I have read all the Austen books before, and so had planned on ticking Pride and Prejudice off the list without rereading it, but I had a craving for a chick-flick book and my mind settled on Mansfield Park for some reason and I decided to post about it instead. It is one of my lesser favourite Austen books, but that had probably contributed to it being one I hadn’t read, or watched a tv adaptation of, for a while. I would rank the books Pride and prejudice first, then Northanger Abbey, then Sense and sensibility, and Mansfield Park, Emma and Persuasion last. I do like the modern adaptions of Emma (like Clueless) but found the book had quite a few sections that dragged on a bit, and Emma herself can be a bit annoying. Pride and Prejudice, Northanger Abbey and Sense and Sensibility all have great BBC adaptions that I highly recommend, and could watch multiple times.
My copy of Mansfield Park is a free ebook obtained either through Amazon or project Gutenberg , I cannot remember which now as I downloaded it a while ago. (You can get all Austen’s books in various ebook formats for free, as well as a biography.) It had an introduction, which discusses how Austen wrote characters to be representing both sides of the industrial revolution- the old ways with land owners who were considered at the centre of society, looked after their tenants and made improvements slowly over time, if at all, valuing tradition, versus the new ways with land owners who could delegate radical changes to people they hire, and who spend their time and money on novelty often away at town. Apparently there is a big debate among Austen scholars about whether she was pro- or anti-industrialisation. I had never really thought about the context of when she was writing- more just reading the stories for the people and their relationships. As I read through Mansfield park, I felt that although there was a great deal of discussion amongst the characters about how they would improve their houses/lands, I noticed disapproval in the way the author wrote about anyone’s view point. There definitely was disapproval of certain character traits.
The main character is Fanny, a shy young woman brought up in her uncle’s house to be acutely aware that she is not on the same level as her cousins. She found a friend in Edmund, her kind, devout, cousin who is to go into the church. After years of learning most of what she knows from him, and him being her only true support, she grows up to be a young woman very much in love with him, and almost always of the same opinion as him. One of the first times they disagree is when their circle admits a brother and sister duo (Henry and Mary Crawford) who are rather modern and flippant. Edmund finds Mary enchanting and soon starts overlooking her faults, whereas Fanny can see her impropriety all too clearly.
And this is what I found interesting when rereading Mansfield Park: all through it I automatically take Fanny’s side- I feel that she judges situations rightly, and that her disapproval of various things others do is correct and proper, when by today’s standards she would be thought unreasonable. Mary is the type of character that would usually be the heroine- she is pretty, lively, witty and has a worthy suitor fall in love with her. But she also speaks ill of her uncle occasionally, and of the church frequently, and doesn’t think there is anything wrong or immoral about various male-female interactions that were considered wrong in her day (I am trying not to be too detailed about what happens in case you haven’t read it yet!) Fanny on the other hand is perturbed over the slightest hint of impropriety (people being in the garden unchaperoned, acting in a play etc).
In all these things I sit on Fanny’s side of the fence when reading the book, but in real life I think most of us would probably agree with Mary on most things- what is the harm of acting in a play? Nothing. Make jokes about the church? Of course that’s fine. Disagree with the church’s teaching and feel cynical about their use of money? That’s commonplace. Have annoying family members, teacher, bosses? Complain to your friends! And as to relationships- anything goes these days! So why do I judge Mary for having a lot of the same thoughts that I/my contempories have? Does being in a different time mean she has to live by a different set of morals to us, just because those around her did. If you hold a set of morals that belong to a future time, does that really make you immoral? Or just avant garde?
I can’t really find an answer within myself as to why I feel the characters in Mansfield Park should be judged by the moral standards that Fanny and Edmund hold, rather than by my own beliefs, or the morals of today, except that Fanny is the main character and so the reader automatically takes her side, and in some ways is experiencing the book as Fanny instead of as themselves. There is something about stories, where when you choose to engage with a story, be it a book or a movie, you are committing a not insignificant amount of time and energy. I think making that decision primes us to connect with the main character, because if we don’t make a connection, that is a lot of time and energy potentially not well spent. I first noticed this willingness, or almost impulse, to connect to the main character when I read an old book that had been my grandmothers when she was a schoolchild. The first character we met was actually not the main character, but having spent the first chapter with her, I wanted her to be the one who got the boy. But for the rest of the book we followed another girl instead who the book was actually meant to be about. I hadn’t been expecting that, and felt kind of upset and disappointed for the first girl. It was the first time I had gone into a book and not had it clear pretty soon who the main character was- which I am guessing is to do with the book being quite old, and not sticking to the same formula as today’s books.
So it was certainly interesting reading the book again, although I am starting to find with all the Austen books that having read them several times, I am no longer getting as caught up in the stories. If you haven’t read any Austen I would recommend Pride and Prejudice for the interesting characters, social commentary and romantic storylines. And because every else know it. Next I would recommend Northanger Abbey because it is just fun. If you are not a big reader- the 6 hour BBC adaption of Pride and Prejudice is worth it- definitely the best adaption, and I really enjoyed their Sense & sensibility (3x 60 minute episodes with lovely seaside vistas and amusing neighbours) and Northanger Abbey (movie length).
Which are your favorites? How do you feel about the different character?