Well, reading Mansfield Park opened quite the can of worms, didn’t it? I knew that Mansfield Park was a hotly debated Austen, and one a lot of die hard fans find difficult to love, but little did I know that there have been out and out “Fanny Wars” (thanks Margaret!) – and I think a mini Fanny War may have broken out in the comments section of this very blog as my dislike of this highly irritating embodiment of all character traits I abhor has increased with every page! However, now I have finished, and can look at the novel holistically, I can approach it with less emotion and more appreciation for what Austen was trying to do. In pitting the religious and morally upstanding Fanny and Edmund against the secular and frivolous Mary and Henry, she is exploring the impact and consequences of a modernising society where traditional values and behaviours were starting to be eroded.
Mary and Henry are city dwellers, into excitement, fashion and frivolity. They don’t see the value in Fanny and Edmund’s strict code of living, which considers the effect of individual decisions on others and looks to be transparent and just. This is the behaviour that is necessary to adopt when living in a small, rural community where everyone is far more reliant on one another, but it is largely unnecessary in a large city where no one knows their neighbours and feels no obligation to those living around them. Tom, Maria and Julia Bertram possess the more city-minded character traits of Henry and Mary because they have been brought up to know that there is a world outside of Mansfield that they will get to take advantage of in future. Edmund, as the second son, has always known that he must take on the clergyman’s living, and so he has grown up to be fundamentally different from his siblings. They long to be amongst fashionable society, and have no interest in serving their local community and being good examples to others, whereas Edmund has had to develop a character suitable for forming the hearts and minds of the local villagers. As Fanny’s closest ally, Edmund has naturally become her mentor and guide, forming her mind along the same lines as his. Like Edmund, Fanny cannot look forward to a life spent amongst fashionable people; she is a poor relation and will be lucky if she marries at all. Therefore, she holds on to the strongly religious, community minded values Edmund has instilled in her, hating all frivolity, as it belongs to a world she will never be enabled to join.
In the early 1800s, the world was a rapidly changing place. Industrialisation and urbanisation were swinging into action, wars were raging all over Europe, and the terror of the French Revolution had seeped fear into the hearts of the aristocracy. Information about the goings on outside of the local community was becoming much more widely available, and the decadence and frivolity of life in the upper echelons of society was starting to filter down to the lower classes. Traditional 18th century values of piety and reserve were not being adopted by a new generation, whose behaviour reflected a more uncertain world that would no longer necessarily see them tied to the same communities as their ancestors. Fanny and Edmund’s faith in these 18th century values is mocked by the more 19th century habits of their friends and relations, who seek to put themselves and their enjoyment first.
Edmund loves Mary Crawford despite what he views as being her ‘many flaws’ – namely her frivolity and lack of Christian values – and genuinely believes that he can change her and show her the error of her ways. Fanny never believes that Mary can change, and has an intense dislike of both Mary and Henry from the start of their acquaintance, considering them to be lacking in character and conscience and totally unworthy of her or Edmund’s friendship. Mary and Henry are destructive to Fanny’s peace and comfort; Mary almost steals the man she loves, Henry tries to make Fanny marry him against her will, and Mary and Henry’s frivolous, light hearted take on life consistently clashes with Fanny’s values and makes her uncomfortable and distressed. Fanny is very certain of what is right and what is wrong, and her only show of any character or independence is when these morals are challenged. At other times, her passivity is infuriating to a more modern audience; she is the sort of girl who cries at every slight and refuses to stand up for herself, though this delicacy of character is explained away by Austen as being a consequence of her subordinate position in a household where she has not quite got the status of a family member, and is treated more as an indulged servant. Unsure of herself and conscious of having to please others at all times, she has naturally developed a rather nervous disposition, and this would be forgiveable if Fanny were not such a prig.
For – and bring it on, Fanny fans, if you want to try and disagree with me! – Fanny IS a prig, and no matter of difficult home circumstances or delicate dispositions can make me sympathise with her because of it. I was beginning to warm to her until she behaved so unnecessarily nastily to Henry Crawford (who I quite fancy, actually – I love a bad boy), who genuinely loves her and was doing his best to change his ways in order to become the man he knew Fanny deserved. After her cold rudeness to him, and dismissal of his behaviour as being false without making any effort to get to know him beyond the superficial knowledge she had from watching him during the play, she was dead to me. What I so intensely dislike about Fanny’s character is that she has no time for anyone who goes against her narrow view of what is the right way to behave. She is intolerant and unaccepting of difference; she cannot see any good in Mary and Henry, despite there being plenty, because their ways of behaving are not to her taste. Fanny cannot appreciate or understand their points of view, their difference in upbringing, their take on the world, and she doesn’t try to. It is this judgemental attitude that makes Fanny so infuriating, and an heroine that it is virtually impossible to love.
This is a fascinating, complex novel that feels very different from Austen’s other novels and presents the reader with a great deal of autonomy in the interpretation of its characters. Even in Austen’s day, readers were torn over Fanny; some loved her and appreciated her moral strength; others praised Mary Crawford’s vivacity and couldn’t stand Fanny’s priggishness. There is just enough information about Fanny and her background to make us sympathise with her, but there is also plenty of rope provided to hang her on. Edmund and Fanny’s staunch belief in their own rectitude and resistance of the more open minded, fun loving attitude to life that Mary, Henry and the Bertram siblings share, brings them happiness in the end, as they marry one another and enjoy wedded bliss in the Rectory in the quiet surroundings of Mansfield. Only Maria is really punished by Austen, as she is the one who has truly sinned; banished to a cottage with only Mrs Norris for company for the rest of her days, this is an exceptionally cruel end. Tom is nearly killed off for being naughty, but he is allowed to recover and mend his ways. Julia runs off with Mr Yates but is happy regardless. Finally, Mary and Henry’s fates remain vague, their futures open-ended. While Fanny and Edmund have technically won the ‘happy ever after’ prize, their rather dull life doesn’t feel particularly triumphant. Austen seems to be saying that staunch traditionalism is not something to be rewarded, and yet neither is complete flouting of social convention, a la Maria Rushworth.
So, what does she intend for us to take away from Mansfield Park? Perhaps that a happy medium of frivolity with the heart in the right place will bring about no bad end? Mary doesn’t get an immediate happy ever after, but there’s no reason why she won’t in future. I couldn’t help but get the impression that Austen liked Mary Crawford more than any other character, and that while she makes errors of judgement, she most certainly never comes across as a truly bad person. Misguided and selfish on occasion, yes, but malicious and unkind, no, certainly not. Mary is a modern woman, and Fanny is a throwback to a former age that is no longer in existence and will never be again. Her narrowmindedness will do her no good in a rapidly changing world, and perhaps this is why her and Edmund’s marriage does not feel like an especially happy ending; two people so stuck in their ways cannot bring much benefit or joy to society. Mary, Henry and the Bertrams (perhaps except Maria) are more pliable and willing to adapt; they learn from their mistakes and have an ability to embrace, enjoy and be a part of a changing world. Fanny’s inability to understand or like people who differ from her is no way to live in 1814, and so ultimately I can’t help but come to the conclusion that Austen did not mean us to esteem Fanny, but instead to view her as a naive and misguided hanger on to a world that had already started to pass away. Mansfield Park is a ‘modern’ house, after all; its inhabitants must learn to be so too, if they are to prosper in a new century.
I look forward to hearing your opinions! My reading of Austen will continue, probably in about a month or so; I plan on tackling Sense and Sensibility next, so if you fancy joining me, watch this space!