Saturday, August 25, 2012

Review: Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

Mansfield Park
Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I read this as part of Roof Beam Reader's Austen in August reading event. I'd already read it, but that was nearly a decade ago, and I didn't remember the finer parts of the book. I remember feeling bored.

This experience was certainly different. While the large cast initially intimidated and confused me, it didn't take me long to catch up, and I was able to trace my difficulty to the main character, Fanny Price, having hung back from involvement with her cousins and their friends. I also found a lot of themes I could wrap my mind around during this reading: that of raising children well, one's worth being tied to one's choices rather than birth, of underestimating people, of the value of one's instinct when logic suggests someone is perfectly harmless.

I listened to an audio edition of this book, and I enjoyed Wanda McCaddon's narration. She read some of the male characters in the same tones, and I thought it was a curious choice to give Mrs. Price a different accent than that of her sisters, but I was able to follow the narrative just fine, and I found her voice pleasant to listen to.

Mansfield Park is mostly about Fanny Price. Her mother had a falling-out with her sisters, both of whom married well, because she chose a poorer man to marry, which took her away from her family. When Fanny is 9, her aunt, Mrs. Bertram, generously offers to raise one of the many Price children, and Fanny, the oldest daughter, is sent to get a proper education.

Much of the next 9 years fast-forwards to when Fanny is 18, and her cousins are making the acquaintance of Mr. Henry Crawford and Miss Mary Crawford. Fanny sees a lot of faults and flaws in the new friends, and her suspicions are confirmed when they play a part in the Bertram progeny wanting to put on a scandalous play before their father returns from abroad. Fanny wants no part in it, and Edmund, who's always defended her and has plans to become a clergyman, tries to talk them out of it. He winds up right in the middle, instead.

Sir Thomas returns from his trip early, and that seems the end of that, except that Henry considers Fanny's ambivalence toward him a challenge. He decides he's going to make her fall in love with him. In a twist worthy of any teen rom-com, he falls for her, instead, and she's horrified when he proposes.

The story that results reminded me a lot of the current talk around friend zoning. Henry seems to think he's entitled to having Fanny like him, just because he declared his love. Everyone else pressures Fanny, in words rather reminiscent of modern sentiments on the topic, saying to give him a chance, and that she's bound to love him sooner or later. Her uncle goes so far as to call her selfish and stubborn for not jumping at the chance to marry the guy she's seen flirting with both of her female cousins, one of whom was engaged to be married at the time. She has every reason to think this is a mean-spirited game on his part, and, even if it isn't, she should have every right to refuse outright and be left alone. I know it set off several alarm bells in my head when Henry went on about how compliant and sweet Fanny was, and how marrying her would save her from her birthright.

I was glad when Fanny's steadfastness paid off, and her suspicions about his character were confirmed. There had been hints of her being right to stay away from him all book, but then he brings about quite the scandal, and his sister shows where her values are lacking in defending him, which makes Edmund give up on her. That leaves him free to realize what a good match Fanny is for him. (And here's where I remind myself that, in Austen's view, cousins marrying was no big deal.)

Mansfield Park is the first of the Austen books I've read this month that had inner dialogue from a male character. We get some insight into Edmund Bertram's thought process as he's falling in love with Mary Crawford, and his observations about why he thinks Fanny might fall in love with Henry. We also get his thought process of why he switches to Fanny, but that's more of a footnote, at that point in the book.

Mansfield Park struck me as the most easily modernized of all of Austen's novels. Most of the concepts in this book are already there in modern movies, in some form or another. And what a breath of fresh air it would be, to see a guy trying to wear down a woman he's in love with, and to be so thoroughly refused as Henry Crawford is.

One of the settings of this book is in Fanny's familial home in Portsmouth. Her family is poor, though it still employs a servant, and Fanny has several brothers and sisters. While I found the description of the Price family home as loud, with thin walls and a constant cacophony of children thundering around in it amusing, I was less entertained by Austen's painting the family as neglectful and uncaring. Granted, Mrs. Price is the sister of Mrs. Norris, the worst person in the whole book, and Mrs. Bertram, who hardly seems to notice things right in front of her own face. But what Austen would attribute to cold uncaring, I'd be more willing to attribute to the family's being too busy to put up a fuss about a daughter who'd rather sit in her room and read than jump in to help. I suppose painting them as more sympathetic would detract from Fanny's angelic description within the book, but it still seemed like lazy writing.

Overall, though, this is my favorite of the books I've read for Roof Beam Reader's event. It's longer than some of Austen's other works, but the tension is excellent, once it gets going, and the themes are remarkably timeless. If I were to vote for a Jane Austen book to become required reading in school (not that I'd do that—what better way to make students hate Austen?), it would be Mansfield Park.

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