One of the three tragic novels of Jane Austen. As in Sense and Sensibility and Persuasion the tragic tone is formed by a character - Tom Bertram, Marianne Dashwood, or Louisa Musgrove - meeting death. In each case they pass through and survive in a much altered form, but the brooding and lowering aspect dominates even though there is much comedy in each. The "heroine", if we dare call her that, of MP is the loathsome Fanny Price.

...That was how I wrote it on Everything 1. Now here's some more (written 10th April 2001) for Everything 2...

Mansfield Park is about a rich family, a poor family, and a dashing family. The Bertrams are rich, the patriarch Sir Thomas Bertram having estates in the West Indies and a large house. The Prices are their poor cousins, and Sir Thomas and his wife offer to foster one of their young cousins as a good turn, so Fanny Price is dispatched from Portsmouth to the country, and grows up amid her rich cousins. None of them is truly unkind to her, except the detestable and hypocritical Mrs Norris, but she is still an ugly duckling or Cinderella, neglected and not fully part of them. She falls quietly, sadly, hopelessly in love with her cousin Edward.

Now the dashing family enter, Mary Crawford and her brother Henry Crawford. These are both people with excellent qualities, great understanding, and hearts capable of much; but they are... well, I think the problem might just be that they are Londoners, fashionable and urbane and with different ideas of morality. Mary rather fancies Edward, and he is smitten with her. It pains him, for he is to be a clergyman, that she is so light and free with serious subjects, but her other virtues suppress his scruples.

Meanwhile, Henry, after carrying away the hearts of the sillier cousins, now sets his sights on little Fanny. At first intending it just as an amour, he finds himself truly falling for her. She however refuses to have him, or even to entertain that he is serious.

Now we come to the difficulty, which is that Fanny Price is a quite enormous prig. Most modern readers, most readers of the twentieth century at least, have found her utterly horrible. She is so superior, and inflexible, and intransigent, while hiding it under a self-deprecating mousy facade that makes you want to shake her. Can she possibly have been seen as a good sort of heroine back in Jane Austen's day? But we react in the right way to all the other characters in her novels; the depictions of an Anne Elliot or a Jane Fairfax are touchingly true, and we see the mousy type mocked in the dull and prosy Mary Bennet. So we can't be missing anything, I think: and we have to conclude that Jane Austen wrote her that way, and meant her to be taken as unlikable, even though she was the heroine, and morally in the right, and gained the love of the good man in the end.

There are three crises in the book, one the sudden return by Sir Thomas to discover that the younger people in his absence had been rehearsing to do some play-acting, a wholly inappropriate activity, since the play is so blunt and indelicate. (It's Lovers' Vows by Elizabeth Inchbald*, adapted from Kotzebue.) Also, the elder son Tom suffers a dangerous fall while living a dissipated life, and his life is imperilled for a while. Finally Henry elopes with one of the others, then abandons her, showing his true character.

It is a disturbing book: you never feel at ease knowing who to side with. On learning of the elopement, Mary condemns her brother's behaviour, but it is not a true moral condemnation, but a despair that he did not make a success of it or be more circumspect. One cannot sympathise with Fanny Price at all. Edmund Bertram is uncertain and vacillating because of his attachment to Mary - and of course one cannot forgive his marrying Fanny. I read all Jane Austen's works repeatedly because of how much I learn from them, but I can never enjoy Mansfield Park. It is not a gothic novel, but it is as dark and brooding in its own way.

* See an excellent write-up by mauler on the actor and writer Mrs Inchbald for more details of this person who, to me, was literally just a footnote to Mansfield Park.

The film version of Mansfield Park, tagged as "Jane Austin's Wicked Comedy," was released in 1999. It was directed by Patricia Rozema, who also wrote the screenplay, adapted from the novel.

The cast included:

  • Hannah Taylor-Gordon as Young Fanny
  • Talya Gordon as Young Susan
  • Lindsay Duncan as Mrs. Price/ Lady Bertram
  • Bruce Byron as Carriage Driver
  • James Purefoy as Tom Bertram
  • Sheila Gish as Mrs. Norris
  • Harold Pinter as Sir Thomas Bertram
  • Elizabeth Eaton as Young Maria
  • Elizabeth Earl as Young Julia
  • Philip Sarson as Young Edmond
  • Amelia Warner as Teenage Fanny
  • Frances O’Conner as Fanny Price
  • Jonny Lee Miller as Edmund Bertram
  • Victoria Hamilton as Maria Bertram
  • Hugh Bonneville as Mr. Rushworth
  • Justine Waddell as Julia Bertram
  • Embeth Davidtz as Mary Crawford
  • Alessandro Nivola as Henry Crawford
  • Charles Edward as Yates
  • Sophia Myles as Susan
  • Hilton McRae as Mr. Price
  • Anna Popplewell as Betsey
  • Gordon Reid as Dr. Winthrop

Although the movie makes certain departures from the plot of the novel, it is a wonderful period piece and in many ways more compelling than the origional novel. O’Conner is playful in her roll, and works well in creating sexual tension with Miller (of Trainspotting fame).

cast listing from www.imdb.com

It is true that Mansfield Park is very much a novel of morality, however I could never sympathise with the view that it is somehow morally archaic and incomprehensible. If the moral dilemmas in it are transplanted into comparable modern settings, they still stand as valid and the resulting actions of the various characters emerge in the same light as they are presented in in the novel.

Let's take the two moral conflicts pivotal to the latter part of the book. The first, between Henry Crawford and Fanny Price, and the second between Mary Crawford and Edmund Bertram:

Let's assume that Henry and Fanny are alive today, and that they're involved in an am-dram production of a slightly racy play, with the possibility of intimate scenes between the lead characters. Would you, after having watched him scheme to be included in all the more interesting exchanges, and flirting to the point of hurting their feeling with practically all your friends in the world, go out with him? You'd have to be a dimwit. And Fanny, straightlaced and mousy though she might be, is no fool. Her aim in life is not only to marry, but to have a good marriage, which she doesn't think she can have with a flirt and womaniser (can't blame her, myself).

Now let's take a look at the prospects of Edmund and Mary. He's training very seriously for a profession he's quite passionate about, a profession she holds in contempt and considers good material for jokes. Regardless of the profession itself, and the moral implications of her contempt for it, would anyone consider this a good foundation for a marriage?

Running through most of Austen's work is the belief that doing right is the key to happiness in life, as opposed to "doing well". In Pride and Prejudice Austen went so far as to rewrite the last few chapters of the book so that the renewed understanding between Elizabeth and Darcy does not stem from a breach of confidence by Mrs. Gardiner - she would have considered it a terrible omen for the beginning of their life together. In Northanger Abbey the comic "heroine" Catherine makes a good match through no other virtue than being a decent and honest young woman.

Nowhere is this ideal illustrated more forcefully than in Sense and Sensibility, however. Elinor, who submits to the everyday drudgery of social niceties and nosy connections, through her self sacrifice, self possession and constant care for the feelings of others and for propriety, gains enough merit to get her man. Marianne, contemptuous and selfish, doesn't, and is only redeemed enough to be given any measure of happiness in life through her brush with death and the subsequent repentance.

So, it is not only moral superiority, but an honest belief in the inseparable link between moral fortitude and happiness which guides Austen in her characterisation of Fanny. She doesn't get Edmund by default, or as a prise for her stolidity - she gets him in the natural course of life bringing two people with large amounts of common sense together. No matter her charms, Edmund would not have been happy with the prattling Mary Crawford.

Neither is the analogy between Fanny Price and Mary Bennett in any way solid. Mary is a caricature, designed to highlight the evils of vanity - she is clearly putting her meagre skills to academic ends because she cannot stand out amongst her sisters in beauty. Her interest in intellectual pursuits is revealed as incincere in the final note made about her in the novel. Fanny on the other hand takes a great deal of genuine pleasure in having herself and everything else around her just so - a fact revealed by her gentle reorganisation of the daily routine at her parents' house during her visit there.

Another thing that sets Fanny apart from the rest of the characters in the novel, and marks her out as their superior, is her strong and enduring affections. Her attachment to her brother is a commendation of the power of her heart, an attachment which none of the Bertram siblings share. She also has more of affection and respect towards her uncle than either of his own daughters, a fact that he realises only too late (which is his own hubris in this tragedy, but that's another writeup).

This ability to give her heart fully and warmly, while at the same time not to stray from the (common sense as well as moral) straight and narrow, is what makes Fanny Price a superior character - together with her beauty, her intellect and her other talents. I can't say that for me, as a 20th century reader, she is the most attractive of Austen's heroines - she has none of Emma's sparkle or of Elizabeth's humour and intelligence. But I dare say she'd make a good friend, if I ever met her, and I never put the novel down without feeling that I have been given a useful and gentle lesson in how to tackle the everyday difficulties of my own life.

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