Book Review: Mansfield Park

24 Oct

Though we all know that Mansfield Park was published in 1814, it’s taken me a little while to get through it. I started reading it in my freshman year of college, but gave it up early on because it didn’t read as well as Pride and Prejudice or Persuasion.

Well, I finally finished reading it in its entirety last week, and though it certainly wasn’t my favorite Austen novel, I am glad that I took the time to read it for the 1% Well Read Challenge.

When I picked it up to read it this time, my initial reaction was a lot like it was freshman year. This could be attributed to the fact that I haven’t really read a “classic” since I finished my master’s degree, but nonetheless, I pressed on and made it through the first couple of chapters.

I think part of what makes this book so difficult to read is its heroine, Fanny Price. She is much more melancholy than Austen’s other heroines. She lacks the courage and sharp tongue that we find so endearing in Elizabeth Bennet, at least in the beginning of the novel. I suppose that I can relate to her melancholia, as she is shipped off from the only home she’s ever known to live with the Bertrams, her aunt, uncle and cousins, though they are really strangers to her. She has trouble relating to them, mainly because they look down on her lack of education, manners and money. The only person who seems to relate to Fanny is her cousin Edmund, who becomes her confidant and friend.

I must admit that I was a little put off by the character’s decision to create a rendition of the play, Lovers’ Vows. I found myself thinking, “A play within a play? Really Miss Austen?” Looking back though, I realize that this was actually a clever device, which enables a moral but uneducated Fanny to see the motives of characters whose natures are often misunderstood or given more credit than they’re actually worth. This is particularly seen in the case of Henry Crawford, who uses rehearsals as an opportunity to practice his flirtations on Fanny’s cousins, Maria and Julia. Then of course, he leaves suddenly when Sir Thomas returns, breaking Maria’s heart and sending her into an advantageous but loveless marriage.

What I love (and sometimes hate) about Austen’s novels is that there are so many layers to her works. There are always several subplots going on, which is certainly interesting though sometimes difficult to follow. While Edmund is falling for Mary Crawford, Fanny is in love with Edmund, and Henry opens his eyes to Fanny’s virtues. (Did you get that?)

As I said earlier though, by this point, Fanny has observed Henry’s fickle nature, and does not trust him. This prompts her to refuse him when he proposes marriage, which can’t help but remind readers of Elizabeth’s refusal of Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. Mansfield Park takes a darker turn, however, revealing the more sinister nature of men, as Henry reveals himself to be no Mr. Darcy when he runs off with a very married Maria. This sets the stage for Edmund to be disappointed by Mary’s conduct when she seems to approve of Henry’s actions, and (say it with me now) for him to finally see what has been in front of him all along – Fanny!

Though I will say that I would have liked to see a more satisfying ending for Fanny and Edmund, particularly a less thrown together courtship and marriage, I enjoyed most of the novel as a whole. I do agree with those who have called this Austen’s most “mature” novel, as it certainly seems more realistic that a scorned man would behave in the way Henry did, rather than Mr. Darcy, who waited and pined for Elizabeth. In fact, Austen points this out in the final pages of her novel; if Henry would have remained steadfast in his love for Fanny, she may have married him, particularly if Edmund had proceeded in his pursuit of Miss Crawford.

All in all, a good read. For those who are new to Austen, however, I would recommend reading Pride and Prejudice, Emma or Persuasion before tackling this one.

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