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Friday, 9 May 2014

Mansfield Park Bicentenary

Happy birthday to Mansfield Park! It's looking pretty spry for 200 years old. This is well known as Jane Austen's least-loved novel. When I first read Austen's main 6 novels I was a teenager (so a looooong time ago!), and this was the one that I liked least. I didn't read it again until last year, when as part of The Book Rat's Austen in August event there was a group read of Mansfield Park. I read it and I was blown away. I think part of the difference was expectation - I read it originally hard on the heels of her more romantic works and so by comparison I found it lacking in romance, but this time I went into it with less expectation of romance, and as I read it, I felt that it wasn't primarily intended as a love story.

Mansfield Park is also notable for me in that it contains probably my favourite Jane Austen quote.

“Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can, impatient to restore everybody not greatly in fault themselves to tolerable comfort, and to have done with all the rest.”

The reason I love this quote is that it sums up my reading attitude; I feel there is so much misery in the world that I don't need to read about more of it - let other reader's eyes dwell on guilt and misery, I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can...

I thought I'd share with you the review I wrote last year, after finishing the book:

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I first read this book back when I was a teenager and I wasn't that fussed on it. I didn't take to Fanny Price, the heroine of this tale, thinking that she was a bit of a drip, and I didn't find the story romantic enough. I decided to read the book again wondering how differently I'd see it being that much older. I am so glad I decided to re-read it, as I felt I appreciated it so much more than I did before.

Fanny Price's mother suffers from a surplus of children compared to income. As was fairly common at the time, Fanny is taken in, at age 10 by another relative, her aunt (Lady Bertram) who is married to Sir Thomas Bertram, the owner of Mansfield Park. The Bertrams have 4 children, two boys, Tom and Edmund, and two younger girls, Maria and Julia, the youngest of which is about 2 years older than Fanny. Also heavily involved over at Mansfield Park is Lady Bertram's sister, Mrs Norris. There is no real expectation that Fanny will be brought up as one of them as her prospects would always have been less; she is brought up instead as a poor relation.

Mansfield Park Edmund BertramThe children aren't especially all that interested in her, aside from Edmund, 6 years Fanny's senior who takes pity on her and looks after her. Indolent Lady B finds her useful for being at her beck and call and Mrs Norris (who is a truly horrible woman) really dislikes Fanny. Mrs Norris seems to feel that any kindness she shows towards Fanny will somehow be disrespectful towards her other nieces, who she very much spoils. Although taught good manners the Bertram children are not encouraged to learn good principles - they aren't compassionate, thoughtful or self-denying. Edmund is the only Bertram child who has much in the way of principles, and they must have been innate to him.

The main events of the book begin when the Crawfords come into the area. Mr Henry Crawford is a very vain man, who thoughtlessly enjoys making young ladies fall in love with him, and he succeeds with both Maria (who is engaged to an empty-headed man of fortune, Mr Rushworth) and Julia Bertram. Henry's sister Miss Mary Crawford, is attractive and charming, but neither of them necessarily have good principles either.

This book took a while to get into, as most of the characters are pretty unlikeable. Fanny herself, although a good person, is so timid and shy that it takes a while to like her rather than merely feel sympathy for her. For a modern reader some of the things which I presume would have been obvious to a contemporary reader weren't immediately understandable. For example, in Sir Thomas's absence to visit his plantation in Antigua a decision is made to put together a play and both Fanny and Edmund are vehemently opposed to this scheme as being improper. For a modern reader it's hard to understand why this would be the case - the play they choose is obviously inappropriate, but it seems as though the principle of putting any play on is improper. Another thing that doesn't necessarily translate to a modern reader is Fanny's distrust of the Crawfords. In many ways they are quite likeable, even though he is quite rakish and his sister sees no problem with this. I can understand why Fanny didn't like them but I DID like them.

Fanny herself I grew to like, but she is not as easy to like as other Austen heroines. She is a good person, and very unloved, and put upon. She is quite intolerant of weakness of character in others, although she is careful not to let this show inappropriately. She is quite a clear-sighted and shrewd judge of character but she is quite unforgiving in her judgements. I was beginning to despair in her, but she shows a bit of growth in her tolerance levels when she gets to know her sister and realises how principled she is despite the environment that she has grown up in.

A strong theme in this book, and one which gave me a lot of food for thought, is nature v nurture. How the Bertram siblings turned out with an indolent mother, a harsh father, and brought up mostly by an interfering old busybody aunt who spoilt them and encouraged them to think well of themselves and what they were due and denied them nothing. How the Crawford siblings turned out, brought up in a home with a very unhappy marriage, clear 'sides' and no principles. How alike in nature Mrs Price and her sister Lady Bertram are, and how differently they now are due to the big difference in their financial situations. A visit to her mother's home in Portsmouth (where Fanny is even more unloved than in Mansfield Park) teaches Fanny a lot and she realises how much being at Mansfield Park has shaped her character. A crisis calls her 'home' to Mansfield Park - finally Fanny is appreciated more truly there, and her family there have also begun to know themselves and each other more truly too.

Once I got into this book I really enjoyed it. I won't leave it so long until the next re-read!


To celebrate Mansfield Park's big anniversary I will be trying to read some more MP-inspired books throughout the year. I'll let you know if I find any good ones! In addition to this, there are other people celebrating Mansfield Park's birthday - for example, Sarah Emsley has a whole series of events planned with the first one kicking off today. 

Also, over a decade ago Benedict Cumberbatch and David Tennant were part of the cast for a radio version of Mansfield Park which is being re-run on Radio 4 extra from Monday 12 May. I think it will be downloadable so I will try and listen to that if I can understand how it works! 

9 comments:

  1. It does take a while to warm to Fanny - I know what you mean. Seeing her at age ten does inspire sympathy, but yes, growing to like her is more gradual. She's not brilliant and sparkling like Elizabeth Bennet, and yet her quiet strength is very appealing. I'm glad you're joining us for "An Invitation to Mansfield Park." I'm looking forward to hearing the Benedict Cumberbatch/David Tennant MP, too. Happy 200 years!

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    1. At first I sympathised with her, and then I respected her too, because the strength of character that it must have taken timid Fanny Price to say no to the play and later to the entreaties of Sir Thomas (trying to say this without spoilers, but you know what I'm referring to!) was exceptional. When she went to Portsmouth and finally began to give credit to people for being shaped by their circumstances rather than being so strictly judgemental of them then I could like her, and it was quite a relief by that point! Happy 200 years to you too, I look forward to reading your series of articles and guest posts!

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  2. Great review! I loved this book first time round. I could really feel how it must have been to be shipped off to a strange house. I think if it was someone like EB she would have dealt with it tolerable well and I don't think you would have got the same sense of what it would have been like especially for someone who is shy. Great observation on nature vs nurture I know that's why I was endeared to Edmund!

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    1. I thought he was remarkably kind and considerate considering his upbringing. I feel for Edmund, so many readers don't seem to rate him at all, but I like him. I wish the romance between Fanny and Edmund had been part of the book, I'm sure readers would like him more.

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  3. Yes I agree, I also think that because the romance is understated it gives a realness to it, which drew me towards Edmund's character!

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    1. We are not told of their romance which a lot of readers interpret as there being no romance but my imagination went the other way and I just assumed there was romance, but just off page. I agree with you too, that it had to be understated, Edmund couldn't rush off to rescue Fanny's siblings like Darcy could, and there was no need for a gorgeous Wentworth-style impassioned letter or a Knightley-esque declaration because there was nobody else on the scene. I was reading an article yesterday which you may well have seen http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/may/10/mansfield-park-unsung-literary-heroines regarding overlooked heroines which included Fanny Price and it said that she spends the most time off page of any Austen heroine, so it's actually very fitting that we don't get to see the romance between her and Edmund.

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  4. Lovely review, Ceri. This is the only Austen novel I have read only once. I have also been listening to the radio reading of MP and really enjoying it! Your review and my darling Benedict Cumberbatch reading as Edmund Bertram has inspired me to give it another try!!:)

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    1. Hi Kelli, I have been so enjoying the Radio 4 adaptation of MP. I haven't seen Benedict Cumberbatch in much on tv but my goodness, he has the most delicious voice! I was waiting while my children had swimming lessons earlier in a dreamy haze listening to his melliflous tones :)

      I hope if you read it again that you enjoy it, I couldn't believe how differently I felt about the book on the second read but in my case it's been a long time!

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