Sense and Sensibility: Wrap Up

The most interesting thing about re-reading Jane Austen’s novels is realising how many false memories I have gained about the characters and plots in between readings. This is largely due to TV and film dramatisations, I should imagine, but I think there is also an element of age and different viewpoints coming into play. I remembered Marianne, for example, as being a lively, overly talkative, melodramatic and endearing girl with lots of energy and a prominent presence in the novel. Elinor I barely remembered at all. This is probably due to the fact that I last read Sense and Sensibility when I was about Marianne’s age and would have identified with her as a character far more than I identified with Elinor, but also Kate Winslet’s portrayal of Marianne has considerably influenced my memories of the novel. On re-reading, I was struck by how little Marianne is actually in the foreground of events; for most of the novel, she is silent and either upstairs, out of sight, or mooning around in a chair somewhere, her eyes fixed on the middle distance. Her ill advised dalliance with Willoughby and the ensuing consequences are a major plot point, and everyone’s concerns for Marianne means that she is constantly mentioned, but she barely says anything for herself once the action has moved to London, and when she does speak, it is full of self pity and melodrama that makes her increasingly infuriating as time goes on. Marianne’s silence and self imposed exclusion from society allows Elinor to come to the fore, and when Lucy Steele appears on the scene, the novel becomes less about Marianne and Willoughby and more about Elinor’s struggle to keep her sanity while fending off the advances of the nasty Lucy, who really does seem to be as indestructible as her name.

Marianne’s quiet fading into the background is interesting, as she initially appears to be the most engaging character. However, her immaturity and overly romantic nature have led her to make the terrible mistake of falling in love with a bounder, and when she sees Willoughby’s true colours, she is unable to cope with the reality of a world that is not what she has been promised from reading her favourite romantic poets. She has been ill-prepared for real life; for pain, for disappointment, and for dishonesty. She judges people by sentiment and not by character, and this failing ultimately leads to her downfall. Mrs Dashwood has a similar temperament to her daughter, and unfortunately does not give Marianne the firm, wise guiding hand she needs. Instead, she too is blinded by Willoughby’s external appearances and encourages their romance. Therefore, when Marianne has the wool pulled from her eyes, she goes into a profound state of shock, which is probably the real reason for her inability to communicate after Willoughby’s betrayal. For the first time she has had her eyes opened to the true nature of the world; everything she believed and hoped for has been pulled from beneath her, and she has to find a way to move forward with a different set of beliefs and hopes for her future. When she finally does emerge from her long-drawn out melancholy, she has changed, for the better. She still remains loving, and romantic, and passionate, but this is tempered by more consideration for others, and more sense than sensibility; something Austen is anxious to promote.

Marianne’s silence also serves to allow Elinor’s story to be heard. Normally the voice of reason is the one nobody wants to listen to; compared to Marianne, Elinor initially appears rather dull and pedestrian, especially when you consider that she is only two or three years older than Marianne, and still a teenager herself when the story opens. Her sense compared to Marianne’s sensibility is interesting; she is clearly her father’s child, and takes on the responsibilities of the male patriarch after her father’s death, ensuring the smooth removal of the family to Devon, as well as acting as the counsellor and calmer of worries and grief to her mother and sisters. Her difference in temperament is made even more clear when she and Marianne remove to London. Despite having her own heart broken by Lucy’s revelation of her secret engagement, Elinor shows no outward sign of discomposure and carries on regardless, comforting Marianne and going about the usual round of afternoon teas, evening card parties and Sunday walks as required by women being entertained in someone else’s house. Elinor is not only sensible; she is selfless, and considerate of others. Marianne thinks only of herself and her own distress, and does exactly what she feels like doing, without considering her position as a dependent on someone else’s kindness. Elinor does have her moments of frustration and anger, and she certainly makes her distaste of those she has no time for clear, but she never stoops to being impolite or inconsiderate, and this is where her sense elevates her far higher in the readers’ esteem than the self obsessed Marianne. By putting Marianne in the background during the middle section of the novel, Austen allows Elinor to shine, and to make her argument for sense clear to the reader. Marianne’s near-death experience is also significant in making this point evident; Marianne survives, but her sensibility is killed off, along with her hopes for a life with Willoughby. When she awakes, she is forever changed; she has made the transition from childhood to adulthood, and can finally see the error of her ways.

Elinor and Marianne, or ‘Sense’ and ‘Sensibility’, are both fascinating characters and an interesting exploration of how very different two siblings brought up in exactly the same environment by the same parents can be. However, what struck me the most in the novel is just how prominent and menacing the character of Lucy Steele is. Austen’s novels are generally deemed to be cosy, escapist, and so on, but really, the more I re-read them, the more I realise they are nothing of the sort. Lucy is a villain of the worst kind; manipulative, calculating and totally self interested, she will do whatever it takes to get her own way, and doesn’t care what damage she causes to others in the process. She singles Elinor out as a threat to her engagement with Edward, which she knows full well is on shaky ground, and sets out to ensure that Elinor knows that Edward is ‘hers’, all under the sickly sweet cover of being in distress and needing someone to confide in. She also makes sure she ingratiates herself with those in a position to influence her future, and seems to feel no guilt over being thoroughly two faced. Her callous abandonment of Edward for his brother and her skillful pandering to Mrs Ferrars is expertly and coldly done; Lucy is a truly horrible and deceitful piece of work, and one who could quite easily have ruined Elinor’s happiness forever. She is not someone to laugh at during the novel, but rather someone to be genuinely afraid of; Lucy is dangerous, just like Willoughby, and her presence in the novel lends a highly unsettling tone to the proceedings. Throughout Sense and Sensibility, danger and uncertainty reign; Marianne could potentially never recover from her melancholy, Marianne nearly dies, and it does appear likely that both girls will not get their happy ever afters. It might be witty and well observed, but cosy Sense and Sensibility certainly is not. In fact, it is a stark reminder of the damage people can quite willingly do to  one another, and how selfishness is most people’s prominent motivator. The opening paragraphs, detailing the hilariously selfish Mr and Mrs Dashwood and their justification of not giving the Dowager Mrs Dashwood and her daughters any money to live on, set this context right from the beginning. Sense and Sensibility is not just about two girls looking for love; as usual with Austen, it is a far more complex analysis of society than simply that.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed Sense and Sensibility. It’s not a perfect novel, and it will never be my favourite Austen, but regardless, it was highly entertaining, excellently characterised, and very thought provoking. I did quite badly want to kill Marianne by the time she was dying of a cold – for heaven’s sake! – I can’t say that I haven’t spent many a night crying my heart out over a boy or two, but to go on for weeks as if life is no longer worth living over a man you merely spent a few evenings comparing the genius of Cowper with is ridiculous. Get a grip, woman! Elinor got all of my sympathy and she has now emerged as one of my favourite Austen heroines; she is the strength of Sense and Sensibility, and I think shades of Elinor can be seen in Austen’s subsequent successful heroines. As an early Austen, this is a very good novel in which to see Austen honing the skills she will later perfect in her true masterpieces (in my opinion these are Emma, Persuasion and Pride and Prejudice) and it also features some of her best comic creations. However, after reading two slightly mediocre Austens in a row, I’m now wanting to get back to the true genius. Due to my need to brush up on school texts for my teaching interview, I may not get around to it next month, but sometime within the next month or two, I’m going to move on to rereading Pride and Prejudice, which I haven’t done in several years – in fact, since I was 18. I studied it for my A level English exam (exam you do to qualify for university) and had to read it about four times in the space of 6 months, so I had had quite enough of it after that. Now I feel ready to go back, and see whether Mr Darcy is genuinely as fanciable in print as he is on the small screen. What a shame he doesn’t really emerge dripping from a pond in skin tight britches!

Sense and Sensibility: Who’s the Hero?!

Sense and Sensibility is quite the bag of tricks. Just when you think you’ve made your mind up about the characters, Austen turns round and hits you with perfectly plausible and sympathy inducing explanations for previously questionable behaviour, resulting in a very confused reader by the end of the novel. When I wrote my previous post, I hadn’t finished reading. Now I have finished, and have revisited some sections of the novel, I have found many of my earlier conclusions to be short sighted. How could I have hated Edward so much? And my derision of Willoughby? Well…if anyone can do forgive-me-please puppy dog eyes, it’s him. Plus, I can’t believe I didn’t even mention Colonel Brandon. He is often dismissed as nice but dull, but interestingly, he is the most present of the three main male characters. Austen introduces both Edward and Willougby briefly, then does away with them for the majority of the novel, while the girls are in London. She only brings them back in again, right at the end, has them both deliver speeches that undo their previous wrongs, and then leaves us to come to our own conclusions. Much of what we know and come to believe about Edward and Willoughby is through the experiences of Elinor and Marianne, and the say-so of others. The only male character positioned as a lover of the girls who speaks for himself throughout the course of the novel’s events is Colonel Brandon. Interestingly, though, he is the one who is most forgettable. So, what is going on here? An absent, silent hero, an absent, loveable rogue and a present but forgettable hero. Not the usual ingredients for a satisfying romance, certainly.

Edward Ferrars is the first hero to be introduced to us. Through Mrs Dashwood’s eyes, we are told that Edward ‘loves’ Elinor. However, Elinor acknowledges that she cannot be sure of this, and it’s clear that Edward has never said anything to make Elinor believe he is going to propose to her – this is all down to Marianne and Mrs Dashwood’s romantic ‘sensibility’. Therefore, we can’t be angry at him for his actions, because he hasn’t really been unfaithul or led anyone on – certainly not intentionally, anyway. What we do know for certain about Edward comes from Austen’s dispassionate narrative voice – Edward ‘was not handsome, and his manners required intimacy to make them pleasing. He was too diffident to do justice to himself; but when his natural shyness was overcome, his behaviour gave every indication of an open, affectionate heart’. So, he’s no Prince Charming, but even so, he’s a decent, kind man, who finds it difficult to overcome a natural shyness. Not everyone can be confident and driven, and Edward’s personality and actions have certainly been affected by poor parenting he has received from his nasty mother, who has done everything in her power to prevent Edward from pursuing a path that would suit and please him, resulting in his rather aimless, ineffectual existence. His engagement to Lucy is quite understandable, considering his upbringing, and the fact that he refused to throw her over despite her odiousness and his growing indifference towards her is actually very noble. To those of us who like a bad boy, Edward does come across as a bit of a drip, but really, when you read the text carefully, Austen doesn’t mean for us to come to this conclusion. His quiet, thoughtful, intelligent and caring demeanour is perfect for Elinor, and will also be perfect for his role as a clergyman. However, his lack of consistent love for Elinor, and his willingness to go through with his marriage to Lucy, do leave a bit of a sour note; how much does he really deserve her, and her faithful, steadfast love?!

John Willoughby enters the novel in the traditional role of the dashing hero; he literally rescues Marianne, carrying her back to her house after her fall, and soon makes himself very popular by sharing all of Marianne’s own tastes and enjoyments. Marianne is naive and believes that this is all that matters when it comes to falling in love, and she trusts Willoughby absolutely. It obviously helps that he is handsome and tall and in line to inherit a significant property in the future. Mrs Dashwood, just as she imagines Edward to be in love with Elinor, soon assumes that Willoughby and Marianne have an understanding, and Marianne, quite against the custom of the day, fuels this fire by writing to him once he has gone to London (only affianced couples should write to one another). However, Willoughby is very careful not to ever give Marianne a concrete reason to consider him bound to her, and he never so much as mentions the word marriage. He might have been very flirtatious and affectionate, but he never fully crosses the line. The Dashwoods’ indignation when Willoughby’s true feelings are revealed does have some justification, but really, Mrs Dashwood only has herself to blame for encouraging Marianne without finding out what Mr Willoughby’s true intentions were. The sting in the tale is Colonel Brandon’s revelation that Willoughby ruined his ward; even I can’t explain that one anyway! Willoughby might be contrite at the end, and genuinely regret his treatment of Marianne, but his true colours are revealed in his attitude towards Miss Williams and his refusal to take responsibility for his actions. He is punished by his unhappy marriage, though, and it’s difficult not to feel sorry for him; he at least has a conscience, and attempts to make amends; this is more than the true Austenian rogue, the horrid Mr Wickham, ever does. I couldn’t help but think that he probably would have made Marianne happy if he hadn’t have been ruined by his own expensive tastes and inability to live within his means; he’s not an intrinsically bad person, just a selfish one.

Finally, we have Colonel Brandon. He’s a bit of a Mr Bates (Downton Abbey reference!); you can’t help but want to look after him from the minute he enters the novel. He’s a kind, well liked mid thirty something with impeccable manners and a hinted-at tragic past. He is clearly lonely, and looking for love; he falls in love with Marianne at first sight, but he knows that he stands little chance in comparison with Mr Willoughby, especially as Marianne is nearly twenty years his junior. As such, he never pushes himself on Marianne, or the Dashwoods; he is polite and respectful at all times, and hangs well back from the action. Interestingly though, when Edward and Willoughby are off the scene, during the time when Marianne and Elinor are in London, it is Colonel Brandon who is the family’s mainstay. He supports Elinor during Marianne’s drawn out grieving process, he reveals Willloughby’s true colours, and when Marianne’s health is in danger, he rides through the night to bring Mrs Dashwood to her daughter’s side. He never gives up on Marianne, or loses hope that he might one day come to be loved by her. He is faithful, honest, sensitive and loyal; he also brings up a child who is not his own, despite the inevitable gossip this instigates. In short, he’s pretty heroic. Somehow, though, despite him having all the ingredients of a hero, he never quite comes across as being one in the novel. He is always there, so he becomes a part of the furniture. His age and his lack of ‘sensibility’, passion, or dashing qualities make him seem dull, especially when we are supposed to consider him a suitable match for the effusive, teenaged Marianne. Only when Marianne has had her eyes opened and her spirits dampened by Willoughby does he suddenly become an appropriate suitor. There is no real romance involved at all in their marriage, and it feels more like an arranged match than an act of love. While Austen is clearly saying that successful marriages aren’t all based on whirlwind romances, she makes this marriage into a convenient transaction that Marianne seems to be bullied rather than voluntarily entered into. Colonel Brandon is very nice, of course, but Marianne wanted so much more; can we as readers be truly satisfied with her fate? I’m not sure that I am.

Sense and Sensibility is a very uneven novel, and the set up of having Marianne and Elinor fall in love with men who then behave badly and disappear for most of the plot, only showing up again at the end to explain themselves, is key to its weakness. Edward is sweet enough, but we never really get to know enough about him to make us love him. Willoughby isn’t really bad enough to hate, and we don’t ever meet Miss Williams to really sympathise with her tale of woe, so he doesn’t pack the punch Austen intends in his role as the villain. Colonel Brandon technically does everything right, but he doesn’t work in the role of Marianne’s lover; he’s too dull and too earnest, and far too old. Austen doesn’t really unpick the male characters well, and she doesn’t quite manage to bring them alive. All the ingredients are there, but they are not mixed together accurately. Compared to the male characters in her major later novels, those in Sense and Sensibility fall conspicuously flat. There needed to be more dialogue, more presence, more personality; without that, despite us being told everything we need to know to make us love and hate appropriately, it’s very difficult to care anything much for any of them. Ironically, I ended up liking Willoughby the best, and feeling very sorry for him at the end, and I’m sure that wasn’t Austen’s intention! I’m intrigued to hear what others think about this!

Sense and Sensibility: First Impressions

I realised, when I plucked my copy of Sense and Sensibility off the shelf, that I have only actually read it once, and that must have easily been about eight years ago, when I was still at school. I’ve never read the edition I now own; I bought it for a song from a charity shop in Bromley (which, incidentally, Austen mentions in her novels as it was once a popular spot for people travelling between London and Kent to stop en route and change their horses) and then dumped it on a shelf for several years – a nasty habit I seem to be unable to control! I had retained an impression from my first read that Sense and Sensibility is a less enjoyable novel than the later ones, and I think that’s why I never bothered to read it again. However, I am pleased to say that I haven’t found this to be the case at all on the second time round. Austen’s trademark wit, perception and brilliant characterisation are once again out in full force, and I can’t believe that I had forgotten what a nasty piece of work Lucy Steele is…now there is a little madam!

What has struck me quite powerfully so far is how interesting Elinor is; everyone seems to talk about Marianne and Wickham when Sense and Sensibility is mentioned, but Elinor is by far the most fascinating in my opinion. She is sensible, tactful, kind and gentle, with admirable self control. Normally these goody-two-shoes qualities would have me rolling my eyes to heaven, but the joy of Elinor is that she has a lot more depth to her than this; she is no doormat, and neither is she self righteous. She is highly intelligent, knows her own worth, is fiercely loyal, and doesn’t suffer fools gladly; certainly not a woman to trifle with. I particularly love how quickly she sees through the falseness of others, and how she manages to make it quite clear that she knows their true character, without veering remotely from the accepted drawing room codes of behaviour. Compared to the exuberant, impulsive and rather naïve nature of her mother and younger sisters, Elinor is a bastion of good sense and cool-headedness, with a spine of steel and a razor sharp tongue, when it suits her to use it. Only she suspects that Willoughby and Marianne are not really engaged, and predicts disaster; for a girl of just 19, who has seen and experienced little of the world, her wisdom and powers of judgement are really rather extraordinary. What a relief to read such a heroine after being subjected to Fanny Price for so long!

Something I can’t quite understand though, is why Elinor loves Edward Ferrars. He’s not a particularly well fleshed out hero, and I think this causes Sense and Sensibility to feel a little weak in comparison to the likes of Pride and Prejudice, Emma and Persuasion. Edward doesn’t work for his living, seems to have no particular talents, and is simply floating about, waiting for his spiteful mother to decide to settle his inheritance on him. As a younger man, before he met the Dashwoods, he managed to tie himself into a secret engagement with the shrewd and two faced Lucy Steele, even though he knew he wouldn’t be in a position to marry anyone for years, and that this marriage would not be acceptable to his mother anyway, on whom his future depends. The fact that he could fall in love, even temporarily, with such a false and silly girl doesn’t say much for his intelligence. Then, to make matters worse, even though he is engaged, he proceeds to behave in a manner befitting a single man to Elinor, seemingly without considering the fact that at some point this is going to cause quite substantial distress and difficulties when the truth of his situation is inevitably revealed. Austen tells us that he’s ‘gentlemanlike and pleasing’, and that everyone thinks very highly of him, but there’s not much evidence in the text to demonstrate this to the reader. We never really see or hear much of Edward, and it’s difficult to understand, from what we do hear of him, why on earth a woman like Elinor would find such a foolish and passive man attractive. Austen doesn’t give us any reasons to love him, feel sorry for him, or think him suited to Elinor. Willoughby might be a cad, but at least he has a personality; Edward is a two dimensional drip who moons about bemoaning his state without lifting a finger to do anything about it. He’s no hero I’d wait around to be rescued by, that’s for sure!

My final observation for now is how daring Austen is in raising the issue of illegitimacy and fallen women – I had totally forgotten about Colonel Brandon’s sister in law, and then his ward and her seduction by Willoughby. These rather shocking events might be dealt with in just a few pages, but they cast a shadow over the entire book. Willougby is not just a naughty cad, he is dangerous; he preys on young, impressionable, naive girls, who fall head over heels in love with him and are willing to give their hearts away without him actually concretely promising anything to them. He is a con man of great skill, and without the protection of her close knit family circle, Marianne could have been swept away by him as Miss Williams was. This sense of Marianne having had a lucky escape is really quite sobering. It’s very interesting that Elinor and Marianne are both lied to by the men they love in this novel; there is a real undercurrent of danger for women in the novel when it comes to dealings with the opposite sex. Wealth, status and good sense aren’t enough to make you immune from getting into trouble, as Colonel Brandon’s tale of woe shows, and while men can walk off scott free, the women must bear the brunt of the suffering and shame that result from imprudent affairs. This is quite an overtly feminist message, and certainly more than a little controversial for the period.

There is so much richness in this novel; outside of the main protagonists, I am also thoroughly enjoying the comedy of Mrs Jennings, and the calculating selfishness of the odious Dashwoods. I’m also surprised by Mrs Dashwood Snr, and her misguided parenting. As lovely and loving as she is, she is a terrible judge of character, and very unwise in allowing Marianne and Willougby’s relationship to progress so far without making certain of his intentions. Austen seems to touch on poor parenting in each of her novels, but I had always thought of Mrs Dashwood as being the best of a bad bunch. Now I’m not so sure. At the moment I’m just about two thirds of the way through, and I have lots more to talk about, so there will be two or three more posts to come. I look forward to hearing your thoughts!

Mansfield Park: Wrap Up

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!

Mansfield Park: What’s in a Name?

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!