Posted on

Mansfield Park: A Review

Mansfield Park

by Jane Austen

While I’m not sure we really know how Mansfield Park rates among groups of readers, and there is evidence to suggest that like the other four novels beyond Pride and Prejudice, this one pleases slightly different subgroups of among Austen wide and varied audience, I was relieved to find that the 2008 reissue of Mansfield Park begins with a fine essay by Jane Stabler, who, while concentrating on social issues and psychology, also empathizes with its heroine’s drama of consciousness; like Margaret Anne Doody in the 2008 reissue of Sense and Sensibility, she makes a strong lucid case for regarding the novel as a radical critique of Austen’s society. Unlike the Oxford Pride and Prejudice, the 2008 MP is tailored to the specific volume. So beyond the usual appendices by Vivien Jones about rank and status in the era, and explicating dances literally and as metaphors, there is a useful brief essay on Lovers’ Vows which makes clear some of the parallels between Inchbald’s charaMP and Lovers Vows, and an appendix on the Navy, which corrects and adds information ignored in Austen’s idealized depiction of the Navy.

The explanatory notes are very thorough, essays in themselves sometimes, and there is the usual brief biography, bibliography and note on the text.

As with the new Penguin edition of S&S (where Ros Ballaster reprints the 1811 text which is not bowlderized as is the 1813), in the new Penguin MP, a decision has been made to print the first text of MP issued in Austen’s lifetime, printed by Egerton in 1814. Everyone agrees this one is riddled with small errors, and some suggest that Austen’s switching to Murray for the second, in 1816, implies she was unsatisfied with it. She corrected the second as best she could: “I return also, Mansfield Park, as ready for a 2d Edit: I beleive, as I can make it” (Letters, 11 December 1815, from Henry’s London home to John Murray).

In her original and important JA’s Textual Lives, Kathryn Sutherland argued, that the 1811 text of Sense and Sensibility and 1814 text of Mansfield Park came closer to the spirit of Austen as they were not overly polished and corrected as she thought they had been by R. W. Chapman. Up to this point, people regularly used the 1816 edition as their copy text (collated with the 1814 and emended appropriately).

I have gone into the merits of Sutherland’s case before, and shown that what we have here is an agenda fight (what image of Austen does an editor want a reader to come away with) as well as a competitive business in editions. This Oxford reissue is really a reprint of the 1816 text first established by James Kinsley in 1970: he reprinted Chapman as revised by Mary Lascelles after studying the previous collations and emendations. It seems that the Penguin people are in competition with Cambridge, for the quarrel in print has been between Sutherland on behalf of the new Penguins and Janet Todd on behalf of the new Cambridge edition of Austen.

The value of the new Penguin text is that a text is provided which has not been available before (and at a much much cheaper price than the Cambridge). The interested reader could compare this 2008 reissue of the Oxford with the new Penguin. Beyond that the Penguin people decided to reprint Tony Tanner’s profound essay on Mansfield Park, an early persuasive explication and defense of the book along Lionel Trilling lines, with the difference that Tanner did not think we need dislike Fanny; indeed like Stabler, Tanner expects us to empathize with her. The new Penguin edition decision to print along the runners at the top of the page both the original volume and chapter number as well as the chapters when they are consecutively numbered is also very useful. Perhaps this is the most useful innovation the new Penguins offer.

I come to the sticky part: a discussion of the troubling content. Full disclosure is best. Sense and Sensibility is my favorite Austen novel, and Mansfield Park my second favorite. The year I was fifteen I read Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park for the first time, and I know it has never quite left my mind since. On any given day I can easily call it to mind, and I often do. I remember very vividly the end of my first reading experience. As I came to the closing page, and read (and my brain has this etched in) “the consciousness of being born to struggle and endure,” the thought crossed my mind, “what a strong book this is, this is the strongest book I’ve ever read,” and when I got to its last sentence, I turned back to the first page and began rereading. I didn’t want this strengthening calm to end. I also remember being astonished at the blurb which called it a “rollicking comedy.” Austen was teaching me how to survive.

Further, I have submitted a proposal to give a paper at the 2009 JASNA to be called “Disquieting Patterns in Austen’s Novels.” Among my topics will be the quasi-incestuous patterns across the six novels, and I mean particularly to deal with Fanny’s intense adoration of Edmund, partly displaced onto her brother, William.

I think Mansfield Park is a novel as much about love as it is about social issues, but it’s about hidden love—so is S&S, Elinor’s for Edward, her brother’s brother-in-law; in P&P, it’s Jane’s for Bingley who has apparently discarded her and thus publicly humiliated her; Emma has Jane and Frank…and Harriet’s for everyone; Persuasion’s, Anne Elliot still cares for Frederick Wentworth and so it goes. It is a book shaped by a mind consciously harboring a tabooed, expressly forbidden love which, if Sir Thomas were to suspect in the scene where she refuses Henry Crawford, Fanny would be horrifically castigated and outcast immediately. Much of Fanny’s behavior becomes understandable when we realize how she has to work at keeping this secret; also if we perceive the distance between her and our implicit or implied author: Austen is not influenced intensely by Edmund; Fanny is. Many of Fanny’s reactions are shaped by her intense apprehension for Edmund.

Of course whether we like a book is essentially chacun a son gout. All one can do is make visible the faultlines: what’s called the book’s moralism, Fanny Price and the choice of life her character and fate endorses. As with Pride and Prejudice, I own 11 editions of this book, not counting translations into French and Italian. Revealingly, one of the more popularly-oriented of my editions, one with a minimum apparatus of a perceptive and frank introductory essay by Margaret Drabble (and brief appendix) identifies most candidly and simply what makes some readers call the book moralistic: Drabble shows how over the course of the book Fanny gradually learns to accept and then to love Mansfield Park as it “offers her safety and protection;” no more than Portsmouth is this house idyllic, but rather “full of the energies of discord—sibling rivalry, greed, ambition, illicit sexual passion, and vanity” kept, just, under control; the difference are the palliations wealth provides: space, books, order, servants, beauty.

Much critical comment has attacked Rozema’s 1999 Mansfield Park, and one of the changes she makes is to sweep away this beauty and insist on the discords and the misery of those who are forced to support the house.

According to Drabble, Austen is exposing what goes on beneath the patriarchal surface “to demonstrate . . that life is not simple, choices are not simple, we cannot have our cake and eat it too” (xii). Mansfield Park differs from Austen’s other novels in that here she makes visible what is left latent in Pride and Prejudice—Austen was not altogether ironic when she called it “too light, bright and sparkling.” P&P was written when Austen was 20; MP was revised and completed long Austen left Steventon, had lived as marginalized gentry in Bath, had had to depend on brothers when her father died; by my chronology Lady Susan and The Watsons were drafted closest in time to this novel.

On the other hand, and this is important, Mansfield Park is beautiful, it is peaceful, it is an upper class haven of reading and peace and culture. And that too is what is today unacceptable: the aspiration to that.

What is usually said to be the source of the objection to Fanny was identified early on by Edmund Wilson: “The woman reader wants to identify herself with the heroine, and she rebels at the idea of being Fanny.” John Wiltshire repeats this so persuasively he’s worth quoting at length:

“In a fascinating article about the teaching of Mansfield Park in an elite college in Delhi, Ruth Vanita has shown how her students both identified with, and dis-identified with, the novel’s heroine, the quiet, submissive Fanny Price. As Vanita writes, the students recognised in the heroine’s situation many of the lineaments of their own position. As girls they are denied privileges accorded to their brothers, for instance, just as Fanny is denied the privileges given to her cousins. But the students disliked what one might call Fanny’s coping style—her quiet dutifulness, her need to make herself valued by being ‘good’. Vanita stresses how reluctant her female students were to recognise Fanny’s courage in resisting the family’s concerted attempt to make her marry Henry Crawford. Most interestingly, she suggests that the contempt some students expressed for Fanny was really self-contempt at a female role many were in reality forced to adopt in modern Indian society.

These reactions, however, are found also in Australian students, whose social situation is not at all similar to their Indian counterparts. Anglo-Saxon Australian (and ‘assimilated’) girls are generally free to choose their sexual partners or at least this is the prevailing cultural assumption—and they are not generally treated as inferior to their male peers. They, too, despise Fanny Price. Hers is a life governed by constrictions and denials, and many young readers do not want to imaginatively align themselves with such a life, or do not allow themselves to understand how little free in effect a life may be. One cannot help thinking, though, that if the truth were told, many of these students-quiet, intelligent girls, whose inner life is sustained by reading-resemble Fanny far more than they do Elizabeth Bennet.

For my part I think the reason Fanny is disliked is she is a creature of the book she inhabits; her character and behavior are conditioned by Austen’s larger aims which, like Trilling and Tanner, include offering a perspective which finds a life worth living in giving oneself over to quiet kindness, reciprocal consideration, a principled refusal to perform falsely, to network as we say, in order to hold fast to the self, against life’s continual chaos and cruelties. The heroine of this book is consequently someone who lives on and in herself as she is; she is in a way intensely self-possessed, not to be taken over by others if she believes they are doing wrong at the same time as she has no need to change them. She would not agree with Mary Crawford’s idea that marriage is a “take-in,” but she will not perform falsely to achieve it, and we are shown what the social world is and thus way. It’s revealing at the end of the book Mary has not married but retreated to her sister’s companionship.

I submit it is this lack of valuing socializing itself and for itself, a Rousseauian impulse that is so disliked. I find Fanny to be one of the strongest feminists in Austen’s oeuvre; what in Mary is a wary caution, but cunning which gets nowhere as Mary has not divested herself of a need for society’s false admiration, in Fanny becomes a principle. Fanny says she cannot see why women should be expected to jump at a man’s offer; the deeper truth is (like all the other Austen heroines) inwardly she has no need to conform or for inward acceptance by those she find deeply uncongenial. The difference is in this book to suit its theme this trait of Fanny’s is made centrally important to her personality.

You can purchase Mansfield Park in several different editions at our Jane Austen Giftshop. Click here.

Retail Price: £5.99
Paperback: 480 pages
Publisher: OUP Oxford; New Ed. / edition (17 April 2008)
ISBN-10: 0199535531
ISBN-13: 978-0199535538

Ellen Moody, a Lecturer in English at George Mason University, has compiled the most accurate calendars for Jane Austen’s work, to date. She has created timelines for each of the six novels and the three unfinished novel fragments. She is currently working on a book, The Austen Movies. Visit her website for further Austen related articles.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.