herself. And Mr. Elliot is a scoundrel in pursuit of money and a peerage, while a friend of Elizabeth’s, Mrs. Clay, is in pursuit of Sir Walter. Only the mourning Captain Benwick, a fan of literature, is serious-minded, and the reader wonders if he might be the right person for Anne.

The various characters introduce delays or obstacles to Anne finding happiness, some of their encounters being natural and some coincidental or arbitrary. The latter reflect, I think, the lack of technical skills among novelists of two centuries ago. It may also reflect a more optimistic view of life than is common among authors today. Thus, we are more alert to an author’s intrusion to make a happy ending.

Perhaps this is also because we look back on that era as one of innocence, and certainly women like Austen did not have a knowledge of the world that women have today, much less the novelistic skills. And yet, she did understand character, which is the strength of any good novelist.

What Austen did not understand in those early days of the novel, however, is how a satisfying ending is achieved. It requires logical actions by the characters. Here, however, the climactic moment of decision is too abrupt. And achieved by, of all things, a letter. The letter is set up by a pertinent conversation, but then is followed by a lovers’ dialogue that recaptures/explains the past rather than advances the situation dramatically. And this is followed by a round-up chapter that carries the various characters’ lives into the future, to give the reader a sense of completeness. This is my main, and primary, criticism of this work.

The theme of “persuasion” is present but not strong. Apparently, Austen’s brother named the novel when it was published after her death. Yes, Anne was persuaded to refuse Captain Wentworth’s proposal, and many repercussions followed, especially her unhappiness and decline, and the family’s reaction to the change in her. And Mr. Elliot’s pursuit of money and a peerage involves deceptive persuasion. Not to forget members of Bath society trying to persuade each other of their importance.

This work ranks below Pride and Prejudice for me, but is far better than Sense and Sensibility. Perhaps because Austen as an author has become here more aware of how to portray people’s strengths and weaknesses. And perhaps because she understands the impact on readers of a troubled heroine achieving happiness, as she gains control of her own destiny. Just as the spinster Austen did. Indeed, there is a striking passage toward the end when Anne announces why she will not accept literature’s treatment of the emotional lives of women: “Ys, if you please, no reference to examples in books. Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything.”

And this stands out for a woman who published her first book anonymously, a woman who had to earn her recognition in a male world. But, like her choice of a heroine, she believed in herself, in her own convictions. Yet was there a limitation? One does wonder how much the happy ending is because such endings were expected in her day.

Here is a perceptive view of all of Austen’s works by Adelle Waldman: “Austen’s portraits of people and their milieus are animated not by satirical malice or mere eagerness to entertain but by a sense of moral urgency. With a philosophical eye, she sees through fuss and finery and self-justification. She gives us a cast of characters and then zeroes in, showing us who and what is admirable, who is flawed but forgivable, who is risible and who is truly vile. Delivered economically, her judgments are not only clever but perspicacious, humane, and, for the most part, convincing. Her real subject is not the love lives of barely post-adolescent girls, but human nature and society. Austen wrote stories that show us how we think.”

Waldman is critical of Persuasion, however, which she says is not a polished work. That its characters are superficially good, middling, or bad, that its satire hits easy targets, and that it is not as funny as her other novels. That it is popular because its heroine is not young, appears defeated, and yet triumphs. All of which, she grants, may be because Austen did not have a chance to follow her usual practice of refining her initial draft, of producing a richer and deeper work. She died, at age 41, before she had the chance to do this.

And perhaps that is why I feel that much of the story is told to us rather than dramatized, rather than shown to us. Perhaps I am evaluating the intent of Austen as much as the achievement. But I am still impressed by this work. And it makes me more interested than before in Emma and Northanger Abbey. For I understand why this “old-fashioned “ novelist has such passionate followers. (March, 2014)