Tag: Jane Austen

Mansfield Park

Cover image for Mansfield Park by Jane Austen by Jane Austen

ISBN 9780141439808

“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.

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Austen-Mania Round Up

I recently went on a bit of a Jane Austen-themed binge. Starting over the holidays and extending into the New Year, I read a couple of spin-off novels based on her work, reread Pride and Prejudice for the umpteenth time, and rewatched two film adaptations of the novel. Rather than writing a full-on review for each, here’s a round-up of my thoughts on some of these works!

Austenland by Shannon Hale

Cover image for Austenland by Shannon HaleJane Hayes is a single New Yorker with a secret Jane Austen obsession. Her somewhat ridiculous shame stems in part from the belief that her idealization of Mr. Darcy has prevented her from being able to settle for the average, modern man. Then the death of a wealthy relative leaves her a strange bequest—an all-expenses paid trip to Pembrook Park, an exclusive English resort where wealthy young women come to live out their Regency fantasies, inspired by Austen’s work. Faced with the reality of her fantasy, Jane becomes uncertain about what she wants, and tormented by doubts about how to conduct herself in such a bizarre scenario. The events going on at the estate mix plot elements from various Austen novels, making it harder to predict what is going to happen. The tension comes from Jane’s efforts to tease out what is real and what is pretend at Pembrook, complicated by the fact that she feels different because she could never afford to holiday at Pembrook on her own, and the proprietress isn’t likely to let her forget it. Hale is walking a fine line trying to critique unrealistic romantic expectations without denigrating Austen fans, while still delivering a happy ending, leaving the message somewhat muddled, but overall this was a fun romp.

Longbourn by Jo Baker

Cover image for Longbourn by Jo BakerJo Baker takes us belowstairs at Longbourn, Mr. Bennet’s estate in Pride and Prejudice. Her narrative dogs the footsteps of Austen’s original work. Baker grafts her story onto the day-to-day underpinnings of the Bennet’s lives, spinning scant clues from the text into a full-on life below stairs for Mr. and Mrs. Hill, Sarah and Polly the housemaids, and James, the newly arrived footman, who is conjured out a single mention in Austen’s novel. The first two-thirds of this novel are fairly dry, perhaps unsurprising given the grueling work Sarah and her fellow servants are responsible for. Baker does give things a good twist in the last third, and surprisingly it is Mr. Bennet who is the character most fully reimagined and fleshed-out by this undertaking. However, other of her tweaks are less than fresh, such as having Mary be secretly in love with Mr. Collins. In many ways Longbourn is a more self-serious novel than Pride and Prejudice; Baker lacks Austen’s playfulness, and her way with words has less of wit and more of reflection. It certainly goes a long way towards bringing to life the harder realities of the Regency, something modern Austen fans sometimes over-romanticize.

Pride and Prejudice (2005) directed by Joe Wright

Cover image for Pride and Prejudice (2005) directed by Joe WrightThis most recent P&P adaptation (no I will not acknowledge the zombie one) starring Kiera Knightly and Matthew Macfadyen was generally popular when it came out, if not particularly acclaimed by more ardent Austenophiles. Its main problem is that it is rushed; everything has to move along at an extremely brisk clip to get even the rudiments of the story told in 129 minutes. Knightly wasn’t entirely popular as Elizabeth Bennet, but her tomboyish take is serviceable, while Macfadyen’s Darcy is rather hang-dog. However, this version does do some beautiful things with light. Jane and Bingley—well played by Rosamund Pike and Simon Green, even if Green is a bit bumbling—fairly glow as they fall in love. And the sunrise scene that concludes the film is beautiful enough to allow you to ignore Knightly and Macfadyen’s lackluster chemistry. Donald Sutherland, however, makes a great Mr. Bennet, and by far the most affecting scene in the film is when he gives Lizzie his blessing to marry Mr. Darcy. Admittedly, however, I usually only rewatch this version when I don’t have six hours to give its predecessor.

Pride and Prejudice (1995) directed by Simon Langton

Cover image for Pride and Prejudice In addition to a superb cast, this BBC adaptation benefits from actually being a six hour mini-series rather than a feature-length film. Many of the faults of the more recent version can be remedied by not being rushed, allowing time for things like establishing shots and transitions without sacrificing content. The down-side is trying to find six hours to watch it when you have a P&P craving. The picture quality of my 10th Anniversary Limited Collector’s Edition is looking a little dated, but I understand that the 2010 remastered version remedies many of these ills. I guess I might be buying this series again in its updated form! I do find Allison Steadman’s take on Mrs. Bennet a little bit overwrought, but overall this version is extremely enjoyable, and it is always a pleasure coming back to it. I wouldn’t call it definitive—only the book can be that—but it is a favourite in the adaptation department. Update: The remastered Bluray edition is indeed a vast improvement on the older DVD set! I highly recommend the upgrade.

Have you read or watched any of these? What are your favourite Jane Austen adaptations and spin offs?