reflective / reviews

Book musing: Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

First and foremost: I will fight you if you talk shit about Fanny Price.

Okay, I can see how someone might call her pious or overly serious. Sure, if that’s how you feel. But if you criticize her temperament — her exceeding anxiety and timidity, her frequent tears, her acutely sensitive disposition — it is going down, and it will be bloody.

I found Mansfield Park the most serious and intense read yet of the Jane Austen novels I’ve experienced. Plain and simple, it’s the story of an abused and neglected child, and the pitfalls such children must navigate as they come to maturity in order to secure a happy life of their own choosing. This story is a warning tale of how easily a vulnerable woman without means may be pressured into marrying a man of bad character but who had not yet made a bad reputation.

If you think I’m exaggerating the abuse, let me just remind you of the condition on which her aunt allowed her use of a sitting room:

Mrs. Norris, having stipulated for there never being a fire in it on Fanny’s account, was tolerably resigned to her having the use of what nobody else wanted, though the terms in which she sometimes spoke of the indulgence seemed to imply that it was the best room in the house.

That’s right. Her aunt went out of her way to make it clear to the servants that her niece was not worthy of indoor heating, even in winter, even knowing her weak health.

Mrs. Norris is quite a successful villain in this book: one of those absolutely loathsome characters I can barely stand to think exists in reality. Her worst vice stems from snobbishness, as that’s what drives her to constantly remind Fanny of how little she deserves or should expect. This is demonstrated most clearly when Fanny is asked out to dinner by the neighbors for the first time, and Mrs. Norris warns her:

“And if it should rain, which I think exceedingly likely, for I never saw it more threatening for a wet evening in my life, you must manage as well as you can, and not be expecting the carriage to be sent for you. I certainly do not go home to-night; so you must make up your mind to what may happen, and take your things accordingly.”

Her niece thought it perfectly reasonable. She rated her own claims to comfort as low even as Mrs. Norris could; and when Sir Thomas soon afterwards, just opening the door, said, “Fanny, at what time would you have the carriage come round?” she felt a degree of astonishment which made it impossible for her to speak.

“My dear Sir Thomas!” cried Mrs. Norris, red with anger, “Fanny can walk.”

“Walk!” repeated Sir Thomas, in a tone of most unanswerable dignity, and coming farther into the room. “My niece walk to a dinner engagement at this time of the year! Will twenty minutes after four suit you?”

Bless Sir Thomas. He also counteracts the edict against heating Fanny’s room, when he finally happens to notice.

But Mrs. Norris’ horrible malice was far more attentive over eight years, and it served well, along with Lady Bertram’s fondness of valuing Fanny as a constant servant without whom she could not manage, to trample any sense of self-worth Fanny might have had.

The only person in Fanny’s world who treated her kindly and without condescension was her cousin Edmund, and naturally Fanny grew up adoring him as her protector and hero. This history made their relationship so unbalanced that I never really rooted for a romantic outcome between them. Among other reasons, I think Pride and Prejudice is so much more popular today is because Elizabeth and Darcy have such an equal footing; Elizabeth’s ability to laugh at and make fun of Darcy (with tact) is an excellent indicator of a healthy relationship. For the first half of the book, it was hard to imagine Fanny ever questioning Edmund’s judgment.

This leads me to my other reason for asserting this is really a story of child abuse and survival than it is a story of romance: we’re never shown how Fanny and Edmund fall in love with each other. Those details are swept up in the last few pages, and Austen refuses to spend much time on it:

Scarcely had he done regretting Mary Crawford, and observing to Fanny how impossible it was that he should ever meet with such another woman, before it began to strike him whether a very different kind of woman might not do just as well, or a great deal better: whether Fanny herself were not growing as dear, as important to him in all her smiles and all her ways, as Mary Crawford had ever been; and whether it might not be a possible, an hopeful undertaking to persuade her that her warm and sisterly regard for him would be foundation enough for wedded love.

I purposely abstain from dates on this occasion, that every one may be at liberty to fix their own, aware that the cure of unconquerable passions, and the transfer of unchanging attachments, must vary much as to time in different people. I only entreat everybody to believe that exactly at the time when it was quite natural that it should be so, and not a week earlier, Edmund did cease to care about Miss Crawford, and became as anxious to marry Fanny as Fanny herself could desire.

Now there’s a few interesting things about this passage (besides my amusement at Austen’s invitation for reader participation, an early trial of choose-your-own-adventure, if just as far as wedding dates are concerned). I bolded that line not just for the skeevy incestuous quality that the modern audience will surely note, but for the idea alone that a familial affection is foundation enough for wedded love.

That does not jive at all with the modern concept of love, which requires lust, passion — something far more significant to make you want to bind yourself to another person for life, and to share a bed. Austen’s world seemed to have a lower bar — and perhaps that was sensible, if more tragic, when gentlewomen could not support themselves independently the way women today can. I’m reminded of a quote found in her more popular novel, Pride and Prejudice:

Without thinking highly either of men or of matrimony, marriage had always been her object; it was the only honourable provision for well-educated young women of small fortune, and however uncertain of giving happiness, must be their pleasantest preservative from want.

With that cold reality, a woman of small fortune can’t afford to wait for the passions they read of in romance novels. And that explains in part why Fanny’s uncle and other relations were so outraged by her refusing Henry Crawford — a man of fortune and respectable reputation. Fanny’s protestations that she did not like him, that she was convinced they would be miserable together, were dismissed outright as the whims of a flighty, willful, conceited child.

The idea that Fanny might know herself best, that she might have the right to refuse a man on the basis of her own preference alone, whether or not she has any hope of another suitor, is totally inconceivable to her relatives. What’s doubly awful for Fanny is this charge of ingratitude that even her uncle throws at her in their meeting after she refuses Crawford.

What surprised and pleased me, though, were how morally ambiguous the Crawfords were for a long time, which seems unusual in Austen novels. Sometimes characters manage to pass themselves off as decent people, but there’s rarely any shades of gray revealed. (Off-topic query: has E.L. James forever ruined the phrase “shades of gray”?) But Mary Crawford really won my affection for this moment, when Mrs. Norris was being extra-horrible about Fanny refusing to join in a play that her cousins were planning (as far as I can understand it, participating in a play was about as scandalous as pole-dancing):

“I am not going to urge her,” replied Mrs. Norris sharply; “but I shall think her a very obstinate, ungrateful girl, if she does not do what her aunt and cousins wish her — very ungrateful, indeed, considering who and what she is.”

Edmund was too angry to speak; but Miss Crawford, looking for a moment with astonished eyes at Mrs. Norris, and then at Fanny, whose tears were beginning to shew themselves, immediately said, with some keenness, “I do not like my situation; this place is too hot for me,” and moved away her chair to the opposite side of the table, close to Fanny, saying to her, in a kind, low whisper, as she placed herself, “Never mind, my dear Miss Price, this is a cross evening: everybody is cross and teasing, but do not let us mind them”; and with pointed attention continued to talk to her and endeavour to raise her spirits, in spite of being out of spirits herself.

I had hopes, then, for Mary and her brother turning out to be decent enough people after all, even if they didn’t meet Fanny’s strict standards. Considering those moments, and the complete absence of any signs of romantic feelings between Fanny and cousin Edmund (plus my own misgivings about how healthy their potential relationship would be), I was kept in genuine suspense about the matrimonial outcomes until Mr. Crawford ruined himself and Fanny’s cousin Maria.

This novel won’t go on my list of recommended romance novels, but I can’t imagine Austen intended it as such. I will recall it instead as a vivid portrayal of how some children grow up mistreated — not in a showy way, but in how they constantly hear that they deserve no comfort or love, that their voice and feelings do not matter even when they pass through adolescence. How often they’re told to sit in that cold room by themselves and be grateful to anyone who deems them worth notice.

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