Tag Archives: Mansfield Park

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

A conversation with another reader led me to Mansfield Park. She said that she had picked it up again after many years and found that it was a rewarding experience. I decided to have another look too. Many questions remained from my first reading. Why is the novel named after a house? What was so dreadful about the young people enjoying theatricals? Is Fanny Price a prig? Is it Jane Austen’s most boring book? Would it be worth rereading?

Of course it was worth rereading. Jane Austen’s books are all worth reading countless times. You will always find new things in them. I can’t remember when I last (or first) read Mansfield Park, but it wasn’t within the last 14 years. I know because I have kept a log of all the books I read since April 2006.

Mansfield Park

This novel was published in 1814, the first book she wrote after she became a published writer. Sense and Sensibility had appeared in 1811 and Pride and Prejudice in 1813. 

The story follows Fanny Price, brought from Portsmouth at age 10 to her aunt’s house, Mansfield Park, which is in rural Northamptonshire. She grows up with her four Bartram cousins, a fragile and quiet young person, happy to avoid the spotlight and befriended only by her cousin Edmund. Sir Thomas Bartram is called away for more than 12 months to his plantations on Antigua, taking his spendthrift elder son with him. While he is away Mary and Henry Crawford come to stay at the nearby vicarage, with their sister who is married to the clergyman, Dr Grant. The Crawfords have come from London and bring gaiety and colour to life in the big house. Tom Bartram returns to England before his father and when he returns to Mansfield Park he is followed by Mr Yates, whom he met at Weymouth. This young man has ‘habits of fashion and expense’. He brings with him a longing to resume amateur theatricals, cut short by a family death at his previous visiting place. Fanny opposed the play, seeing all its dangerous potential and then observing the behaviour of the actors. 

The rehearsals for Lover’s Vow are interrupted by the return of Sir Tomas Bartram, who is horrified to find that his family have indulged in such an activity, which might compromise the reputation of one daughter, Maria, currently engaged to a wealthy neighbour.

Henry Crawford turns his attentions to Fanny, intending to make her fall in love with him, but finds that he falls in love with her. Everyone is in favour of the match, except Fanny who steadfastly refuses his attentions. She has observed his behaviour towards women, stoking the rivalry between the sisters Julia and Maria, encouraging Maria when she was already engaged to Mr Rushworth. The reader knows that on top of her understanding of Mr Crawford, Fanny loves Edmund, who is caught in the seductive coils of Mary Crawford. 

Her uncle sends Fanny back to Portsmouth to reacquaint herself with her family. While she is away disaster strikes the Bartrams: Tom falls gravely ill, Maria (now a married woman) runs off with Mr Crawford, and Julia elopes with Mr Yates. Fanny is needed at Mansfield Park where he judgement of Mr Crawford and her stance on proper behaviour is seen as justified. It ends happily.

Fanny Price

Fanny Price is often referred to as a prig, someone who is smugly self-righteous and narrow-minded. I was struck on this reading by how the action revolves around her, without her involvement. She joins the household, she bears the taunts and barbs of her second aunt (Mrs Norris) and the neglect by most of the family. She is almost omitted from the visit to Mr Rushworth’s estate. The young people tour the grounds and she is quickly abandoned by Edmund and Mary, witnesses the flirtation of Henry Crawford and Maria Bartram, and notices the display of jealousy by Julia. 

Being quiet, compliant, passive, guided by the men of the family, useful to her aunt Bartram, Fanny was all that was seen as good in young women in the early 19th Century. Yet it is possible to make a case that Fanny displays feminist behaviour, for Fanny is defiant in the face of Mr Crawford’s marriage proposal. He appears to be everything a penniless young woman should hope for: landed, rich, accomplished, true he is rather short. But he is a good horseman, and an obliging companion, especially to women. Fanny sees beyond his appearance and cannot respect this man. She makes up her own mind, refuses to be guided by her uncle, or seduced by wealth (as Maria is in her marriage to the luckless and dim Mr Rushworth). She embodies sincerity and an ability to distinguish between appearance and hypocrisy on the one hand, and truth and sincerity on the other. In standing up for herself she is neither priggish nor passive.

She is shocked by Mary Crawford’s light-hearted dismissal of the role of the clergy, shocked because this is Edmund’s chosen profession, and she displays disrespect and lack of consideration to Edmund. And shocked because Fanny values good clergymen. She does not support the idea of the theatricals because she can see the dangers to which it may expose the young people. She is right; Henry Crawford teases Julia by taking on the role of Maria’s lover. These two rehearse their scenes to excess, and often in private. 

Through Fanny’s eyes we can see that the Crawfords bring, from London, a love of display, money, and an emphasis on appearance. When Maria is known to have run off with Henry Crawford, Mary hopes that it can all be covered up and remain a secret. This attitude appals Edmund and he immediately gives up the idea of marriage to her. For him, as for Fanny, the shame is in the act, not in the discovery of it.

And we see the chaotic family from which Fanny escaped when she returns for a couple of months to Portsmouth. Her mother is coping with too many children, her father is uncouth. Her brothers are noisy and quarrelsome. The maid is not up to her responsibilities and Mrs Price is unable to teach her to do better. The household is a stark contrast to the orderliness and quiet of Mansfield Park.

And throughout the 48 chapters Mrs Norris has been behaving with great toxicity. She has indulged the two girls, exploited every occasion to her own advantage and taken every opportunity to put Fanny down. Sir Thomas has begun to see her hypocrisy when he returned from Antigua, surprised that she had not exerted her influence to prevent the theatricals. One of her many meannesses was to deny Fanny a fire in her attic rooms. Even as she defies Sir Thomas in his wish for her to marry Henry Crawford, she is touched to discover that he has countermanded Mrs Norris’s order and henceforth she will have warmth in her rooms. 

By the end of the novel those that conduct their relationships through hypocrisy and deceit, or by valuing appearance over substance, or who do not value the natural setting of the countryside, its avenues, wildernesses, prospects, these people have been found wanting. Mansfield Park and its rather intimidating owner stand for proper behaviour, as in propriety, for genuine unselfishness, consideration of others and orderly life. London and Portsmouth serve as contrasts to its gentle manners.

Mansfield Park – the house

It is the representation of these values that led Jane Austen to name the book after the house. And any well-informed reader of the time would have been aware of the Mansfield judgement of 1772 in the case of a Black slave James Somerset. According to David Olusoga 

To those who heard it, and to those who were to read about it later, the judgement appeared to grant freedom not just to James Somerset but to all black people in Britain. (Black and British p137-8) 

Much has been made of the undercurrents related to slavery and the slave trade in this novel. Sir Thomas Bartram’s wealth, after all, comes from his plantations in Antigua. Naming her book, which would reference the judgement, we can imagine that she was drawing attention to decency in relationships with people beyond your circle as well as within it.

The reader is also conscious of a great deal of wit, humour and sharp exposure of her characters. This lifts any danger of this novel being too worthy. 

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen, published in 1814. I used the edition from the Penguin English Library (1966) 457pp

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Sisters in Fiction

Why do fiction writers so often use sisters in their novels? Is it because sisters usually have good relationships, certainly long ones, and allow authors to explore a variety of themes: growing up, marital prospects, contrasting experiences, enduring relationships or rivalries. Here are some thoughts on sisterly novels.

What little girls must learn? Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Everybody’s favourite gives us the lessons that must be learned about how little girls turn into grown ups. Who doesn’t identify with Jo Marsh, and who doesn’t yearn for the simplicities of 19th Century New England childhoods? We learn that sisters must grow up right, and that more than two of them ensures terrible trouble for the family.

The marriage market: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Five sisters, again a problem for their parents, and here specifically in the meat market that was an un-moneyed middle class Georgian England search for husbands. How will the sisters get their men? They are beautiful (Jane), intelligent and with bright eyes (Elizabeth), wanton (Lydia), boring (Mary) and stay-at-home (Kitty).

The delights of this novel include the mutually supportive relationship between Jane and Elizabeth Bennet, and the satisfaction in them both getting nice (rich) husbands.

Contrasts: 1. Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

Fiction is full of examples of sisters who grow up differently in the same household. The convenient contrast allows authors to look at the effects of birth order: the older having more responsibility than younger sisters. That is certainly true of the saintly Eleanor who is thwarted by Marianne’s gullibility in Sense and Sensibility. Jane Austen’s novels are full of contrasting sisters: Anne and her sisters, (patient, selfish and grasping) in Persuasion, and the play-acting rivals Maria and Julia Bartram in Mansfield Park.

Contrasts: 2. Easter Parade by Richard Yates

248 Easter Parade Cover

 

Richard Yates took the contrast between two sisters’ lives from before the war to the 60s to tell a sad story of alcoholism and marriage failure.

Sarah, the older sister, quickly settles for the most classy man her mother finds for her. He turns out not to be classy, and also turns out to be a wife beater. His attitudes are typical blue collar American despite his English education.

Emily, the younger sister, chooses lots of men, and also ends up lost, without success and unemployed. Only her nephew, who is an ordained minister, seems to offer any hope or understanding. Everyone else has been consumed by drink.

Easter Parade Richard Yates (1976) Published by Everyman 188pp

For a very good review check out Jacquiwine’s Journal on Easter Parade.

Contrasts 3: They were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple

248 Dorothy Whipple

I haven’t read this yet, but the Persephone catalogue describes it as ‘A 1943 novel by this superb writer, contrasting three different marriages’. Dorothy Whipple has a good eye for family relationships. See my review of Greenbanks.

They were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple, published by Persephone.

Loyalty: Housekeeping (1980) by Marilynne Robinson

This novel defies description. The sisters, Ruthie and Lucille, live in a weird and rather isolated environment, called Fishbone, in the American Mid-West. They are orphans and a succession of relatives fails to look after them. Finally, their aunt cares for them until the younger sister breaks away. The scene of the flooded house lives in my memory.

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, published in the UK by Faber & Faber 224pp.

Long-lasting: Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey

The central mystery of this successful novel is Maud’s attempt to find out what happened to her sister since she disappeared at the end of the war. She pursues the clues, despite the passage of time and her own fading mental powers.

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey (2014) published by Penguin Books. 275pp

For more on this novel see the post in the older women in fiction series.

Rivalry: The Looking Glass Sisters by Gohril Gabrielsen.

248 Lglass Sisters cover

The unrelenting horror of this story of a co-dependent relationship turned worse and more destructive by the page is a contrast to the other novels mentioned here.

The story is set in the remote far north of Norway. Two sisters live in a house, their parents have died. They are middle aged but the narrator recalls their earlier lives. She is younger and disabled, having lost the use of her legs in childhood, an outcome she partly blames on her sister for not alerting her parents to her worsening illness. The younger sister riles and deliberately provokes and annoys her older carer. The situation is changed by the arrival of Johan, and his inability to cope with the invalid and the invalid’s jealousy of her sister. The situation declines and declines and in the end everything is terrible.

The Looking-Glass Sisters Peirene (2008) 183pp

Translated from the Norwegian by John Irons

Sisters in fiction always a happy ending?

Sisters are doing it themselves!

On the whole, sisterhood is good in fiction, as in life. It is not surprising that the second wave of feminism took to calling all women sisters.

But there is ambivalence in these novels (and perhaps life). The relationship is not always easy. In novels, especially from the 19th century it seems that there is always a fear that one woman’s marriage/achievements will spell another’s poverty.

Over to you

Have you any suggestions about why sisters appear so often in novels? What other fictional sisters would you recommend?

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