What’s the point of Mansfield Park?
As 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.
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.
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.
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.