The Thumbnail Book Reviews

by John Q McDonald --- 31 October 2016

Mansfield Park

by Jane Austen

Young Fanny Price is a timid creature. She is shy, retiring, knows her place is down on the bottom of the social order dominated by her wealthy aunts, uncles and cousins. As such, she lacks the sparkle, independence and rebellious spirit of other beloved Austen heroines in her previous novels. She is problematic for a modern sensibility that yearns for a nascent feminism in Jane's writing. Because she is so essentially withdrawn, put in her place, so to speak, some readers are inclined not to like her so much, and, by extension the novel itself. But Mansfield Park might be among Austen's most authentic stories. It is somewhat defeatest, but gives a gritty and authentic-feeling depiction of English country life, and that of the lower middle class in a port city. And, to be sure, Fanny is also the most sensible character in the novel, rivaled only by Sir Thomas Bertram, her uncle, the steadfast patriarch of the wealthy limb of the family tree.

So, Fanny Price is the poor daughter of a sister who made an unfortunate match. The sister who made a good match, Mrs Bertram, is prevailed upon by the third sister, a widow and a self-centered complainer, to take Fanny on as an act of charity. Fanny joins the household and enjoys comfort she would never have had at her Portsmouth home, even if those comforts are supressed by her more consequential cousins and aunts. There, she also meets her cousin Edmund, the second son, who also toes the line of his role in this society. Without inheritance, he is to receive a small living as a clergyman near the estate of the Bertram family.

Into this tableau, the breezy presence of young Henry and Mary Crawford comes sweeping to deliver anxiety and unsettled desires for good marriages and position in society. They're charming enough, but they're also self-centered and inconsiderate of the feelings and needs of others. Fanny, despite the drawbacks of her position, is also portrayed as the one character here with the most sense and judgement. An amateur theatrical when the master is away is deplored by Fanny and Edmund. Henry's flirtatious toying with the affections of Fanny and her cousins is judged fairly and harshly. Mary's complicity is exposed, and cousins Julia and Maria demonstrated to be equally inconsiderate of their positions. Of course, it all ends to the advantage of our heroes, though in an unusually off-handed manner. We could imagine the moral of Austen's tale is to those who know their place, quietly obedient to the strict structures of early 19th century British aristocracy, to them comes the greatest rewards of peace and tranquility. Pish posh, of course, but beautifully rendered in Austen's impeccably intricate language and a vivid portrayal of a time and a place somewhat alien to 21st-century sensibilities. (Even the 1999 movie had to be modernized to give Fanny an avocation not present in the novel, and to moderate the shock of infidelity while also presenting arguments about social status where none are so argued in the book.)

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Also by Jane Austen: [Sense and Sensibility] [Pride and Prejudice]

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