What’s the point of Mansfield Park?

What’s the point of Mansfield Park?

What’s the point of Mansfield Park?

 

tumblr_ngl5g9YLLG1u2y913o5_400As much as I love reading and writing JAFF romance between Austen’s characters, I don’t really think that was her point in any of the books…except maybe Persuasion. So, what’s the point of Mansfield Park if it’s not the “loving the boy next door who doesn’t know you exist” trope?

Let’s look at where we start. We start with the story of the Miss Wards. One made a great match; one married a clergyman with no independence and the final one eloped in a seemingly disastrous union with no money, no connection and little happiness. Honing in on Mrs. Price we soon learn of her eldest daughter, Fanny. In fact, it takes two chapters before we actually meet Fanny. Chapter two closes on,

“In return for such services she loved him better than anybody in the world except William: her heart was divided between the two.”

Her love for Edmund, there, seems very brotherly, and we don’t know exactly when that changed.

So, we begin with the account of a little girl who is taken from her home and all that she knew and raised among cousins who think themselves above her. We’re told of the poor treatment from Mrs. Norris, Lady Bertram’s dependence upon her and Fanny’s fear of Sir Thomas. Through it all, Fanny is not happy. Nor is she even complacent. She merely sustains what life is throwing at her.

Now, let’s look at the final chapter. Edmund is removed from Mary Crawford’s spell but has yet to claim love for Fanny. She is home at Mansfield and caring for Lady Bertram. She is happy. She held her morals and convictions at each step in the book and, at last, is rewarded with happiness.

Happiness, however, means different things to different people. Would Mary Crawford have been happy with Edmund as her husband? Not if he remained a poorly connected clergyman with half his inheritance given away to settle his elder brother’s debts. Would Henry have been happy with Fanny if she had accepted him? My unpopular opinion is that he would have felt accomplished at his great achievement, but then needed a new project. He had previously claimed he was happiest in his life while they were all busy with the play. It’s the challenge he loves, not Fanny. Would Edmund have been happy with Mary? I think before too long he would have been quite miserable with not being able to change her. That is what the three have in common. They require their love interest to change.

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Not Fanny.

In most books, there is character growth. You see that they have changed from the beginning to the end. I do this sort of mapping in my own books. And, indeed, Fanny does evolve. She becomes more outspoken, more confident. But she doesn’t really change her ideals or her way of thinking at all. That is very different than every other Austen heroine.

Why?

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Fanny never asks anyone to change, even when she believes Edmund is wrong and duped by Mary. She never tries to change herself, either, even when she feels insecure and inferior.

I think by this point in Austen’s career, she desired to show a different sort of heroine. She had written a story that chronicled ladies could be in love and retain both feminine sentimentalities and use logical sense. She had written a flawed heroine who underwent a character transformation that would rival Tom Jones. Now, she wanted to show a quiet, reserved lady who lacked confidence. She is fearful and timid and quite young. She has been given a great advantage in life and feels it acutely. She has every reason to feel subservient, and I think her natural disposition leans that way as well. And yet, Fanny, in the end, is not submissive. The other females in the book spend their time pandering to various men, altering their opinions and actions to earn praise and affection. Even Mrs. Norris desires Sir Thomas’ approval on every thought she has. Fanny displays another character strength that I think Austen always valued but chose to highlight more in Mansfield Park.

Fanny is resilient. Dictionary.com gives this definition: 1) springing back; rebounding. 2) returning to the original form or position after being bent, compressed, or stretched. 3) recovering readily from illness, depression, adversity, or the like; buoyant.

And Thesuarus.com gives these synonyms: buoyant, adaptable, airy and effervescent. Its antonyms are weak, delicate, inflexible, stiff and rigid.

In true Austen fashion, the irony of character portrayal is revealed at last. Fanny is physically rather weak—exercise fatigues her. Her opponents call her too inflexible and rigid on morals. And yet, what allows her to survive is an ability remain faithful to her real makeup, her true character, even when she is bent and pulled by life’s toils.

It is not that she does not feel the trials. Mary Crawford so eagerly sees the silver lining should Tom Bertram die and conceives of how to manage Henry and Maria’s elopement. She barely takes a moment to stumble. Her morals are so flexible they can instantly adjust to these possibilities that bring only misery to her friends. Fanny feels misfortunes acutely, but she remains true to herself.

And in the end, her love for Edmund is returned. He too demonstrates resiliency. He bent considerably more than Fanny did, but he retained his original beliefs.

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I think that lesson of resiliency as the path to happiness is at the heart of Mansfield Park. And in the end, we can examine three girls who were raised as sisters again: one made a great match, one eloped and one married a clergyman. The circumstance of who they married, the income and station in life had little bearing on the happiness and course of the ladies’ lives compared with their resiliency.

What do you think?

And if you liked my analysis and would like to read more thoughts on Mansfield Park, check out my “Falling for Fanny” series on my blog. It has guest posts from fellow Austen Author Lennie Brown and from an avid JAFF reader and music historian, Beverlee Swayze.

17 Responses to What’s the point of Mansfield Park?

  1. PS

    BTW The Billie Piper version of MP was one of the worse. She was the opposite of how Fanny was presented. Fanny didn’t bounce around MP. Most movie directors dislike Fanny and so have a hard time depicting her as Austen presented her. I don’t know if the book has ever been perfectly represented in a movie.

  2. The WARD sisters don’t seem to grow or change over the years except to get worse. Lady Bertram becomes more like a beautiful doll set on a shelf, Mrs. Norris becomes more jealous and sly; and Mrs. price becomes less controlled and incompetent. Her boys were self reliant and resilient out of necessity. The boys were more cheerful and energetic but the girls more quarrelsome until Fanny works with Susan. Fanny’s main quailty is her integrity. That is why people usually say they hate her for being so righteous and call her a prig. Many want her to be as tolerant as Mary Crawford of questionable behavior. Mary saw Henry’s affair with Maria as “folly.”
    I have always been sympathetic of poor Fanny’s plight when she is first taken to Mansfield. 10 years old and taken away from her parents and siblings. Taken from being of use to being considered stupid and of no account and always having to be grateful for being abused.
    Sir Thomas should have looked at his parenting back when he sold the next presentation to Mansfield park to pay Tom’s debts. It does makes one wonder at the history of the Bertram family and wonder when and how he made his money and when they were made baronets. Sir Thomas was an MP at the beginning of the story. The origins of the Bertram family would make an interesting story.

    • I agree that Fanny keeps her integrity. I honed in on resiliency over integrity because her morals weren’t really tested. It’s easy to say others are doing wrong but she wasn’t very tempted to do wrong ever. In fact, she doesn’t really do much. She observes life at Mansfield and learns of things that happen while she’s away. It’s a very different sort of writing compared to Austen’s other novels, I think. But I do love Fanny. This was the last Austen book I had read and I expected it to be my least favorite but it certainly wasn’t. I felt akin to Fanny many times and my heart went out to how badly she was treated as a child!

      I also agree, the story of the Bertrams would be interesting! During the first few chapters Austen had me interested in everyone but Fanny!

    • Thanks! I’m glad you enjoyed it. I admit, I have tried Mansfield Park several times over the years and, like you, I ended up feeling sorry for poor, young Fanny but it didn’t keep me reading. I think I definitely got more out of MP since I waited until now to read it versus if I would have persevered and completed it when younger.

  3. I like your analysis that Fanny doesn’t change, and the parallel about the sisters. Status of your home doesn’t necessarily equal “well brought up”. I do, however, put more emphasis of the influence Edmund had on her make-up. She really almost had a man’s education he formed her reading selections and talked about the,. Almost like he copied his schooling at home with her.

    • I do think he encouraged her independent thought, but I think Austen’s contemporary readers would have understood more at the time that from Edmund’s age he was at school most of the time. I don’t think he specifically taught her to think better than his sisters were taught or his mother and aunts. I know there is a nature vs. nurture debate that some read in MP and I actually think Austen argues for nature over nurture. Fanny arrives at Mansfield with good principles and when we see her in Portsmouth, I don’t think she got them from her Price family.

  4. This makes so much sense to me. I always think of integrity as the word to describe Fanny, but I like resiliency too. MP has been a hard book for me to appreciate, but posts like these help. I think Fanny has so much in common with Jane Eyre. I wish Edmund had a little more Mr. Rochester in him, maybe not a wife in their attic, but a little more passion would be nice.

    • I think integrity is a good word too, but when I look up the definition I’m not sure it fits with what I see in Fanny. It talks about “especially moral values” and I don’t think Fanny had stricter morals. She weathers a lot of storms and a lot of people trying to change her make up but she doesn’t change and that’s why I chose the word resilient.

      Your line about the wife in the attic made me laugh!

      I do see similarities between Jane Eyre and Fanny. I don’t mind a beta male, like Edmund, and have never liked Rochester much. I do agree, that we don’t see a lot of on the page passion for Fanny from Edmund, but since I don’t think their romance was the point of the story I guess I didn’t really miss it either.

  5. I loved your parallel comparison of the matches of the Ward sisters and those of the cousins…well done. I absolutely missed that. I’ve always liked the fact that Fanny had the courage to stand her ground in refusing Crawford. She also withstood the abuse of Sir Thomas and wouldn’t betray her cousin.

    As far as Sir Thomas was concerned, Crawford was an advantageous match and he simply thought Fanny a silly girl that didn’t know what was best for her. When in reality, she had more moral fiber than his daughters. He didn’t even try to get to the reasons behind her refusal or to understand.

    And yet, he paused and offered Maria an out from her engagement to Rushworth when he thought there might be a weakening of her affections. Mira refused the out and took the advantageous match even when her affections were with another.

    • I think in some ways Sir Thomas thought Fanny believed it nearly a presumption to marry Crawford. That she refused out of modesty. Once she said that she did not trust Henry and found him inferior, that made him angry. He had found Henry everything good whereas he wasn’t fond of Rushworth. Sir Thomas was always a bit of a selfish parent/guardian and I think he finally had to learn that with Maria when he should have wondered about it back when Tom gambled away so much money they had to sell the Mansfield living instead of keeping it for Edmund.

  6. That’s a very good analysis, I think. Fanny’s (and Edmund’s) development as characters is subtle, and really that development involves strengthening their already good characteristics. Through the book, while we always like Fanny, we begin to see her characteristics as strengths rather than weaknesses, especially when she finds the backbone to stand up to Sir Thomas and Henry Crawford and say “no”. I wonder, however, if those are the sorts of character traits that we’d rather have in our friends than in our novels. The Crawfords’ over-the-topness, or even Maria’s scandal, make for more exciting reading, and there’s something about the tale of a bad boy turned good that intrigues us as readers. That notion of a redeemable rogue almost reaches back to the Morality Plays of Medieval England, where a soul vacillates between good and evil and ultimately chooses good. IN MP, Fanny reminds me more of Udolfo’s Emily, who starts good and sweet and ends up good and sweet, despite all the nefarious goings-on around her. In MP, as in Udolfo, the main characters are the rocks around which the action swirls. These are just a couple of unformed thoughts about the novel, but I do love being able to pull these things apart with interested and thoughtful folks. 🙂

    • I think that’s a good analysis too. In my “cold reading” notes in the first few chapters I kept writing things like “Darn it, Jane! I want to know that character’s story!” So, I agree that the others are more intriguing than Fanny at times. I think it took me a bit longer to really “feel” Fanny compared to Austen’s other heroines, but I think I liked her and her choices and identified with her the most except for Elizabeth Bennet. So, after awhile, she really felt “alive” to me and I wanted to Austen to wrap it up and stay on Fanny more!

  7. Love your analysis. I never thought of it that way before, but I love how you said, even though she seemed submissive (especially to others in her circle) she wasn’t submissive in her morals. Love that about Fanny. But I might add, it was very trying for her when she did go through that process. It is incredibly difficult for someone that timid to stand her ground, to be firm in principle, especially when influential people around her try to force her to their way of thinking. I admire her very much for that.

    • Yes! I definitely agree that it was difficult for Fanny. I don’t think she took it lightly that she was disagreeing with her benefactors and even Edmund at times. I don’t think she was ever submissive in spirit but she would have liked to have been an equal and the idea of pleasing others for acceptance is a universal theme we still face two hundred years later.

Your thoughts are precious!