1001 Books, Book Review, British Literature, Jane Austen, Pragmatism, Romanticism, Victorian

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.”

1001 Books, 2012 Challenges, 2012 Classics Challenge, 2012 TBR Challenge, Architecture, Art, Art History, Book Review, Classics, Classics Club, Fiction, Inquisition, Religion, Romanticism, Victor Hugo

Review: Notre-Dame de Paris by Victor Hugo

Notre-Dame de Paris by Victor Hugo

Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0

YTD: 17

4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful (socially, academically, etc.)

Count Frollo, Quasimodo, and Esmeralda are quite possibly the most twisted, most bizarre, and most unexpected love-triangle in literary history.  And if their problematic involvement with one another is not enough, throw-in Esmeralda’s philosopher husband, Pierre, and her unrequited love-interest, Phoebus, not to mention the self-isolated mother-in-mourning with a sad history of her own, and Frollo’s younger, troublemaking brother Jehan, and finally the various kings, burgesses, students, and thieves, and suddenly we have an epic history in the making.  The main character, as it turns out, is not Quasimodo or Esmeralda, but Notre-Dame itself.  Almost all of the major scenes in the novel, with a few exceptions (such as Pierre’s presence at the Bastille), take place at or in view of/reference to the great cathedral.  Hugo’s primary purpose is not to present the reader with a heart-rending love story (or two), nor is it necessarily to comment on social and political systems of the time (though this is certainly a high purpose); the main purpose, though, is a nostalgic view of a diminishing Paris, one which puts its architecture and architectural history in the forefront and which laments the loss of that high art.  Hugo is clearly concerned with the public’s lack of commitment toward preserving the rich architectural and artistic history of Paris, and this purpose comes across directly, in chapters about the architecture specifically, and indirectly, through the narrative itself.

3 – Characters well developed.

Hugo is concerned with one character above all in this story, and that is the cathedral.  While other characters have interesting backgrounds and do develop slightly over the course of the story, none seem truly round.  This is a minor point of contention, because though the story may have a loftier sociological and artistic purpose, it loses something by not also working completely as a stand-alone narrative.  One can certainly empathize with Quasimodo’s dilemma, for instance, when he finds himself caught between the two loves of his life, Count Frollo and Esmeralda.  The sub-story relating to the mourning woman who has locked herself in a cell, weeping over a child’s shoe (and who vehemently despises the gypsies for stealing her daughter) is also moving, but ultimately unsurprising.  Count Frollo’s descent from learned man and upstanding caregiver is not entirely unbelievable (given, especially, the relationship between Frollo and his brother), but it still seems sudden and quite dramatic.  Of course, this suits the Gothic element of the story nicely and also parallels Hugo’s analysis of science versus religion & physical art versus linguistic, so it is not out of place – yet the characters seem flat in relation to the overall attempt by Hugo to re-instill, through means of Romanticism, a renewed passion for the Gothic era. In the end, the characters and there interactions are interesting and, at times, moving or hilarious.  The reader can engage with and, to a certain extent, believe them, but they are not perfect characters; this is in large part due to the fact that their stories are not the primary focus of the work.

4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.

What moves this story along so well, even through chapters such as “A Bird’s Eye View of Paris,” which is, literally, a textualized description of the city of Paris, if looking at it from on high, and in all directions, is Hugo’s great ability at crafting words – phrases – sentences.  Although I found this story inferior to Les Miserables, which is perhaps to be expected, considering it was published 30 years prior and much of it was written under a pressing deadline, one thing the two clearly have in common is a richly beautiful and workable prose.  There were certain other “tells” of inexperience, such as Hugo’s confusing dates/places or allowing certain items to exist in the time of the story that were not yet invented (the story takes place nearly 400 years before Hugo wrote it).  Still, the language and prose are clearly masterful, almost umatched.  Hugo’s sense of humor (especially sarcasm and irony) are very well developed and leap across the page.  His Gothic elements are appropriately dark, even surprisingly so at times.   

Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

What is most interesting about Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris is that everyone knows the story, but few really know the story.  There have been numerous adaptations of this work, for film, theater, television, etc.  Most people are probably familiar with the story through various retellings in children’s books or movies (i.e. Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame).  Those of us who are only familiar with this story as told through the grapevine are led to believe that it is a tragic “Beauty and the Beast” type love-story, where true love rules in the end.  This explanation of the tale could not be farther from the truth. Notre-Dame de Paris is first and foremost a story about art – mainly, architecture.  It is a romanticizing of the Gothic period and a study of the time period which brought together traditional art forms and oratory with the novel idea of a printing press (and published works as artistic/statement pieces).  Yes, Quasimodo and Esmeralda are there and their story is a sad one and yes, Count Frollo turns out to be a downright despicable antagonist; but, ultimately, this, like Hugo’s Les Miserables is more than a story about its characters – it is a story about the whole history of Paris and about the absurdities of the caste system.  It is the first novel where beggars and thieves are cast as the protagonists and also the first novel in which the entire societal structure of a nation, from King to peasant, is present.  It might also be the first or most prominent work to feature a structure (the Cathedral of Notre-Dame) as main character.  Hugo’s approach, and this novel in particular, would later influence Charles Dickens, Honore de Balzac, Gustave Flaubert, and other sociological “writers of the people.”  When one thinks of writers who are genius at fictionalizing the history of a people, the first who comes to mind might be Tolstoy, but Victor Hugo certainly belongs in this league.

Suggested Reading For:

Age Level: High School+
Interest: French History, Art History, Architecture, Paris, Romanticism, Epic Theatre, Alchemy, Caste, Class & Society, Gypsy Lore, Gothic literature, Religious Inquisition/Witchcraft.

Notable Quotes:

“For, even if we believe in nothing, there are moments in life when we are always of the religion of the temple nearest to hand.”

“Never has there been loose such an unruly mob of students! It’s the accursed inventions of the age that are ruining everything–the artillery, the muskets, the cannons, and above all the printing press, that scourge brought from Germany. No more manuscripts, no more books. Printing is ruining bookselling. The end of the world is upon us.”

“You can be a great genius yet understand nothing of an art which is not your own.”

“Fashion has done more harm than Revolutions.  They have cut into the quick, they have attacked the wooden bone-structures of the art, they have hewn and hacked and disorganized, and have killed the building, in its form as well as its symbolism, its logic as well as its beauty.  They have also remade it: which neither time nor revolutions have presumed to do.”

“She danced, she spun, she whirled on an old Persian carpet thrown carelessly down beneath her feet, and each time she spun and her radiant face passed in front of you, her great black eyes flashed like lightning.”

“I have not crawled all this time on my belly with my nails in the earth, along the countless passages of the cavern without glimpsing, far ahead of me, at the end of the unlit gallery, a light, a flame, something doubtless the refelection from the dazzling central laboratory where the wise and the patient have taken God by surprise.”

“I perceived, at the end of a certain time, that I was, for one reason or another, fit for nothing. So I decided to become a poet and rhymester. It’s a profession one can always take up, if one’s a vagabond.”

“To destroy the written word, you need only a torch and a Turk. To demolish the constructed word, you need a social revolution or an earthquake. Barbarism swept over the Colosseum; a deluge, perhaps, over the pyramids. In the fifteenth century everything changed. Human intelligence discovered a way of perpetuating itself, one not only more durable and more resistant than architecture, but also simpler and easier. Architecture was dethroned. The stone letters of Orpheus gave way to the lead letters of Gutenberg.”

“The press, that giant engine, incessantly gorging all the intellectual sap of society, incessantly vomits new material for its work. The entire human race is its scaffolding. Every mind its mason. Even the humblest may block a hole or lay a stone….It is the second Tower of Babel of the human race.”

“One drop of wine is enough to redden a whole glass of water. To tinge a whole company of pretty women with a certain amount of ill-humor, it is enough for just one prettier woman to arrive on the scene–especially when there is but one man present.”

“When one does evil one must do the whole evil.  To be only half a monster is insanity! There is ecstasy in an extreme of crime. A priest and a sorceress can melt in delight together on the straw of a dungeon floor!”

“Every civilization begins in theocracy and ends in democracy.”