onsdag den 19. april 2023

Mansfield Park - Jane Austen (1814)


Mansfield Park

“Mansfield Park” is the fourth and last of this round of Jane Austen novels. It is also the most tricky one to get a grip on.

The setting of Mansfield Park is the manor of same name. Sir Thomas Bertram has two sons, Tom and Edmund, and two daughters, Maria and Julia with his wife Lady Bertram. Lady Bertram has two sisters, Mrs. Norris and Mrs. Price. All three have their flaws: Lady Bertram is indolent and uninterested, Norris is… a terrible person and Price fell in love with a seaman and lives in quasi-poverty with a horde of children. The oldest of these, Fanny, arrives at Mansfield Park at the age of 10 to be raised by the Bertrams and she is our heroine.

It is important to Aunt Norris that Fanny understands that she is inferior and that the Bertrams must always come first. She must also show gratitude, especially to Norris, for everything the Bertrams are giving her. As a result, Fanny, already a timid girl, remains a very humble and shy girl, more interested in the well-being of those around her than herself. When things start to unravel at Mansfield park, instigated by the two visitors from the city, Mary and Henry Crawford, siblings, Fanny finds herself in the center of a whirlwind challenging her moral compass.

“Mansfield Park” is very much a moralistic tale. Fanny represents good and moral behavior and the Crawfords, coming as they are from the city of vice, London, represent the challenge to moral behavior. With them as catalysts, the Bertram children are losing restraint and drift into vice. Even Edmund, the most “proper” of the four, falls in love with Mary and is tempted to participate in events he knows are wrong.

The challenge for the reader is to recognize right from wrong, something that is not made easier by two hundred years of moral evolution. When the Bertrams and the Crawfords want to set up a theater at Mansfield, this is considered highly improper, especially as the play is “Lover’s Vows”, a slightly daring piece. It is difficult to see how this should be the road to Hell, but there you have it. When Henry Crawford openly flirts with both Julia and Maria, it is easier to see this as problematic, especially since Maria is engaged to Mr. Rushworth, and his indifferent abandonment of both shows him as unreliable to boot.

For Fanny the challenge reaches its peak when Henry insists on courting herself and everybody pressure her into accepting his proposal. Only Fanny is not convinced and insists on refusing him.

I am torn on “Mansfield Park”. Fanny is often blamed as being the most boring and colorless of Austen’s heroines, but I do sympathize with her. A lot of her sentiments are things I can recognize in myself, her fears and her hopes and her finding refuge in a rich internal life. However, Fanny is a saint and I am not so there are limits, but I do feel I understand her. Similarly, I recognize the type of Mrs. Norris. Although she is intended as a caricature, I can see real people with many of her qualities and I understand how absolutely obnoxious they can be.

Where the chain jumps off is on two accounts. The distinction of what is proper and what is improper is exceptionally prudish. By any standards, the proper life, according to Mansfield Park is a very dull life. Anything resembling normal, youthful behavior is frowned upon and we are to think that a retired life of boredom is bliss. Austen simply goes too far here.

My other problem is that for all Austen’s insistence of doing the right and proper thing, apparently it is okay for cousins to fall in love and marry. The idea makes me gag, and it breaks some huge taboos of mine, but Austen seems to find no problem at all with that. Well, wait till she sees what sort of children this will produce…

The net result is a book I am not certain how to rate. There is so much quality Austen stuff here that it cannot be ignored, but also so much prudish moralizing that is difficult to accept. Reading felt like a curve, I loved getting into it, it was better than expected, but as it unfolds it gets increasingly difficult to take in. I am hesitant to endorse it, but how can you not recommend an Austen novel?


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