Love, scandal, poor relations, a comment on slavery and a marriage between first cousins: all the makings for an episode of Oprah? Perhaps, but in this case, they’re the elements of Mansfield Park, one of Jane Austen’s more troubling novels, which happens to be the subject of my latest classic literature review. Funny how that all works out. So here we are. Let’s get this show on the road.
Lacking the sparkling charm of Pride and Prejudice and the determined heroine of Emma, Mansfield Park centers on one Miss Fanny Price who is the poor niece of Lady Bertram who lives on a large estate called (wait for it) Mansfield Park. Fanny is brought to live with the Bertrams when she is a small girl and is raised among their children, and though she’s not treated cruelly, she’s constantly reminded (especially by her bitchy aunt, Mrs. Norris) that she’s just the poor cousin. Of course, these reminders are entirely unnecessary, because Fanny would never dream of imposing, since she has all the personality of a doorknob. Though actually, a doorknob might have the upper hand in the personality department. Afraid to speak out loud and overcome with notions of propriety, it almost seems as though Fanny’s greatest wish is to be invisible. Even so, over time, Fanny falls in love with her cousin Edmund, who is as concerned with rules and propriety as she is. Problematically, new neighbors enter the Bertrams’ world — Mary and Henry Crawford — and while Maria and Julia Bertram are quite taken with Henry, Edmund falls for Mary, even though Mary has the most shocking opinions about things and sees no problem with expressing them. Maria is, of course, engaged to a Mr. Rushworth, who possesses both a large fortune and all the intelligence of a block of wood, and much to her sister Julia’s chagrin, Henry Crawford seems to like her best. Maria goes ahead and marries Rushworth, and Henry Crawford decides to go after Fanny, who never liked him to begin with, and he discovers how much she doesn’t like him when he proposes and she refuses. Later on, Maria, though married to Mr. Rushworth, runs off with Henry, causing ruination and scandal. Julia elopes with her brother Tom’s friend Mr. Yates, which is shocking, but still forgivable. Finally, Edmund gets fed up with Mary Crawford and realizes that he’d be better off with someone as uptight as he is, and he marries Fanny, so they can have a lifetime of boring sex. And they all live happily ever after.
Did you catch all that? I know, it’s like a 19th century Melrose Place. Which is, of course, one of the reasons why it’s so awesome. Ah, Jane.
One of Austen’s later novels (and her longest one), Mansfield Park isn’t as fun as some of her earlier work. After all, its heroine is nearly impossible to like. Yet in this book, Austen’s famous wit is darker and edgier. She’s far less indulgent of her characters in this novel, and I could almost sense her rolling her eyes at them in certain places. Even in her day, she was accused of being mean-spirited, but perhaps instead of being cruel, she’s just honest. Let’s face it — sometimes people are really annoying.
Also, there’s a bit of scholarly controversy surrounding the novel. Sir Thomas, the head of Mansfield, leaves for several months to tend to some of his business in Antigua, where he owns plantations. The controversy has to do with the following bit of dialogue, found in Volume II, Chapter III of the book:
“But I do talk to him more than I used. I am sure I do. Did not you hear me ask him about the slave-trad last night?”
“I did — and was in hopes the question would be followed by others. It would have pleased your uncle to be inquired of farther.”
“And I longed to do it — but there was such a dead silence! And while my cousins were sitting without speaking a word, or seeming at all interested in the subject, I did not like — I thought it would appear as if I wanted to set myself off at their expense, by showing a curiosity and pleasure in his information which he must wish his own daughters to feel.”
This is the only mention that the book makes of slavery, which was an important issue in 1814, yet debate goes on as to whether Austen is taking on the issue of slavery or whether it’s something that gets mentioned in the book, and whether the Bertrams are embarrassed or whether they’re bored by the issue. Though I’m in no way an Austen scholar (or a scholar of anything, for that matter), it’s pretty hard to make a definitive case either way, based on the small amount of information provided in the text, however, if I were to venture a guess based on knowledge of the other characters gleaned from the rest of the novel, I’d say that they were probably bored by the prospect of discussing an issue that had any depth, since they seem, on the whole, to be a rather frivolous lot. Whether this means that Jane Austen was commenting on society’s attitude toward slavery, or just throwing in a bit of dialogue having to do with the family business I can’t say, and neither can anyone, since Jane Austen is dead and we can’t ask her. But I guess that doesn’t stop people from trying to figure these things out, in any case.
Anyway, Mansfield Park, though more difficult to get into than some of Austen’s other books, is a rewarding read. I actually realized while I was reading that I had read it before for a class, but had forgotten everything about it and only remembered the plot points as I got to them in my second reading, so I guess it was like reading it for the first time all over again. Or something. I don’t like it as much as I like some of Jane Austen’s other books, and I wouldn’t recommend it as a starting point for someone who hasn’t read anything by her before, but for some intrigue, scandal, and some good old-fashioned sarcasm, Mansfield Park is definitely worth the time.