Fanny's (Australian actress Frances O'Connor) first ball
I've just finished reading Jane Austen's Mansfield Park. This is only the second time I've read it through. I thought I'd take the time to jot down some of my thoughts, as I did with P&P a few weeks ago.
(I'm assuming that my readers are familiar with the plot and characters; if you're not, get yourself a copy of the book and read it, for goodness sake!)
Mary Crawford (Embeth Davidtz)
In MP, moreso than in almost any other Austen book, one gets a sense of the living, breathing society of Regency England. I'm not just talking about the upper-middle-class and the aristocracy. In MP, we see many instances of the Bertrams and their associates interacting with people from all levels of society, including the lower classes.
There tends to be this public perception (no doubt influenced by all the movie adaptations of Austen's work that have been made) that the characters in any given Austen novel do little more than:
a.) Sit inside and drink tea; the ladies might also do some embroidery, while the gentleman bestow gallantries on all and sundry,
b.) Spend hours and hours gracefully walking through the beautiful park grounds of various stately homes; the ladies in their bonnets, the gentlemen in top hats,
c.) Get all dressed up and go to balls, participating in complicated, well-choreographed "country dances", and, mostly importantly,
d.) Fall in and out of love; the gentlemen making, the ladies receiving, various proposals of marriage.
Of course, this is all complete rubbish. 19th century life was comprised of much more than drinking tea and going to balls, and this illustrated again and again in MP.
Henry (Allessandro Nivola) and Mary Crawford
Some examples of the Bertrams' active involvement in Regency life:
*Tom Bertram, the eldest son, the one who should be responsible and mature, is rarely at home. Instead, he is constantly spending time with various friends, drinking, partying, attending the [horse]races. . . (hey, I didn't say that all this "active involvement in Regency life" was positive!)
*Edmund is also not often at home through much of Fanny's girlhood. He is off attending school at Eton, then university at Oxford.
The indolent Lady Bertram (Lindsey Duncan) with her beloved Pug
*We are told that Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram used to go to London every year, where Sir Thomas would "attend his duty in Parliament" (chap. 2) until eventually Lady Bertram decided she couldn't be bothered with the annual trip to London, leaving her husband to go alone each year.
*Sir Thomas regularly checks his "plantations" on his estate (chap. 20). Presumably crops/trees? The "farming" aspect of having a large country estate in the 1800s?
Julia Bertram (Justine Waddell) with Aunt Norris (Sheila Gish)
*Aunt Norris is a busybody (almost like a much nastier version of Mrs. Lynde from Anne of Green Gables) so not surprisingly she is constantly interfering and bossing people around (e.g. the housekeeper and gardener at Sotherton, chap. 10; the carpenter's son, chap. 15, etc. etc.)
Fanny's childhood home in Portsmouth
*William's involvement in the navy. And indeed, the Price family and their home provide a unique glimpse into the lives of a genuinely poor family living in the city (Portsmouth). They have enough to keep clothed and fed; but little more.
The above are just a few examples out of many.
Henry Crawford and Fanny Price
Mansfield Park is a book that can be enjoyed on many levels, depending on how deep you want to delve into the moral and philosophical questions that are posed with brilliant subtlety. There are many passages in the book that could be seen to have a secondary meaning in them. But, on the other hand, Mansfield Park is also enjoyable simply as a wonderfully good Regency soap opera, with drama and love triangles galore.
Henry and Fanny again. . .
I realised once again just how different MP is in tone from Austen's other books. There are hints of Jane Austen's marvellous wit here and there, but for the most part MP is much more serious than any of the three books Austen had previously penned - Northanger Abbey, S&S, and P&P.
The young Fanny (Hannah Taylor Gordon) travels from Portsmouth to her Uncle's house, Mansfield Park
Jane Austen doesn't usually use up many passages in poetic descriptions of nature -- this doesn't mean that JA didn't appreciate the natural world; I think she just preferred to focus on people, not landscapes, in her novels. Here in Mansfield Park, however, our heroine Fanny Price is a nature-loving soul, and there are several descriptive passages of a kind that we don't normally see in Austen's novels.
Henry Crawford. Henry CRAWFORD! He is the only Austen "bad boy" for whom I have any real sympathy, but in the end I always want to wring his neck. You stupid man! If only he had stood firm and resisted temptation, he could have won the heart of the woman he loved and lived happily ever after with her. Instead, he took the bait, he failed the test, and in doing so, forever shattered all his hopes of happiness.
Henry Crawford, ruined by early independence and bad domestic example, indulged in the freaks of a cold–blooded vanity a little too long. Once it had, by an opening undesigned and unmerited, led him into the way of happiness. Could he have been satisfied with the conquest of one amiable woman’s affections, could he have found sufficient exultation in overcoming the reluctance, in working himself into the esteem and tenderness of Fanny Price, there would have been every probability of success and felicity for him. His affection had already done something. Her influence over him had already given him some influence over her ... Would he have persevered, and uprightly, Fanny must have been his reward, and a reward very voluntarily bestowed, within a reasonable period from Edmund’s marrying Mary.(MP, chapter 48)
Had he done as he intended, and as he knew he ought, by going down to Everingham after his return from Portsmouth, he might have been deciding his own happy destiny...
...we may fairly consider a man of sense, like Henry Crawford, to be providing for himself no small portion of vexation and regret: vexation that must rise sometimes to self–reproach, and regret to wretchedness, in having so requited hospitality, so injured family peace, so forfeited his best, most estimable, and endeared acquaintance, and so lost the woman whom he had rationally as well as passionately loved.
Henry, you IDIOT!
Another one of the reasons why I like Henry - he has the sense to fall in love with the right girl! Edmund has steadier principles and better morals than Henry, and yet he falls for the selfish and worldly Mary Crawford. Eventually, in the final two pages of the book, Edmund comes to his senses and realises it was Fanny he loved all along, &c., but I still get a little bit annoyed with him for falling in love with Mary instead of Fanny.
Now - a couple of discussions starters.
- Have you read Mansfield Park? How would you rate it against Jane Austen's other books? What did you think of Fanny Price?
- Henry Crawford - did you loathe him, or did you (like me) secretly want Henry and Fanny to get together? In literature, who are some of your favourite could-have/should-have/would-have bad boys who almost came good, but didn't?
The pictures featured in this post are from the 1999 adaptation of MP. It's not a great adaptation of the book, and in some ways it wildly diverges from Austen's plot and characters. I don't necessarily recommend the film, but the pictures are gorgeous.