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.
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 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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