Lucky for you I’ve re-read this for our Jane Austen Book Club, so you get to hear about it again, almost exactly three years after I last read it.
Following Sense and Sensibility (1811) and Pride and Prejudice (1813) this was Austen’s third published novel in 1814 and it is a clear shift away from the whimsy and light previous novels. I talk about this in my last response, but I wonder if this has to do with feedback from the first two novels or if it’s her own personal experience and maturation as an adult. We already know that when Austen published Emma, her fourth work, in 1815 that she was comfortable with sassing her critics. She openly says at the start of Emma that she’s writing a character NO ONE can dislike, because so many people disliked Fanny, or Fanny’s decisions.
Margaret Drabble in the opening explains why no one like’s Mansfield Park,
“It divides admirers and detractors more clearly than any of her other works, and for a simple reason, although many sophisticated ones have been given. It is, in effect and intention, a deeply moral book—that is to say, it is concerned with the moral and indeed the religious life.” (v)
She goes on to say, “The fact that the book enrages so many readers is a tribute to its power.” (xvii) and I could not agree with her more. But I don’t want to focus too much on Austen’s oeuvre, because as I’ve said before I love Fanny Price. I even used the hashtag #FPismyhomegirl when I shared this photo on Instagram 😀
To me, Fanny Price is a character that continues to teach the reader no matter how many times you’ve read the novel. Sure you get mad as hell about her inability to make decisions or stand up for herself (era and gender taken into account), read this passage and keep your blood pressure down:
“It was her intention, as she felt it to be her duty, to try to overcome all that was excessive, all that bordered on selfishness in her affection for Edmund. To call or to fancy it a loss, a disappointment, would be a presumption; for which she had not words strong enough to satisfy her own humility. To think of him as Miss Crawford might be justified in thinking, would in her be insanity. To her, he could be nothing under any circumstances—nothing dearer than a friend. Why did such an idea occur to her even enough to be reprobated and forbidden? It ought not to have touched on the confines of her imagination. She would endeavour to be rational, and to deserve the right of judging of Miss Crawford’s character and the privilege of true solicitude for him by a sound intellect and an honest heart.” (235)
You don’t even have to KNOW that she’s being ridiculously self-effacing, so much to a point that she’s willing to let the man she’s madly in love with be with someone of lesser-character than he deserves. Sure there are other issues going on, but I think Jane Austen, through Fanny Price, is adding her own opinions to the “Nature vs. Nurture” debate that has now gone on for more than 300 years. Is Fanny like this because of her calm and subservient nature or is she like this because Mrs. Norris (and to some extent Sir Thomas Bertram) has worn her down and made her think she is nothing and deserves nothing? It’s hard to say, but Austen definitely has strong opinions on relationships and who holds power and who doesn’t. (Hey early feminism, welcome to the club.) Mirroring this is Edmund Bertram’s observations about Mary Crawford at the end of the novel. Are her views and opinions natural or nurtured?
I could talk for hours about the many other characters, seriously though is Henry Crawford good or evil? Sure he’s an ass, but could he have changed? We’ll never know. But I won’t go into detail as this is a ridiculously long post with all the quotes.
The only other thing that I LOVED about the novel and somehow missed before, was Austen’s comment about timing in a romance novel,
“I purposefully abstain from dates on this occasion, that everyone may be at liberty to fix their own, aware that the cure of unconquerable passions, and the transfer of unchanging attachments, must vary much as to time in different people— I only entreat everybody to believe that exactly at the time when it was quiet natural that it should be so and not a week earlier, Edmund did cease to care about Miss Crawford, and became as anxious to marry Fanny, as Fanny herself could desire.” (405-6)
How perfect is that?! If you’ve never read a romance novel, suffice to say that many of them have incredibly unrealistic timelines. As in meet, fall in love, get married and live happily ever after happens within months. Sure I guess this could happen, but some of us want to read about the long slow maturation of love between people who have known each other, or are even getting to know each other, over a period of years. Austen nails this perfectly and I love her that much more for it.
Recommendation: At this point I’m not even sure I need to recommend it. (READ IT.) I will say, if you aren’t drawn to Austen, definitely take advantage of the volume splits and read it in three separate readings. It’ll make it feel fresher and that much more wonderful when you get to the end!
Opening Line: “About thirty years ago, Miss Maria Ward, of Huntingdon, with only seven thousand pounds, had the good luck to captivate Sir Thomas Bertram, of Mansfield Park, in the county of Northampton, and to be thereby raised to the rank of a baronet’s lady, with all the comforts and consequences of an handsome house and large income.”
Closing Line: “On that event they removed to Mansfield, and the parsonage there, which under each of its two former owners, Fanny had never been able to approach but with some painful sensation of restraint or alarm, soon grew as dear to her heart, and as thoroughly perfect in her eyes, as everything else, within the view and patronage of Mansfield Park, had long been.” (Whited out to avoid spoilers.)
Additional Quotes from Mansfield Park
“Mansfield Park is a novel about moral and social values, country and town values. That these sets of values are sometimes in conflict is not a new discovery.” (vii)
“What she is trying to demonstrate in this novel is that life is not simple, choices are not simple, we cannot have our cake and eat it. Each positive choice in life implies a loss. The bright world where Elizabeth Bennet can win both Darcy and Pemberley without losing her own freedom of speech is no longer seen as a possibility. And the novelist, like the heroine, must choose between the bright glitter of cruelty and the dull comfort of kindness.” (xii)
“The moral of this book is that choice is difficult. One cannot have both wit and wisdom.” (xiii)
“Fanny Price is frightened of company, and wants nothing better than to listen unobserved; her judgments are shrewd and severe, but she keeps them to herself.” (xv)
“The world is not inhabited by ideal people, or even by a mixture of heroes and heroines (Darcys and Bingleys) and grotesques (Collinses and Catherine de Bourghs)—it is full of real, defective, halfway people, neither good nor wholly bad, sometimes pushed one way by events, sometimes another.” (xvi)
“This novel which appears to praise quietude, and which makes such efforts towards a positive portrayal of calm and domestic tranquility, has a terrible restlessness. We know that the issues before us are of the greatest importance, and yet we are tossed backwards and forwards, from disapproval to assent, in an exhausting rhythm, a perpetual tension that never reaches the simple satisfying resolution of Elizabeth’s marriage to Darcy, or Anne Elliot’s marriage to Captain Wentworth.” (xviii)
“Mrs. Norris had not the least intention of being at any expense whatever in her maintenance. As far as walking, talking, and contriving reached, she was thoroughly benevolent, and nobody knew better how to dictate liberality to others: but her love of money was equal to her love of directing, and she knew quite as well how to save her own as to spend that of her friends. […] Under this infatuating principal, counteracted by no real affection for her sister, it was impossible for her to aim at more than the credit of projecting and arranging so expensive a charity; though perhaps she might so little know herself, as to walk home to the parsonage after this conversation, in the happy belief of being the most liberal-minded sister and aunt in the world.” (27)
“Her brother was not handsome; no, when they first saw him, he was aboslutely plain, black and plain; but still he was the gentleman with a pleasing address. The second meeting proved him not so very plain; he was plain, to be sure, but then he had so much countenance, and his teeth were so good, and he was so well made, that one soon forgot he was plain; and after a third interview, after dining in company with him at the parsonage, he was no longer allowed to be called so by anybody.” (56)
“‘I am really not tired, which I almost wonder at; for we must have walked at least a mile in this wood. Do not you think we have?’ ‘Not half a mile,’ was his sturdy answer; for he was not yet so much in love as to measure distance, or reckon time, with feminine lawlessness.” (97)
“That is what I dislike most particularly. It raises my spleen more than anything, to have the pretence of being asked, of being given a choice, and at the same time addressed in such a way as to oblige one to do the very same thing—whatever it be!” (118)
“‘I am not going to urge her’—replied Mrs. Norris sharply, ‘but I shall think her a very obstinate, ungrateful girl, if she does not do what her aunt and cousins wish her—very ungrateful indeed, considering who and what she is.'” (140)
“‘How wonderful, how very wonderful the operations of time, and the changes of the human mind.’ And following the latter train of thought, she soon afterwards added: ‘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 speakingly 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 every way—but our powers of recollecting and of forgetting do seem peculiarly past finding out.'” (190)
“The assurance of Edmund’s being so soon to take orders, coming upon her like a blow that had been suspended, and still hoped uncertain and at a distance, was felt with resentment and mortification. She was very angry with him. She had thought her influence more. She had begun to think of him—she felt that she had—with great regard, with almost decided intentions; but she would now meet him with his own cool feelings. It was plain that he could have no serious views, no true attachment, by fixing himself in a situation which he must know she would never stoop to. She would learn to match him in his indifference. She would henceforth admit his attentions without any idea beyond immediate amusement. If he could so command his affections, hers should do her no harm.” (206)
“Children of the same family, the same blood, with the same first associations and habits, have some means of enjoyment in their power, which no subsequent connexions can supply; and it must be by a long and unnatural estrangement, by a divorce which no subsequent connexion can justify, if such precious remains of the earliest attachments are ever entirely outlived. Too ofte, alas! it is so— Fraternal love, sometimes almost everything, is at others worse than nothing. But with William and Fanny Price, it was still a sentiment in all its prime and freshness, wounded by no opposition of interest, cooled by no separate attachment, and feeling the influence of time and absence only in its increase.” (211)
“To Henry Crawford they gave a different feeling. He longed to have been at sea, and seen and done and suffered as much. His heart was warmed, his fancy fired, and he felt the highest respect for a lad who, before he was twenty, had gone through such bodily hardships, and given such proofs of mind. The glory of heroism, of usefulness, of exertion of endurance, made his own habits of selfish indulgence appear in shameful contrast; and he wished he had been a William Price, distinguishing himself and working his way to fortune and consequence with so much self-respect and happy ardour, instead of what he was!” (212)
“She could hardly believe it. To be placed above so many elegant young women! The distinction was too great. It was treating her like her cousins! And her thoughts flew to those absent cousins with most unfeigned and truly tender regret that they were not at home to take their own place in the room, and have their share of a pleasure which would have been so very delightful to them. So often as she had heard them wish for a ball at home as the greatest of all felicities!” (244-5)
“I am fairly caught. You know with what idle designs I began—but this is the end of them. I have (I flatter myself) made no inconsiderable progress in her affections; but my own are entirely fixed.” (257)
“The gentleness and gratitude of her disposition would secure her all your own immediately. From my soul I do not think she would marry you without love; that is, if there is a girl in the world capable of being uninfluenced by ambition, I can suppose it her; but ask her to love you, and she will never have the heart to refuse.” (258)
“Fanny would have had quite as good a walk there, I assure you; with the advantage of being of some use, and obliging her aunt: it is all her fault. If she would but have let us know she was going out—but there is a something about Fanny, I have often observed it before—she likes to go her own way to work; she does not like to be dictated to; she takes her own independent walk whenever she can; she certainly has a little spirit of secrecy, and independence, and nonsense, about her, which I would advise her to get the better of. ” (285)
“She told him, that she did not love him, could not love him, was sure she never should love him: that such a change was quite impossible, that the subject was most painful to her, that she must entreat him never to mention it again, to allow her to leave him at once, and let it be considered as concluded for ever. And when farther pressed, had added, that in her opinion their dispositions were so totally dissimilar, as to make mutual affection incompatible; and that they were unfitted for each other by nature, education, and habit. All this she had said and with the earnestness of sincerity; yet this was not enough, for he immediately denied there being anything uncongenial in their characters, or anything unfriendly in their situations; and positively declared, that he would still love, and still hope!” (288)
“By degrees the girls came to spend the chief of the morning upstairs, at first only in working and talking; but after a few days, the remembrance of the said books grew so potent and stimulative, that Fanny found it impossible not to try for books again. There were none in her father’s house; but wealth is luxurious and daring—and some of hers found its way to a circulating library. She became a subscriber—amazed at being anything in propria persona, amazed at her own doings in every way; to be a renter, a chooser of books! And to be having anyone’s improvement in view in her choice! But so it was. Susan had read nothing, and Fanny longed to give her a share in her own first pleasures, and inspire a taste for the biography and poetry which she delighted in herself.” (347)