I have been pondering why I am finding Mansfield Park so different to Austen’s other works, and thinking around the topic in this way rather than focusing on the likeability of the characters has helped me gain some new insights. Firstly, Mansfield Park’s title; it is a place. Northanger Abbey aside, Austen’s major novels are either eponymous – Emma – refer to emotions – Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility – or highlight an action – Persuasion. In each of these cases, the reader is directed towards something human in the very title of the novel. In Emma and in Sense and Sensibility, we witness the growth of a girl from immaturity to maturity; in Pride and Prejudice, we watch as Elizabeth and Darcy are forced to reassess their preconceptions; in Persuasion, we watch Anne blossom through the hope of love revived. Mansfield Park, however, has nothing to do with character, romance or emotion; it is a house, filled with a variety of different people, none of whom is necessarily meant to be of more consequence than any other. Why do we automatically assume that Fanny is supposed to the centre of the book, and the heroine? She gets no more page time than anyone else, and the story is not told through her eyes. We hear just as much of Mary Crawford’s feelings as we do of Fanny’s, and the wide cast of characters means that there are a variety of interesting narratives co existing at any one time. This is not a single issue or a single character novel, and focusing on Fanny and whether she needs a slap or not (answer: she definitely does) does somewhat distract from the textual complexity and daring nature of Mansfield Park, which is a significant departure from Austen’s other works and one that neatly subverts the reader’s expectations while still managing to be a satisfying reading experience.
So, back to the significance of the title; all we know of Mansfield Park is that it is a large, modern built house with well appointed rooms, set in a spacious park. It speaks of wealth but not of history; a ‘modern’ built house can surely not be more than around fifty years old, and Sir Thomas may very well be the first baronet – his money comes from plantations in Antigua, not from acres of ancient Northamptonshire land, after all. Therefore, Mansfield Park is a handsome and comfortable home, but it rests on shaky ground. Sir Thomas must be very worried about his financial situation in order to take the dangerous and lengthy trip to Antigua and remain there for the best part of two years, and let us not forget that Edmund’s reduced circumstances speak of a genuine lack of ready paternal cash. Mansfield Park gives off the appearance of wealth and success, but it hides a deeper concern about lack of status and financial security; Sir Thomas allows Maria to marry Mr Rushworth despite his clear shortcomings due to his status in the county – the alliance will do Sir Thomas good. Plus, Sir Thomas’ influence in the world outside of Mansfield Park is limited – he cannot secure William Price a rise in rank to lieutenant, as he lacks the appropriate connections. Sir Thomas, then, is in all likelihood a newly created baronet, keen to enter the ranks of the gentry and gain the respect of families with more robust lineage and a less questionable source of income than his own. His wealth and position are not secure, and Mansfield Park’s modernity and relative obscurity – no high profile visitors enter its doors – give it an air of impermanence and insignificance that cannot help but rub off on its inhabitants.
What then, does Mansfield Park as a setting tell us about the story that unfolds within its walls? Well, for Fanny, it is a far cry from the cramped and squalid home in Portsmouth where she spent her first ten years, though she does not benefit from the aforementioned spacious and well appointed rooms herself. Instead she is banished to a section of the house where the servants sleep, and it is only when she is no longer under the care of the governess that she is allowed the additional use of the old school room – and only because her bedroom is so small in the first place. Fanny is frightened and intimidated by the house and prefers her own shabby rooms to the formal downstairs spaces; this reflects Fanny’s inherent dislike of show and pretence. Mary and Henry Crawford, on the other hand, are impressed by Mansfield, and Mary can well imagine herself being mistress of such a lovely house. To them it reflects Sir Thomas’ wealth and position and is a fine place to be associated with; perhaps a reflection of their more shallow outlook on life and the pleasure they take in material things. Maria, Julia and Tom don’t seem to care much for their home; it is not a place they feel particularly sentimental about, and they don’t have a huge amount of respect for it. All are happy to knock it about in the course of putting on their play, and they are only too keen to get away from Mansfield just as soon as they get the opportunity. Brought up by a lazy and ineffectual mother and a distant father, they take their father’s wealth and their luxurious surroundings for granted. Mansfield Park doesn’t impress them, and this lack of understanding and appreciation of what they have been blessed with demonstrates their parents’ nouveau riche status. No expense has been spared on educating the Bertram children to be accomplished and fit for the society Sir Thomas has bought his way into, but their moral characters have been forgotten about, and not been developed or guided as they should be. As such the Bertram children have grown into adults who are just as lacking in firm foundations and traditional values as their modern family home.
Mansfield Park is therefore a place of contradiction and of unease; on the one hand it is an elegant and impressive display of prosperity and comfort; on the other, a shallow status symbol built from the proceeds of human slavery by a man whose aspirations outstrip his means. As such it is a reflection of the novel itself, whose appearance of being a romance novel actually conceals a fascinating and complex exploration of human nature that makes the reader wonder what exactly Austen is trying to get at. It isn’t a romance, because we can’t love Fanny and Edmund enough to feel that sense of fist pumping euphoria at their wedding, and it isn’t a tragedy, because we don’t really care that Maria ends up ruined. The ending falls rather flat; Fanny gets what she wants, but Austen marries her off to Edmund, who not only is a judgemental hypocrite, but is also rather unconvincing as a lover; he falls in love with Fanny over the course of one paragraph after having spent the previous 500 pages of the novel being in love with someone else. It’s obvious that Edmund loved Mary and that Fanny was his second choice; Fanny may have passive aggressively stood her ground and waited her turn but is her prize worth all of her sacrifices and hand wringing? I don’t think so, and I don’t think Austen did either. Mary Crawford may end up single but this is no bad fate; she is an attractive woman of fortune and will make a match eventually – I think she had a lucky escape, actually. So, is Austen playing with her readers by keeping her tongue firmly in her cheek throughout this novel, or does she genuinely mean to portray Fanny’s virtues as an ideal? Given the circumstances of Fanny’s happy ending, I think the former, but it’s a tough call to make. I’d love to hear more of your thoughts and I shall be writing more about Mansfield Park and its characters in a couple of days, so check back in then to continue the discussion!