Thoughts: Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

85635 (1)Mansfield Park by Jane Austen
Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0
YTD: 10

Jane Austen is perched on a curious point in the literary timeline, caught somewhat between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, both of which influenced her work. She greatly admires Samuel Johnson (as demonstrated by the many Johnson quotes & references that can be found in her various works), and many, if not most, of her works are about a woman attempting to –or somehow finding herself- climbing the social ladder, out of her station and, through marriage, into a higher one. This is largely an influence of eighteenth century works, such as Pamela. Still, there is much of Romanticism and the nineteenth century in her works, as in their preference for intelligence and natural beauty over traditional wealth and caste systems. Austen’s work also dips into the Victorian concerns of sensational-realism, which is where Mansfield Park and its Pragmatism are mostly situated. In its exploration of modernity, shifting family dynamics, city and suburban lifestyles supplanting the country manors, parties, and public scandals, and politics (such as the Slave Trade and aristocratic corruption), Mansfield Park is much wider-reaching and more concerned with society and the world-at-large than her earlier works (whose simplicity and blind-eye caused her to be much maligned).

At the center of the story is Fanny Price, who leaves her parents’ home to live with her aunt and uncle at Mansfield Park. Fanny’s mother, though once beautiful, has been run ragged. She married beneath her and, soon after her marriage, her husband became permanently disabled and a drunk. Fanny, at first, is a black sheep at Mansfield. Although she is kind and mild in temperament, her female cousins tease her mercilessly and her ridiculous Aunt Norris spites her at every occasion. Eventually, through natural charm and beauty, Fanny does manage to win over her hosts, Sir Bertram and Lady Bertram (who is her mother’s sister) and also her cousin, the youngest brother of the family, Edmund.

Unlike Austen’s other works, which are largely episodic (likely because they were originally written or imagined in epistolary form), the style and structure of Mansfield Park is much more aligned with the traditional novel, with lengthy chapters and regular progression of time. Austen manipulates time and chronology in clever and subtle ways, so that the reader is navigated through the story without being given many direct reminders of where she is in the calendar. This is something typically Austen and can be seen in her other novels, particularly Pride and Prejudice; and though a simple thing, this control of time and keeping it both relevant and in the background truly helps hold the story together by maintaining the fictive illusion and also the structural integrity of the work.

In Mansfield Park there are balls and plays, flirtations and scandals. While most of Austen’s novels are rather complex, Mansfield Park is perhaps the most complex of all her work and is probably an inspiration for later Victorian novels (many of which are concerned with child orphans, their patronage and rise from nothingness into seemingly-unachievable stations). Fanny, like other Austen heroines, is a young woman on the verge of adulthood and who will find her place through her soon-to-be husband. Unlike other of Austen’s novels, though, which are primarily interested in the act of courtship, family, and love, Mansfield Park also tackles ideas of nature vs. nurture (what makes a person who they are?) and true positive qualities, in family and friends (both Edmund and his father, Lord Bertram, learn much about themselves and about others, by the end of the story – because of their growing appreciation for and admiration of the quiet but naturally classy Fanny). The book is also interested in the nature of vice and it uses two polar locales, the city and the country, as backdrops for “bad” and “good.” Surprising, for readers of Austen’s other works in particular, are the inclusions, though subtle, of sexuality (what we will eventually see from Freudian symbolism), of social and political morality, and of graphic poverty.

Ultimately, I found Mansfield Park to be one of the least exciting, most dense of Austen’s novels; however, it is also the most complex, the most daring, and the most revolutionary of her works. She takes many risks, borne out of disillusionment and hardship, which would likely inspire the next generation of Victorian novelists who would champion the lower classes and write for social justice. It was a difficult read, being slow-paced and simultaneously familiar to and wildly different from other Austen works, but while it may not be as perfectly constructed, entertaining, or accessible as her most popular work, Pride and Prejudice, it might just be her most important.

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: High School +
Interest: Pre-Victorian Novel, Nature vs. Nurture, City vs. Rural, Caste System, Scandal, Slave Trade, Pragmatism, Romanticism.

Notable Quotes:

“I think it ought not to be set down as certain, that a man must be acceptable to every woman he may happen to like himself.”

“We do not look in great cities for our best morality.”

“Good-humoured, unaffected girls, will not do for a man who has been used to sensible women. They are two distinct orders of being.”

“Life seems but a quick succession of busy nothings.”

“She was not often invited to join in the conversation of the others, nor did she desire it. Her own thoughts and reflections were habitually her best companions.”

“I was so anxious to do what is right that I forgot to do what is right.”

“Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can, impatient to restore everybody not greatly in fault themselves to tolerable comfort, and to have done with all the rest.”

“Varnish and gilding hide many stains.”

“When I am out of doors, especially when I am sitting out of doors, I am very apt to get into this sort of wandering strain. One cannot fix one’s eyes on the commonest natural production without finding food for a rambling fancy.”

26 thoughts on “Thoughts: Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

  1. Wow. I love how you broke down this book. It’s got a sociological tinge to it. I’ve actually never read anything by Austen, although I have a handful of her novels on my shelves. I think growing up and having people assume that I had read this or that made me keep certain books or authors at arm’s length, figuring that I’d just get to them eventually.

  2. What an amazing review! I did read this book, and it was very hard to get into. But by the time I was done, I felt I really had accomplished something. I too was shocked at the inclusion of sex. I think I would mostly agree with your review, and even if I didn’t, it is a very scholarly review, so thanks!

  3. Having recently read Pride and Prejudice, this was really interesting to read your analysis of Mansfield Park which I read several years ago. The small chapters do make P&P a much easier read and Mansfield Park definitely felt a lot denser and more complex. I very much enjoyed readings his post.

  4. I really do see your point. 🙂 But Mansfield Park remains my least favorite work from Austen. I think it’s because I enjoy the vitality of her earlier novels, their lack of restraint. But, still, would pick Mansfield Park over a number of today’s latest books, so…

    1. I can understand that. It has been my least favorite of hers, so far, because I found it least enjoyable. I do think, though, that it was incredibly surprising and much wider-reaching than any of her other works. Her early works were hilarious in their blatant parody, her later works were delightful in their perfect contstruction and subtlety, but none of those previous works really looked outside the sphere of a small upper-middle class mentality. This one really stretches and takes a hard look at the larger world – poverty, slavery, human trafficking, aristocratic scandal, etc. It still has the traditional happy ending (for the heroine) but it’s somewhat ambiguous, whereas her other works leave you knowing that they’ll be ‘happily ever after.’ Also, in this one, some of the characters clearly do NOT get a happy ending, which is different.

    1. I wasn’t such a big fan of Pride and Prejudice on my first read (I actually couldn’t get through it). I read it again a few years later and really enjoyed it. Then I read it for one of my doctoral seminars last semester and loved it! The exact same thing happened to me with The Great Gatsby, actually (read it for a class years ago and didn’t like it; read it on my own, for pleasure, a few years later and liked it a lot; read it last semester and LOVED it).

  5. This is me reading your review:

    Paragraphs 1-4: “Wow, this is so interesting. It makes so much sense and Adam explained everything so well. Why didn’t I see it before? Why did I ever think Mansfield Park was one of the meh Austen novels? It sounds like an amazing book. I’m a bad and ignorant reader and should go back and reread this and fully appreciate it this time.”

    Paragraph 5. “Phew.”

    But, you know, what I said about paragraphs 1-4 still stands 😀

    1. Haha! Too funny. It was a struggle to get through this one. Northanger Abbey was hilarious. Sense and Sensibility had a sibling relationship that was so engaging. Pride and Prejudice is, in my opinion, a nearly perfect novel. Mansfield Park is so different, so dry in comparison, and so unexpected in its reach… I just didn’t know what to do with it, until about the final third of the book. That’s when things started to really click for me.

  6. I’ve always struggled with this one. I love Austen, but like many others, this one is my least favorite. I agree that it is more complex, but the thing that I didn’t like was the character of Fanny. She was so good that it was hard to connect with her. I don’t think it’s bad to have moral standards, but she seemed completely immune to any form of temptation. I think Jane Eyre is a similar character in some ways, but she has a visible struggle between what she wants and what she believes. I never felt that with Fanny. But it’s still Austen, so I still like it.

    1. I completely agree – I was not nearly as drawn in with Fanny as I was with Elizabeth Bennett or the Elinor/Marianne Dashwood dynamic. Still, I think Mansfield Park was much more about place and larger morality than it was about any one character or the characters’ stories. This is what surprised me (having read a lot of other Austen works) and what disappointed me, somewhat, being such an “Austen fan”. That being said, it’s also, in retrospect, incredibly interesting.

  7. It’s been many, many years since I’ve read this book and I’m sad to say that the movie starring Frances O’Connor is now more familiar to me than the book itself is, but it’s a story I always rather liked, even if it is more ponderous and serious than Austen’s other novels.

  8. I really liked your review, Adam. So often, I see reviews of Mansfield Park that are negative because the reading doesn’t care for Fanny Price and they seem to fail to appreciate everything else that Austen accomplishes with this novel, so it’s refreshing to find someone who may not love it as much as Austen’s other books, but still appreciates it for what it is. (Aaaaaand it may just happen to be one of my favorite Austen novels. I never seem to fit in with the crowd. 🙂 )

  9. Those are some interesting thoughts about Mansfield Park. It didn’t impress me very much when I read it years ago, but I can see what you mean by it being the most complex of her novels. I will consider what you’ve said if I ever choose to read Mansfield Park again. 🙂

  10. I still haven’t read this one by Austen, but I have other books by her in my list first…
    I just wanted to say I like the new design, mostly because you can read the whole post without clicking on “read more” 😉

  11. “However, it is also the most complex, the most daring, and the most revolutionary of her works.”

    – Exactly! And this is probably why it’s my favorite Austen, that and the interpretability of Fanny Price.

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