Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Book Review: Mansfield Park

According to the Introduction of the edition I read, Mansfield Park is Jane Austen’s second longest book and one of her “darker” books.  There are certainly no comedic characters in it, as in Sense and Sensibility or Pride and Prejudice.  

But since I didn’t read the Introduction until after I read the story, I didn’t know any of that.  (BTW, I wholeheartedly recommend reading books that way, especially The Classics.  For one, most of the Introductions or Editor’s Notes or Explanations contain spoilers.  For another, these books were entertainment long before they were “Literature” and should be read that way.)

Fanny Price is the “poor relation” who lives at Mansfield Park with her uncle and aunt, Lord and Lady Bertram, and their four children:  Tom, Edward, Maria, and Julia.  Fanny is a bit younger than Maria and Julia—about three years.  All three are of marriageable age, although Fanny is a bit young at the beginning.

There is also another aunt, Mrs. Norris (I wonder if she served as the namesake of Argus Filch’s cat in Harry Potter?  Hmmm…).  Mrs. Norris is the one who actually suggests that the Bertrams take Fanny in, but then refuses all responsibility for her—except to remind Fanny constantly how lucky she is to be at the Bertrams, how grateful she should be, and how inferior in every way she is to Maria and Julia.

Fanny, who is shy and retiring to begin with, absolutely fades into the woodwork in this environment.  The only person at Mansfield Park, the Bertram family estate, who sees there is more to her, is her cousin, Edmund.  Fanny falls in love with him, but is too shy to let him know.

Mary Crawford, sister to the pastor, comes to live at the parsonage.  Her brother, Henry, is a frequent visitor and they soon become friends with the young residents of Mansfield Park.  Hormones rage (in a very genteel sort of way), feelings are hurt, flirtations abound.  And each of the young people makes decisions affecting his or her future.  

I found myself feeling very sympathetic about Fanny.  Who wouldn’t be intimidated in such a household, especially as a poor relation?  Lady Bertram means well, but is indolent (a much richer word than merely “lazy”).  Aunt Norris is truly vicious.  Lord Bertram leaves to take care of business in Antigua and only begins to see what is really going on when he returns—but that acknowledgement is reluctant and almost too late.  Fanny’s crippling shyness and fear does not allow her to defend her decision about whom she will marry and she suffers for it.  (Jane Austen is not very easy on parents in the three novels I have read.)

This book was not as easy a read as Pride and Prejudice.  The consequences of the characters’ actions were more serious—which made them more realistic.  There is much more tension in this book between doing what is right and indulging yourself; between love and social status; between infatuation (or desire) and duty.  Since Hollywood is not much interested in these considerations—or the fact that one choice precludes another—you won’t see this novel made into a movie any time soon.  (In fact, the only two film adaptations I found on IMDb were U.K. productions from 1983 and 1999.  And the 1999 production was panned as being unfaithful to the book, especially the character of Fanny.)

On the March Hare scale:  3.5 out of 5 Bookmarks.

Next up on my Austen list:  Emma, I think.