Taken from the poverty of her parents’ home in Portsmouth, Fanny Price is brought up with her rich cousins at Mansfield Park, acutely aware of her humble rank and with her cousin Edmund as her sole ally. During her uncle’s absence in Antigua, the Crawford’s arrive in the neighbourhood bringing with them the glamour of London life and a reckless taste for flirtation. Mansfield Park is considered Jane Austen’s first mature work and, with its quiet heroine and subtle examination of social position and moral integrity, one of her most profound.
“There will be little rubs and disappointments everywhere, and we are all apt to expect too much; but then, if one scheme of happiness fails, human nature turns to another; if the first calculation is wrong, we make a second better: we find comfort somewhere.”
Mansfield Park is so dramatically different from Austen’s most famous books Pride and Prejudice and Emma. In those novels, and many of her others, the heroine is intelligent, feisty and not afraid to say her piece. However, in Mansfield Park, the main character Fanny Price is unlike any other Austen heroine (even Anne Eliot from Persuasion, Austen’s most “grown up” character).
Fanny is very timid and modest — always preferring to remain a wallflower than actively engaging with anyone, except her cousin Edmund. Many of the other characters in the novel are also pursuing power, money, status or simply pleasure, and their escapades can be quite funny at times. However, when you compare their behaviour to Fanny — who is prim, proper and passive — the reader (and importantly Edmund) are able to see how facile the other characters actually are.
I think this novel out of Austen’s other ones focuses quite heavily on the idea of a woman’s duty to marry for the sake of her family to attain wealth and connections, irregardless of her personal happiness. In Pride and Prejudice, Lizzie does turn down a suitor but he is ridiculous; whereas in Mansfield Park, Fanny turns down the incredibly wealthy, powerful and handsome Henry Crawford. She does this because she’s in love with Edmund and, even though she doesn’t believe they’ll ever be together, can’t bring herself to marry someone else. But she also deeply believes Henry is not the man he pretends to be in his position in society — she knows deep down she would be miserable with him. It’s honestly one of the book’s, and Austen’s, most powerful scenes: that an 18th century woman has the right to marry whomever she actually chooses.
I know Mansfield Park is people’s least favourite Austen book, but I enjoyed it a lot — even though it is quite long. And no I’m not put off by Fanny and Edmund’s romance — Edmund could give Darcy a run for his money any day!