Approx. 160,000 words
The price of being different
If you're a Jane Austen aficionado, particularly loving her headstrong heroines picking their plucky but principled way through the constricting marriage plots of the time, Mansfield Park probably comes as a big disappointment. However, if you're cool on Austen's more popular works—well, you won't much like this one either.
Yet it is surprisingly often held by critics and some fans to be the greatest of Austen's novels. Certainly it's the odd one out, being the darkest and emotionally most conflicted of her tales of marriageable young gentlemen and gentlewomen in provincial England.
Mansfield Park has not even the benefit of the standard Austen heroine to root for. Fanny Price, the young girl who is taken in by her wealthier relatives who have two slightly older and preening daughters, is far from plucky. She's a timid flower with an overly developed virtuosity that prevents her from standing up for herself in the household of her presumed betters or declaring for the man she loves.
One often feels the urge to step into an Austen novel to gently slap some sense into one character or another—often a proud, forward main character who is throwing her heart away after completely misjudging the men in her life. This may be the first time though you want to slap an overly virtuous, retiring character who sees everything around her with great sensitivity but refuses to take a single courageous step toward claiming her place in the world.
Nor is there an overriding theme in Mansfield Park as in those first two novels, which may explain the different kind of title. It's difficult to sum up the plot and characters in a phrase or in a sentence—in the high-concept fashion beloved by modern reviewers. Rather the story, seen mainly through Fanny's eyes, though told in the third person, wanders around at greater length than any other Austen work, with only the dominating geographical site being the unifying factor; hence the title.
One is tempted to say Fanny's development is the theme. But she doesn't develop. Over a decade she grows from a girl into a young woman and she gains an admirer or two along the way but she never comes into her own, until close to the end when it's time to finally wrap up the story and everyone's character is revised to meet that requirement.
But maybe this lack of an overarching theme is not such a bad thing. It gives Mansfield Park space to get into all sorts of nooks and crannies neglected by Austen's shorter tales.
Some critiques of the novel point out Austen's awareness of slavery. The wealth of the Bertram family within which Fanny grows up comes from plantations in the West Indies that profit from the slave trade. Fanny herself queries her benefactor on the issue. The very name of their property may have suggested itself to the author as coming from the British judge Lord Mansfield whose ruling four decades before this novel came out had made slavery illegal in England.
This consciousness of a larger social issue—intimating the comfort of her characters may be founded on this vile practice—is startling in a Jane Austen novel, where the author usually goes out of her way not to go out of her way, keeping her criticism to local manners and ignoring the larger issues impinging from outside the insular social circles she knows so well.
Or it would be startling if it were more than hinted at. Fanny doesn't get an answer to her question about the slave trade and immediately drops the issue. It never comes up again in any significant manner and seems to play no role in the ultimate judging of characters by book's end.
Similar kinds of analyses can be made on other issues it is claimed Austen takes up. Some readers find sly hits at established religion, namely the Church of England, in Mansfield Park. Others hail what they see as early feminism in Fanny's Cinderella-like rise from submissive underling.
But an equal number of—or more—instances can be found of Fanny reasserting traditional values. In many ways, this is a very conservative novel, quite defensive of British upper class conventions. Perhaps, it is because this is the only novel in which Austen raises such possible defects in British mores in the first place, she is forced to answer those charges here.
This ambivalence in Mansfield Park is also seen in the characters. Apart from the supremely forbearing Fanny, none of them is portrayed for very long in a positive light. It is expected in an Austen novel that any handsome, chivalrous and fine-talking male suitors will turn out to be scoundrels, but here even their better-hearted foils display weaknesses of character. Even the sympathetic Edmund Bertram, whom Fanny loves, shows himself to be superficial, self-centred and hurtful at times, making one wonder why she bothers with him. At one point one even begins hoping for the chances of Henry Crawford, who starts off well, impressing the Bertram family, but reveals himself to be a cad playing with women's affections, then reforms himself to court Fanny with whom he falls in love, and then (inexplicably) again shows himself a rascal by taking off with another woman. The feminine figures of the piece are also a shallow, changeable lot.
This may actually be the best thing about the novel—that its characters are real, flesh-and-blood, fallible folks. It may make it frustrating for readers looking for a great romance of like minds to arise or who want to pick sides and 'ship their favourite twosomes among the eligibles. But the marriage plot does not run to form in Mansfield Park.
At least not until the end. At the beginning of the last chapter Austen openly lays out her intention to wrap up all the ambiguities with happy resolutions:
Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can, impatient to restore everybody not greatly in fault themselves to tolerable comfort, and to have done with all the rest.
A quick wrap-up follows with everyone getting their just desserts. It's an unearned conclusion but I suppose Austen had no other choice apart from following the characters on and on, endlessly through their up-and-down moral lives.
And, oddly, it's an acceptable ending to Jane Austen's least lovable but most interesting novel.
— Eric McMillan