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Austen 2014: Introduction to Mansfield Park

One can't write about Mansfield Park without first acknowledging the fact that it is just not that funny. Oh, there are definitely funny moments, and Austen's ability to create searing comic types does't abandon her, but it doesn't seem to me that Austen wants us to laugh at this book or at its characters. The comic villains create real pain, and the figures of fun we laugh at have real feelings. In a way, this is because the novel reflects the mindset and outlook of its heroine. Fanny Price lacks the wit and vivacity of Elizabeth Bennet or Emma Woodhouse; she lacks the ironic detachment of Elinor Dashwood; she even lacks the inherent ridiculousness of naivety shared by Catherine Morland and Marianne Dashwood. Rather, Fanny is quiet, serious-minded, and meek. Indeed, as famously observed by Calvin Trilling, and as quoted in every piece about MP since, "Nobody, I believe, has ever found it possible to like the heroine of Mansfield Park." The fact that this statement of universal boredom or antipathy comes in an essay defending the novel highlights the tensions that surround trying to write anything positive about Austen's most difficult novel.

Well, screw that.

Austen is, in my estimation, the greatest novelist who ever wrote in English, and, to quote something I often find myself thinking when people toss aside supposedly "lesser" works by great artists, "This book is smarter than you are." Mansfield Park is, because it came from the mind of a truly great creative intellect, by default, smarter than the vast majority of its readers. I'm not saying everyone has to love it--taste is, after all, subjective--but saying things like "nobody likes Fanny Price," is just wrong-headed, so I'll not have any of it here. I like Fanny Price. Austen herself clearly liked Fanny Price--she is not an anti-heroine, after all. So, if you don't like Fanny Price, take that as an entry point about how to understand what the novel is saying--do not dismiss her, and the novel about her, as just being not very good.

So, why don't people like Fanny Price? And are you supposed to? To take the second question first, yes, you are supposed to like Fanny. Indeed, the reader should like Fanny more than any of the characters do--even her cousin Edmund--since we are privy to her thoughts, feelings, and motivations in the ways that none of the other characters are. Fanny is an interior person. When she does speak at length, it is often about matters that many of the other characters find dull or tedious. However, I would submit that that is the entire point.

While it can be argued of all of Austen, it is most true of Mansfield Park to say that it is fundamentally about the conflict between inner qualities, such as goodness and moral sense, and outer qualities, such as charm and wit. In Pride & Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet is both charming and moral, but she is, even for Austen, an extraordinary character. In all her novels, Austen shifts around the alignment among her characters concerning which are interesting and charming, but immoral and/or vacuous. She also, less frequently, creates characters who are highly virtuous and moral, but lacking in surface charms. More often, she chooses to satirize the falsely pious and moral, like Mr. Collins, but she also is aware that, sometimes, goodness does not announce itself via wit and cleverness. Jane Bennet, indeed, almost loses Mr. Bingley's hand, because she is so reserved. In MP, Austen splits the qualities Elizabeth harmoniously combines into two different women: Fanny and the witty, talented, charming, self-assured Mary Crawford. To paraphrase Lizzie on Darcy and Wickham, "One has all the goodness, the other all the appearance of it." That vastly oversimplifies the issue in MP, however. One of the main thrusts of the novel is the exploration of Mary's character and whether or not what lies beneath matches the beauty and charm on the surface. Austen expands on this conflict by introducing not just a rival for Fanny in Edmund's eyes (yes, the love interest is her first cousin--deal with it), but a rival for Fanny's affections in Mary's brother, Henry, allowing for further distinction and delineation.

This overarching theme also manifests itself in the concept of role-playing. Much of the early part of the novel is taken up by some amateur theatricals that the young people organize while the patriarch of the family is away. These, of course, allow the characters to play at being other people, and this idea gets amplified and further explored as the novel progresses, creating what I think is Austen's most subtle depiction of the way society forces people--especially women--to behave in ways that might be contrary to their own natures and their own perception of right and wrong, good and bad.

There are many other themes and motifs in the novel--the sublime and the culture of "improving" estates, nature versus nurture, the role of religion and the established Church--and I'm sure some of these will come up over the course of my posts on the novel. I hope you'll enjoy reading it as much as I have over the years, and grappling with the many questions it presents. Mansfield Park may well be a problematic novel, full of difficult choices and unhappy endings, but I think that makes it all the greater. Despite having a Cinderella story at its core, it is no fairy tale, but rather a realistic depiction of flawed, occasionally unhappy people, trying to find happiness, even if they don't know what would make them happy.

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