Why I’ve Decided That I Love Mansfield Park
Written by Katherine Merrill
Mansfield Park: the Jane Austen book that usually ends up being everyone’s least favorite of the six novels most known. In the book there are usually only one or two characters you love and the rest drive you insane. Apparently most critics place Fanny Price, the heroine of the book, in the latter category. Why? Because she appears weak, timid, and unaffected by any world beyond her own. This is harsh judgement, and I personally believe that such readers don’t fully understand either the book or the heroine.
As for my own history of reading this book, upon remembering how little I liked it or understood it the first time through, the other day I decided to read it a second time. The first time I read it was two and a half years ago…two and a half years that have been very life changing. In part, I believe that those years helped me enjoy the book more thoroughly the second time through, since, being one of her later books, it is more serious than her others.
Besides that little fact, I must differ in opinion to those who would believe Fanny to be Jane’s least admirable of heroines. I would like to state that I have come to the conclusion that any reader who is a person of the world will simply not like the book, no matter how many times they read it. (A person of the world being someone who places the values of what the world considers important in a person higher than true value of that person’s character, beliefs, and integrity.)
The world of this book is not so very unlike our own, despite the fact that our world wrongfully accepts scandal and evil as everyday stuff, whereas the world of the early 1800s would have shunned any who’s character was diminished by such lack of propriety (even as they themselves would act with the same principles and worldliness as those they shunned). It was a world of classes unlike our own, and yet also divided in a way very much like our own between people who simply want to live their own lives as well as possible and with little thought for acceptance into the world of society, and people who are diverted and want only to be fashionable, accepted by higher society (popularity), and to be able to live a life of entertainment…even if it means scandal and the risk of losing one’s character and standing in respectable society. This not so noticeable set of “classes” has a very fine line. For example, Sir Thomas Bertram is deceived into thinking that his daughters are women of principle and respectability until it is too late and one of their lives is forever ruined. Today people can easily act one way in one circle of acquaintances and another way in a different circle. I have seen it myself, watching my peers act completely differently in school than they do at church. It is terribly sad, this lack of integrity, but it has been practiced in society for hundreds of years. Does this excuse it though? No, as Fanny steadfastly bears testimony as she defies all pleas to participate in a private theater performing a play “unfit to be expressed by any woman of modesty” her peers begin to prepare for in the home of her absent uncle. This action which worldly readers would be extremely aggravated by is one of the most important proofs of her value and importance as a heroine. It deftly defies all who believe her to be weak, since to have such unbending integrity is an extremely difficult thing to do.
As I read in the afterword of my edition of this book (Collector’s Library), she is said to be a symbol of “the traditional values Jane Austen admired and, perhaps, felt were under threat.” Fanny Price has her own little world and beliefs, and she sticks to those no matter what. She is simply herself, and won’t give in to the pressures of others to be anyone different. Since I myself have my own little world and I am able to relate to her character and personality, this is enough for me to begin admire and like her, but what of other readers?
Well, the afterword addresses this question by bringing our sympathies and longing for her well-being into play as we recall the tyranny and negligence she experiences throughout the majority of the book. Even her obvious timidity which we can often relate to can help us grow to love her. Surely we can’t help but relate and wish her well as she grows and changes from being a unappreciated, lonely child to being the sole survivor of her generation as far as being undeceived and staying true to who she is.
In another approach to seeing Fanny’s true value, is to compare her to her foil: Mary Crawford.
Mary is very much a person of the world. She rarely sees value in things beyond what her world of London and high society would consider of value. Though, in respect to Fanny and Edmund Bertram, she surprises the reader by seeing their value.However, when scandal hits both of their families, she is ready to shrug it off and almost seems to encourage it, much to the horror and despair of Edmund, through whom Fanny finds grief in it.
Her airs and opinions, which she is raised with and believes everyone has, foils Fanny’s in such ways as to make any reader surprised at Edmund’s infatuation of the former, resulting in his occasional negligence and insensitivity of the latter. But, as Jane says, “A young woman, pretty, lively, with a harp as elegant as herself; and both placed near a window, cut low to the ground, and opening on a little lawn, surrounded by shrubs in the rich foliage of summer, was enough to catch any man’s heart.”
I find I have nothing left to say, except that I would suggest Mansfield Park (and any other Jane Austen) to anyone who asked for a good book. It’s up to them to find out if they like it.
And as for me, I consider Fanny the strongest of Jane’s heroines, second only to Elinor Dashwood.