Adventures in Reading

Mansfield Park: Volume One, Ch. 1 – 5
October 2, 2007, 10:12 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized
“But there certainly are not so many men of large fortune in the world, as there are pretty women to deserve them.” Jane Austen in Mansfield Park.

As promised I have started Mansfield Park to read concurrently with Clarissa. Something… comforting I wanted to comment on is from Roger Ebert to my professor I have regularly been hearing people comment on how comforting they find Jane Austen’s novels to be – like chicken soup in book form. Fortunately while reading Austen I have not been under any undue stress or suffering much but I am curious to see whether I will reach for my collection in the future.

I first tried to read Mansfield Park some years ago. Either I was in an online book group that was reading it or I had just seen the movie. Either way, I barely made it through the first chapter without giving up in disgust and wondering what kind of foolish people were so fond of this drivel? Years later I now realize I am one of those fools as thus far I have found Mansfield Park to be entirely delightful.

Our heroine Fanny Price is the daughter of a woman who married to “disoblige her family” (425) and asks of her sisters to take one of her growing number of children. Thus Fanny at a tender age is extricated from her family home and removed to Mansfield Park where very quickly her aunt Mrs. Norris devises an effective barrier between Fanny and the inhabitants of Mansfield Park. The Park is home to the Bertram family and Fanny’s second aunt Maria Bertram who married quite well. This barrier is established to distinguish Fanny from her cousins as despite being a blood relative she will never be an equal in their eyes. Additionally, Mr. Bertram fears that one of his sons could fall in love with Fanny though Mrs. Norris assures him that being raised as brothers and sister “It is morally impossible” (427).

Despite this effort to socially separate the children it becomes apparent that no one means Fanny any unkindness but all of the adult figures in the novel are absent. This is true whether it is mentally (such as Mrs. Bertram), physically (such as Mr. Bertram), or carelessly (Mrs. Norris). In fact, this is a rather popular theme we see with regularity in Austen’s novels where either a literal physical distance exists between adults and children or an emotional and intellectual distance exists. Interestingly enough this seems a distinct break from the literary tradition of Richardson’s Clarissa where parental figures are all to present. Likewise another theme with increasing importance is the country or parish versus London or town.

In contrast with Sense & Sensibility and Pride & Prejudice, Mansfield Park‘s heroine Fanny is a bit of a shrinking violet versus the more vocal and assertive female leads of the prior two novels. In fact, Mary Crawford (Fanny’s rival and “better”) seems much more comparable to the likes of Elizabeth and Marianne. In addition, Fanny is specifically set aside as being rather plain or homely, something which I do not believe any of Austen’s other heroines (thus far) have been identified as. Earlier in the week I posted about the characteristics (spirit, manner, head, and heart) of Austen’s period and that she utilized in her fiction, and I am quite pleased to see this as a reoccurring theme. Thus it has become an interesting game to identify Fanny as lacking in spirits or the Bertram sisters almost entirely absent of heart.

One theme of Mansfield Park that separates it from the prior to novels is the regularity of referencing Mr. Bertram’s work(as well as Fanny’s brother William being a sailor) or at least his land holdings and investments in the West Indies and Antigua. This also seems to be the first reference of the “New World” in one of Austen’s novels and more bluntly a reference to Britain’s empire building of the period.

Marriage of course continues with great importance in Mansfield Park with the first engagement between the eldest Miss Maria Bertram and Mr. Rushworth – a match clearly based on his property and prestige rather than his character. If I felt Charlotte of Pride & Prejudice was persistent when it came to the economic aspect of marriage she has nothing on the Bertram sisters and Miss Crawford! Miss Crawford soon makes the reader aware that “Matrimony was her object, provided she could marry well…” (446) as she sets her sites on the eldest Bertram son Tom.

But perhaps my favorite passage from this early in the novel has been the exchange between the Bertram’s and Crawford’s exchange on mothers, daughters, and being out (that is, out in society). Here Austen points out a very strange (and one would assume possibly hazardous) aspect of the English middle-to-upper class social scene: girls are expected to be reserved, quite, and modest, but somehow emerge and act quite the opposite when she comes out. “The most objectionable part is, that the alteration of manners on being introduced into company is frequently too sudden. They sometimes pass in such very little time from reserve to quite the opposite–to confidence! That is the faulty part of the present system” (450 – 51).


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