One of the three tragic
novels of Jane Austen
. As in Sense and Sensibility
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.