In which I am troubled by an ending and learn that not all classics age well
Title: Mansfield Park
Author: Jane Austen
What it’s about: Recently, I had the pleasure of attending an exhibit of Jane Austen’s letters at the Morgan Library and I came away with the desire to read more Austen. I’d read Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, like any self-respecting English major, but the show made much of her “more complex” later novels, namely Northanger Abbey and Mansfield Park. (As an aside, if you’re a book lover, make a trip to the Morgan! It’s a bibliophile’s dream!) So, I picked up Mansfield. I have to say that I’ve come away a bit cold. Here’s the story. Fanny Price is the poor relation of the Betrams and comes to live with her uncle, aunt, and their four children while she is still quite young. In Jane Eyre fashion, she’s something of an outcast and a bookworm. The only member of the family who understands and appreciates her is her cousin Edmund, who she inevitably falls in love with. (We’ll address this later.) As Fanny and her cousins grow up, we follow their struggles to find love and marriage. The book is also a study in manners: Fanny represents restraint and all that is good and proper, while their neighbors the Crawfords represent willful disregard for tradition and propriety.
The problem with Mansfield Park, in my opinion, is that its major plot points have not aged well. First, we the readers are expected to root for Fanny and Edmund to end up together–though they are first cousins. It’s a bit disconcerting, but it’s maybe possible to set aside given that it was common at that time. But there’s something even more difficult to accept in their romance. Edmund spends approximately 430 pages of a 469 page novel in love with the beautiful and vivacious Miss Mary Crawford. It’s only in the last few pages that we are told that Edmund abandons Mary for Fanny, and only after Mary’s brother Henry causes a horrible social scandal that makes it impossible for Edmund and Mary to ever marry. In effect, Fanny is sloppy seconds. We never see any of their courtship or hear any confession of love. We get a few sentences in which Edmund sees a good woman before him, recognizes that they could make a good match, and Wham Bam Thank you Ma’am: married. I don’t buy that Edmund loves Fanny or that Fanny could or should forgive him for doting on another woman and turning to her only as a last resort. It’s like if Jane Eyre had married St. John instead of Rochester. The problem is that the Rochester figure in Mansfield is notably absent. We have instead Henry Crawford, a womanizing dandy who fancies himself in love with Fanny, but ultimately betrays her as well. How did I want it to end? I’m not sure, but certainly not the way it did. And without any sympathy for the central couple, the entire novel felt thin. The best characters were secondary–the foolish aunts or the bumbling fiances. But since I couldn’t get behind Edmund and Fanny, the story was empty to me.
Would I recommend? No. I think the story hasn’t aged well and it’s certainly not as accessible as Austen’s more popular works. It’s too dry and moralizing for a modern audience, without the vivacity of her other heroines like Elizabeth Bennett.