I’ve always had a soft spot for Mansfield Park, although I know it’s not Austen’s most popular work. Recently, as I re-read the story, I asked myself two questions: why do some readers (even readers who love Austen) find Mansfield Park problematic? And why do I find the book appealing despite that? Below are my conclusions.
Why is Mansfield Park Problematic?
Mansfield Park has many of the elements we love in other Austen books: great characters, sharp dialogue, a wonderfully satirical view of society, and an engaging plot. Yet even Austen’s own family received it with lukewarm praise. Most readers would agree that the primary problem is the protagonist, Fanny Price. A fellow JAFF writer once complained to me that Fanny doesn’t do anything. And that criticism is mostly accurate. As an indigent relation, she is essentially a passive character, having little influence over the events in her life.
While many of Austen’s other heroines are often forced into passive positions (by virtue of social custom), Fanny is particularly passive. When challenged she is likely to fold like a house of cards and retreat to her attic room. She never argues and defends her views like Elizabeth Bennet. She takes no bold actions to help members of her family like Elinor Dashwood. Even Catherine Morland exhibits more gumption in the face of opposition. But Fanny initiates almost nothing of her own will. The one time she takes a stand is when she refuses to marry Henry Crawford—a decision she stands by in the face of some quite strong opposition. Ultimately, through no actions of her own, Fanny’s view of the Crawfords is vindicated and everyone comes to recognize her superior judgment.
What’s the problem with passive protagonists? They’re not very interesting. They do not take action; they are acted upon. Often they come across as victims, subject to the will of others. After a while that gets annoying to the reader. Passive protagonists are one of those things they warn beginning writers to avoid. Fanny is passive, and she never changes (also a bad quality in a protagonist). No wonder some people find the book distasteful.
Why Do I Like It?
If I can so readily identify Fanny’s flaws, why do I still find myself liking her and enjoying the book? I think one factor is that Fanny’s virtue becomes its own reward. Fanny is not particularly clever or brave or beautiful, but she is good. She is sweet, nice, virtuous. No one could possibly say a bad word about her. And she is the only one who sees the truth of the Crawfords’ moral failings. Ultimately her goodness is rewarded. When Lord Bertram’s other daughters fail him, he turns to Fanny, the daughter of his heart. When Edmund is disillusioned about Mary Crawford, he realizes he loves Fanny. It takes a while, but ultimately her superior virtues are recognized and rewarded.
If I perform a little psychoanalysis on myself, I think some part of me responds to that idea. I think I’m a good person (doesn’t everyone?). I feel underappreciated (doesn’t everyone?). I can identify with Fanny. Isn’t it an appealing thought that good things will come to me—and all of my problems will be resolved—simply because others eventually recognize my goodness? Wouldn’t it be nice if the world worked that way?
In some ways, Mansfield Park is like a fairytale. Like a fairytale princess, Fanny doesn’t need to do anything to earn her prince. She receives her reward by being good and virtuous. Wouldn’t we all like that?