Some years ago, while waiting for a connecting flight, I finished Mansfield Park only to start from the beginning, and this was by no means my first time reading the novel. I have found that each reading of an Austen novel retains (and often deepens) the pleasure of the first reading and was recently reminded of how good criticism works in the same way by Jane Stabler’s excellent introduction to the Oxford World Classics (2003) edition of Mansfield Park. This articles on this blog will chronicle my thoughts as I make my way though Mansfield Park, trying to record my thoughts as I reread the novel, separating as far as I can my conclusions from the previous readings—this is to be done in the blogging spirit.
I will start with the second volume as I devised the experiment at this stage and started making notes. I have endeavoured to write up the notes in order but have grouped together some of them into related themes.
The general critical reaction to Fanny Price I confess to find bewildering. Only thoroughly vulgar criticism would categorically dismiss the novel but almost everyone declares, apparently as an objective, established fact, that Fanny Price is unlikeable: too timid, too physically frail and, above all, a bit of a prig. The evidence of her jealousy, her goody-two-shoes attitude towards some harmless theatrics, her standoffish attitude towards the Crawfords, her passionate cousin’s disgrace, are without any suitably redeeming features to justify her being the heroine, her elevation and her final nailing of her cousin.
Instead it is a monster of complacency and pride who, under a cloak of cringing self-abasement, dominates and gives meaning to the novel . What became of that Jane Austen (if she ever existed) who set out bravely to correct conventional notions of the desirable and virtuous? From being their critic (if she ever was) she became their slave. That is another way of saying that her judgement and her moral sense were corrupted. Mansfield Park is the witness of that corruption.
Kingsley Amis, What Became of Jane Austen?, p. 144
Of course the whole point of Fanny Price is that she is almost everything that Elizabeth Bennett is not—true she does become a beautiful women but like Henry that really creeps up on us later. It is true that she is also the only person to stand up to the ‘absolute power’ of Sir Thomas (the carefully concealed demon of the piece) to avoid a materialistic loveless marriage to someone she can’t respect, but this again takes place quite late in the day and very few people seem to notice, or at least give it any weight.
Quite apart from all of this Fanny Price is my favourite Austen heroine. I find her entirely adorable from the start—perhaps it is her vulnerability, her introversion, her ‘self-denying tone’ (23.4), her respect for authority; I find it particularly easy to identify with Fanny because I had these qualities too (and to some degree still do). I feel close to Fanny because of the comic presentation, that Austen seems to find these aspects of her heroine hilarious and loving her the more for them.
It true Austen style our judgement is being tested. Just as in real life when our most serious judgements have to be made while our emotions are under acute pressure, so we shall find ourselves being challenged in the reading, as the heroine in her turn makes life-changing judgements under pressure.
Although I said Sir Thomas is the demon of the piece, I really meant that he embodies the tragic flaw at the centre of the novel, that flaw being carefully concealed under the many good qualities that are made to appear especially attractive. As Mrs Grant anticipates we find “his consequence very just and reasonable” (17.20) after the ‘noisy’ (23.59) theatricals. Indeed the point of judgement is not to carve up the cast into the saints and demons but to explore the ways qualities can become problematic, subject virtue to trials and show how it can and does ultimately prevail.
The stock demons, the evil step mother and step father of Mrs Norris and the Admiral act as decoys of course, and we have to be careful not to become so busy condemning them that we miss how much of them are latent in ourselves, perhaps manifesting through judgements on the characters and action.
It feels as if I am only properly appreciated all of this for the first time.
(See also Puritans, Prigs and the Tyranny of Petty Coercion, my blog article on Marilynne Robinson’s Death of Adam essays on modernity and Mansfield Park.)