This is a tricksy novel, is it not? I am about half way through and on so many levels I am thoroughly enjoying myself. My toes are positively curling with glee every time I immerse myself back into the world of Mansfield Park; there is so much hilarity! Austen’s wit, characterisation and always perfectly timed observations on the vagaries of human nature are, as usual, superb. The cast of characters is Austen at her best; there are so many to hate, and so few to love; just as it should be. Mrs Norris is particularly brilliantly realised; a busybody with an opinion on everything and an uncanny ability to extricate herself from any financial or other inconvenience resulting from her suggestions for improvement, she is even more odious than Mrs Elton – I never thought such a thing could be possible! Lady Bertram is another stroke of genius; she loves her dog more than her children and seems to spend most of her time dozing on the sofa, and Maria and Julia Bertram are a more grown up Kitty and Lydia Bennett, bickering constantly and jealously vying for the attention of whichever single bachelors happen to come their way.
However, amidst these lively folk live Edmund and Fanny, and you’d be hard pressed to find a drearier pair. Fanny can barely walk to the bottom of the garden without needing to sit down and gets a headache from spending half an hour cutting flowers in a bit of sunshine. Please! She meekly puts up with a garret bedroom and being used as an errand girl, and is entirely dependent on Edmund to protect her; heaven forbid that she should speak a word in defence of herself! Don’t get me wrong; Fanny is a sweet girl, who appreciates nature, is kind and thoughtful, and is naturally shy and retiring. These are all fine character traits, and shouldn’t prevent her from being endearing or interesting, especially not when created by the pen of Jane Austen. I understand that she struggles to speak up for herself because she has strong feelings of inadequacy and a lack of self confidence due to her unusual upbringing; she is, after all, a dependent in someone else’s home and is made to feel like she should be constantly grateful and obliging, which isn’t an easy position to be in. However, despite being able to rationally sympathise with Fanny, emotionally I couldn’t care less about her. She is flat, cold, and dull; she has no sense of humour, no spunk, and no backbone. Anne Elliot is a similarly quiet and put upon heroine, but Austen manages to bring Anne to life in a way that she fails to do with Fanny. I think, at this stage, Fanny is just presented as far too two-dimensional to endear her to the reader. Her inner thoughts are not much exposed, and even though there is a flash of endearability in her jealousy of Mary Crawford, it’s not enough to redeem her for me. She bores me to tears.
Edmund is a rather different kettle of fish. His relationship with Fanny is very interesting, and I hadn’t picked up on many of the complexities of this before. While Edmund’s primary aim is to make Fanny feel safe and welcome in his family’s home, there is also a rather disturbing undercurrent of control. Edmund has moulded Fanny into a ‘mini-me’, using his emotional power over her to shape her thoughts, feelings and decisions until he is sure she will always be his ally. As Austen says, Edmund has ‘formed her mind’; he manipulates Fanny’s affection and trust to the point where Fanny seeks Edmund’s approval in her every decision, and is incapable of having an independent opinion that does not tie in with his. Edmund is keen to control everyone, and is always quick to dispense his opinions on others’ behaviour when he finds it lacking in comparison to his own moral standards. However, when it suits him, his standards can very quickly alter, and no one is more gifted than he at finding mitigating circumstances to explain away his sudden change of heart.
I find Edmund sly, calculating and controlling; while he can be perceptive and caring, he can also be incredibly obtuse – he totally fails to realise that Fanny worships the ground he walks on – and I wonder how much of his behaviour is for appearances’ sake. I know that Henry and Mary Crawford are supposed to be the villains of the piece, but at the moment they are my hero and heroine; they might be up to no good, but at least they do not pretend to be anything other than what they are, and they have a lot of fun in the process. Mary Crawford actually reminds me a lot of Elizabeth Bennett; lively, witty and not afraid to give her opinion, she sparkles next to the dull Fanny.
So, what exactly is Austen doing here? We have a flat heroine, a manipulative and very flawed hero, a villainess who is actually very likeable and a villain who is dashing, good fun and hasn’t technically done anything wrong (yet). I think I need to read a little further in order to come to some concrete conclusions. What I can say at this point is that Mansfield Park is a very well written and well structured novel; the dialogue sparkles, the wit is perfectly judged, the characters are intriguing, and there is plenty of plot. However, my dislike of the two major players is souring the taste a little. Austen has created a very strange scenario in which we have two characters that charm and two that offend, and by the end of the novel we are expected to be content with the two offenders becoming our happy ever after. Subverting the traditional course of the novel is a very ambitious scheme indeed; at the moment, I’m not convinced that Jane’s going to be able to pull it off. That Edmund is nothing but a snake in the grass as far as I’m concerned, and Fanny really needs to lighten up.