Monthly Archives: July 2021

Not at all what it seems

Book cover of Mansfield Park

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I first tried to get through Mansfield Park many years ago but found it unreadable. After reading and liking every other Jane Austen novel, I wanted to give it another try. This time, I pushed through the sequence that stopped me last time, in which the characters put on a play. By the time I’d finished the novel, I was really confused about what Austen intended here. On its surface, this is a moralistic book about living according to higher principles. I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as any other Austen novel, and its messages didn’t seem to me to fit with the novels that she wrote before or afterward. It almost seemed as if it were ghost written by someone else–a good imitation, but not an Austen novel at heart.

After some thought, though, I’ve reassessed what Austen intended here and think this book is actually quite subversive and brilliant (warning: spoilers ahead). The story is about a girl who’s sent to be raised at her wealthy aunt and uncle’s house, where she falls in love with the only cousin who’s nice to her and, after many years, eventually wins him over with her strict adherence to the principles she learned from him.

A couple of things bothered me about the book. Fanny, the heroine, is dull and witless, and her cousin Edmund is priggish and judgmental. Austen abruptly wraps up everything at the end, neglecting to depict their coming together, which in other books she plays out before our eyes. I couldn’t understand why she’d skim over what she’d lingered over in other works. I was also struck by how the characters that Fanny and Edmund reject are treated by the couple, with a condescending disdain, and yet we are told that both had the potential to be better people had Fanny and Edmund opened their hearts to them and given them a chance. I would think that Fanny and Edmund would have been better off as well, drawn out of the insular lives they were determined to live together.

The ideas here also just don’t fit with the novels that Austen wrote both before and after, in which strong heroines buck the societal expectations and guidance that would make them miserable and wind up better off for it in the end. Instead, Fanny is sickly and weak, and does in the end what she’s learned would be best.

And finally, there’s some very disturbing subtext to this novel. Like the satire Northanger Abbey, it’s named after a place rather than a person or a principle. The title “Mansfield Park” focuses attention on the estate that Fanny goes to live on, which is built upon a fortune dependent on slaves working sugar plantations in Antigua. This is never addressed directly, but hinted at. At one point, Fanny asks her uncle a question about the slave trade, which he neglects to answer. When Edmund bring it up to her afterward, he speaks of her delicacy in handling the conversation, but neither has the character to address the much bigger and more important humanistic issue here: the appalling practice that has made this family’s fortune. Note that the book opens talking about money and status; that is what its characters are concerned with. They think and talk about principles all the time, but this family and their wealth are built on the morally corrupt practice of slavery. There is rot at its core.

Like the vapid characters the story focuses on, the novel presents us with a shallow surface sheen, but I’m convinced that Austen had much deeper intentions. What this book is really about is how the pursuit of wealth, status, and “principle” is morally corrupting. To summarize the plot another way, it’s about how Fanny and Edmund utterly destroy the people who really love them and wind up settling for each other because they are the only people who meet their own impossible ideals of virtue, giving up any chance at true happiness that they might have. Fanny’s love for Edmund is a child’s love, formed because he is the only one who was nice to her. He loves her, in turn, because he has shaped her, and no one else can meet his egotistic standards of moral perfection.

I’ve come to think of this as a remarkable, if not necessarily enjoyable, novel. However, I would read it only after you’ve read all Austen’s other novels so that you know the author well and can form your own judgments about what she is trying to do here. This is a complex and nuanced work of art, and without question her most challenging novel.