I recently located the journal entries I made when I last reread Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, way back in 2004. I reproduce them here for your enjoyment.
November 12, 2004
I’ve just begun my first reread of Jane’s Austen’s Mansfield Park. It was the last of the Austen novels I read, excluding juvenalia, back in the spring of 1990. The paperback copy I’m reading from is the same one that traveled with me that year to England, the Netherlands, Belgium, and France. The corners of the front cover are a little bent, and something dug into the back cover and left deep dents, probably in the suitcase; I think I finished it early in the trip, because I remember in Paris I was reading Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, and on the plane home I read Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior and a Charles DeLint novel, The Riddle of the Wren.
Funny how I remember all that.
November 15, 2004
Mansfield Park was the last of the Austen canon I read, and for me it was the most difficult to get through. Fifteen years later, it still reads more slowly than the others, I think, but I don’t mind so much; this time, I’m watching Austen’s characterizations with great attention. Many of the characters in this book are not likable, at least not to me, but I understand each one very well through a few key actions and statements. Nothing in this book is random. Every sentence is making the world of Mansfield more and more real to the reader.
In our world, Fanny is a wimp who never speaks up for herself, and Edmund is a wet blanket who proses on about a narrow compass of morals that he thinks everyone should follow; they deserve each other, since they’re mostly in agreement about everything anyway. Yet in the world of the book, Edmund and Fanny are the only truly unselfish characters, except perhaps for Mrs. Grant, whom we don’t see enough of to really judge.
In the world of each character, they are the center of the universe, and this is as it should be, because isn’t that true in real life? It’s Fanny’s hard luck that she’s barely even the center of her own life; yet it’s a powerful commentary on Austen’s society that Fanny is as she is. Fanny is totally dependent on the charity of others; if she offends, she might be cast out, and she’s had no preparation whatsoever for living in any manner other than that of poor relation; there’s no Georgette Heyer hero waiting to take her up into his carriage. It’s no wonder Fanny is such a shrinking violet. Yet her beloved older brother William makes a career for himself in the Navy, underlining the fact that men had options.
I don’t like Miss Crawford, either, but in her own way, in her own world, she at least thinks for herself. It’s Edmund’s opinion that her upbringing has led her to think poorly; neither he nor Fanny believes Miss Crawford forms her opinions independently, attributing her faults to her uncle and aunt. Individualism is frowned on; behavior must be molded by the past and guided by figures in moral authority such as guardians and clergymen. It’s also interesting to note that nowhere in the book do the characters discuss the royal family or Parliament or anyone so far away as being in any way responsible for society’s mores. Everything is on the familial level, which might seem shallow unless you consider, as I do, the families to be English country society in microcosm.
I admit I don’t have deep historical knowledge of this place and period, but from reading Austen, it’s amazing how much I feel I understand.