Mansfield Park

14 May

“She sat in a blaze of oppressive heat, in a cloud of moving dust, and her eyes could only wander from the walls, marked by her father’s head, to the table cut and notched by her brothers, where stood the tea-board never thoroughly cleaned, the cups and saucers wiped in streaks, the milk a mixture of motes floating in thin blue, and the bread and butter growing every minute more greasy than even Rebecca’s hands had first produced it. Her father read his newspaper, and her mother lamented over the ragged carpet as usual, while the tea was in preparation-and wished Rebecca would mend it; and Fanny was first roused by his calling out to her after humphing and considering over a particular paragraph-…”

Can you tell that this passage was written by Jane Austen? It is a remarkable paragraph in the work of a writer who rarely gives detailed physical descriptions of her people or her places, but Mansfield Park is a remarkable book in many ways.

It is a serious, solemn and thoughtful story, full of symbolism and with a depth and scope that should be a slap in the face of those who like to disparage Jane Austen’s work as ‘fluff’, ‘chick-lit’ or worse: Barbara Cartland in a high-wasted frock, a mind limited to matrimonial concerns, a writer bent on making advantageous matches for her blushing damsels.

I am always incensed by the criticism that Jane Austen never wrote about wars, or politics or social strife and rebellion, because it mainly means that she didn’t write about men. Women of her time generally did not go off to war, did not run for office or live an adventurous life. They stayed home, waited and, if they were any good, lived inwardly. That is why getting a husband was an important choice for a woman, because it could be the difference between heaven and hell, between having a home and living on charity; and choosing the right husband, one who could be a pleasant, caring companion for life, and who could support a family in comfort, was not really an exercise in gold digging, but the sensible ambition of any intelligent woman.

The plot of Mansfield Park is seen through the eyes of Fanny Price, a poor relation who is taken from her parents at the age of ten to be raised by her rich uncle, Sir Thomas Bertram.  His benevolence is a cruel mix of good intentions, neglect and indifference, and having brought her to live at Mansfield Park he does nothing to ensure her comfort, but is oblivious to the unkind treatment she receives at the hands of his family.

As a result, Fanny is self-berating, timid, unassertive and easily wounded. She never speaks in her own defense and never fights back, but meekly accepts abuse and neglect. This submissiveness has given Fanny Price the reputation of a prig and a bore and she is arguably the least liked of Jane Austen’s heroines.

In my view Fanny’s meekness is not really meekness but deference, deference to the people on whose charity she depends; deference to the people who raised and abused her, but when it really matters, she does not submit. She will give them her silence but not her heart. Her character is stronger than her demeanour would suggest, as she resists the demands of her benefactor and refuses to marry a wealthy man whom she knows to be corrupt.   

I think Mansfield Park the house, and its inhabitants, represent society at large; a society “governed by motives of selfishness and worldly wisdom”. It is significant that Sir Thomas Bertram has businesses in the West Indies, where, as Fanny’s question about the slave trade indicates, he profits from an industry (very likely sugar) involved in slavery.  The ultimate hypocrisy is revealed, as the grandeur of his house is supported by the exploitation of human beings.

The book shares the name of the Chief Justice of the King’s Bench, Lord Mansfield, who, in 1772, presided over Somersett’s Case and gave the judgment that declared slavery unlawful in England. Jane Austen wrote in a letter that she was ‘in love’ with a leading abolitionist, Thomas Clarkson, and this leads me to believe that the use of the name is not a coincidence. Jane Austen was careful and thoughtful in every detail of her work, including the naming of her characters.

I have thoroughly enjoyed this reading of Mansfield Park. I don’t mind Fanny’s subservience, because she gets the last laugh in the end. She represents “the sterling good of principle and temper” and is the only one in the story whose judgment is consistent, untainted by vanity and self-interest. Part of me would have liked a different choice for Fanny, but isn’t it like real life that people will love someone in spite of his or her emotional blindness and insensitivity?

I have gained a new appreciation for Fanny’s inner life, and while she lacks wit and liveliness, she grows in stature for her capacity to remain unspoiled by the pain of her early life.


4 Responses to “Mansfield Park”

  1. lucette May 15, 2007 at 6:26 pm #

    I just reread Pride and Prejudice, and at one point was thinking about that old criticism–that she didn’t write abt war, etc., and how silly it was, and off the point. As well, and meaningless, to say that she didn’t write about India or prostitution. Or why not criticize Kingsley Amis because he didn’t write about childbirth? (he might be criticizable on many grounds, but, I argue, not that!)
    I think it’s a criticism born of resentment–mean spirited, small minded.

  2. ms. place May 17, 2007 at 4:52 am #

    Her writing is impeccable, her observations are spot on. Thanks for a fabulous quote.


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    […] Mansfield Park♦ I wrote a review here. […]

  2. What’s in a name? « No.1 Mouse Place - June 1, 2009

    […] Price, the mouse who becomes the prize at the end of Mansfield Park. The Crawfords, who must crawl out and hide. Northanger Abbey, where General Tilney lives in […]

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