I first read Mansfield Park as a thirteen year-old, full of hope of finding another Pride and Prejudice. It’s fair to say that I found it a little disappointing. Lionel Trilling claimed that ‘Nobody, I believe, has ever found it possible to like the heroine of Mansfield Park‘ and on first reading I would have agreed with him. Over my first few Austen in Augusts, I never felt particularly motivated to reread it. But then something strange happened. The more I read literary analysis about Jane Austen’s novels (and really, who doesn’t do that in search of a good time), the more I felt curious about Mansfield Park. Between The Genius of Jane Austen revealing fascinating theatrical context and Jane Austen the Secret Radical suggesting subliminal subversive messages, I was suddenly keen to take another look for myself. And when I did, I made a discovery all of my own. Barely twenty pages in, I spotted something that I would never have noticed as a wide-eyed thirteen year-old. “Oh”, I said to my partner, “It’s all about sex”.
Far from being Jane Austen’s dullest novel, if you scratch beneath the surface, you realise that it is the book which most directly confronts sexual politics. Also, moving more or less straight from reading Northanger Abbey to this made for quite a striking contrast. While Northanger is raucous and high-spirited, Mansfield is far more measured. You really get the sense that this is Austen at her most confident. This book is her at the top of her game. The only problem is that people so often come to Austen expecting romance but that was never what she was about. While most of her other novels can be shoehorned into the romance structure, with Mansfield it is impossible to ignore that the plot fails to fit the structure. If you want hearts and flowers, go elsewhere.
It always seems odd to provide a synopsis for an Austen novel but this is one of the lesser-read/adapted books so in this case perhaps useful. Fanny Price is the poor relation to the wealthy Bertrams who reside at Mansfield Park. She is ignored and down-trodden unless there is a task that she can perform. The only member of the family who treats her with any kindness is her cousin Edmund. Patriarch Sir Thomas Bertram leaves on an extended business trip to Antigua and while he is gone, the household rules are relaxed and the sophisticated Crawford siblings join the family circle. Chaos ensues.
Mansfield Park is like a fairytale gone wrong, with the family embracing misrule in their father’s absence, almost akin to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It even contains the play within a play as the characters attempt to stage Lovers’ Vows. The first time I read Mansfield, I had never considered what the play was actually about and even I think assumed that it was a fictitious construct designed to provoke conflict. This time though, I was reading a copy of the book that actually included Lovers’ Vows at the end as an appendix. It was a well-known play at the time and Austen would have assumed that her readers were familiar with it. What this means is that quite a lot of the subtext around the theatricals is lost to the modern reader.
People often assume that sex does not happen in Austen. Naive. It’s there all right but tends to happen in code. Mansfield Park confronts sexual desire far more openly than anything of Austen’s other novels. Mary Crawford makes her rude joke about ‘rears and vices’. Mr Rushworth is ‘of a mind to marry’, as in he wanted the services of a wife. Tom Bertram baldly tells Fanny that Mrs Grant looks unsatisfied in her marriage to Dr Grant and is want of a lover. Sir Thomas Bertram marries Lady Bertram despite her lack of fortune because he has been caught by her good looks. Later, he makes Fanny Price uncomfortable by commenting on her appearance and his son Edmund tells her that she needs to accept that men will find her attractive. When Henry Crawford arrives in the neighbourhood, he is initially abused as short and unattractive but the Bertram ladies quickly change their opinions; they have had their heads turned by his sex appeal. Yet this is all the dynamics which perch on the surface. Where the characters are actually battling it out is within the theatricals.
Lovers’ Vows has Maria Rushworth portray a fallen woman, the unwed mother to Henry Crawford’s character. This brings her into an exciting physical closeness with him which leads her to believe that he will propose and allow her to discard her engagement to Mr Rushworth. In turn, Mr Rushworth is playing a foppish idiot whose fiancé despises him. A real busman’s holiday for him. Mary Crawford plays a sexually forward young woman flirting with a vicar. Again. Busman’s holiday. And Edmund stars as said repressed vicar and Tom Bertram plays the butler to underline again how unsuited he is to be heir to the estate. They were really casting against type here. You lose all of this though if you are unaware of the play so this is another reason why people struggle to get on with the book.
It’s also the most amoral of Austen’s novels. It has the structure of a fairytale but none of the optimism. It begins with the tale of three sisters, one marries extremely well, one marries middling and the third marries badly. Then there’s little Fanny Price, a true literary Cinderella and not one that many people warm to. C S Lewis described her as a Brontë heroine in an Austen situation but that does not really explain why so many readers fail to connect with her. We first meet her as a timid ten year-old, terrified by her new situation and longing for home. We see her grow up and take up the role of unpaid servant and family dogsbody. We should feel a sympathy. What is it about Fanny which is so off-putting?
First of all, I should confess that I am fairly open-minded about Fanny. As a thirteen year-old, I was quite irate on her behalf when she got stuck in Portsmouth when it was endangering her health. I was expecting her to die or at least get seriously ill and that then Sir Thomas would feel bad. I think that this might have happened in a Richardson creation but Austen would never be that obvious. My point is that I don’t mind Miss Price. She’s fine. All right, she’s no Elizabeth Bennet but she would be an ok person with whom to eat your lunch. Readers have come to an Austen novel expecting a heroine who can drop witty one-liners and that’s not Fanny’s style so they leave the book disappointed. But it’s no accident or a failing of Austen’s writing. Fanny is deliberately trying to be invisible, to slip into the background. She does not want to be noticed. She only wants to survive.
I think it’s that which makes readers draw back. Having your back pressed against the wall for quite so long does strange things to the psyche, particularly if it happens during childhood. Fanny is not a warm character. She does not reach out to create friendship independently like Emma Woodhouse or Catherine Morland. She is not spontaneously affectionate like Elizabeth Bennet. She rarely even displays fondness, something Anne Eliot manages to do for her young nephews. Fanny just sits quietly hoping for a few more minutes peace before she is given her next task. But when she sits quietly, she also observes and it is this which can be quite unnerving.
Many people have commented on the parallels between Fanny and Jane Eyre. They are both brought up with richer cousins. They are even both treated with cruelty as the poor relation. We may feel an easier connection with Jane because she speaks up for herself but the decades which separate the two characters mean that their situations are quite different. Literary traditions have moved on too. The words that a female character are allowed to speak have expanded. Where Fanny has to swallow down her feelings for her cousin Edmund and nod along with Aunt Norris’ every idiotic utterance, Jane is allowed to let things boil over. She even declares her feelings for a man. She claims her independence even if it means an uncertain future. None of this would have been feasible for a female character in Austen’s era.
Yet for myself, I think that Fanny has another closer literary cousin. A woman who also appeared shy and retiring, blissfully content to focus on domestic matters. A dutiful soul who blushed at any praise but clung on to just the same. I am thinking of Bleak House‘s Esther Summerson. For all their apparent meekness and innocence, both these women seem to be remarkably astute judges of character. Far more so than those around them. Esther understands the truth about Harold Skimpole just as Fanny recognises Henry Crawford’s moral weakness. She sees him flirting with her cousins even though nobody else but Mary Crawford notices that there is anything amiss. The unsettling thing about both Fanny and Esther is that they spend so much of their time reiterating their modest and unassuming characters only to cut like a razor to the truth of those around them. It feels like the sign of a duplicitous personality, but again it is more likely the survival mechanism of someone who only has a home for as long as they are deemed useful. Jane Eyre is a more outspoken novel, depicting its heroine reduced to begging in a remote village, but neither Fanny nor Esther would have been ignorant of their precarious positions within the household.
The irony is that Fanny more or less comes out on top. As Mansfield Park draws to a close, her fate closely mirrors that of Jane Eyre. She is living in a smaller establishment but it is her own home. She has married a man who has been crushed down by the events of book. Indeed, it is an even earlier case of woman marrying man rather than vice versa. Edmund had not wanted to marry Fanny, had had no thought of so doing but after being unable to marry Mary and crushed down, he submits. It is the absolute least romantic pairing within Austen’s canon and Edmund is by far and away Austen’s least charismatic male ‘lead’. Yet marrying him is Fanny’s best option and to gain his hand if not his heart is a victory.
What is strange is that Edmund was not Fanny’s only option. She is not Charlotte Lucas taking a proposal because there is no guarantee of another. Fanny has a solid offer of marriage from Henry Crawford. Not a second son like Edmund, an actual rich man. And unlike the parsimonious hypocrite Edmund, Henry Crawford who was so charismatic that he had women literally flinging themselves at him. Austen’s own sister Cassandra thought that Henry was a better match for Fanny and begged for the two to marry. I think that again, Austen is making clear that affection is not at anyone else’s command. As far back as Northanger Abbey, Austen was derisive about the received wisdom that a properly behaved young lady would only develop feelings for a man after he had declared himself for her. She is highlighting as unreasonable the expectation that Fanny can switch from being scolded by Mrs Norris to remember herself as leagues below Mr Crawford to cheerily accepting him as her husband. But is there also more going on here?
Reading the book this time, I was struck by how Mansfield is a like a remixed Pride and Prejudice. Like Elizabeth, Fanny refuses an advantageous offer of marriage. Frankly, Henry Crawford’s speech requesting her hand is more articulate than many of the efforts of Austen’s “good” leading males. Like Darcy, Henry Crawford puts himself to considerable inconvenience to assist Fanny’s family. He not only assists her brother but he also travels all the way to Portsmouth to see her. It is reminiscent of the meeting between Elizabeth and Darcy at Pemberley. Removed to a new context, the two parties are able to re-establish their acquaintance on more favourable terms. Fanny recognises that he would readily allow her to bring her sister Susan to live with them if they married. However, rather than a rapprochement and a second proposal, fate, or more likely the author, intervenes.
Henry Crawford’s seduction of Maria Bertram baffled me when I first read Mansfield as a teenager. He was so close to achieving his aim, had almost won Fanny over. Why on earth did he throw it all away to jump into bed with Mrs Rushworth? There is something truly putrescent about the excuse allotted him in the novel, that he had wished to score a further humiliation against her but that things got out of control. That he had seen her hostility and been amused by it. Not content to see her in an unhappy marriage that she had only contracted in order to spite him, Henry Crawford would have Maria love him again so that he could reject her once more. That Maria’s misery bubbled up and overtook events seems to me now rather poetic. But it remains an author intervention. Without this episode, Edmund would have certainly married Mary. Austen herself admitted that in this case, a miserable Fanny would have capitulated to Crawford.
The thing is that lurking behind all of this – the entire book – is Mansfield Park‘s shadow heroine, Mary Crawford. Her arrival into the neighbourhood which is the catalyst for so much of the book’s action. Her brother would never have come to stay without her. Edmund’s idiocy would not have been revealed to such a full extent. She is also a necessary conduit of communication since Henry Crawford can only communicate with Fanny via his sister until she accepts his proposal. The dialogue also works in another direction since this is also how Mary tries to keep up with Edmund. Again, it’s like Midsummer Night’s Dream, all the lovers in disarray. But there is more to it than that. For many readers, Mary Crawford better fits their idea of what a heroine should be. She is confident and charismatic, not passive like Fanny. She makes witty remarks and she can play soothing tunes on the harp. Bluntly, she is sexy.
Why isn’t she the heroine then? Austen had already created one witty female lead who could come out with clever comments – Elizabeth Bennet. What is different here? Is Mary Crawford the villain? If she is, she hardly seems to know it. On the reread, I was struck by just how nice she is. It is Mary who looks around in shock at how rude Mrs Norris is to Fanny. She is the one who goes out of her way to be kind in recompense. She seems genuinely embarrassed that her use of Fanny’s horse has deprived Fanny of her daily exercise. She may look at Tom Bertram as a potential husband but when she recognises that neither of them really feel much for each other, she promptly drops the idea. Mary also seeks Fanny’s friendship. I have read some criticisms of this on the basis that she only does this because everyone else had gone away but I would defend her. Mary seeks Fanny’s friendship in a way that she never seems to have done with either of the Bertram sisters. She recognises Fanny is on a lower social rung and chooses to be kind. To be honest, I liked her.
A big part of the problem with Mary though is that we are reading her at two centuries of distance. When we read Mansfield Park, we see Mary’s wit and liveliness – she fits our twenty-first century expectations of an attractive and entertaining female. To the contemporary reader, things were more complicated because they were looking at her through a lens of social protocol which is almost entirely lost to us now. To the modern eye, Mary’s snarky comments and arch asides are evidence of her having an interesting character. In her own time, Mary seemed too forward, to eager to pass judgment on the Admiral who had brought her up, on the clergy, on pretty much anything which caught her attention.
I finished Mansfield feeling that Mary got a raw deal. I was especially irritated by the observation that after hearing her views on Maria and Henry’s affair, Edmund is no longer Mary’s ‘dupe’. Dupe. As in she duped him. Tricked him. Used her womanly wiles. No. No. No. No wiles womanly or otherwise would be required on a narrow-minded dullard like Edmund. He was just lucky that Mary ever considered looking at him twice in the first place. In case it is not clear, I am not a fan of Sir Thomas Bertram’s second son. He is ghastly. He is the best ally that Fanny has in the house and he is useless. He offers no support when it seems that Fanny will have to go to live with Mrs Norris. He lends her horse away to chase Mary. He also inflicts his parsimonious views on Fanny since he is the only person who really speaks to her and so if the reader has any complaints on her outlook, look at him instead. Then there’s the way that he talks about the woman he is supposedly in love with. Fanny recognises that it is so inappropriate to discuss your significant other with a member of the opposite sex but Edmund does not. He refers to Mary’s ‘little errors’ and I sincerely hope that if Mary had ever heard him that she would have … well, not punched him because violence is wrong but at the very least tutted very loudly and then never spoken to him again.
Edmund is a recognisable type. I have known a few Edmunds, specifically back in my university days when I was hanging about in the Christian Union. The boys who wore their maleness as a badge of honour, a sign that they could claim dominion over womankind. [Disclaimer – Christian men who I was friends with, this does not include you.] Their hypocrisy would glow through the cracks in their black and white worldview and so it is with Edmund. He sighs over Mary’s perceived character flaws but he is still drawn to her sexually. He claims to care for Fanny but he is not there for her when she needs him. There are pages and pages of him trying to cajole and pressure her into accepting Henry Crawford’s proposal. He claims pompously that it is the duty of a clergyman to live within with his parish but as the novel ends, he abandons said parish for the more profitable living nearer to Mansfield Park. Edmund likes to appear like the good guy but that’s all that it is really about – appearances.
I think that this is what makes Mansfield Park such a troubling novel. The house is beautiful, the grounds are lovely and the family extremely respectable. But it is based upon a lie. The whole family care only about outward appearances rather than inner worth. Maria Bertram agrees to marry a man because he is richer than her father. Tom Bertram excuses his own debts because they are not as large as those incurred by his friends. Sir Thomas’ business in Antigua appears to involve the slave trade even if it is never openly discussed. Indeed, the very use of the names ‘Mansfield’ and ‘Norris’, both of which were highly significant within the abolition movement for different reasons, has been seen as an indication that Austen was making a point about the slave trade which is largely lost on us today. The book received no reviews on publication, a sign that something about it disquieted literary society.
Of all Austen’s novels, Mansfield Park is also the one that most directly confronts class. We visit the home of the Price family and walk down the street in Portsmouth where servant and employer can mix almost as equals. The Bertrams hear William Price’s stories of the sea in wonder. Henry Crawford feels an envy that William has truly tasted life, but then he remembers his own comfortable home and decides to be content in his own situation. As the novel closes, Sir Thomas compares his nephew and nieces with his own children and feels that their characters are the stronger for having gone through strife. But we cannot claim the book as a victory for the working classes. William complains to his sister that he will never get on as he has not the connections, then receives a promotion through Henry Crawford’s manoeuvring. The irony is that we recognise that it will not be long before William starts to chafe again for further promotion but without the Crawford connection, the future looks less clear for him. Fanny looks around her old family home in Portsmouth and knows she needs to get out of there and to rescue her sister Susan too if she can. She takes the marriage to Edmund who does not love her, she swallows down any resentment and she clings on to the Bertrams because they offer her the best life.
As the novel ends, the house Mansfield Park stands as sturdy as ever. Fanny finally has a home of her own. But it is all based on uncomfortable truths that even the ‘good’ characters are doing their best to ignore. Edmund never shows any sign of loving his wife. Every single time Edmund makes a moral stand, he goes back on his word. Despite his protestations, the reader can see that he is a lazy clergyman taking the income without true care. His father is no better, caring for superficial appearances rather than the character of his children and despite his aristocratic pretensions, his fortune is built on slavery. Perhaps the truest reason why readers cannot respond to Mansfield Park in the same way as Pride and Prejudice is not that it is dull, but rather that the tragedy overshadows the comedy. It works best if you look at it as Austen’s Villette, an uncomfortable analysis of a flawed society.
Myself, I confess that no other Austen re-read has ever inspired so many thoughts as this one. I am fully aware that this post is ridiculously long and I still have so many thoughts. Was Lady Bertram stoned for the entire novel? What was the deal with Tom Bertram and the gamekeeper? The sibling relationship dynamics were clearly central to the novel and so complex. I think I may have to have a couple of follow-up posts. Looked at for itself rather than in comparison to any of its fellows, Mansfield Park is an intricate masterpiece operating on many levels which rewards multiple visits. Just don’t ask me to believe that Fanny Price ever looked anything like Billie Piper.
For further reading:
Affiliate LinksBuy on Amazon.co.uk
Buy on Amazon.com
Buy on BookDepository.com
Buy from Foyles Books (UK)
Buy from Waterstones
Published by J.M. Dent & Company on 1906
This post contains affiliate links which you can use to purchase the book. If you buy the book using that link, I will receive a small commission from the sale.