It would be nearly impossible for me to try to describe the plot of this book without spoilers, so I’m not going to describe it at all. It’s an Austen novel. It goes without saying there will be a romance that isn’t resolved until the very end, that it will be resolved favorably, and along the way there will be lots of social commentary. However, I thought this book focused a lot less on romance and a lot more on human nature, class structure, and the contrast of good vs. the appearance of good.
I’ve read four Austen novels before this one – Persuasion, Emma, Sense and Sensibility, and Pride and Prejudice. While I liked P&P the most of those, I thought all four of these books were very similar. There was always at least a few evil characters, and a few characters who were continuously ribbed on as comic relief. There were generally bad or silly parents, and misunderstandings in love. Mansfield Park starts out that way, for the first chapter or two, but very quickly takes a different path. A more realistic-feeling path, in my opinion, with more well-developed characters who don’t fit into “good” or “bad” so easily. There are, in fact, few characters that I can say fit into either of those categories, and no one is so easily caricatured. Character-wise, I think this has been the best Austen work I’ve read, though I admit that it was slow (especially the first 75 pages or so) and not as interesting to me as P&P was.
Fanny Price is the heroine of this book, and is very unlike many of the other heroines in Austen’s novels. She is quiet, painfully shy, physically weak, not at all forceful, and slightly neglected by her adoptive family. She lives with her aunt and uncle, as her own parents are poor and have, in total, 10 children (all born within 11-12 years). Her female cousins treat her slightly contemptuously, though they are more neglectful than mean, and her aunts pretty much just use her as a servant. Fanny never complains – in fact, she hardly says a word the whole book – which really would have gotten to me after awhile (I’m not a huge fan of doormat heroes…) except that internally, she proved to be very strong. When presented with an unwanted proposal from a man she can’t respect, she refuses him despite all his encouragement, her uncle’s anger and lectures, her beloved cousin’s censure, and her friends’ pleas. Nothing anyone can say or do will induce her to belong to a man she can’t agree with, and this takes strength of character that I don’t know if I would have expected in someone like Fanny.
There were two things I really enjoyed in this book. First was the contrast of Fanny’s home at Mansfield Park, with her aunt and uncle, to her parents’ home. She goes to her parents’ home after being away for nearly a decade, and what she finds is not at all what she expected. She has so many siblings, all so close together in age, and they are completely unmanageable, noisy, and living in this cramped house. The servants are awful, the food is ill-prepared, everything is dirty, and her mother has basically given up. I understand Fanny’s feelings all too well. It’s hard to go back to a place and expect one thing, from memory, and receive something totally different. It’s a complete shock. Especially if it’s a place you haven’t seen since childhood. But furthermore, Fanny’s sensibilities are offended by the lack of restraint in her siblings. They are wild. They are undisciplined. Personally, it takes me time to adjust in any house where kids are running around without regards to their parents. I come from a very disciplined home, and run mine in the same fashion. While I understand that people raise their children in different ways, and some feel it’s important for kids to have huge amounts of freedom when they’re young, I become completely stressed out in that type of situation. I just want to take everyone in hand and make them behave! I don’t, of course, but it’s hard to resist the temptation, especially when parents just say, oh, they can’t do anything about it, they don’t have enough energy/authority/etc to do anything about it. Now granted, if I had 10 kids in 11 years, I’d probably be the same way (more likely I’d be in a mental institute), but still it was jarring enough just to read about! Austen did very well with those scenes. I was as much in horror of Fanny’s family’s home as Fanny was.
The other thing that really struck me in this book was the contrast of good vs. the appearance of good. While no character was really evil, there were characters more influenced by the world, and who thought about morality in a different way than Austen seems to think. She gave them more credit in this book, though, than she has done in previous books I’ve read. When a married woman runs off with an ex-lover, their siblings talk about the evil that’s been done. One sibling feels the crime is the deed itself, the other feels the crime is that the deed was discovered. Very different viewpoints. One sibling cared about the inherent break in morality, decency, and propriety in the elopement, whereas the other is only concerned with how people will see the event, and how quickly appearances can be mended. It sounds shallow, but this second sibling, concerned with appearances, is not treated the way I would have expected Austen to treat such shallowness. That sibling is given depth – ignorance about morality rather than defiance of it. She is doing the best she can in the only way she knows how, and while it’s clear Austen thinks she’s wrong, she’s not vilified. I like that. It’s a change from other Austen books. And it feels more honest to me.
Mansfield Park is not my favorite Austen novel, but I do think it has a lot more depth and true character development than the others (thus far). Once I got past the slow beginning, I really enjoyed it.