Mansfield Park is usually tied with Emma for least-loved of Austen’s books, and though the heroines of each are very, very different, the two books’ lower favor with Austenites is usually due to Fanny and Emma, respectively. While Emma is an interfering, independent young woman, Fanny is her exact opposite, and loves nothing better than to hide while others receive all the attention. Many modern readers find Fanny too passive, and call her “weak.” But this misses the essential point of the story — strength is not in being feisty and independent, but holding firm to your convictions under pressure. This review will contain spoilers, so proceed with caution.
Mansfield Park is the story of Fanny Price, the dependent niece of Sir Thomas Bertram who is taken into the Bertram family at a young age as a favor to her parents, who are not well-to-do. From the first, Fanny is taught her inferior place in the family by her officious Aunt Norris, who dotes on Fanny’s cousins, Maria and Julia. At Mansfield Park, her cousin Edmund is the only one who sees Fanny’s distress and tries to make things easier for her. He quickly becomes her only confidante and comfort in the Bertram home, and this continues into Fanny’s adulthood. When the charming brother and sister Henry and Mary Crawford come into the neighborhood, things begin to change — and not, in Fanny’s opinion, for the better.
Austen’s characterizations are excellent, as always. I think she achieved something special in Lady Bertram, even though my lady is quite a background sort of person. Indeed, it may be because of her minor-character status that the execution of the character is so striking to me. The word for Lady Bertram is “indolent,” and rarely has anyone exemplified it better. She is not ill-meaning, and has a good heart, but she cannot be bothered to do anything for anyone. She is comfortable, pleasant, and in many ways only half-alive. And yet I like her very well, for some unaccountable reason.
Austen achieves similar things with the character of Henry Crawford. Usually I’m able to disdain the bad guys in Austen’s world as cads and weaklings, but Crawford is written so well that I think I feel some of his charm even through the pages of a book. The way Austen probes his motivations and feelings is really fascinating. His main vice is not deliberate deception or evil, but rather overweening vanity and selfishness. And he is capable of good things.
The other characters are also well-drawn. Sir Thomas in all his dignity and yet truly good beliefs underneath the formality. Tom, with his thoughtless profligacy and unfixed principles. Maria with her haughty pride of beauty and money, and helpless love for someone who slights her. Edmund, with his kindness and, sometimes, blindness. Julia, with her jealousy of Maria and her selfishness. Aunt Norris, with her selfish officiousness and ruthless economy. Mr. Rushworth, with his money and his ridiculous two and forty speeches. Mary Crawford, with her unsound principles and disdain for anything unfashionable. We get a clear picture even of Dr. and Mrs. Grant, who have almost no dialogue whatsoever in the story.
Many readers disparage Fanny, the principal character of the story, as weak and passive. Certainly she does not have the spunk and polite sauciness of an Elizabeth Bennett or Emma Woodhouse. Constantly belittled during her formative years and made to feel her inferiority by Aunt Norris, Fanny is terrified of being singled out for any kind of special notice. She was passive and retiring by nature, and her upbringing had the effect of exaggerating these qualities. Many modern readers can’t stand this in a female character; modern conventions have taught us that heroines must be sassy and spunky. But I tend to fall into the small but determined camp that appreciates Fanny for who she is.
Fanny is always ready to give way for the convenience of others — but this does not stop her from observing their behavior, and venturing private judgments on it. And she is not often wrong in her assessments of the people around her. Despite her pliable nature, Fanny stops short when asked to do something against her principles. She refuses to take part in the not-quite-respectable play that her cousins put on, even though her Aunt Norris makes her feel very guilty over refusing. This foreshadows a later refusal, when Fanny dares to defy the expectations of the Bertrams on the much more serious matter of a marriage proposal. These refusals cause Fanny a great deal of wretchedness, but she stands her ground.
And this is why I love her. Not because she has a witty tongue or a keen eye for the foibles of others in the mode of the usual feisty heroine, but because she holds true to her beliefs even when under pressure from every quarter to compromise them. To me, this makes her much worthier of the adjective “strong” than many another heroine who talks back to the men and dares great things. Fanny is a strong woman because she, being weak, still stands firm on her convictions.
Mansfield Park is the longest and probably most complex of Austen’s novels, and though there is a fair bit of pointed humor in the observations about Lady Bertram and Aunt Norris, it has a bitter edge to it. I also think the great tragedy/transgression of this story is the darkest of all Austen’s stories, even worse than Lizzy’s actions in Pride & Prejudice. Because of the definite lack of lighthearted wit and the seriousness of the evils committed, this is not a bubbling romance of misunderstandings and genteel follies. The denouément gives quite a lot to think about, especially regarding Fanny’s probable actions had things happened differently than they did.
I do NOT recommend the 1999 movie starring Frances O’Connor. It changed Fanny’s personality to something more acceptable to modern tastes, involved Sir Thomas in graphic, horrific barbarism in the slave plantations of Antigua, showed the illicit affair between Crawford and Maria, had Fanny actually accept Crawford at one point (!), and generally missed the whole point of the original story. Nor can I give the recent Masterpiece Theatre version starring Billie Piper much praise; Piper, though a good actress, is completely wrong for Fanny, and the whole production lacked panache. I’m not familiar with other film adaptations of the story, but in general I’ve heard they are all rather lacking. Pity.
In some ways this is an “ugly duckling” story, before such things became popular in the realm of chick-lit. But Fanny does not transform herself in the course of the story; she remains in many ways what she always has been. Perhaps it’s more that the people around her transform slowly until they are finally able to see the beauty of her character. With fantastic characters, deft writing, probing insight, and occasional wryness, Austen’s Mansfield Park is a thought-provoking story with an unusual heroine who compels respect instead of mere amusement. Highly recommended.