Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Mansfield Park: A Review

Or, if you want to read the title differently-
Mansfield Park: Abbey's thoughts and comments. (P.S. Major spoilers coming up. Pretty much everything is a spoiler. Not only for Mansfield Park, but other Austen works as well. Tread carefully.)

Title and author: Mansfield Park by Jane Austen.

My rating: Hovering somewhere between nine and ten stars out of ten.

Synopsis: Taken from the poverty of her parents' home, Fanny Price is brought up with her rich cousins at Mansfield Park, acutely aware of her humble rank and with only her cousin Edmund as an ally. When Fanny's uncle is absent in Antigua, Mary Crawford and her brother Henry arrive in the neighbourhood, bringing with them London glamour and a reckless taste for flirtation. As her female cousins vie for Henry's attention, and even Edmund falls for Mary's dazzling charms, only Fanny remains doubtful about the Crawfords' influence and finds herself more isolated than ever. (Taken from Goodreads.)

My ramblings: Mansfield Park is very understated and underrated in my opinion. It is not many people's favorite. Not many people enjoy reading this book. It lacks a witty, fun, main character. It lacks the scoundrel man (well, it does have a scoundrel, but more on him later). It lacks the Mr. Darcy or the Mr. Knightley - the dashing hero. It lacks the comic relief character - the Mr. Collins or Mrs. Jennings. In all reality, it even lacks the love-story focus. The story is about love, but it's not about getting married. It's not a very funny story. It's rather depressing in some parts. It's sad in others.
But I think it's brilliant.
I love Mansfield Park.
I think it's my favorite Jane Austen novel.
After watching the movies for all of Austen's novels (before reading any of the books), Mansfield Park stood out to me, and I'm not sure why.
After finishing Emma a few months ago, I knew that Mansfield Park was the Austen novel that I wanted to read next.
Sometime in the beginning of November, I picked it up and started reading. I couldn't put it down. Though nothing really exciting happens in the book (no explosions, no treasure-stealing dragons, no big fight scenes), it is the first book in months that had me wanted to read more, to find out what happens next. This rarely happens when I read, so it was a pretty exciting feeling.
So what exactly makes this book so endearing to me?
I think it the characters.

Let's talk about Fanny Price first.
Fanny is the "heroine" of the novel (though as someone on Goodreads pointed out, the novel is not entitled "Fanny" or "Fanny Price;" it is entitled "Mansfield Park" and that's what it's about. The goings-on at Mansfield Park. We just happen to be seeing things through Fanny Price's eyes).
Even though Fanny is the heroine, she really doesn't seem like it. She has none of the characteristics of Austen's other heroines. She is not out-going. She is not funny. She is not smart or witty. She can't play the pianoforte, she doesn't sing, she can't paint, and she doesn't know her geography.
Fanny is timid, shy, nervous, and weak (health-wise). Austen describes her thusly: "extremely timid and shy, shrinking from notice." All of Fanny's education comes from reading, and discussing the books she read with her cousin Edmund. Edmund is to be a clergyman, and therefore instructs Fanny in what is right, proper, and moral. She is, therefore, a very moral character.
When Henry Crawford comes to Mansfield and flirts with Fanny's engaged cousin Maria (as also her unengaged cousin Julia), Fanny can't like him. She believes his actions wrong. Later, when Henry starts paying his attentions to Fanny, Fanny still can't like him. His opinion grows slightly in her mind when his attentions don't stop and he genuinely seems to love her. But she still cannot like him enough to marry him, due to her belief that he is prone to flirtation and is not capable of a steady, constant love. She ends up being right in the end, though that rightness comes at a great cost to everyone's happiness around her.
Many people have a problem with Fanny's morality, which I don't understand. They think she's too perfect. I don't think that at all. I think that considering the times, and how she grew up, who influenced her (cousin, clergyman Edmund), and her personality, her morality isn't to be wondered at. She's a girl with convictions, and she's willing to stick to those convictions to the very end. That's a rare thing now, which is why I think people have a problem with it.
So why do I like Fanny so much? Well, for one, I LOVE her convictions. I love that even though Henry Crawford truly did love her, and even though her marrying him would have elevated her SO much in society, and even though they would have been a good match, and even though all her family were of the opinion that they should marry... and even though her uncle got very upset at her for not marrying Henry, and even though Henry got Fanny's brother a promotion... even though Aunt Norris was very angry about Fanny not marrying Henry... even though Fanny felt horrid and cried and cried because of all the disappointment she was giving to the family that had taken her in... even through all of that, she still stayed true to herself and to her conviction that she shouldn't marry Henry. It caused her a lot of pain, but she stayed true to what she believed. Even though she is shy, nervous, timid, scared, and of weak health... she was strong enough to continue to refuse Henry's attentions, even though they continued for months.
That's admirable.
Another reason I like Fanny? Edmund.
One of the reasons that Fanny refuses Henry (along with not liking his character), is that her heart is already someone elses. She's in love with her cousin Edmund. Unfortunately, Edmund is in love with another girl - Henry's sister Mary. Fanny sees that Mary is just as wrong in character as her brother, but Edmund doesn't see it. He's too blinded by what he thinks Mary is... And because he and Fanny are such good friends, he tells her everything. Fanny endures listening to the man she loves, talk about another woman. She endures him pouring out all of Mary's amiable qualities. How gracefully she walks, talks... Yet Fanny is able to listen, and she able to be Mary's friend and correspondent (though it pains her). She still loves Edmund through all of it. And when Henry wants to marry Fanny, she doesn't even for a second think about marrying him, because her heart is Edmund's and will be forever (though Austen does hint that if a certain thing concerning Henry and Fanny's cousin Maria didn't occur, and if Edmund had married Mary, eventually Fanny might've married Henry and been content and happy with him).
That's admirable too. I hope that I have that much constancy. Not just to my husband, but to my friends and family.
Another reason I like Fanny is because I'm so much like her. And it's not just because we both don't know where Asia Minor is.
In one way, I'm not so much like Fanny, as I am inclined to be like her.
My tendency is to be shy, to be timid, to look at the floor when people are all around talking. I've never been popular and don't want to be. When people are having a party around me, I generally find a place to sit and spend the time trying not to make eye contact with people, so that I won't have to talk. This happened just this past weekend when we were celebrating my dad's birthday in Canada. Instead of joining the rest of the people in the living room/dining room for dinner, I hid away in the kitchen, so that I wouldn't have to be talked to.
(As a side note: I'm SO SORRY to my cousin. I feel like I kind of abandoned you to the relatives and I'm very sorry about that.
Another side note: Thank you to the uncle who came and talked to me about my book. =) I appreciated that. Though I'm not sure he'll ever know, since I'm pretty sure he doesn't read my blog...)

This aversion to people is something I'm trying to get over. I see it as a flaw. God created people to be in relationship with one another, not to be loners. I will never make the friends that I ache for if I'm not getting out there and talking to people. I can't have good, meaningful relationships if your always staring at the floor!
Fanny also, is rather shy around people. She often looks at the floor, instead of joining in on conversation.
The mix of Fanny's timidity and morality makes her alienated from all the rest of the young people. Add to this that Fanny has never been properly "out" in society, and the fact that most of the time she is running errands for her Aunt Bertram, while her Aunt Norris takes every opportunity to scorn her, and it is no wonder that, while her bright, pretty cousins Maria and Julia are in the room, no one ever talks to Fanny!
While I don't have a scorning aunt, and don't have an aunt to run errands for all the time, and I don't have any popular people always taking the spotlight, I do feel like my own strong morals and convictions set me apart from others. It's hard to be a Christian. It's hard to stay pure, and it's hard to stay focused on what's right and noble, when the whole rest of the world is wearing skin-tight, revealing clothes. Or when the whole rest of the world is watching that One TV Show that you don't want to watch because it dirties your mind. It's hard when everyone around you talks about trivial things, or when everyone around you is fangirling about Such and Such a show, and you're stuck in the middle going "THERE'S SO MUCH MORE TO LIFE!" Knowing that God fulfills, that he's the best way, but still having a little wishful thinking in your heart... wanting to fangirl, to fit in with the others, because that TV show really is so brilliant, and the actors so amazing... But I don't. I won't let those things get in the way of God. I won't let them become an idol in my life.
Fanny struggles with some of the same things, though she does it more in the name of Rightness and Morality, that in the name of God. In the beginning of the book, when the Henry and Mary Crawford first arrive, a scheme is presented to pass the time: Acting. Only, the play that is chosen is inappropriate and shocking and surely something that Uncle Bertram would NOT approve of, were he at home (he was away in Antigua dealing with some business). Only Fanny refuses to participate in the play, because she knows it's immoral, and that her uncle wouldn't approve. Yet there is a point where Fanny has her heart tugged a little bit... Everyone else is having so much fun with learning lines and rehearsing and everyone is such good friends. And there is still one part, even if it is small... But then the part is taken by the Crawford's half-sister and the temptation is taken away.
I know how hard it is to deal with stuff like that... it's difficult to say 'no.' It's difficult to take the straight and narrow path.
“We have all been more or less to blame,” said he, “every one of us, excepting Fanny. Fanny is the only one who has judged rightly throughout; who has been consistent. Her feelings have been steadily against it from first to last. She never ceased to think of what was due to you. You will find Fanny everything you could wish.” (Chapter 20. Edmund to his father, when his father returns unexpectedly from Antigua, to find the house in disarray, and the acting in full swing.)
I love Fanny's convictions and her consistency on those convictions.

Now, I want to talk about Henry Crawford and how brilliantly well-written he is.
Henry is a silver-tongued, flirtatious man from London. He's not out-of-this-world handsome, but he has pleasing manners, and a family estate. He reads beautifully.
He also likes to make girls fall in love with him, only to break their hearts because it's only a game to him.
He makes Fanny's two cousins, Maria and Julia fall in love with him. It's alright for Julia, because she's unattached. But Maria is engaged to Mr. Rushworth. Eventually, after Henry leaves, Maria marries Mr. Rushworth for his money. Truly, he's an idiot, and Maria can't get Henry Crawford out of her mind.
After Maria and Mr. Rushworth leave on their honeymoon, and take Julia with them, Henry returns.
He says to his sister: "What do you think I shall do during to occupy myself during the next few weeks? I am going to make Fanny Price fall in love with me. She needs to have her heart broken just a little."
Mary urges him not to do it, but he will have his fun.
It turns out not to be so much fun when Henry actually falls in love with Fanny himself, and Fanny won't have him.
Everyone tells him to be patient and wait for Fanny, though, because she often needs to have a few months to get used to the idea (after all, Henry is her first suitor). So Henry is content to wait for a few months. But then, when he's in London later, he meets again with Maria. She acts very coldly towards him, because he broke her heart. This upsets Henry. The woman he had so much control over not six months before now totally ignores him! So he starts to flirt, and tries to make Maria fall back in love with him. He succeeds of course, and starts an affair with her. If they are careful enough, Fanny will never have to know about it and he can have his fun, and marry the woman he loves. But, of course, it all comes out, and gives Fanny even more reason not to marry him. Both he and Maria are disgraced.
But the way that Jane Austen portrays him! Oh, it's genius on paper. When Henry first shows up, he is detestable. He is as much a scoundrel as Willoughby and Wickam. And then he says that he's going to try make Fanny - innocent, modest Fanny! - fall in love with him! At that moment, he is the most detestable scoundrel ever! But then he falls in love with Fanny... He shows his devotion to her. He becomes good friends with her brother and even gets him a promotion. When Fanny goes home to her parent's house for a three-month visit, he even comes for a few days expressly to see her. I almost started to like Henry Crawford. He certainly was changing. He is everything honorable and right for a little while. You almost start to root for HenryxFanny. And then he starts the affair with Maria and you're thinking, "Henry! What are you doing! If only you had waited, man! You would have eventually had the woman you loved! Now you totally scrapped your chances!"
All the conflicting emotions! It takes a genius to write such a character - that makes you detest him, then love him, then detest him again; that makes you almost wish that he had stayed good...
This is one of very few books - perhaps even the first since I can't remember any others at present - that have made me feel this way towards a character.

Henry Crawford is not the only example I have of Austen's genius, however. She is able to portray different sides of the same coin beautifully. What I mean is that she can take a social position and portray it in a good light, a bad light, and a 'eh, whatever' light. She has done this in several different books, though I have only noticed after reading Mansfield Park.
Take the office of clergyman for example...
In Pride and Prejudice (and also Emma) the clergymen characters are complete buffoons. You have Mr. Collins, whose sole purpose in life is to marry a respectable lady, and please his patron Lady Catherine de Bourgh. In Emma, Mr. Elton is a selfish man, whose better-than-thou attitude gains him a horrid wife.
Yet in Sense and Sensibility, Edward, who wants to be a clergyman, but is deterred from that line of work by his mother, is to be felt for. His line of work seems perfect for him. You want him to be a clergyman. You know he'll be good at it.
In Mansfield Park, it's taken a step further. Actually, it's a topic of debate between several of the characters several different times.
Edmund wants to be a clergyman. He has always wanted to be a clergyman. Not because of the pay, or because of his patron, or because of selfish reasons... but because he genuinely wants to help people and make people better. He also wants to marry Mary Crawford, who is totally against clergyman in general. There is a clash of opinions and several debates follow, where you get to see Mary's reasoning, and Edmund's. It's quite amazing, because you can truly see the different sides and can feel for both sides.
She does this with others characters as well. Take Elizabeth Bennet and Mary Crawford, for example: They are both witty and pretty, with lovely dark eyes. They are both lively and easy-going and fun to be around. The difference is that Elizabeth is the main character in Pride and Prejudice, and Mary Crawford is not the main character in Mansfield Park. (Of course there is also difference in situation... Mary has 20,000 pounds, while Elizabeth is basically penniless.)
How different would Mansfield Park had been if it had been from Mary's point of view? Would we see more similarities to P+P? What about the whole clergy issue? Would we have agreed with Mary if it had been from her point of view, or would we still had agreed with what Edmund had to say?

Even though Mansfield Park lacks elements from Jane Austen's other novels, I believe that this is most certainly NOT her worst work. In fact, I think it's one of her best. It shows her genius with characters.
And it shows Jane Austen's diversity as a writer. It shows that she's capable of writing vastly different works. She can write lighthearted, almost "fluffy," books like Pride and Prejudice, and she can write the darker, deeper books like Mansfield Park.
People don't like Mansfield Park because of it's deeper, darker side. They want another Pride and Prejudice love story.
But is an actor who played a sociopath brilliantly once, and from then on was just cast as sociopaths because that's what he's good at, really a good actor?
Is a hit musician who keeps writing songs about the same types of things, only changing a chord here or there to make the song different enough to keep people interested, really a great musician?
Is a best-selling author really so amazing, when all her works are fluffy romances (even if the names of the characters, and the settings are changed)? Or if all his works are spy thrillers, with different endings, but the same way of getting to that ending, is he really so brilliant? (I should do a post on this... because I feel like Agatha Christie does this. Her endings are always a surprise, but I believe that's because she always gives the reader SO many suspects, and they ALL have motives and things in favor of or against them. There are some exceptions, of course... *cough cough* And Then There Were None.)

I believe that Mansfield Park proves that Jane Austen is a very talented, diverse author. Every time I read a book of hers, I hold her in higher esteem.

So there you have my rambling review of Mansfield Park. =) This book isn't for everyone. If you're a fan of adventure and intrigue and comic relief characters and explosions, this book probably is not for you. But if you enjoy books about people, and enjoy appreciating/thinking about/analyzing great writing, then you would probably like this book. Also if you like somewhat sad books that give you lots of feelings. Also if you like books that make you think.

Live long and prosper!

5 comments:

  1. Looks like another book I'll have to add to my "to read" list. :) Even though I am very much enjoying reading all the Sherlock Holmes stories, I'm excited to get through them because I have so many other books I want to read!

    I saw an old movie adaptation of this a while a go, and I remember liking it. Very good in depth review!

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    1. Oooo, Sherlock Holmes! He's such the best! I'm re-reading The Hound of the Baskervilles at the moment. They do take awhile to get through, though.

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    2. Yes, he is the best. :) and it's fun reading it after seeing BBC's Sherlock because I can imagine those actors in their parts from the books so perfectly. They've kept the characters very close to the originals, haven't they?

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  2. I've been kind of nervous reading Austin books after the time it took me to get through Pride and Prejudice. I do want to addemt Emma same day, but I hadn't considered any of the others. Now I want to read this one. It sounds like of, well...reminded me a little....of Little Women. And I adore that book.

    Now, in answer to your comments. I feel bad it has taken me so long to reply, and even read your blog. I've missed uou. Hermit life was more exstenisve this time, with school and everything.

    John has yet to find his cookies. We took a break with NaNo but he wants to begin looking again. I am hoping he will want to wait till it isn't ten below.

    I know! I feel the same way about Steampunk pictures. That's what I liked about some of them in Leviathan. All of thre details in the back, the pipes and everything. It makes it feel more Steampunk I think.

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  3. I saw one of the several movie adaptations of this movie, and I really enjoyed it. I couldn't say if it were accurate or not, since I haven't gotten around to reading the book yet, but I have to agree with everything you said in your (once again, wonderful) review.

    Austen really can write just about anything. parody, Gothic romance, comedy, social commentary...and while Mr. Darcy's are great, and Mr. Knightley's are fantastic, it's nice to see ordinary young men like Edmund every once in a while. I was quite charmed by the actor's portrayal -- he was quiet, and clearly had good intentions almost all the time, but sometimes he lacked good judgment. Likewise Fanny was a terrific character. She felt very real to me, and I too related to her in more ways than one. Her friendship and subsequent romance with Edmund was very sweet, and I liked the way they both had misunderstandings from time to time but always cleared them up.

    Surprisingly, another character that stood out to me was Fanny's aunt (forgive me for not remembering her name). I think many people could interpret her as silly and not much else, but the movie I watched presented a multi-faceted woman who was, admittedly, rather silly at times, but could also be very perceptive about certain things. Also it seems she had a loving relationship with her husband. I think Fanny and Edmund and Edmund's parents stand as a sort of contrast to the flirtatious, capricious Mary and Henry, or the foolish Mr. Rushworth and his fickle wife.

    I had another point to make but I've lost my train of thought :) Anyway, you make excellent points in this review and I can tell you've really thought all of this through quite thoroughly. I enjoyed it; it was a great read.

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