By Jane Austen
Hardcover, 560 pages
2012, Penguin Classics
I decided to launch Austen Month with the Austen book I know least (aka, nothing) about. I have read all of her novels except Mansfield Park and Emma, but I’ve read an adaptation of Emma and seen parts of the movie, so I’m aware of the general plot.
From Amazon: Taken from the poverty of her parents’ home in Portsmouth, Fanny Price is brought up with her rich cousins at Mansfield Park, acutely aware of her humble rank and with her cousin Edmund as her sole ally. During her uncle’s absence in Antigua, the Crawford’s arrive in the neighborhood bringing with them the glamour of London life and a reckless taste for flirtation.
What I liked:
Wikipedia is telling me that Mansfield Park was published in 1814, and was Austen’s third novel. I’ve mentioned before that I don’t always love classics, because there’s usually a large difference in writing style than what I’m used to today. So for this book to be over 200 years old and hold my attention almost the whole time, in addition to making me chuckle now and then, is a mark in Austen’s favor.
I’m no Austen scholar (or any kind of scholar, really), so I’m sure there’s a lot I don’t pick up on, however, I can’t help but smirk or laugh at the witty way she depicts certain characters. If you’re familiar with anything by Austen, you know that there are typically one or two protagonists, who mostly exhibit all the best qualities of a well-bred middle or upper-class gentleman or lady. Then there are the antagonists, who are typically greedy, backhanded, rakish, passive-aggressively bitchy and selfish. It’s pretty easy to tell from the start of each book who fortune will favor and whose rash decisions will cause them much regret in the end.
I especially loved the amount of passive-aggressive bitchiness that was on display in this book. Naturally, I forgot to tab specific sections, but Fanny’s aunts gave many examples of this behavior. Mrs. Bertram, for example, is constantly dependent on Fanny’s assistance and company and makes it well-known that she can’t do without Fanny. But she also makes snide remarks about no one else could ever want Fanny, so she might as well stay at Mansfield forever.
I saw the romantic setup coming from the very first pages, as well as quickly figuring out who the womanizer was going to be, yet knowing this didn’t stop me from enjoying how all of this unfolded. There’s always an event in her books that reveals a seemingly charming gentleman to really be a cheating prick, and narrowly saves our heroine from throwing her purity away on someone who would just tarnish her reputation and ruin her life. Those who haven’t been kind to our charming heroine always get what’s coming to them as well. Despite the essentially predictable formula of all of Austen’s books, I never fail to enjoy how events play out.
What I didn’t like:
I have to say, Fanny is the most shy, over-emotional and pathetic Austen heroine I’ve read about. I didn’t hate her, but oh my gourd, reading about her constant tears, her deep well of emotion and her complete lack of ability to stand up for herself was incredibly annoying at times. Especially when my favorite Austen work is Pride and Prejudice – Lizzy Bennet is such a strong-willed character and she’s not afraid to speak her mind. Fanny reminded me of a teenage girl blogging about unrequited love and how everyone is mean to her on her LiveJournal or something – or, to be a bit more modern with my reference, someone who only post depressing quotes or lyrics on their Tumblr. Please girl, grow a pair.
I also felt the drama over holding a play was too drawn out. At some point, the Crawfords and Fanny’s cousins decide to perform a play, because when you’re rich and jobless, you need some variety in your free time. Uncle Bertram is away at this time and Fanny and Edmund heartily disapprove of the whole operation, because it’s improper (of course!). Yet, the play is planned, parts are rehearsed, a set is designed and paid for, a guest list is drafted, and Edmund is coerced into joining, all as Fanny looks on with meek disapproval and moral superiority. This is where I started to get a little sleepy – there really wasn’t much going on, despite the excitement of the play, and through it all, I suppose readers were expected to side with Fanny in feeling that the whole scheme was foolish and inappropriate. That’s something that just didn’t translate into my modern life – personally, I’d love to have the time and money to fool around with my friends and put on a little performance for people. But I suppose the whole issue was created to continue to show how proper Fanny really is, compared with the indulgent Crawfords. In the end, the play never ends up happening and so it felt like a bit of a waste and removed me a bit from the overall story.
In the end, I enjoyed Mansfield Park. I wouldn’t place it above Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility, but I think I enjoyed it more than Persuasion, as I didn’t really form a connection for any of the characters there. However, I’ve been known to like and understand Austen’s work the more times I read it, so perhaps Persuasion deserves another pass. Looking back at my reading of Northanger Abbey, I totally missed Austen’s message, yet when I read the graphic novel adaptation, all became clear and I enjoyed the story more than my initial thoughts. I digress. At any rate, I don’t think I would suggest Mansfield Park as your first Austen read, because it’s a bit long and slow. However, if you’re already a fan of her work, please be sure to read this if you haven’t yet.