Friday, December 14, 2012
Mansfield Park, published in 1814, is one of Jane Austen’s “mature” novels, one that she wrote entirely as an adult. This shows, because the story is more complex than Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice; symbolism appears, the problems are more intense and far-reaching, and the plot is more entwined with the world at large. Slavery in the West Indies is mentioned; a rather rough family home is visited; deception and rebellion run rampant; matters of faith are discussed; Fanny Price, the heroine, is treated far worse than any other Austen character I can think of. With all this, Mansfield Park can almost be seen on another plane from the other books.
I like it. It is gripping. I remember reading part of the last third late at night, and almost feeling like crying with the pathos of Fanny’s situation. So many things go wrong for her -- but the sun breaks through in the end, and she can at last be happy and get what she deserves. Even a few of the not-so-nice minor characters get a pleasant ending, while the darkest characters receive their comeuppance or disappear into the world, into what I assume is the dismal abyss where they belong. (Okay, okay, I’m getting melodramatic. I really do feel sorry for Henry and Mary Crawford. If only they could have reformed, but still left Edmund and Fanny alone. But that would have been unrealistic.)
Fanny reminds me of Cinderella -- neglected and treated as second-rate, yet basically an angel. I can hardly think of one thing she’s done wrong, but what is more, she doesn’t become embittered by the wrongs done to her. She feels grateful to be where she is, and she should be, because later on we see what she came out of. But then comes the problem of belonging nowhere. The big house doesn’t particularly want her, she doesn’t want the Prices’ Portsmouth house … but finally, finally, her cousin Edmund wants her, and they can go establish their own house.
I wish Jane Austen had fleshed out the turn of Edmund’s mind as it was slowly drawn in the right direction, like a sunflower to the sun. Mary Crawford had blocked out the sun for so long, but when she was removed, it was only a matter of time before Edmund discovered his source of light and warmth. I would have liked some lovers’ exchange between Edmund and Fanny, not just a number of paragraphs on the very last pages of the book, as satisfying as those are: “…what was there now to add, but that he would learn to prefer soft light eyes to sparkling dark ones. -- And being always with her, and always talking confidentially, and his feelings exactly in that favorable state which a recent disappointment gives, those soft light eyes could not be very long in obtaining the pre-eminence.”
I think Fanny and Edmund make a lovely couple. Edmund frustrates me at times by his infatuation with Mary Crawford and blindness to Fanny, but Miss Crawford is more blameworthy than him. Men by their very nature are captivated by what their eyes see, by liveliness that calls out, “Come with me.” It’s very realistic, and shows that Edmund isn’t perfect: he must grow. Meanwhile, Fanny carries on quietly and heroically, knowing deep down just what she wants, just what is right, though everyone else tries to tell her otherwise, even the man she loves. Although we see her often bowing to “stronger” personalities, her core muscles are yet stronger and she triumphs in the end.
Henry and Mary Crawford are masterpieces of villainy. They even deceive readers -- I’ve heard one commentator say something like “Mary Crawford is the real heroine of Mansfield Park,” and people in Jane Austen’s time believed that if Henry Crawford could have reformed just a bit more he could have earned Fanny’s love. But, no -- the Crawfords represent countless people of the world who are basically “good,” very fun and attractive, and yet are rotten in their core. Their childhood accounts for much of it, and, as I said before, I come off feeling a little sorry for them (do you?) but when they are finally revealed for who they are, they reap the consequences of what was there all along. It makes us ponder our motives; are we really as good as we think we are? No, we are not, if the Spirit of God is not in us ….
What do you think of Mansfield Park?