Two hundred years ago this month, Mansfield Park by Jane Austen was published.
I’m sure it was hard to top Pride and Prejudice. But if there must be a least favorite Jane Austen novel, Mansfield Park leads many readers’ lists, usually right next to the humorous gothic spoof, Northanger Abbey.
I suspect it’s because readers simply dislike the terribly shy, plain, and quiet heroine, Fanny Price, and the rather dull and proper hero, Edmund Bertram. But if you think of Mansfield Park as a novel of manners in the context of its time in history, instead of a romance–unlike Austen’s most popular novel, Pride and Prejudice, or the poignant second chance love story, Persuasion— you’ll discover both its richness and its brilliance.
“A large income is the best recipe for happiness I ever heard of.”
At its heart, it’s really about a dysfunctional family. The Bertrams of Mansfield Park are a wealthy family who take in a poor relation Fanny Price when she is ten years old, to give her worn-out and fecund mother a break. Appearances are everything and they congratulate themselves on their benevolence, forgetting that Fanny has been completely uprooted from her immediate family in Portsmouth.
“There is not one in a hundred of either sex, who is not taken in when they marry.”
With a family like this, you might be as terrified as Fanny is:
- Aunt Bertram, a bit dim and languorous, and who is more concerned with her dog, Pug, than in anyone or anything else; Fanny serves as her companion and errand girl.
- Maria, Julia, and Tom, Fanny’s self-interested and privileged cousins who look down on her or worse, ignore her.
- Uncle Bertram, with his larger-than-life austere manner, who scares her to death.
- The downright nasty Aunt Norris, who never lets her forget her very low place in the household and how eternally grateful she should feel.
- Edmund, the only cousin to show her great kindness and consideration. However, he also pursues their new neighbor, the beautiful and saucy Mary Crawford, and talks about her incessantly to the lovesick Fanny.
“Selfishness must always be forgiven you know, because there is no hope of a cure.”
When the elegant and sophisticated Henry and Mary Crawford arrive from London to visit their sister, Mrs. Grant, the vicar’s long-suffering wife, the two families become intimately acquainted. Henry is a dashing and unapologetic rake who lives for his own pleasure and flirts shamelessly with both Julia and the engaged Maria, creating great rivalry and tension between the sisters. Mary is gorgeous, worldly-wise, and attracts Edmund with her boldly direct behavior, much to Fanny’s disappointment. But when Henry sets his restless sights on Fanny merely to make “a small hole in Fanny Price’s heart,” the novel kicks into high gear intrigue and drama.
“If this man had not twelve thousand a year, he would be a very stupid fellow.”
Many might be surprised to discover all the unsavory and titillating drama that is going on in this novel including:
All behind an elegant narrative as only Jane Austen could create.