‘Fanny Price was at this time just ten years old, and though there might not be much in her first appearance to captivate, there was, at least, nothing to disgust her relations. She was small of her age, with no glow of complexion, nor any other striking beauty; exceedingly timid and shy, and shrinking from notice; but her air, though awkward, was not vulgar, her voice was sweet, and when she spoke, her countenance was pretty.’
The three Ward sisters have made very different marriages. Miss Maria Ward has married a baronet, Sir Thomas Bertram of Mansfield Park, her older sister has married a clergyman the Rev. Mr. Norris and has taken the living offered to him at Mansfield Park and the youngest, Miss Francis Ward set out to rebel and married a Lieutenant in the Marines, with no connections, fortune or education. When he’s disabled from active service and spends their small income drinking and socialising Mrs Price realises that she can get rid of one of her nine children onto her rich sister. After much worry Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram, egged on by Mrs Norris decide they can make room for Fanny, with their own four children Thomas and Edmund, Maria and Julia
When the Rev Norris dies, Mrs Norris moves to a small house on the estate and a new vicar arrives with his wife. In turn her step brother and sister, Henry and Mary Crawford arrive, like the glamorous Kuragins from War and Peace. Now Maria and Julia have Henry to flirt with and Edmund falls head over heels for Mary and as Tom seeks his pleasure elsewhere that just leaves Fanny. Quiet and contemplative, always at the beck and call of her aunts or with her nose in a book, Fanny never loses her meekness but she’s no pushover. She’s not afraid of being serious and doesn’t need the validation of popularity but she’s always present, she observes everything and knows that Mary Crawford needs an audience to believe she exists and Henry Crawford is nothing more than a rake.
So that when everyone decides that Henry Crawford is the perfect match for Fanny and she should consider herself very lucky, Fanny refuses him and sticks to her guns, she is absolutely constant in her belief. But, and this is where I thought Austen was really clever, as he kept up his proposals I started to believe him and began to wonder at Fanny. Was she just a prude after all, a bit worthy, may be? And as I started to think that, so Fanny, on hearing about some misbehaviour on his part was surprised to find herself shocked. Because, of course deep down she thought that she was different to the others, that she would be the one who could save and convert the scoundrel. So not too worthy after all.
Constant and faithful. She understands Mary Crawford, she knows she’s playing games with the Bertrams’ and that her own beloved Edmund is simply available at the right time; but she never betrays her, she watches from the sidelines as Edmund forgets her time after time. To tell Edmund what she knows would be to join in with their deceit.
After the glitz of Pride and Prejudice, reading Mansfield Park was a much quieter almost sombre experience. At its heart is a heroine who completely believes in herself and isn’t afraid of being seen as boring or serious in spite of her position with the family and the constant reminding of it from Aunt Norris, one of the most horrible people I’ve come across:
‘ “I am quite ashamed of you, Fanny, to make such a difficulty of obliging your cousins in a trifle of this sort, – So kind as they are to you! . . . I shall think her a very obstinate, ungrateful girl, if she does not do what her aunt and cousins wish her – very ungrateful indeed, considering who and what she is.”‘
Like Pride and Prejudice there’s light relief from the mother, Lady Bertram lies on her sofa all day with her Pug asking her husband what she should think; but in Sir Thomas, Austen seems to be making a pitch for fathers after the deplorable Mr Bennet. When he has suffered the shock of Maria’s behaviour, when she has ruined herself in all of London society, he doesn’t sit back in his chair with a book but realises that the fault lies with her upbringing, and blames himself for being both too strict and overindulgent. A lesson that means the family (minus Maria) are able to grow together and end the book happily. Jane Austen also makes the point that of the shameful pair it’s only Maria that will suffer, her reputation is ruined while He can go back to his estate and carry on as before thank you very much.
In all the machinations to persuade Fanny to marry Henry, she is sent back to her parents in Portsmouth, in the hope that she will realise what she has lost. In my review of Vanity Fair I said that Thackeray was showing us life behind the curtains of a Jane Austen novel, but then I hadn’t read Mansfield Park! Portsmouth certainly shows us a seamier side of life, it’s not all preening red coats. Fanny’s father is a complete waste of space, drinking and gambling he has no interest in anything other than his mates and the dockyard and her mother only has time for gossip and news of soft furnishings. It’s a slovenly, soulless place that has no room for her and Fanny realises that home is Mansfield Park where there are ideas and books and conversation.
It’s very interesting that Jane Austen should write a story of a young girl growing up, her homesickness and shyness so soon after Pride and Prejudice with all those self possessed young ladies. This was the first time I’ve read Mansfield Park and I really didn’t know anything about it so I’ve tried not to give away too much of the story, because despite its unsentimental and unshowy air it’s still full of rich characters and drama and peppered with Austen wit.