On being wrong

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Eating humble pie is not something I enjoy doing, but when I’m wrong, I’m willing to admit it. As an English teacher, one of the aspects of my job that I enjoy the most is the opportunity to reread texts and look at them from fresh perspectives as I prepare to teach them to my students. It’s vital that I can put my own personal opinions aside and present the novel as a blank canvas where any interpretations can be valid; I can illuminate the text and offer suggestions, but I strive to never influence students with my own reading of the characters or authors’ intentions. So, when I am reading with a mind to teaching, I force myself to read more carefully, more considerately, more thoughtfully. I immerse myself in the context of the novel’s period, to place the character’s actions and thoughts within the norms of their time. I refrain from judgement and strive to be dispassionate. And when I do that, I start to see things differently than I did before, and the text comes alive in whole new ways.

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been rereading Mansfield Park. I have to teach it to my GCSE class next year, and initially, I wasn’t happy about it. As some of you may remember from when I reread it a few years ago, Mansfield Park has always been my least favourite Austen. When I first read it, I couldn’t understand how Jane Austen could have written such an insipid heroine when she had created so many fabulous ones in her other novels. Where was the wit, the sparkiness, the sass? Where was the striding across muddy fields, the arch looks, the independence of spirit? Fanny Price was just pathetic, Edmund Bertram the least romantic hero ever, and Mary and Henry Crawford, who were clearly supposed to be unlikeable, were the best characters in the novel. As well written as Mansfield Park is, I thought it was deeply unsatisfying on many levels, and definitely not a book I could ever love as I do Austen’s others. I knew all of the context, I understood Fanny’s position as a poor dependent, I could see objectively why Fanny was the way she was, but I just couldn’t care less. And, as I knew I wasn’t alone – there have been actual Fanny wars fought (this actually exists! Though it sounds hilariously naughty to an English ear) – I felt totally justified in my negative opinion. Everyone hated Mansfield Park, so I didn’t need to try and like it. That is, until I needed to prepare it to teach.

Well. What a different book I found! Mansfield Park is the poster child for critics countering the claims that Austen ‘merely’ wrote domestic novels (because obviously what happens in the domestic interior is of no importance at all), as the characters live on the proceeds of slavery; Sir Thomas Bertram owns a plantation in Antigua. The luxurious life in the ‘modern’ built mansion of Mansfield Park is only possible thanks to slave labour, and with slavery forming the background of the novel, the fact that the Bertrams have a niece living in the battered former schoolroom in the attics who is told that she needs to remember ‘who and what she is’ at all times makes for uncomfortable reading. As I began to consider that Fanny is, to all intents and purposes, a slave in the Bertram household, I started to see her entirely differently. While not treated unkindly, she is subject to the whims of all around her, and has no control over her own life. She cannot ask for anything, cannot complain, cannot refuse. She is enslaved by the need to show perpetual humility and gratitude, forever aware of the fact that she is only at Mansfield Park thanks to the kindness of her uncle and can quite easily be returned from whence she came should she prove herself to be in any way undesirable, or undeserving. How can she be spunky and sparky and cutting and witty when she has no right to anything or anybody and lives in a house where she has no certainty of being able to remain? How on earth could I have expected her to be anything but meek, and how could I not have recognised her bravery in standing up for herself when pressed to do things against her conscience, knowing that in doing so she risked everything that she held dear? And goodness me – how on earth did I think Mary and Henry Crawford were so wonderful? They are utterly shallow, insensitive, cruel, mercenary – they might be funny and independent and utterly outré, but they are all of those things to the detriment of those around them. They are horrible people. Horrible. The scales have fallen from my eyes.

I am not backing down when it comes to Edmund Bertram – I still think he is totally useless – but I can forgive Austen that. What I can’t do is forgive myself for having been such a blinkered reader. In looking for something in this novel that Austen never wrote into it, I missed its point entirely. Mansfield Park isn’t like Austen’s other novels, but that doesn’t make it any the worse for it. This is a fascinating novel, so rich and complex, so well written and so fantastically characterised. Two hundred years old, its characters and their emotions and motivations still ring absolutely true to a modern day audience. Edmund Bertram’s total inability to see Mary Crawford for who she really is is a brilliant depiction of how blind love can be. Henry Crawford’s callous delight in making women love him, only to blithely discard them when he is bored, is a perfect portrait of narcissism. It’s going to be so much fun to teach this book, bringing the characters and their world alive for my students. I can’t wait to see what they make of it.

So, readers, I was wrong, and I am glad to have been so. This experience has reminded me of what is so amazing about the written word; come at it on a different day, at a different time of life, in a different mood, and you can see something entirely different in the exact same letters that left you cold before. I’m now considering where else I could have gone so spectacularly wrong in my past reading…I feel there’s got to be a lot of literary humble pie out there for me to eat, as there are many classics I’ve hated…Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, War and Peace, Wuthering Heights…the list is endless!

p.s. In preparation for teaching Austen, I’ve been reading a lot about her, as well as her novels, and I very much enjoyed Lucy Worsley’s new biography, Jane Austen at Home, which was an informative as well as entertaining read, with a particular focus on Austen’s relationships with her domestic environments. I highly recommend it!

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46 comments

    1. Ha! Thanks Lucinda…no, I don’t really think I do either. I have already taught it, and my attempts to be open minded definitely didn’t work!

  1. I must admit I laughed and laughed. Good for you, Rachel, for in your brave willingness to admit having been wrong, you reveal one of the great things that happen to so many people with Jane Austen – their discovery at how she changes over the years.

    1. I’m glad I provided you with a good laugh, Diana! Yes, absolutely – she is the most wonderful of companions in that she follows – and changes with – you at all phases of life.

  2. Interesting. I did Mansfield Park for A level . Have you read Paula Byrne’s Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things?

    1. Hi Luci – I hope you enjoyed studying it…as I’m about to inflict the experience on my students! No I haven’t, but I’d like to – I’ll add it to my reading list!

  3. I don’t think I ever thought it out like you did, but I’ve always had a lot of sympathy for Fanny and couldn’t see why so many people hated her. Although I enjoyed the recent movie, I thought it was untrue to the novel because they cast such a sprightly tease of a girl.

    1. Clearly you’re a better person than me! Yes the most recent one was badly cast, I thought – neither of the modern versions are particularly true to the book, which perhaps shows how difficult Fanny is for modern readers to like!

  4. My first comment here, though I am a long-time lurker. I loved Mansfield Park from my first reading of it as a teenager. I identified with Fanny, being a timid girl myself. I celebrated the fact that her quiet strength wins out in the end, and that from having been the grudgingly tolerated outsider at the start, she is ultimately recognised as the moral centre of the Manfield community. Alas, this does not always happen in real life, sio a re-read of MP is always a comfort.

    It will be interesting to see how your female students react to Fanny. I assume they will have been brought up on a ‘you go girl!’ mentality.

    1. Hi Annemarie! It’s so interesting to me to read people’s comments who have always found a connection with Fanny – I think because she is totally different to my personality, I struggled to see her perspective and just found her pathetic, but now I’m older and hopefully less self-centred! – I can appreciate her on her own terms, and think she’s a marvel of characterisation. I should never have doubted Jane! Yes – I fear they will find her the same as I did at their age – it’ll be very interesting to see what they make of her.

  5. Loved this! As a teacher I often find new things, altered perspectives, when I re-approach a much-read text – and my students always bring something new in their own reading. I studied Mansfield Park for A level many years ago: I think I’m due to revisit it after reading this….

    1. Thanks! It’s such a pleasure to teach familiar texts and hear fresh perspectives on them from the kids, isn’t it? I hope you’ll give Mansfield Park another read and see if it’s changed for you!

  6. I always enjoyed Mansfield Park and thought i was one of the only ones. Glad I’m not alone anymore. Thanks for this great post!

  7. Good for you! While I’ve always loved Mansfield Park, there are other classics that I’ve come back to and revised my opinions–the joys of rereading and a changing perspective!

  8. I had this experience with Jane Eyre. I had to read it three times for school at various stages of my teens and early twenties. I could not, for the life of me, fathom the attraction between Jane and Mr. Rochester. I had no patience for the brooding crap… until I watched the Toby Stephens BBC film version. I went back to the book and re-read the second half of the book and it completely blew my mind.

    1. I’m so glad you were able to see the beauty of Jane Eyre! I always loved that book…though I can also see why people don’t. I did have a chuckle at the thought that it was Toby Stephens who brought you to the light!!

  9. How interesting- I also did not rate Mansfield Park when I read it years ago but I have just bought a new copy having been to the small but excellent Jane Austen exhibition at the Bodleian Library in Oxford which indeed flags up the slavery issues raised in the novel. It also highlights some causes celebres which touched the Austen family and generally recasts Jane as a much more modern and engaged woman than the traditional spinster at her desk image.

    1. That sounds really interesting, Lesley – I’m going to see if they have anything from the exhibition on their website. I hope you enjoy Mansfield Park this time around with your lovely new copy!

  10. I can only recommend that you read Nabokov’s lecture on MP (and Bleak House, since I can’t wait to see you eating humble pie over Dickens !).

    1. Ha – thanks for that, Izzy, I’ll look it up. Humble pie over Dickens?! I cannot see the day, but never say never! I’ll have to see what Nabokov can do to persuade me!!

  11. Why should you think you were mistaken? You’re only a different reader now than before. There are so few Austens that one does reread them over the years, and they do seem to change over time. It’s your life experience, everything else that you have read, your mood at the time that make each read different.

    1. Well, yes, that is another way (and a generous one, thank you!) of looking at it – I certainly don’t think I COULD see what I saw in it this time when I read it before, because I probably lacked the maturity to do so. The fact that texts are just as alive and vulnerable to change as we are never ceases to amaze me!

  12. Yes! I have very strong opinions about Mansfield Park and I am always happy when others come to appreciate it for the gem it is. I deeply admire Fanny for her courage and integrity. I never understood why so many readers don’t see past the appealing froth of the Crawfords to the shallow, selfish people they are. As with all of Jane Austen’s books, the more you read it the more you come to appreciate it.

    There are books I have strongly disliked that are generally loved. Ethan Frome and Wuthering Heights are two of them. Does this mean I should give them another chance? After all, it worked for you.

    1. It just takes some of us longer to get there than others, Jenny! I’m glad I’ve finally seen the light! Ethan Frome is wonderful, so yes, do try it again. I have tried reading WH loads of times and have taught it and still hate it so I would say you’re probably safe to just accept it’s not for you!

  13. After Austen you could read EMILY EDEN’S pair of books.THE SEMI DETACHED COUPLE AND THE SEMI DETACHED HOUSE.

  14. I totally agree about a book having a different impact depending on when you come to it in your life. I hated, and I mean loathed, Thomas Hardy when I read him as a teenager. So much so, I just assumed I hated nearly all Victorian literature. Then last year I finally decided to give him another chance and was amazed to find him to be nothing like I remembered.

    Glad you got to see Mansfield Park in a different light! You’re making me contemplate re-trying Wuthering Heights…

    1. I need to reread Hardy, Kathy – you’ve encouraged me. I too read him too young and I probably missed everything worth noting. I fear I’ll never like WH but I wish you luck in the attempt!

  15. Every single one of the people in my literary and blogging circles who loves Austen hates Mansfield Park. Me, on the other hand, not being a fan of Austen at all, LOVED Mansfield Park. I found Fanny’s walks around the Park inspiring. And yes to re-reading and finding new meaning in books. As I get closer to my 30’s I have been attracted to stories that would have previously been of no interest to me, and I’m loving it.

    1. It’s so interesting, isn’t it? MP is very different to the other novels, which does mean it starts out on the back foot, I think. Age certainly makes us kinder readers, in my experience!

  16. More confessions called for! I remember hating ‘that silly Mr Bingley’ as a teenager and finding Dorothea uninteresting. Ten years later I felt in love with all of Jane Austen and George Eliot and now every time I re-read the novels I find something new and marvellous.

    After your splendid post and the other comments here I suppose I had better give Wuthering Heights one last try … but without much hope!

    Over on ninevoices.wordpress.com I’ve just posted a piece on Jane Austen’s clergymen, so I was amused by your comments on Edmund Bertram. I am always most cross with him for his crass insensitivity to Fanny’s feelings. Patricia Beer, in her brilliant book Reader I Married Him, accuses him of being ‘a demon of cruelty’. I think she is a little hard on him but certainly Jane Austen knew that good men are not always as perceptive as they ought to be…

    1. I have to say I am not a fan of George Eliot…but I have to revisit her for my course this summer, so I’m going to see if I end up loving her on the second try like you! Good luck retrying WH…i really don’t think I’ll ever love it but miracles might happen! Yes, Edmund is utterly insensitive – for someone who plans on being a clergyman, rather distressingly so! I shall check out your post, and the Patricia Beer!

  17. This is such a lovely post, it’s always fun to find a new perspective on something, and even though I’ve read and love Mansfield Park I hadn’t even thought about Fanny’s being trapped slavishly by her position in the family. Very interesting.

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