I am, by anyone's reckoning, quite the Jane Austen fanatic (a true Austenite, if you will). My numerous copies of Pride and Prejudice are extremely well thumbed, and her most recognised masterpieces hold a similarly prominent place on my bookshelf (as well as in my heart). I have, however, long neglected her less celebrated works. A while back, I ran through Northanger Abbey and was sadly disappointed. But, as Jane Austen's first completed work, it is understandable that it would lack the insight and coherence of her later works. After visiting her house last month (a trip documented in my subsequent Literary Excursion post), I decided to confront the last of her novels that I had yet to explore - Mansfield Park.
"Depend upon it, you see but half. You see the evil, but you do not see the consolation. There will be little rubs and disappointments everywhere, and we are all apt to expect too much; but then, if one scheme of happiness fails, human nature turns to another; if the first calculation is wrong, we make a second better: we find comfort somewhere - and those evil-minded observers, dearest Mary, who make much of a little, are more taken in and deceived than the parties themselves."
Mansfield Park tells the story of Fanny Price, child of an inopportune marriage and niece to the illustrious Sir Thomas Bertram. In an effort at benevolence, Fanny's aunt, Lady Bertram, agrees to take her in and offer her the education and advantages associated with a privileged upbringing. Fanny struggles, however, to be accepted as part of the family. Aside from her cousin Edmund, Fanny is left without friends and subjected to constant disparagement. When brother and sister, Henry and Mary Crawford, arrive in the area and form an acquaintance with the Bertrams, the household is thrown into disarray. Henry Crawford's flirtatious relationship with Fanny's betrothed cousin Maria presents a worrying dynamic, leaving Fanny with a moral inquietude that she cannot abate. Following Maria's marriage to her fiancé, Henry turns his attentions to Fanny - determined to surmount the challenge of winning her heart. While his affections and declarations appear genuine, Fanny cannot accept that his intentions are serious - rather, she takes them to form part of a pattern of moral degradation and easy emotion. As he refuses to give way, and Fanny's love for her cousin Edmund is threatened by his own impending engagement to Mary Crawford, her romantic future is thrown into open question. She is forced to confront and question her own principles, and determine whether to open herself up to the potential insincerity of Henry's advances.
There is undoubtedly a reason for Mansfield Park's failure to find itself rated amongst the best of Austen's works. While the plot is well thought out and gripping in typical Austen style, the characters feel underdeveloped and are relatively unappealing. Jane Austen is a master when it comes to painting fictional heroines - she is, after all, creator of the uncompromisingly intelligent Elizabeth Bennet. Yet Fanny Price lacks inspiring characteristics and is unable to provoke interest in the reader. She is demonstrably principled, but she lacks the complexity of human dimensions that would render her imaginably real. As with her love interest, Edmund, Fanny comes across as one-dimensional and the passages pertaining to her character make for generally dull reading. I think, however, that Edmund and Fanny were victims of Austen's plot and the objectives of the narrative. With a view to painting the effects of adultery and romantic immorality, Austen chose to use her protagonists as the moral standard by which all others should be judged. But, in doing this, both Edmund and Fanny are rendered superficially principled and unrealistically innocent.
"There is no reason in the world why you should not be important where you are known. You have good sense, and a sweet temper, and I am sure you have a grateful heart, that could never receive kindness without hoping to return it. I do not know any better qualifications for a friend and companion."
Despite this, Mansfield Park does deliver some of Austen's standardly unrivalled human insight. The observations and reflections communicated throughout Austen's works are amongst the most perceptive in the field of classical fiction. While Mansfield Park may not meet the standards of Austen's other works, it retains the author's strength as an observer of human nature and faculties. With this ability underwriting the entirety of the novel, it remains an engaging read, despite the insubstantial characters.
"If any one faculty of our nature may be called more wonderful than the rest, I do think it is memory. There seems something more speakably incomprehensible in the powers, the failures, the inequalities of memory, than in any other of our intelligences. The memory is sometimes so retentive, so serviceable, so obedient; at others, so bewildered and so weak; and at others again, so tyrannic, so beyond control! We are, to be sure, a miracle in every way; but our powers of recollecting and of forgetting do seem peculiarly past finding out."
Despite my less than enthusiastic consideration of the novel, it remains a recommended read. Much as with the output of Charles Dickens, even Austen's least expert works are fantastic surveys of humanity. Mansfield Park engages with the priorities of Victorian high society and the consequences of rejecting its associated standards. It is perhaps the knowledge of Austen's masterful characterisations, as displayed in Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Emma, that render her characters in Mansfield Park such a disappointment. Yet the novel remains a truly impressive feat, and one with which any Austen fan should engage.