Mansfield Park by Jane Austen (thoughts on rereading)
I’ve never understood why so many readers dislike Fanny Price. While she’s certainly more quiet and less self-assured than some of Austen’s other heroines (I would argue that Catherine Morland is ‘worse’ though), she has the strength of her convictions and stays true to herself despite her deeply dependent position and considerable pressure from others. In all of that, I admire her. I also empathise with her homebody nature: she’s happiest sitting quietly at home, spending time with the people she loves. While I do enjoy going out, and at parties am happy to talk to people (including strangers), I get just as much pleasure out of staying in, with considerably less effort. ;) And she has such a fierce loyalty towards those she loves, which is quite delightful to see.
Anyway, upon revisiting Mansfield Park this time around, I was struck by Austen’s focus on portraying the difference between the surface of people and their inner characters. Of course, this is a frequent theme with her, but one that she seems particularly interested in driving home in this novel. From Sir Thomas Morland, who is quite fond of Fanny and determined to treat her well, but whose somewhat gruff manner makes her nervous of him, to the more obvious suspects such as Mary Crawford, whose pleasant manners and humorous conversation masks a rather amoral, egotistic approach to life, Austen challenges her readers to look past what a character says and instead see them for who they are.
So I love Mansfield Park for its ‘message’ and heroine, but I also love it as a piece of writing! While Fanny lacks the witty banter of Miss Elizabeth Bennet, Austen’s narrative voice contains plenty of wry humour; I frequently found myself giggling. And Mrs. Norris has to be Austen’s best villain: her unabated cruelty to Fanny and self-deceptive nature is pitch perfect.
In sum, I’m surprised that Mansfield Park is often ranked lowest in Austen’s canon. I think it’s a rich book that works on multiple levels, and I always find myself rooting for Fanny and her quiet morals to win the day. The ‘bad’ characters are all at heart selfish, a vice which creates just as many problems and havoc in the modern world as it did in Austen’s time (and thus I don’t see this as a prissy novel in the slightest). And as always, I find myself renewed in my love for Austen. If you’re new to her, I certainly think Mansfield Park would be an interesting place to begin (especially if you want to get to know her without the ghosts of film adaptations drifting through your head!).