Mansfield Park

‘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.

37 thoughts on “Mansfield Park

  1. How funny! I was just thinking the other day that I ought to read Mansfield Park (and Northanger Abbey) at some point as it been years since my last encounter with this author. It sounds more restrained that Pride and Prejudice and Emma, but there’s nothing wrong with that. I like the idea of a quieter, more muted Austen, with a dash of her trademark wit!

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    1. I’m reading them through in order and it is very interesting, this was decidedly different but very good. I think Fanny should go and live with Eleanor at the cottage in Sense and Sensibility, she would be very good for her!

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  2. Thank you for this thoughtful review, Jane, it’s one of the Austen novels I dearly want to read again after I’ve finished her juvenilia, and your commentary brought it all back to me. A lovely intricate novel, sometimes overlooked, I think.

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    1. Intricate is a good word, Fanny grows into her novel so thoughtfully that sometimes we don’t even know she’s there, but she is, quietly sewing or reading and listening and watching! I’m looking forward to some juvenilia when I’ve finished the novels. . .

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    1. I did find Mrs Norris funny, not when she was being cruel to Fanny but her snobberies were ridiculous and Lady Bertram’s indolence had a sort of fey charm really!

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  3. Glad you enjoyed it! I’ve just finished re-reading it and, although I knew I liked Fanny and felt she’s under-rated as an Austen heroine, I’d forgotten just what strength she has to resist all the pressure out on her. (I couldn’t help secretly feeling that life with Henry, for all his faults, would be considerably more fun than life with Edward, though… 😉 ) And like you I was interested in Austen’s pointed comment about how Maria would never be allowed back into society but Henry would swan off undamaged.

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    1. I saw you were reading it and I’m looking forward to your review. Edmund I have ignored, life with him is going to be awful but Fanny loves him so what can we say. Henry is very attractive in a naughty way, and I’m not completely convinced that he wasn’t being true to Fanny, just that he wasn’t getting anywhere so. . . but you could never trust him! I forgot to say how unkind the family are to Fanny in blaming her for everything, because if she had married Henry then he wouldn’t be open to misadventure! But then there’s so much I could talk about. I have a re read one day and write a whole different review!

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      1. Yes, the family were unkind, though apart from Mrs Norris I don’t think they meant to be. And I had also forgotten how much Lady Bertram had come to depend on her and grown so fond of her. So she wasn’t quite as put-upon as I’d thought – more the victim of thoughtlessness than actual meanness!

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      2. sorry, I meant to say they’re unkind to her for blaming Maria’s behaviour on her – if she had married Henry, Maria wouldn’t have been led astray! I agree that for the majority of the book they’re not unkind just unthinking, and I think it does end happily for her!

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  4. Jane, this is such a wonderful review. I have such a soft spot in my heart for Mansfield Park, as it really is the most sombre of Austen’s novels. I think it’s also the most thought-provoking as well, with the veiled references to colonialism. Each of Austen’s novels feels so different. Last year, I read Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. It was so interesting to examine how they’re told from two very different places in the lifespan. Each Austen heroine is so unique, and Fanny Price has so much depth.

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    1. I haven’t read Persuasion yet, that’s last isn’t it and is why I’m enjoying reading them in order so much, seeing the characters in light of eachother is very interesting. I thought in P&P Austen came down very hard on lazy parenting and here she offers us so hope! I didn’t mention colonialism, but yes it’s another slice of a different type of reality that is present in MP, there’s just so much to say about it!

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    1. I didn’t know anything about Mansfield Park, I haven’t even watched any of the films so it was quite strange coming to a Jane Austen fresh! Fanny is such a different heroine from the others I’ve read (I know nothing about Persuasion either!) but I liked her awkward bookishness, I wonder how Lizzy Bennet would treat her?

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  5. I like your points about Fanny. These days, she’s found fault with for her prudishness, but I agree with you. Despite her being a bit meek, she knows herself and sticks up for her beliefs. And I think you’re right about Henry Crawford’s behavior almost convincing us (and even her).

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  6. I really enjoyed your review! It has been a long time since I’ve read it and I don’t remember it particularly well. However, a reread might be due. It’s a great idea to read the Austen novels in order. At some point, I considered that as well, but it seems like quite a big project.

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    1. Now I’m going to have to go and look up that line! Interesting it’s your favourite, I’m going to read the six and then choose (at the moment probably Sense and Sensibility. . .)

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  7. I know many people don’t like Fanny and find the Crawfords much more interesting but I have a lot of respect for Fanny. She stands up for what she knows is right even when everyone around her tries to convince her otherwise. That kind of quiet strength is admirable. Plus, I have a soft spot for the shy, quiet characters.

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    1. Exactly, that’s it in a nutshell! I thought she was an interesting hero after a long line of self possessed young women, as if Jane Austen wanted to give all types of women a chance to shine.

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  8. It’s been so long now since I read this that I get images mixed up in my head with the film I watched of it. I think I need to read it again! I did re-read Persuasion a couple of years ago, so you never know…

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