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At the age of ten, Fanny Price leaves the poverty of her Portsmouth home to be brought up among the family of her wealthy uncle, Sir Thomas Bertram, in the chilly grandeur of Mansfield Park. She gradually falls in love with her cousin Edmund, but when the dazzling and sophisticated Crawfords arrive, and amateur theatricals unleash rivalry and sexual jealousy, Fanny has to fight to retain her independence.
I have something in hand – which I hope on the credit of P. & P. will sell well, tho’ not half so entertaining. (Ltr. 86: 3 – 6 July 1813, to Capt. Francis Austen)
One of the ways that I wanted to remember Jane Austen this year was to go back to reread some of her novels, so when a couple of new variations were recently published based on Mansfield Park, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to head back to Mansfield Park, one of my least favorite stories written by Austen.
With that said, I must back up and explain myself a bit. I discovered Austen at the age of 29 years old and read all six of her published novels consecutively, beginning with Pride & Prejudice. It was probably a tough position to put the other books in for me, as Pride & Prejudice quickly became my favorite story of all time. In my opinion, Mansfield Park has never even come close to having a truly great film adaptation over the years, which may also have contributed to my inability to connect with the story in a similar manner that I have connected with many of Austen’s other stories… until recently, that is.
I must credit Juliet Stevenson’s spot on narration of Mansfield Park with helping me fall in love with this story, mainly through her artful vocalizations of the characters. My hope is that I can help some other readers find ways to reconnect with this story and peruse some of the resources that helped me build a deeper and more meaningful connection with Mansfield Park. It’s really a gift when other people can build these connections for a story and I thank all of the people that I cite in this post for helping me see Mansfield Park through some new lenses and for helping me build these memorable connections to Mansfield Park, which now has a much dearer and lasting hold on my heart.
Juliet Stevenson, who played the role of Mrs. Elton in the 1996 adaptation of Emma, is one of the best audiobook narrators that I have had the pleasure of listening to and I believe that the way she conveys the smallest nuances from this text into her narration of Mansfield Park helped me enjoy this story in a much greater manner. Her voice is engaging and the way she is able to narrate the male and female voices made the dialogues in this story a pleasure to listen to. I truly felt immersed within the environs of each setting, especially during the times spent within the countryside throughout the story.
Mansfield Park is considered Austen’s darkest and most morally ambitious story and it is quite a contrast to her most popular story, Pride & Prejudice. As I listened to Mansfield Park, I tried to think more about what Austen was trying to say to her readers throughout this story and found myself frequently circling back to this question. I really savored the times I spent reflecting upon the themes within this text, including the motivations of each character, the explorations of how a person’s character may be affected for better or for worse by living in the country versus living in Town, as well as the exploration of how people succeed or fail in love when that love is based on the idea that one must change him/herself to obtain the love of another person.
I never felt the intense love for one of two characters in Mansfield Park that I have felt in other stories by Austen, but I did come to really enjoy reading the interactions between many of the characters and how these interactions brought out the best and sometimes, the worst in these characters’ personalities. I know many readers dislike Fanny, Edmund, Mary and Henry Crawford, for one reason or another, but I actually didn’t dislike any of them. I tried to understand each character’s point of view and understand how each of them was shaped for better, or for worse, by their backgrounds and their experiences. Could I really blame Mary Crawford for her manipulative behaviors when she was most likely raised to set her sights on a man who could provide her with wealth and status? Isn’t her heart eventually affected by Edmund’s own character, therefore demonstrating that she may have been a less self-centered person if she had experienced a different type of upbringing?
There’s also the questions around how Edmund came to love Fanny, which I felt wasn’t such a surprise because don’t we sometimes only come to fully value something or someone after we experience a great disappointment in our own lives? Wouldn’t the experience of being hurt by Mary help Edmund realize what he really wants in a wife? I believe it is this experience that is most influential in helping him redefine his ideas about love and marriage, which later on opens his heart and his mind to falling in love with Fanny. I also wonder if this makes him love Fanny more over time.
Mansfield Park is filled with many great literary devices, which practically makes it a book begging to be reread over and over again. In a blog post written by The Jane Austen Society of the United Kingdom, I thought they provided a great overview of some of these literary devices:
Mansfield Park is exceptional among the novels for using the literary devices of symbolism and foreshadowing. They make a large contribution to the aesthetic qualities of the book. Three times Jane Austen brings these devices into play.
The first is the day out at Sotherton. The characters divide naturally into groups, which foreshadows their later involvement with one another. In the ‘wilderness’ – itself symbolic – Fanny is forgotten while Edmund and Mary wander off together. Maria Bertram, accompanied by the man she is engaged to, Mr Rushworth, and the man she loves, Henry Crawford, arrives at a locked iron gate leading to a different part of the garden. Maria, metaphorically facing the prospect of marriage, has a feeling of constraint. While Mr Rushworth goes off to fetch a key, Maria allows Henry Crawford to help her scramble round the side of the gate and walk off toward a knoll in the distance – just as he will lead her into adultery later in the novel.
The next major event in the young people’s lives is their absorption in amateur theatricals. Rehearsals allow them to rehearse the parts they would like to play in real life with one another. Maria and Henry enjoy many rehearsals of the scene in which they have to embrace as mother and long-lost son; while Mary’s character has to declare her love for Edmund’s, and boldly propose marriage. The fit between the characters in the novel, and those in the play, Mrs Inchbald’s melodrama Lovers’ Vows, is remarkable.
The third use of symbolism concerns William’s cross. Fanny’s beloved sailor brother William sends her an amber cross as a gift, an incident copied from life, as Jane Austen’s brother Charles sent topaz crosses to his sisters. To wear the cross at the ball, Fanny needs a chain. Mary gives her one of her own necklaces, but it turns out that Fanny has been tricked into accepting what is really the gift of Henry, her unwelcome suitor. Meanwhile Edmund, the man Fanny secretly loves, buys a simple gold chain for his cousin. When she comes to try them, Fanny finds that Henry’s necklace won’t go through the cross, but Edmund’s chain will. The symbolism is obvious, but subtle. (The Jane Austen Society of the United Kingdom)
Similar to when I recently reread Persuasion, throughout Mansfield Park I had to set aside my preference for Elizabeth Bennet and let go of the idea that every heroine needs to act like her to be found worthy of attention and love. While I agree with Austen when she wrote the following words to her sister Cassandra, “I must confess that I think her (Elizabeth Bennet) as delightful a character as ever appeared in print, and how I shall be able to tolerate those who do not like her at least, I do not know,” by rereading Anne Elliot’s and Fanny Price’s stories, I was able to take a step back and open my heart and mind to accept that there’s a unique beauty and strength of character demonstrated by these two heroines that reminded me to appreciate that women should not have to conform to any narrow ideas of what is considered ideal in womanhood. Jane Austen’s heroines offer us an opportunity to celebrate the numerous differences found in people’s personalities and characters as we spend time watching her heroines evolve throughout their personal journeys.
Don’t get me wrong. I still prefer Elizabeth Bennet over Fanny Price any day of the week, but rereading Mansfield Park allowed me to pay closer attention to Austen’s text and let the characters that Austen herself created take a greater shape within my mind. Ms. Stevenson’s delicate, yet poised narration of Fanny, also contributed to helping me sketch a character that I believe is closer to canon and in my mind, became a more likable character.
In true Austen brilliance, Mansfield Park also displays her wonderful use of free indirect discourse while developing the interiority of her characters. Throughout Mansfield Park she also weaves lots of relevant historical and cultural references in her text that make it worth the time for the modern-day reader to either read a well-researched annotated version of Mansfield Park (David Shapard’s edition is being released today) and/or spend some time browsing the Internet to learn more about these elements of Mansfield Park.This week I also had the pleasure of reading a few chapters from Helena Kelly’s soon-to-be-released book, Jane Austen, the Secret Radical, and her chapter titled ‘The Chain and the Cross,’ which centers around Mansfield Park and includes many details from Kelly’s research regarding the subtle and not-so-subtle hints and references to the social issues that Austen alluded to within this story. I know Kelly’s book has received some mixed reviews, but I found this chapter to be a compelling and thought-provoking read. I believe that Kelly has made some very important connections between slavery and the Church of England, in regards to Austen’s motives for writing Mansfield Park. I am not an Austen scholar, but I will say that the assertions made by Kelly appear well-researched and made a lot of sense within the contexts of Austen’s life and work. It would be difficult for me to believe Austen was anything but precise and pointed in her choice of names, phrases, the works of literature referenced throughout her story, and the social issues that she was attempting to keep at the forefront of her readers’ minds throughout the story of Mansfield Park.
As I listened to this story, I also read the articles that I have shared below in an effort to understand what I missed the first time I read Mansfield Park. I hope that my post generates a bit of renewed enthusiasm for Mansfield Park, especially for readers who may not have enjoyed this story as much as Austen’s other stories. Not only is this a great character-driven story, I believe Mansfield Park continues to have a lot to say to readers when it is read through the lens of its historical context.
1. Illustrating Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park – in pictures/ The Guardian / Here are the 23 competition finalists in the running to illustrate The Folio Society’s new edition of the classic story of Fanny Price. The winner was announced on February 23rd.
3. An Invitation to Mansfield Park / By Sarah Emsley / Sarah invited numerous Austen scholars and ardent admirers to join her in 2014 to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mansfield Park. Below, I have included links to some of my favorite articles from this celebration.
4. Mary Crawford: The Black Cloud of Mansfield Park by Laurel Ann Nattress / I loved reading Laurel’s insights about her close readings of Mansfield Park.
5. Judging Mansfield Park by its cover by Janine Barchas / Who better to take us through a history of how Mansfield Park has been repackaged throughout the past 200 years in an effort to sell Austen’s least popular novel.
6. “We really do inhabit the novels”: An Interview with Elaine Bander, President of JASNA Canada / Not only does Elaine Bander describe her thoughts about Mansfield Park, she also describes why Austen’s writing still appeals to us two centuries later.
7. Move over Lizzie Bennet – let’s hear it for the unsung heroine by John Mullan / It’s a great read when John Mullan takes the time to explain why we should take another look at Austen’s unsung heroine, Fanny Price.
8. This is your brain on Jane Austen, and Stanford researchers are taking notes / This is an interesting research study about how reading literature from authors such as Jane Austen places different cognitive demands on our brain.
9. A Visit to the Sotherton Estate in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park by Tony Grant / With twelve thousand pounds a year, who can resist a glimpse into what Sotherton Estate may have looked like, including a look at Stoneleigh Abbey, which was perhaps a source for Sotherton Court
10. MANSFIELD PARK: “Dear Mary……” by Maggie Lane / I love this letter written to Mary Crawford, the antiheroine who almost had her man.
11. Jane Austen’s Collection of Critical Feedback From Her (Sometimes Harsh) Friends and Family / Although not one critic reviewed Mansfield Park when it was published, Austen was very interested in receiving feedback about her stories, and The British Library has made manuscripts of this feedback available for us as Austen collected feedback about Mansfield Park and Emma from family and friends.
12. Jane Austen’s Ivory Cage : What lies beneath the surface of the grand estates and courtly balls by Mikita Brottman / This article is one of the first I read about “Mansfield Park,” which discusses many of the important and darker themes of this story.
13. The Erotics of Restraint, or the Angel in the Novel: A Note on Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park by Douglas Glover / This very recently published essay is one of my favorites as it helped me understand Mansfield Park in some very new ways, even though Mr. Glover asserts that “Academia has sacrificed entire forests to the altar of Jane Austen, and I am not likely to add one whit to the pile.”
14. Juliet Stevenson: Audible Sessions: FREE Exclusive Interview / I loved this interview where Ms. Stevenson shares her process for narrating audiobooks and then delves into why she believes that stories are so crucial to helping us live more fulfilling lives.
15. Mansfield Park shows the dark side of Jane Austen / I love the ways the author of this article helped me see the connections to the historical background and the events that may have helped her shape this novel.
I look forward to offering my readers a readers’ choice giveaway of either David Shapard’s newly released Mansfield Park or Juliet Stevenson’s audiobook narration of Mansfield Park. To enter this giveaway, please leave a comment and share with us your thoughts, feelings, and/or experiences with reading Mansfield Park, on this blog no later than April 30. The winner will be announced on this blog on May 1, 2017.
I look forward to reading your comments about Mansfield Park and to sharing some future posts for some new JAFF stories inspired by Mansfield Park.