Mansfield Park

Mansfield Park - Jane Austen

Despite enticing film tie-in cover, the actual romance between our heroine and the hero starts and ends with the last chapter of the novel, and without much fuss. It seemed as if Jane Austen got tired of the story when it at last came to its conclusion, after 400 pages of meticulous descriptions of seductions and refusals. I often wondered how on Earth Austen managed to write so much… about what exactly? The story may be put in two sentences – Fanny Price got lifted from her poor plebeian background to the wealth and noble dignity of her uncle’s family where she gradually fell in love with her cousin. (Don’t even start that topic – at Austen’s time it didn’t seem so big deal, and although I still got the creeps over that issue, I had to get over it.) She secretly (of course) desired (and did manage) to marry him at last, but in meantime she had to endure the advances of a man whose consistency along with her own she would firmly test and finally (dis)prove.

The main storyline however wasn’t what really interested Austen – at least that’s my take on it – the relationships and the clashes of different character types were what delighted her along with the issues women of her time were dealing with, such as peer and parental pressures, marital decisions and its consequences. I loved all those details, and the way all those depictions of different marriages, different lifestyles and different classes were interwoven. One could acutely feel the atmosphere of that time and the state of Fanny’s mind in every turmoil of her life. At first glance, for an example, the situation of Fanny Price’s mother did not appear relevant, but related to Bertram’s family and wealthy Mr Crawford’s proposal, it held an important leverage, along with Mr Crawford’s kindness and attention in other fields during that wooing time. Interesting though, it’s difficult from those descriptions to figure out Austen’s personal thoughts on marriages. It doesn’t appear that she disapproves marriages for love in general, after all, Fanny marries for love, but those that lack everything else – like that of Fanny Price’s mother. She believed I guess in prudent liaisons, where the partners in love can offer to each other not only love but also respect and security of some kind.

Fanny Price isn’t quite appealing character. Reportedly, even Austen didn’t like her very much, but rather challenged herself to invent such a main character. Young Fanny Price resembles a lot Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, and the older one seems equally…virtuous and equally difficult to care about. Her opinions are so firm and her lifestyle so rigid, almost as if every hour of her life had to be strictly regulated and defined or she would lose her wits. BUT – very big but – I really liked how she stood up firmly against all persuasions to marry Crawford. I really liked how Austen transformed Fanny from insecure child to fully grown woman with her own mind and stand, despite my own opinions of them. I was appalled by all those speeches made to her – she was barely eighteen and it was really expected of her to jump on that chance to marry even if she doesn’t love the groom in question, because she was mere woman and supposed not to think at all, certainly not with her own head and especially not with her own heart. They almost convinced me she was making mistake! Although that might be due the hard time I had swallowing the fact she was in love with her own first cousin.

The problem remains also, that Austen did never fail to make us understand, women of her time and class were considered merely as beautiful and fragile ornaments – it’s enough to observe the way Lady Bertram was treated by her own family – and that makes their decision-making more difficult. Every decision that would be beyond social expectations was met with terrible resistance in their inner circles and even with abandon if thoroughly conducted.

Maybe that’s why Austen didn’t elaborate much Edmund’s feelings towards Fanny. This wasn’t romance story at all. This was Fanny’s story, and the story of all women (and men in some cases!) that have to fight argumentatively for the right to make their own choices. Charlotte Lucas from Pride and Prejudice might be an example of Austen’s contemporaries that bowed to such pressures from their peers and relatives. Austen did not try to sweeten these women’s deals, analyzing and even (perhaps) condemning them in more detail in this novel.