My rating: 4 stars
Mansfield Park feels different from the other Jane Austen novels that I’ve read. I believe that the main reason for that is it starting when the timid heroine, Fanny Price, is still quite young. Nevertheless, it shares various characteristics with her other books, including marriage being seen by many of the characters as a means to achieve economic security, in contrast with marrying for love.
In fact, marriage is a central theme throughout the novel. We are introduced to the parents of the young main characters with a comparison between the fate of three sisters regarding marriage. Miss Maria married Sir Thomas Bertram and became a Lady at Mansfield Park. Miss Ward married the reverend Mr Norris, a friend of Sir Thomas, which gave him the opportunity to be the clergyman at the Mansfield’s parsonage. But Miss Frances, despite her sisters’ opposition, married a Lieutenant of Marines who had neither education nor fortune.
After much time without corresponding with her sisters, the now Mrs Price wrote them asking for advice about her children’s future and they re-established relations. At Mrs Norris suggestion, they decided that one of Mrs Price’s daughters should go live at Mansfield Park. However, they could never let her forget that she wasn’t an equal to her cousins.
Fanny Price was the girl chosen to move to Mansfield. She was only 10 years old at the time. She was shy, ashamed of herself and missed her family, particularly her older brother, William. She was younger than her four cousins: Julia, Maria, Edmund and Tom. Edmund was the kindest and most compassionate of them all. Julia and Maria, on the other hand, thought her to be stupid for not knowing as much as them. They remain arrogant and entitled throughout the novel.
Mrs Norris regarded Fanny as inferior and not worthy of the same opportunities as her other nieces. Although it was her who had suggested receiving Fanny at Mansfield Park, she thought that her niece going to live with her, when her husband died, was impossible, excusing herself with the new house not having enough space. This type of treatment may well be at the inception of Fanny not feeling worthy of admiration.
Following Mr Norris’s death, the living of the parsonage was sold to the clergyman Dr Grant and his wife, who sometime after receives the visit of her half-siblings, Henry and Mary Crawford. The arrival of the two lively siblings is at the inception of a web of romances that shouldn’t have involved Maria, since she was already engaged to James Rushworth, holder of quite a high income.
Fanny, who is then around 18 years old, is sometimes left behind by the other young people, occasionally even by Edmund. However, she seems to have a good grasp of the bonds starting to unite the other characters until something unexpected happens.
From that point onwards, the novel starts being more detailed, featuring both more dialogue between the characters and a more comprehensive description of events, while before we were told what had happened in quick succession. Also, at first the story seems to focus more on the other characters than on Fanny. She feels more like a spectator. But, as the novel goes on, her feelings are slowly revealed and she gradually takes centre stage.
Jane Austen’s characters usually have quite distinguishable characteristics, and the ones featured in Mansfield Park are no exception to that. However, I feel that I was not as captivated by them as I was by others. Maybe it had something to do with Fanny being too reserved and quiet.
The third and last volume is my favourite, since there are more instances of the wit and irony typical of Jane Austen. There is an implicit criticism of women being expected to have no self-will and having to feel grateful for being the object of a man’s attention. How young women should behave before and after being introduced to society is also discussed.
I really enjoyed reading Mansfield Park. Nonetheless, now that I’ve read all the major novels by Jane Austen, I can say that it is my least favourite. It’s still quite worth reading, but I wouldn’t advise starting with this one.