“We have all a better guide in ourselves, if we would attend to it, than any other person can be.”
Following her mother’s imprudent marriage, Fanny Price is taken from an impoverished situation in Portsmouth, and raised at the estate of Mansfield Park by her mother’s sisters, and her uncle, Sir Thomas Bertram. There is she is brought up alongside, but always somewhat separate from, her cousins Maria and Julia, and their much older brothers, Tom and Edmund. Quietly in love with her cousin Edmund, the sensible younger son, Fanny watches with dismay as two new arrivals to the neighbourhood threaten to upend the peace and comfort of Mansfield. Siblings Henry and Mary Crawford have come to live with their sister, Mrs. Grant, bringing with them London ways and flirtations. Edmund is very much taken with Mary, and jealousy over Henry opens a rift between the Bertram sisters. With little influence in the family, or even confidence to speak her mind, Fanny can only watch as the Crawfords threaten to unravel all their domestic felicity, and perhaps even ruin some reputations in the process.
I first encountered the work of Jane Austen when I was about seventeen or eighteen, beginning with Pride and Prejudice. I promptly read through her entire oeuvre in short order. I remember being charmed by the incisive way Austen describes each character, sometimes rendering a sharp portrait in only a few strokes. She was a striking observer of human nature. Since then, I’ve reread both Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility multiple times, but this year, for the first time, I’m revisiting works like Emma, Persuasion, and Mansfield Park.
Mansfield Park is a most peculiar read when approached from a modern perspective. The protagonist is Fanny Price, a timid and retiring heroine who is decided in her principles, but rarely dares to speak her mind. The driving point of the novel is whether or not Fanny will marry her cousin Edmund, the younger son of Sir Thomas, who is destined to enter the clergy. While unremarkable for the period, the cousin loving is undoubtedly a bit squicky for the modern reader. Though Fanny and Edmund are well-suited to one another in character and temperament, it can be hard to root for them romantically. And the more taken in by Mary Crawford the supposedly sensible Edmund becomes, the less deserving of the steadfast protagonist he appears.
Much of the plot also does not translate well, and reflects poorly on the characters in the process. In the first half of the novel, Sir Thomas is called away to attend to his estates in Antigua, and the action revolves around the imprudence of his children while he is away. Tom’s friend Mr. Yates comes to visit, and together they hatch a plan to put on a private theatrical. Edmund and Fanny are the only conscientious objectors to this scheme, and in this the reader is expected to concur with them whole-heartedly. Whereas nowadays the theatre is regarded as an object of high culture, in the Regency period, the theatre was still a very lowly and disreputable position.
To the modern eye, Fanny and Edmund thus look rather like prudish killjoys when they make their objections. Edmund is eventually drawn into the plot when his brother proposes inviting a neighbour in to fill a vacant role in the play. Horrified by the idea of such public exposure of an ill-advised private scheme, Edmund condescends to take the role so as to prevent such an evil, leaving Fanny the only non-participant among the young people. However, her qualms are soon borne out in the characters of her cousins. The romantic plot of the play deepens the rift between Maria and Julia, and their jealousy over Henry, and threatens to expose Maria’s fecklessness to her rather oblivious fiancé, an engagement which was formed before Henry entered on the scene. Acting together also puts Edmund very much more under the power of Mary Crawford.
If all this sounds critical of the novel, it is not meant as such. Mansfield Park is a novel of the period in which it was written, and cannot and should not be expected to conform to modern practices and ideas. If anything, a great part of the interest of Austen’s work lies in the way it illustrates how much the same and yet how much different our times are. The characters are people we recognize and know, and human nature is much the same as ever, but the mores and traditions that shape their actions are intriguingly different. I do not have a strong recollection of my first impressions of Mansfield Park—clearly it was a not a favourite as I did not feel compelled to reread it until now—but it has amply repaid revisitation.