Jane Austen: Mansfield Park (1814)

Mansfield Park

I’m nearing the end of my Austen journey. Now that I have read Mansfield Park, I’ve only got Persuasion and her short fiction left. I was surprised to like Mansfield Park so much as I know it’s not a favourite of many. The reason for this is to some extent its heroine Fanny Price. I wouldn’t go as far as saying I liked Mansfield Park better than Pride and Prejudice, but it may come in second, before Emma.

The story can be summarized briefly. Three women make three very different marriages. Mrs Price gets married to a poor man who likes his drink too much. She bears him some 12 children, one of them is Fanny. Lady Bertram marries a very rich man, owner of an impressive country estate, Mansfield Park. The third, Mrs Norris, lives near Mansfield Park with her husband in a small parsonage. The two ladies often speak about their unfortunate third sister who lives in Portsmouth in squalor and one day Mrs Norris urges the Bertrams to send for Fanny, who is about ten years old, and suggests they raise her at Mansfield Park, together with her four older cousins, Tom, Edmund, Maria and Julia.

Fanny is extremely timid but over the years she is doing well. She grows up to be an educated and very pretty young woman. She’s secretly in love with her cousin Edmund who was the only one who was nice to her. Edmund has decided to join the clergy as being the younger brother he will not have a lot of money to live on. A lot of the Bertram’s money comes from the colonies and when the plantations don’t do so well, Sir Bertram travels to Antigua with his older son.

Mrs Norris who is a widow by now had to vacate the cottage for the new pastor, Mr Grant, and while Sir Bertram travels to Antigua, Mary and Henry Crawford, the younger brother and sister of Mrs Grant, arrive and set in motion a series of dramatic events.

If you know Austen well, you know that all of her heroines are tested. Some more, some less, but in the end they are always rewarded and the reward is a happy marriage.

Fanny Price is a unusual heroine because she comes from a very poor family and the way she is treated by the Bertram’s is often quite shocking. Especially the unlikable Mrs Norris lets her feel daily that she is an inferior. Fanny reminded me much more of a Dickens character and when she is sent back to Portsmouth, as a form of punishment, towards the end of the book, it’s even more Dickensian. I don’t think we find such a close up of a poor family in any other of Austen’s novels. But Fanny Price is unusual for other reasons. She is so timid and fearful and very frail as well. I was surprised to find the portrait of a highly sensitive person who even shows some signs of what used to be called neurasthenia. She has to be careful at all times; she catches colds more easily than others, she’s more easily exhausted. Her symptoms are never as pertinent as when she stays in Portsmouth. She suffers from the noise, the dirt and the smells far more than anyone else would. I have seen her called passive by people but I would say she is quiet and withdrawn, she’s not so much a dreamer as a thinker. Sure, to some extent she is passive, but if you are told daily that you are nothing, that you have to be grateful, that you have to stay in the shadow, then it’s hard to be any other way. Even if she is passive, I don’t think she has a weak mind at all. When they want to force her to marry Henry, she opposes this strongly.

I think a lot of the dislike of Fanny Price stems from her opponent Mary Crawford. I saw people mention that they like her far better than Fanny. When the book was written, she was clearly one of the negative people but we, with our 21st Century mentalities, can’t help but like her and find a lot of what she says quite reasonable. I don’t think I spoil the novel if I mention that it is also about adultery. From our point of view Mary’s reaction to this event is understandable, but when the book was written it was quite shocking. I think small elements like this show very well why many people prefer a historical novel set in 1814 than the real thing because a writer of historical novels would take our mindset into consideration.

Mansfield Park has one of my favourite villains Mrs Norris. She’s a self-centered, selfish and cruel person and tries to exclude Fanny from every little bit of joy, denies her a fire in her room and reminds her constantly that she is an outsider. I loved to hate her and the end is so rewarding.

Mansfield Park has a minor flaw. It is Austen’s longest novel but it’s not long enough. I felt the end was rushed. Many of the most important scenes happen offstage and the final emotional developments happen too quickly. I wasn’t surprised when I watched the ITV production right after finishing the book to see, that those elements were shown in the film while the first parts were compressed. I can’t remember if Austen rushes all of her endings like this. I found it a bit disappointing, which doesn’t mean I preferred the movie version. Not at all. It’s OK but not great and it contains a lot of major changes.

I think that when people write unkindly about Fanny Price, they seem to forget that being adopted into a rich family, means that you are leaving your family behind. Being cut off from what you know, not seeing your beloved brother for years, must be a terrible shock, no matter how stately a home you get in exchange. The story of the little girl Fanny Price who became a delicate but strong heroine has moved me. It’s a rags to riches story that I wouldn’t have expected from Austen. Most of her heroines marry well and improve economically through their marriage, but they don’t start out being as destitute as Fanny.

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45 thoughts on “Jane Austen: Mansfield Park (1814)

  1. Wonderful review, Caroline! I haven’t read ‘Mansfield Park’ yet, but have seen a film version – the 1999 one. The Fanny in the film version I saw seems to be very different from the Fanny in Austen’s book. It looks like the Austen’s Fanny is a frail girl with hidden reserves of strength. That makes her character even more interesting – I would love to read the scene where she says no to marrying Henry. I liked very much your thoughts on why you liked Fanny Price. I didn’t know that many readers didn’t like her but preferred Mary Crawford. I didn’t know about the 2007 film version which you watched. I would like to watch it sometime and compare it with the 1999 version. I should read ‘Mansfield Park’ one of these days. It is time to read some Austen, I think. Thanks for this wonderful review.

    • Thanks, Vishy. Oh you have to read it. I loved it.
      I’m not sure everyone prefres Mary Crwford but I know that Fanny isn’t so well liked.
      Everyone wants a kick-ass heroine these days but she isn’t. She’s the type of girl for who Susan cain’s Quiet has been written. A typical highly sensitive introvert.
      That Mrs Norris is such a nasty piece of work. I’m tempted to start Persuasion right away now. It’s too bad TBM isn’t blogging as she was just fonishing this. I would have loved to hear how she liked Fanny.
      Did I watch a 2007 version? I didn’t pay attention to the year. I watched the 1999 trailer and what i saw of Fanny had nothing to do with the book.
      I’m very curious to read Lynn Shepherd’s Murder at Mansfield Park who seems to be very good.
      I read that Fanny was Austen’s most modern heroine which is in interesting. Maybe that’s why she made her so frail, to make it more acceptable.

      • I will look forward to reading ‘Mansfield Park’, Caroline. Thanks for telling me about Susan Cain’s ‘Quiet’. It seems to be a fascinating book. I should read it soon. It makes me think of an article called ‘Solitude is Bliss’ by Emily Maguire that I read sometime back. (In case you are interested, you can find it here.) ‘Murder at Mansfield Park’ is an interesting title. Hope you enjoy reading it.

  2. Pride and Prejudice was my favourite Austen until I read Mansfield Park. I think Austen really wrestles here with her characters and their relationships. Mary and Henry Crawford are a curious pair & Henry’s persistence with Fanny was beautifully done. I particularly liked the whole corruption in the colonies that takes place off the page but nonetheless brings a dark shadow to Mansfield Park

    • It is rather good, isn’t it? I’m surprsied I don’t see it mentioned more often as a favourite. Maybe because so much more than just the romance is important.
      I think I still like P&P a bit better but I found this to be even richer.
      I could have written a lot more. Poeverty, the colonies, theatre. It contains such a lot of themes and the characters are very interesting. They are all quite present.

  3. I’ve never read Mansfield Park, maybe because I’d heard some of the negative commentary about the heroine, Franny. I’m so glad I read your review and that you pointed out these differences. It is important to consider the time period in which the book was written. Sometimes we forget to separate our modern sensibilities from those of the story.
    I now look forward to reading this important Austen novel.

    • Jackie, this is the longest of her novels but it was the one I read quickest. I thought it was so captivating and I really felt for Fanny. Yes, she is subservient but what other choice does she have? Still when it is important she is very determined. If you read it you will find yourself agreeing with Mary on several occasions but given the times, she’s not acceptable and quite selfish. Fanny is devoted. I think we do not like that quality any more. I hope you will like it as well.
      I’m looking forward to read what you think of it.

  4. Most Austen readers, it turns out, have no interest in the art of the novel, but instead spend a lot of time listing the characters they like and love, so of course Mansfield Park, Austen’s most artful novel, is no favorite.

    • I ususally don’t focus on charcaters at all because it’s not a particular piint of interest but I guess in this case, I felt almost obliged because Fanny Price gets so many negative comments.
      It is very artful but what do you say about the rushed ending. She is present in the text before that saying how she doesn’t like to dwell on the negaitve but wants to give her characters and positive ending and from then on things speed up.
      From the point of view of pacing I thought there was a break. I’d be intersted to know what you make of that or did you find that particularly artful?

    • I do not remember a rushed ending. Where does the rush begin?

      The last chapter – the amusingly meta-fictional “I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can” business leads the last chapter – is entirely denouement. I guess you thought the high point had not been reached, that something more was on its way? I was ready for the wrap-up. Yes, there was a break. The main story was over.

      Austen does not quite say she wants to give her characters a happy ending. What she writes is much narrower, and much funnier.

      • Exactly after her presence in the text – the metafictional bit which I think is very funny.
        I can understand why the discussion between Edmund and Mary had to take place off stage but the development of his feeling seemed somewhat rushed.
        There are scenes on which she spends a lot of time, in the rest of te novel and copred to that – especially the theatre section, I found the end pretty quick.

  5. Yes, I had a problem with not liking Fanny overmuch too. She seemed like a crybaby. I felt impatient with her and with Mary Crawford for different things, however, and wasn’t finally happy with either one of them, except for the “sop to Cereberus” of the happy marriage at the end. The hero Edmund also seemed to me a bit a of weak willy, and a clueless one, who didn’t seem to be sensitive enough to pick up on Fanny’s feeling for the longest time. I think my favorite will always be “Emma.” But I liked your essay very much, and I really loved the picture of your cat. He’s a handsome lad!

    • Thanks, Victoria, I’ll tell him. I got much more annyoed with Edmund at times than with Fanny and I even felt he didn’t deserve her. I was thinking that if I was Fanny, I wouldn’t even want him anymore after all that. He really makes her feel she’s second best. But I liked Fanny, I could understand her.

  6. What an exquisite photo for your blog header!!! A simply beautiful, luxurious feline. I love your new look for the blog. I wish I had something to say about Mansfield Park, but I haven’t read it. My favorite Jane Austen is Northanger Abbey. I laughed and laughed through the entire book–absolutely hilarious pseudo-gothic! I was sick in bed, flat on my back, sick as a dog as they say, but I had a light-weight paperback that took my mind off everything. What a genius!

    Judith

    • Thanks, Judith. I needed a chnage and thought that he deserves to be the guardian of te blog, so to speak.
      Northanger Abbey was my first Austen and the only one I read while still a teenager, so it didn’t work for me. I saw the humour but didn’t get it.
      Now that I knw her wit and irony, I’d enjoy it much more.

  7. I’ve always had more sympathy for poor Fanny than, say, Emma or the Dashwoods. I think it’s difficult though to put oneself in Fanny’s totally dependent position – today she’d just go out and get a job!
    You haven’t got to my favourite Austen yet, as it’s Persuasion.

    • I’m really looking forward to Persuasion now.
      I think Fanny really is a charcater who is hard to understand for us. As you say, nowadays she would just leave. On the other hand, she’s highly sensitive which something that is hard to be at all times.

  8. I really need to get to Austin . I tend to like my characters flawed so any issue with Fanny should not be much of an obstacle to me.

    I wonder what it was that made Austen write an ending that seems rushed.

    • I think because her focus is the way her charcaters are tested and once that is shown she moves on to give them happiness which can be told in a condensed way but it could be a realy flaw.
      I can’t make up my mind. I felt that a lot of the importnat things at the end happened off stage.
      After having read most of her books, i think this wouldn’t be a bad starting point for you, if you’d like to read her.

  9. This is one of my unread Austen novels (I also still need to read Emma), though I have seen the movie–actually the version to you show above, which I recall came in for a lot of criticism by Austen purists when it came out. I liked the story and suspect I would like even more the book. Your post makes me want to pull out an Austen novel now–I have read so few classics this year and with fall coming I am always more in the mood (though not sure why?) to read classics. It’s so interesting to see how readers react to characters, isn’t it? Sometimes the most conflicted or ‘unlikable’ are the most interesting.

    • I could be wrong but I think you’d like Fanny for the same reasons I did. And it’s an really interesting story that offers much more than just a romance. All her novels offer more but I felt this had a bigger scope than most.
      She’s also amazingly witty and ironical which i love as well.
      I’m not sure why you read classics in autumn or winter but they do feel less outdoorsy than some other books. Somehow. I haven’t read a lot. Some 20th Century classics but not a lot of older books.

  10. This is one of the only Austen novels I haven’t read, probably for the reason you mentioned. Now I’m curious and will probably read it. The Masterpiece Theatre version also looks good. Thanks, Caroline.

  11. I always think of Mansfield Park as a more realistic Cinderella tale, with a Cinders who isn’t delusionally cheerful and starry-eyed with hope and a Prince who is Charming but not necessarily a hero. I’ve never understood readers who love Austen but miss the financial background to this novel and miss the shocking elements of it because they get hung up on whether they ‘like’ Fanny. :)

    • I guess you can read Austen and never for one second realize when it was written and what it all meant. I felt for Fanny. I thought she is the most tragic, if not the only really tragic Austen heroine and there was far mor at stake for her than for most others.
      I never expected Jane Austen to write a novel including this type of depcition of poverty. I never saw it mentioned anywhere. I was just struck how often I saw Fanny scolded by readers. The financial background is not what most readers read Austen for. The Portsmouth scenes are such a harsh and brutal depiction of poverty, yet very understanding and nuanced. I just started Claire Tomalin’s Austen biography and I’m curous to find out more.

  12. I’ve read this one a long time ago and I remember being irritated by the characters. I was young, I should read it again, your post makes me want to do just that.
    I really like Emma.

    • I can’t remember Emma so well. Of course she and Elizabeth Bennet are closer to us but I liked that she chose such a different heroine and the book has so many other interesting aspects.
      I think it’s not the best to read too young. Overall Edmund is more irritating than Fanny.
      I’d be curious what you think of it when you reread it.

  13. It’s been years since I’ve read Mansfield Park. I enjoyed it, but not as much as Austen’s other novels. I wasn’t “wowed” by Fanny Price; to me she lacked the vibrant personality of Elizabeth Bennet and Emma Woodhouse. But I think the more time goes by, the more I’ve come to appreciate Fanny, and I think I will like her much more when I re-read the book. Hopefully soon. Great review, as always!

    • Thanks, Anna. Sure, she’s neither witty nor vibrant but I felt for her. It’s such an extraordinary story to come from Austen in a way but it still has all the trademarks of her novels.
      I’m glad this wasn’t my first of her because I think kniwing the others, I got a lot much better.
      The only one I don’t like is Sense and Sensibility. I have to re-read Emma. It was the second I read.

  14. I was just about to say…I think there’s a movie on this…and you mentioned it at the end of your post.

    I still think Jane Austen is not for me no matter how many reviews I have read.

    Btw, I like your header…he is a good looking cat.

  15. I finished this book on my holiday. I haven’t had time to write my review yet and I’m glad I read yours first since you make an excellent point. The novel isn’t long enough. The ending bothered me but I didn’t put my finger on the reason.

    Mrs. Norris is a wonderful character to hate. I’ve known a few people like her. Poor Fanny. To put up with those comments daily. But she has the most poise and grace out of all of them. I didn’t know that others preferred Mary. I didn’t like her one bit. I thought she was conceited and conniving from the start.

    • I’m glad you felt the same about the end. I don’t think she’s ever done that in any of her other books.
      The scene between Edmund and Mary is so important, only because of that he finally renounces and that it took place offstage was strange also his sudden love for Fanny.
      There really are people like Mrs Norris. Awful.
      I found Mary calculating but from modern point of view I understood some of her reactions.

  16. Hi Carolyn! My fave Austen novel is actually Persuasion, hope you enjoy that one. Have you seen the film version of Mansfield Park w/ Frances O’Connor? I quite like that one but I haven’t seen the BBC version yet.

  17. Pingback: Jane Austen: Persuasion (1818) | Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

  18. Your comment on the difference between historical novels which were contemporary when written and historical novels written now is a neat one. it’s why though I am happy with novels which are now historic but were contemporary, but not with contemporary historic novels.

    Basically, most historical fiction is modern fiction in fancy dress. The characters have our morals, our attitudes, in bonnets. I have no interest in that.

    What’s much more interesting is to see things from the perspective of people who are not us.

    That aside, whether a character is sympathetic or not, likeable or not, isn’t something that hugely interests me in books. It’s not that I’m immune to a likeable character, it’s just not something that factors much into whether a book is any good or not. I thought Pride and Prejudice exceptional when I read it recently as you saw from my comments on it when I blogged it, and I’m heartened to hear that this one may be better.

    I see she’s lost none of her interest in the importance of money…

    One point that strikes me in the treatment of Fanny (who sounds in modern parlance as if she’s suffering from mild depression), for many then a person of gentle birth in hard circumstances is a bleak reminder of how easy it is to lose one’s position. The gap between gentility and squalor can be a single disastrous investment. Anyone who is a living reminder of that will never be an entirely welcome presence in the home.

    • I sometimes like historical novels but for the descriptions, not for the depiction of the characters because hardyl any autor gets it right and if he or she would, then he’d be blamed for it, I guess.
      Mansfield Park is interesting and I thought Fanny Price was an interesting and unusal Austen heroine. It could be mild depression or just intense oversensitivity. it’s hard to say but what struck me was the frequent mention of fatigue
      I guess being treated the way she was by Mrs Norris, taken away from home at a young age, many would succumb to depression.
      I’m ususally not reading for characters as much as for other things and what I find importnat is more that chaacter interest me or resonates with me for some reasons. Whether likabel or not is secondary.
      The importance of money is key, here.
      It’s very good comment about that gap and I think Mrs Norris’ position being te most fragile, she might pick up on that the most.
      I hope you’ll get to it sooner or later, I’d be interested to hear your thoughts. It has much bleaker moments than any other of her books.

    • Excellent question Tom. I had to think about that one.

      Firstly, I haven’t read any Scott so I can’t speak to that. I have though read some historical historical fiction, for example Hardy’s Under the Greenwood Tree. It does bother me less, though with the Hardy I had to remind myself that it was historical fiction and not in fact contemporary.

      Part of what I dislike is the intrusion of modern attitudes onto a historical setting. It’s a bit like reading a book set in say downtown Cairo in which everyone acts as if they were British or American. It’s jarring. The truth is though, if it’s historical historical fiction then there’s every chance that if there are (then) modern attitudes which are being projected backwards I may simply not realise. I’m not a contemporary of the 1880s, and so might not realise that a novel written then but set in the 1780s was truer to the mores of when it was written than when it’s set.

  19. Pingback: Review: Mansfield Park by Jane Austen | 50 Year Project

  20. Pingback: Best Books of 2013 | Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

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