Incidentally, JK Rowling must be a fan of this novel. I had missed the Mrs Norris reference when I read the Harry Potter novels; there's no missing now on reread the mention of the children of the Bertram household learning "of the Roman emperors as low as Severus."
Jane Austen is one of my top favorite authors, and when it came time to rate her novels on Goodreads and LibraryThing, I gave her Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Emma and Persuasion five stars, the highest possible. When it came time, however, to rate Mansfield Park, the novel Austen herself most esteemed among her own, I rated it only one star to reflect my remembered loathing for it. Looking at others’ reviews on LibraryThing and Goodreads, I can see I was not alone in my disdain. The introduction to the annotated Norton Critical Edition called Mansfield Park Austen’s “most controversial novel” and her darkest and “most ambitious and disturbing.”
In a lot of ways, I think Mansfield Park is an outlier among Austen’s mature novels and that might be why even fans of her are thrown by it. Austen’s novels are a lot more than romances, but they are romances, and I’ll admit that’s a great deal of the appeal for me. I love her other heroines, which I can usually identify with and admire: Catherine Morland the tomboy and bookworm, sensible Elinor Dashwood, her passionate sister Marianne, witty Elizabeth Bennet, dignified Anne Elliot. Even Emma Woodhouse who might not seem likable at first won me over by the end of the novel with her name. I think because Emma does learn and grow, is humbled--not unlike the way Darcy is humbled--in seeing her flaws through the eyes of the person she most esteems.
And the other Austen heroes are easy for a reader to fall in love with: Henry Tilney with his playfulness, Edward Ferrars with his shy diffidence, Colonel Christopher Brandon with his passionate devotion, proud but principled Fitzwilliam Darcy, the compassionate George Knightly and Captain Frederick Wentworth who wrote among the most melting love letter in literature.
Not only do Austen's characters usually attach you in their own right, you usually end her novels feeling that her couples have found the best possible “partner in life” in each other and have grown because of each other. And the other novels have a charm and lightness and a tone of amused fondness at the foibles of mankind.
But then there’s Fanny Price and Edmund Bertram of Mansfield Park.
I remembered Fanny as a prig and utterly unlikable. I have a close friend who is an Austen scholar who is writing her doctoral thesis in literature on Mansfield Park. She urged me to give the novel another chance, and to look for several things: Sir Thomas Bertram’s disturbing musings on child rearing, Fanny’s bitterness and the reasons for it, and to pay particular attention to the last chapter and how deliberately crafted is the sense of dissatisfaction.
Doing so I embarked on another read of Mansfield Park, and here below is my reaction (and SPOILERS aplenty). Without the expectation of finding in it a satisfying love story, I found doing so the novel did rise in my estimation. I don’t know I can say I like Fanny any more, but I do feel more sympathy for her situation and actually no longer consider her a “prig.” A prig is not just someone with an "exaggerated conformity or propriety," but someone smug in it--and Fanny is too diffident, too shy, unhappy and bitter to be counted smug. Nor is she a goodie-two-shoes. There’s a passage early on that captures her personality and situation well. She has had harsh treatment from her uncle Sir Thomas, who is soon to be leaving for the West Indies, that causes her to cry "bitterly." Sir Thomas’ daughters don’t feel any fondness for him and (correctly) assume Fanny doesn’t either, and "when her uncle was gone...her cousins, on seeing her with red eyes, set her down as a hypocrite." Fanny by the way, is all the more miserable because she believes she should care about Sir Thomas but is well aware she doesn't. Fanny is no hypocrite or flatterer, but there's often a wide streak of bitterness and jealousy in her private reflections; she’s the poor relation treated as an unpaid servant, often treated with negligence and many attempts to put her in her place--a low place. Often such swipes coming from the aunt, Mrs Norris, who urged the Bertrams to foster their niece at Mansfield Park.
It’s because of that treatment that her cousin Edmund makes so strong an impression on her. He’s the only one who treats her with any consideration or kindness. Despite all that, I heartily disliked Edmund for pretty much the whole of the book. He is a prig. Too often I felt that he and Fanny both cared more about propriety and appearances rather than principles based on kindness or integrity, and that propensity was all too much to the fore when early on he and Fanny dissected Miss Mary Crawford and censured her for not being prim and proper in criticizing her uncle for abuse of her aunt. (Though I admit it is hard to imagine say even the lively Elizabeth Bennet making that joke about Admirals' “Vices and Rears.”) But then later in dealing with Miss Crawford, once Edmund falls in love, he becomes a hypocrite as well--trimming and tailoring his principles to please her.
As to Miss Crawford, until the last chapters, she was my favorite character in the book; She's as witty as the sparkling Elizabeth Bennet, and she's no Caroline Bingley or Lucy Steele; there’s no true malice in Mary Crawford and more than one incident that suggests a true disinterested kindness, and I thought for much of the book that Fanny was blinded by jealousy in how she interpreted Miss Crawford’s actions (and possibly Fanny simply just missed Mary's playful if scandalous and tasteless humor in say a certain letter.) I find Mary Crawford one of the most complex and problematical characters in any Austen novel, and I don't think dismissing her as shallow and unprincipled really does justice to her.
By the end I did come around more to Fanny’s way of thinking of the Crawfords, but keeping in mind what my friend said about that well-crafted sense of dissatisfaction in the last chapter... As I said, the heroes and heroines of Austen’s other mature novels tend to learn and grow through their experiences of love with each often providing a balance to the other. I don’t get any sense of that growth in Fanny and there is something in her relationship with Edmund that smacks too much of Pygmalion for my liking, that is too incestuous beyond their being cousins. Part of the attraction between both is that “her mind in so great a degree [was] formed by his care.” Through much of the book Edmund is correcting and instructing Fanny, and it struck me very unlike say the way Mr Knightly treats Emma. Partly I suppose because I agreed more with Knightly's criticisms of Emma, but also because Emma was capable of disagreeing and pushing back, while Fanny constantly frustrated me with her meekness for so much of the book.
Moreover, Austen explicitly states that Henry Crawford and Fanny could have been happy together--that this was a woman he had “passionately and rationally loved” and there’s more than a hint that Edmund and Mary might have been happy as well. Happy if events were different? Or their characters? Probably the second, but Mansfield Park leaves me wondering about that in a way her other novels certainly didn’t. Indeed, much space is given to what-might-have-been paired differently, and short shrift to Edmund and Fanny's courtship. Finally, I’d also say I find something disturbing in the way in the end Fanny’s sister Susan takes her place, becoming the “stationary niece” while Fanny moves to Mrs Norris' place. Austen begins that last chapter saying she intended now to “restore every body, not greatly in fault themselves, to a tolerable comfort.” A tolerable comfort makes for a rather uncomfortable note when I contrast it with Austen’s other novels.
If I can’t quite put Mansfield Park in the same beloved place as her other mature novels and it's still my least favorite, I did finish respecting it on reread, and raising its rating to four stars. Certainly the secondary characters like Mrs Norris, Lady Bertram, Mr Yates, Maria Bertram and Mr Rushworth can be listed along with characters such as Lucy Steele or Mr Collins or Lady Catherine de Bourgh as memorable and indelible creations. And of all her novels, arguably Mansfield Park provides the most food for thought on such subjects as propriety and principle, the enduring damages of childhood and just what in a life partner can help us grow and flourish.
Since the copyright has long expired, you can find legitimate free etexts of Mansfield Park online, including here. But if you're going to buy a bound paper copy, I highly recommend the Norton Critical Edition--the critical essays in the back are worth the price alone, particularly those by Lionel Trilling, Nina Auerbach and Joseph Lew.
The 1999 feature film version directed by Rozema tried to make Fanny appealing by injecting a lot of Jane Austen's own personality into the heroine--it doesn't suit Fanny Price and makes a travesty of her character and the novel.
In other fan(of) news, I got pushed into watching Battlestar Galactica and am now an avid fan, though I doubt it'll ever inspire fanfic from me. Not that anything does these days *sigh*
In terms of reading fanfic btw, I've never been interested in Austen fandom, or the many pastiches professionally written--because they just in my opinion can't come up to the originals, and I didn't in other novels feel this need for course correction. Well with Mansfield Park I do rather have that itch and wouldn't mind reading fiction based in it, whether amateur or professional. If I weren't so terrified of trying to hit anything like an Austenesque style, I might even have given writing a MP fanfic a try. Which does say something about how this novel frustrates me still--but also how it still has me thinking.