Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Right Time Around

43. Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

Even though my class is over, I decided to finish the novels. Mansfield Park was my second least favorite of the Austen books, and I remember thinking it dull, and finding the two main characters "priggish," which, it turns out, is a popular appellation for Fanny Price in a lot of Austen criticism. However, this time, I could barely put it down. I felt a different sort of charm working on me, I found myself relating to Fanny's feelings, loving the prose, the dialogue, the absolute full-ness of this novel.

Austen's novels follow a certain pattern, most everyone is familiar with the fact that all of her novels end in a slew of marriages. But each novel has a different sense to it, a different way of looking at the same themes that pervaded very day life then and now; social class, money, relationships between men and women, relationships between women, art and literature, and education. Mansfield Park, I think, focuses most on family and confusing relationships between family members. Austen shows that sometimes it's okay to hate your family members, and sometimes you can over-or under-estimate them.

Fanny Price is a poor niece who is raised in the home of her wealthy aunt and uncle. Distinctions are made between her and her cousins, so that she grows up humble, modest, used to being invisible, and with a strong sense of gratitude and responsibility. She is similar to Anne Elliot in that she has very decided beliefs of her own, but declines to express it. She is very helpful and accommodating, but will never do what she thinks is wrong. I can see how her behavior, and her dialogues with her equally moral cousin Edmund, seem self-righteous, but because the reader also sees so much of her acute feelings and her inner turmoil, I don't think it's really justified to dismiss her as a prig. Fanny is a moral being, willing to change and willing to see the best in others.

The "villains" in the novel, a brother and sister pair, Henry and Mary Crawford are fascinating, and I found them quite likable, especially Miss Crawford. Fanny and Edmund ultimately decide she is "spoiled" in her senses of propriety and respect, and perhaps she was a bit too fast for Victorian England, but her laughter at authority and scorn for religion would have helped her fit in today. Plus, I can't help liking her for the notice she takes of Fanny.

Mansfield Park was perhaps Austen's homage to her parents. Like Edmund, her father was a clergyman. If you didn't know, cousins Fanny and Edmund end up married. If you think about it more though, it is rather daring for pathetic Fanny to harbor secret love for Edmund so long. The "bad" people end up appropriately punished here, and over the course of the book, the rich uncle Sir Thomas realizes Fanny's worth and the importance of morality, as does his elder son Tom. Of all Austen's couples, I can imagine Fanny and Edmund happiest together in their similar values and their confidence in each other.

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