Even letting Mansfield Park sit over the weekend I still don’t know what to say about it. I hoped for inspiration but it hasn’t come. Therefore I warn you that this might be rambling and random and possibly incoherent.
I have mentioned a few times over the course of my rereading of the book that the first time I read it, oh about 20 years ago in a grad school seminar on Jane Austen, I hated it. And then I had to write a paper about it. Perhaps because I was young and didn’t like the book I fell into easy agreement with the critics who call Fanny insipid. Her delicacy, her lack of charisma and her inability to stand up for herself, her priggishness, her lack of verbal repartee, her silent mooning for Edmund all drove me nuts. I wanted very badly to step into the story and slap her across the face. Hard.
This time around things were a little different. I can’t say that I liked Fanny, but I was certainly more sympathetic to her. A sensible, sensitive girl and a poor relation plucked from home where she at least fit in to some extent and plopped down with the rich cousins. As if it weren’t bad enough for Fanny herself to be constantly aware of her inferior status and breeding, her aunt, Mrs. Norris, takes every opportunity to remind her of it. Fanny is stuck in an in-between state, not equal to the four Bertram children but not as low as a servant either (in spite of being used as a go-for by Lady Bertram and especially Mrs. Norris). She must always be on her best behavior and forever submissive and grateful.
It is unfortunate that Sir Bertram leans to the very conservative side of propriety as does his son Edmund. Fanny must not only conform to Sir Bertram’s principles but she has Edmund, the only one who is ever really kind to her, “improving” her mind, teaching her right and wrong in behavior, reading, and thinking. That Fanny falls in love with Edmund, a sort of brother and teacher as well as her first cousin is almost incestuous. But of course because she is a proper young miss, she breathes not a word about her feelings and almost masochistically invites Edmund’s confidences especially after he falls in love with Mary Crawford.
The Crawfords are relations of Mrs. Grant’s (brother and sister if I remember correctly), the Mansfield Park parson’s wife. They are wealthy and worldly and arrive at the parsonage from “town” (London). They bring their looser, livelier town morals and manners with them and the Bertrams don’t know what hit them. Henry Crawford is a big flirt and within days both the Bertram sisters are in love with him. Edmund has never met any woman like Mary Crawford and in spite of his initial reservations about her, he gladly overlooks all her faults and improprieties because she is smart and pretty and returns his attentions.
Fanny has spent her life honing her observational skills, she has had to because of her position in the family, so she sees through all that the Crawfords say and do and watches painfully as Edmund reasons away his personal moral objections during the theatrical portion of the book.
Now let’s talk about Henry Crawford and Fanny. Fanny thinks that his attentions to her are one big joke. She is right, of course, at least in the beginning. But as so often happens to the rakes, flirts, and ne’er-do-wells when they aim to make a proper girl with good character fall in love with them, they end up falling in love with her instead. So falls Henry Crawford. When he proposes, Fanny is surprised and still can’t take him seriously. But Henry has the love bug and tries his hardest to reform. He’s doing really well too but Fanny still won’t have him. Her heart belongs to Edmund.
Not until she goes to visit her parents in Portsmouth after eight years away and ends up having to stay much longer than planned does she really start to consider what is being offered her. She expects a letter from Edmund any day telling her of his engagement to Mary Crawford. With Edmund so truly out of reach for her, a surprise visit from Henry in which he shows what a good person he can be starts to make her look at Henry in a slightly softer light. But a leopard cannot change its spots and Henry can only keep it together for so long before he slips back to his old self and runs off with the now married Maria Bertram Rushworth.
Sylvia asks “How tempted do you think she [Fanny] was to take up Mr. Crawford’s offer? Do you think she would have gone through with it if he hadn’t been exposed?” I think if Edmund had married Mary Crawford and Henry could have kept on the path he was on when he visited at Portsmouth, Fanny would eventually have given in and married him. She did after all consider that Mr. Crawford would not mind if she had her sister Susan come live with them. And, quite near the end is this passage:
Could he have been satisfied with the conquest of one amiable woman’s affections, could he have found sufficient exultation in overcoming the reluctance, in working himself into the esteem and tenderness of Fanny Price, there would have been ever probability of success and felicity for him. His affection had already done something. Her influence over him had already given him some influence over her. Would he have deserved more, there can be no doubt that more wold have been obtained; especially when that marriage had taken place, which would have given him the assistance of her conscience in subduing her first inclination, and brought them very often together. Would he have persevered, and uprightly, Fanny must have been his reward–and a reward very voluntarily bestowed–within a reasonable period from Edmund’s marrying Mary.
But in Jane Austen, everyone always gets who they deserve and Fanny and Edmund deserve each other, not because it is so romantic but because he is a sort of Henry Higgins to her Eliza Doolittle, a Pygmalion to her Galatea. It is a fated pairing. It would have been a nice turn of events though for the “molded” woman to have a mind of her own and end up with a nice young man like a Mr. Bingley or an older man like Colonel Brandon.
While I appreciate the book now like I did not the first time I read it, Mansfield Park remains in the number six slot for Jane Austen novels (there being only six to begin with). Yes, it is a complex book. Yes, there are many things going on besides Fanny and Edmund. But I am just not pulled along through the story like I am with other Austen novels.
Have you had enough of my rambling? Have I gotten up the ire of all the Mansfield Park fans out there? I know there is lots to be said about this book besides the things I touched on. I may or may not decide to write a second post. At the moment, I am tired. So it’s your turn.