The book: Mansfield Park by Jane Austen, published 1814.
My relationship with the book:
As much as I am a Janeite, I have never particularly liked Mansfield Park. My first acquaintance with it came from the 2007 adaptation (starring Billie Piper, Hayley Atwell and Blake Ritson), and subsequently the controversial Patricia Rozema adaptation from 1999. I read it for the first time in 2011, spring semester of my first year at uni, for the Jane Austen class I was taking at the time. I didn’t particularly like it – I found Fanny and pretty much everyone except the Crawfords annoying and/or boring. However, I recently got very intrigued by it after reading some critiques and close readings of it, and reread it in January 2016, with much more interest.
Why it can be scary:
It is, I would say, the generally most disliked Austen. The main character splits people up pretty evenly, and nothing too dramatic in the modern sense happens, and you sort of need to have a grasp of nuance regarding the time to get the magnitude of things. It’s a rather cumbersome novel compared to Pride and Prejudice or Emma – or any of the others, really. I’m not going to spoil the ending, but many people are dissatisfied with it. (There is a lot to be said about the endings in Austen, but that might be an essay right there so maybe I will save it for another time.)
My five tips to reading it:
- Look for irony. This applies to all Austen, really, but I can’t emphasise it enough, because it seems people miss it. The questions you need to ask is who is saying it, how they phrase it, and what they actually mean. A lot of Austen’s characters contradict themselves a lot – just look at Mrs Elton in Emma or Isabella Thorpe in Northanger Abbey, or Caroline Bingley in Pride and Prejudice! It’s usually the unpleasant characters who do this, but the narrator does it also – there are some excellent bits of narration that are merciless when it comes to the characters. Pay attention to wording, because that is so important.
- As with War and Peace, you may want to write down some names in the beginning. The book opens with a description of the family situation, and it requires some concentration. Basically though, the odious Mrs Norris is the eldest sister, Lady Bertram the middle one, and Mrs Price, Fanny’s mother, the youngest. Of the Bertram girls, Maria is the elder. I am saying this because I keep forgetting, which way around they are.
- Pay attention to Fanny. This may sound like silly advice when you consider that she’s the main character, of course you’ll pay attention to her – except you don’t. Fanny is so easy to forget. As John Mullan says, you forget that she’s in the room, or, indeed, in the book. For most of the book, it seems more like Edmund Bertram and Mary Crawford are the main characters, but don’t forget Fanny. If you keep an eye on when you and the other characters forget about her, and when they notice her, you’ll find that this is very interesting in terms of the message of the book.
- Related to point three, pay attention to emotion. People call Fanny cold, but she really isn’t. She feels very deeply, but keeps it to herself – indeed, there is a lot of scholarship discussing the way she self-confessedly doesn’t and cannot act. Don’t let her inactivity fool you: she is absolutely brimming with emotion and feeling, especially when it comes to a certain letter. (I was reading that bit on the bus and wanted to scream because of how incredibly, if unintentionally, cruel it is. Poor Fanny!)
- There are some important themes that you might keep in mind. Theatre and acting is absolutely one of them – everyone is putting up an act, or at least everyone central, that is, Fanny, Edmund, Mary, and Henry. There is some delightful ambiguity about the last of that list though. It’s also interesting to read this novel from a postcolonial point of view (this explains the curiously long conversation about an apricot tree, as observed by Kathleen Fowler). Indeed, I would suggest looking up some thematic analyses of the novel, especially if you’re about to read it for the second time, as this illustrates with how many focalisers one can look at it.
As I said, upon the second reading I enjoyed Mansfield Park much more. I’m still annoyed at myself for disliking Fanny Price for so long; she’s not everyone’s cup of tea and I can certainly understand that, but I don’t think she should be judged for the wrong things. Five years has also made Mary and Henry Crawford more interesting – I can’t decide what to make of them. Are they sincere? Are they not? Are they bad people, or just misguided? Is there a difference? A fact often ignored is that Mansfield Park is Austen’s most scandalous novel, when it comes to events, and it addresses a number of moral questions. No, it’s not light and funny, but that does not make it any less good. I hereby publicly admit my shame and claim Mansfield as just as worthy of my love as the other Austens.
If you have misgivings about the book, I recommend you watch/listen to John Mullan’s speech at the Hay Festival. In this speech he sets to reclaim Fanny and her novel, and does it extremely well – it is this speech that ignited my interest in this book in earnest. He is also an excellent close-reader, and a hugely entertaining and energetic performer! One of my favourite things he does in this speech is draw attention to the similarities between Elizabeth Bennet and Mary Crawford.