Eric's Reviews > Mansfield Park

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen
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's review
Aug 05, 2007

really liked it
bookshelves: unexpected
Read in May, 2010

My reading of Mansfield Park was attended, part of the way, by two poets talking about the difficulty of writing (or to me, reading) Austen’s kind of novel:

A young poet’s ignorance of life will go unnoticed. Meter, rhyme, felicitous phrases, and what not mask the underlying weakness or banality. With fiction, where dissimilar characters suffer and grow and interact, there is no place to hide. One either knows what people go through or doesn’t.
(James Merrill)

Then she’s a novelist. I don’t know whether
You will agree, but novel writing is
A higher art than poetry altogether
In my opinion, and success implies
Both finer character and faculties.


The average poet in comparison,
Is unobservant, immature, and lazy.
You must admit, when all is said and done,
His sense of Other People’s very hazy…
(W.H. Auden)

I don’t quite agree with Auden, but it is right that in his “New Year Letter” Austen should stand for the novel at its most dramatically characterful, social-minded and prosy. Austen knows what people go through together. Her dissimilar characters grow and suffer and interact credibly—and she pursues the meaning of their chambered clashes with as little concern for “felicitous phrases, and what not” as any novelist I’ve ever read. Austen’s prose isn’t poetically nerved, it doesn’t aspire to “the condition of music,” and oftentimes it resembles nothing so much as a fine-scratching needle registering the sleights, snubs, anxieties and egotistic vibrations of drawing room seismology. She is no poet, C. Brontë complained to G.H. Lewes. For these reasons—or for dim undergrad apprehension of such—she strongly repelled me when first assigned.

Encounters with Pride and Prejudice in college had me fleeing what I saw, then, as the parched and juiceless tabulation of the small change of existence. Claustral, airless, over-analytic of things I didn’t care about. Had I known, I would have seconded Emerson’s, de Staël’s judgment of Austen as “vulgar”/ “vulgaire.” You must understand that to a certain type of youth, the understated is unreal, the commonplace contemptible, the socially conditioned self a soulless puppet. Marriage—marriage as mundane proximity, not Shelleyan epipsyche—is personally remote, at the same time that it is made disgustingly familiar by the misalliance of one’s parents, all parents; and the comedies of courtship and fortune seem trivial when shelved next to whaling and war and revolution and dark journeys and guignon and the horror, the horror! The prose I was bred to is fantastic, fortissimo, and monologic. Books were an escape from the idiocy of family life, not the means of its exploration. My sense of other people was hazy and I liked it that way. The friction of confined egos, however wisely told, reminded me of home; and Austen’s domesticities were closed to me. I wanted only the unreliably (but poetically) narrated novel, the dialogue-less recitation; unpeopled reveries, lyric tirades; Notes from Underground, Sartor Resartus, Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

If Austen could scrutinize readerships since 1817, she’d surely have sharp things to say about the current crop of Catherine Morelands, with their Dracula Beefcake books; but I think she’d be equally amused, in her prosy Augustan way, by the American sons of Carlyle, the French sons of Poe, the Nietzscheans, the Lawrentians, the Beats—by all the poseurs of extreme consciousness bred by a Romanticism she knew only in its initial generation and Gothic foretaste. The days of my exclusive allegiance to this readership are long gone, but I only this year made time for its traditional bête noire. Why Mansfield Park? Lionel Trilling, his brow lined and eyes darkened by office hours spent brooding on the moral crises of modernity, announces, after a meditative drag on his Chesterfield, that “there is scarcely one of our modern pieties that it does not offend.” Oh, sign me up! And the old Ishmaelite prejudice may be at work, as well: the Austen novel people say is so unlike the rest is the Austen novel I want to read.

Lady Bertram

Every thing that a considerate parent ought to feel was advanced for her use; and every thing that an affectionate mother must feel in promoting her children’s enjoyment, was attributed to her nature.

Is there a better description of the ghostly, marginal parent whose presence in the family circle amounts to a flickering, semi-transparent hologram beamed from the hopeful head of the engaged parent? In this novel’s gallery of hazily inattentive and self-absorbed people, Lady Bertram stands out.

Mrs. Norris

That you always know what Mrs. Norris will say, but never how she will say it, is one sign of Austen’s dramatic genius. Mrs. Norris has a predictable store of topics, but the surprise is the ingenuity with which she insinuates her resentful bullying, her aggressive self-pity, into any matter under discussion. This is absolutely realistic. There are narcissists, dead to the world and to other people, who impart an illusion of vibrancy by the sheer variety of excuses they find to talk about their one or two emotions.

Mary Crawford

One of my favorite characters. A showcase of ambiguity. Mary is where wit borders vapidity, where charm blends with oafishness.

Of Mary Crawford, whose charm almost equals her brother’s, we are led to expect that her vivaciousness and audacity will constitute a beneficent counter-principle to the stodginess which, as the novel freely grants, is one of the main attributes of Mansfield Park. But in the outcome her wit is seen to be by no means an energy of Spirit pressing forward to new and freer and more developed modes of being. Actually its tendency is regressive—its depreciation of Mansfield Park is not an effort of liberation but an acquiescence in bondage, a cynical commitment to the way of the world...

Trilling does not go on to illustrate his point with reference to the discussion of the clergy Edmund, Mary and Fanny conduct over chapters 9, 10, and 11, but I think he must have had it in mind. This running discussion is a bravura set-piece, and the aha! of revelation-through-dialogue is Mary’s cloddish inability—her smug refusal—to square handsome Edmund’s imminent ordination with the yawning parishioners, homely parsons and indolent clergymen who populate her handbook of received ideas. Mary’s refusal to credit the existence of a figure present before her eyes but not present in the fashionable gallery of burlesques, her slavish reliance on chic formulae of wit, make her, ironically, unworldly, provincial, and stodgy. Edmund and Fanny, the novel’s nominal prigs, actually have livelier, more sophisticated minds: like Mary they are aware of the ignobility of some clergy, while remaining receptive to the nobility of the office and the possible dignity of its holders; they know clergymen to be gluttonous placeholders, and they know them to be “the masters of the ceremonies of life”—a complex vision, a dual perception of reality and of the ideality possible within it that Ruskin saw as instinct with the highest consciousness.

Another instance of neurasthenic Fanny’s paradoxical liveliness is her attitude during the tour of Sotherton:

The whole party rose accordingly, and under Mrs. Rushworth's guidance were shewn through a number of rooms, all lofty, and many large, and amply furnished in the taste of fifty years back, with shining floors, solid mahogany, rich damask, marble, gilding and carving, each handsome in its way. Of pictures there were abundance, and some few good, but the larger part were family portraits, no longer any thing to any body but Mrs. Rushworth, who had been at great pains to learn all that the housekeeper could teach, and was now almost equally well qualified to shew the house. On the present occasion, she addressed herself chiefly to Miss Crawford and Fanny, but there was no comparison in the willingness of their attention, for Miss Crawford, who had seen scores of great houses, and cared for none of them, had only the appearance of civilly listening, while Fanny, to whom every thing was almost as interesting as it was new, attended with unaffected earnestness to all that Mrs. Rushworth could relate of the family in former times, its rise and grandeur, regal visits and loyal efforts, delighted to connect any thing with history already known, or warm her imagination with scenes of the past.

Fanny’s Cowper-quoting poetic nostalgia for ancient aristocratic domains may seem weird and fusty and reactionary, but it allows her imaginative access to that pageant “of the family in former times”—allows her a more textured experience of reality than is available to blasé Mary, for whom county houses are nothing more than the jaunty resorts of golden youth, evanescent as the entertainments and casual love-making they host. The contrast of Fanny and Mary in these chapters nicely demonstrates Pushkin’s observation that country distances, the solitude of estates, and the necessity of bookish diversion permit the provincial young lady to develop a pleasingly eccentric distinction of character, whereas

in the capitol cities women receive a better education, perhaps, but the ways of society soon iron out their character and render their minds as indistinguishable as their hats.

Fanny Price

Fanny is a stunning work of psychological portraiture. Austen knows and can show how an anxious ward acts and feels, in a convincing diversity of situation, down to the merest sigh and blushing demurral. Fanny isn’t a dazzling heroine—she has none of the “good humor of success”—but her peculiar blend of yielding meekness and steely conviction is so formidably imagined that she becomes, well, dazzling. The only touch of realism I missed, for a time, was her lack of a scapegoat. I had a hard time suppressing a knowing smirk when Austen first asked me to believe that the awful drama of displacement, the dread pecking order of distressed females should end at Fanny. I wanted one or two subtle, easy-to-miss scenes in which Fanny, in an extremity of anxiety, instinctively buffers her precarious status by kicking a little dirt on the dignity of some cringing chambermaid or under-butler. She wouldn’t even have to be mean about it, just helplessly, thoughtlessly seeking vent.

Three developments altered this line of thought. First, as Mary Crawford’s facile archness became more apparent, I realized I was as guilty as she in thinking that a cynical maxim—victims become victimizers—was sufficient to explain all being. I heard Jane from across the chasm of years, saying: open your heart to the possibility of goodness, man!

Second, Fanny began to remind me of my girlfriend. Growing up she was a meek mouse amidst a volcanic father and three tyrannical thunder-lizard older sisters (weirdly Jurassic imagery, but I’ll go with it). She hid in her room hoping to be left alone. Like Fanny, her greatest fears were “of doing wrong and being looked at”—the phrase exactly describes her childhood, and at times her adulthood. She has Fanny’s mixture of over-scrupulous, accommodating tact and unexpected uncompromising obstinacy. And just as many readers say of Fanny, my girlfriend’s sisters complain that she’s self-righteous—which seems a weak charge, given that she knows all her sisters’ sources of pain and rage and could play on them if that sort of thing amused her. The realization of a flesh-and-blood Fanny analogue that doesn’t need to inflict revenge or displace grievance onto someone more vulnerable did much to suppress my initial, knowing suspicion of Fanny.

And third, I came to this passage:

Fanny's disposition was such that she could never even think of her aunt Norris in the meagreness and cheerlessness of her own small house, without reproaching herself for some little want of attention to her when they had been last together...

Wow! So Fanny retains a reserve of compassion for her arch-tormentor, Mrs. Norris. That’s impressive. They know not what they do, for real. Like my girlfriend before her sisters, Fanny is more struck by the weakness that gives rise to bullying, than by the bullying itself. Fanny’s goodness is finally, completely plausible when we remember that she doesn’t see herself as a victim with a grievance to pass on, doesn’t see her tormentors as Goliaths deserving retaliation, direct or indirect. Mrs. Norris never looms too frightfully in Fanny’s imagination because as horrible as she may seek to be, to Fanny she is just a poor, lonely old lady, struggling to get by, and psychologically unequipped to cope civilly with hardship. Mrs. Norris’ bullying reveals a weakness, a wound to be tended, and a pitiable humanity.

Louis Auchincloss, who as a WWII naval officer regretted not bringing a set of Austen on his long voyages, said that a great theme of Austen’s work is “moral beauty” as it occurs in dissimilar heroines. Fanny’s “moral beauty,” by which phrase I take Auchincloss to mean her empathic respect of the reality and vulnerability of other people—how many times is someone humiliated, made abject, with Fanny, alone among the witnesses, fully registering the emotional shock?—occurs in the teeth of circumstances we expect to inhibit the expression of such a beauty. Fanny has every expected, every natural excuse to behave like her aunt Norris and harried mother, individuals whose attention and conversation—whose humanity, essentially—have been careworn down to monomaniacal browbeating of immediate inferiors. Instead Fanny makes her position near the bottom of the heap the ground of empathy, the ground of humane attention and do-unto-others. Trilling says we no longer trust the sickly-saintly quietist Christian heroine. But we should. She’s an undeniable instance of the moral life surviving social life.

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Reading Progress

02/09/2010 page 150
34.72% "Layered, ambivalent, and very funny."
02/09/2010 page 200
46.3% "Layered, ambivalent, and very funny."
02/17/2016 marked as: read
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Comments (showing 1-25 of 25) (25 new)

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message 1: by Kelly (last edited Aug 25, 2016 11:52AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Kelly If this is your first Austen, may I beg of you to start with another? This is well written, of course, but the heroine is ah... less than sympathetic to many people? Including myself.(see: my review.) I would recommend Pride and Prejudice, Emma, Sense and Sensibility and Northanger Abbey before I would recommend this one.

message 2: by Eric (last edited Aug 25, 2016 11:52AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Eric Wow, spooky. Just last night I was watching "Metropolitan," and saw the scene in which Tom and Audrey argue about Mansfield Park. Tom goes on about how generally hateful the heroine is, wondering who could possibly like her. Audrey gets huffy and maintains that SHE would like Fanny.

I heard bits of Northanger Abbey read over the BBC World Service a few years ago, and loved it. Should I start there? I'm also curious about Emma.

message 3: by Kelly (last edited Aug 25, 2016 11:52AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Kelly All right, here is my dilemma in what to recommend to you. It all depends on what exactly you love, and what you're looking for. Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility are clearly the most mature and developed of Austen's works. In my opinion, Sense and Sensibility is the highest in quality, whatever the popularity of P&P might suggest. The conclusions are the most advanced, and make the most sense. Emma has a heroine that I really identify with (which probably doesn't say much for me), and is also a really good story. I recommend the movie of that one with Gwenyth Paltrow. Also the movie of Sense and Sensibility with Emma Thompson is beautiful.

However. If you are looking for one damn good time, try Northanger Abbey. It's the first of her novels, and I think the most wickedly fun. Austen likes torturing her heroine. Who is kind of an idiot, in a really adorable way. She makes fun of all the gothic novels that were popular in her time period. And her /voice/. She moderates it somewhat in the later novels, but in this one she is just.. devilish at times. The delusions she puts her poor girl through are just wonderful. It's a fast, easy read. I laugh out loud every time I read it. It's wonderful. I have a soft spot in my heart for it. But I generally have soft spot for the first novels of writers who then went on to write their masterpieces. This shows her talent, but she's also still having a lot of fun exploring at the same time. I really really love that book. Some people don't agree with me, or think its immature, but I just love it.

So.. ah.. sorry. Rambled. But there you are.

message 4: by Bryan (last edited Aug 25, 2016 11:52AM) (new)

Bryan >>Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility are clearly the most mature and developed of Austen's works.

Your boy H. Bloom disagrees. He says Persuasion is the bee's knees.

message 5: by Kelly (last edited Aug 25, 2016 11:52AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Kelly Yeah I'll bet he does. I have a thing with Persuasion, though. I think it no longer really sounds like Austen. Not the Austen that I know and love. She's all gooey and Romantic with a capital R in that book. On and on about trees and the answers in nature! Whaat? No no. Viciously tear apart the vicar's wife over tea and her choice of cake, please! That's what I'm in it for!

message 6: by Eric (last edited Aug 25, 2016 11:53AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Eric I've read the first page of Northanger Abbey standing in a bookstore, and it sounds deliciously cruel. I want more.

"Viciously tear apart the vicar's wife over tea and her choice of cake, please! That's what I'm in it for!"

See, that's what I want. So if I ask you to list Austen's cruelest books, does your previous ranking remain the same?

message 7: by Kelly (last edited Aug 25, 2016 11:53AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Kelly See, you and I are of the same mind. :) In terms of cruelty, Northanger Abbey is far and away the best for that. I'd rank Emma after that, then Pride and Prejudice, then Sense and Sensibility. The bottom two are still cruel, she's just more mature and subtle about it, not as in your face and laugh out loud funny. Sense and Sensibility is more cruel in what happens, though it still has its brilliant moments in terms of satire. Pride and Prejudice she's still ripping people apart gleefully and she's fantastic at it. But yes: Northanger Abbey, Emma, P&P. Go with your gut, you're right!

message 8: by D. (new)

D. Pow frigging brilliant review.

Eric Thanks guys!

Elizabeth--you're right. I think I lazily relied on "handsome" to express whatever attractive or distinguished qualities Mary sees as wasted on the clergy.

message 10: by [deleted user] (new)

I'm totally gob-smacked - this is awesome. I didn't like Fanny when I met her - but I do grudgingly admit that she's - by far - the most morally grounded of Austen's heroines. Grudgingly just because I hate being wrong, and also I hate when fun is evil. Mary Crawford is bad fun - she's like a bizarro-world Eliza Bennett, who has all the right quips but none of the compassion. (Miss Bennett was blinded by her prejudices too, I guess, just not as evilly.) Fanny sure isn't any fun though, even though she's such a good example of "moral life surviving social life" as you so elegantly put it.

message 11: by Eric (last edited May 21, 2010 11:14AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Eric Fanny sure isn't any fun though

Haha, I hear ya. While reading, I was occasionally conflicted. As a grown-up I registered Mary and Maria's flaws, but part of me kept whining, but they're hot, and they don't care about anything...I mean, Maria has a boyfriend, but he sucks, and she'll totally make out, and, like, do other stuff too, maybe.

message 12: by [deleted user] (new)

Eric wrote: "Fanny sure isn't any fun though

Haha, I hear ya. While reading, I was occasionally conflicted. As a grown-up I registered Mary and Maria's flaws, but part of me kept whining, but they're hot, an..."

Right? They'd be great at slumber parties, unless you fell asleep first and they drew a bunch of penises on your face with permanent marker. Some of this is just my modern sensibility though - the whole thing with the play - I get why it was a Bad Thing, but I have a hard time getting mad at people for watching trash tv. So long as it's trash tv I enjoy, of course.

I think Anne Eliot might beat out Fanny Price for most moral of the Austen heroines but I don't know what that fight would look like. Two women in very pretty dresses who offer the other one tea until one of them finally gives in and accepts the first cup?

Ahahaha! This would be great! It would be Anne who took the first cup though, because Fanny...couldn't...muster...the...strength. And then Anne would nurse Fanny in a big nurse-off. :)

message 13: by Eric (last edited May 21, 2010 12:57PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Eric a big nurse-off

I'm seeing other events too. Tactfully Enduring a Bore. Converting a Deist, timed. Providing Sympathetic Advice to the Bitch Who's Crushing on Your Crush.

message 14: by Moira (new) - added it

Moira Russell Kelly wrote: "On and on about trees and the answers in nature! Whaat? No no. Viciously tear apart the vicar's wife over tea and her choice of cake, please! That's what I'm in it for! "

//cracks up Yes!

message 15: by Moira (new) - added it

Moira Russell Elizabeth wrote: "Two women in very pretty dresses who offer the other one tea until one of them finally gives in and accepts the first cup?"

//is actually drinking tea, hastily puts cup down

message 16: by Moira (new) - added it

Moira Russell D. wrote: "frigging brilliant review."

Yes, absolutely.

message 17: by Eric (new) - rated it 4 stars

Eric Kelly wrote: In my opinion, Sense and Sensibility is the highest in quality

I might do S&S next, as I really liked comparative sibling study aspect of MP.

Ceridwen wrote: I'm totally gob-smacked

Aw, thanks...and thanks Moira!

message 18: by [deleted user] (new)

Elizabeth wrote: "You might also like Persuasion for siblings. There are two sets of sisters, but it looks more at the competition among women than other sisterly feelings."

I found S & S a little cold, but then I only read it the once. I don't even know why I say that, what with all the running about on the moors and stuff, but I really noticed how often Austen catalogs everyone's income - I think the first some pages, in fact, is a lengthy accounting & not character study. But, now that I say this, it'd be interesting to read again.

I think there should be a Declining the Marriage Proposals of Both Idiots & Lovers category too. Maybe it could be like a biathlon, where first you ski, then you shoot Mr. Collins in the face.

message 19: by [deleted user] (new)

Elizabeth wrote: "Ceridwen wrote: "I think there should be a Declining the Marriage Proposals of Both Idiots & Lovers category too. Maybe it could be like a biathlon, where first you ski, then you shoot Mr. Collins ..."

True dat, but Lizzie's problem was with the acceptance, not the refusal. She had no problem telling Collins off, or Darcy for that matter. Maybe Fanny would win this one again for her whole "No I Won't Marry You...Wait, Come Visit Me at My Impoverished Relations...Maybe...No, lolsyke."

Although, drat her, this is another case where she is so damn compassionate that she almost talks herself into marrying him, because she would really like to see the good in him. Fanny pisses me off. I'm going to go kick some puppies. (J/k, right? Like I'd ever give her the satisfaction.)

Kelly I'm just reading this review, and in a Day of Great Reviews, this is one of the Greatest I've discovered. You make me feel a bit ashamed of my long standing dislike of Fanny (which does, admittedly, stem from reads of more than five years ago), and make me want to revisit this one to see if I can still defend that opinion. Thanks, and again, what an excellent review!

I should also mention that I don't know if I still agree with my three years ago self (wow, I am an old GR-er!) that S&S is the best quality of her books- I think Emma is probably more complicated. But for sibling studies, S&S is still great. I hope you like your next Austen, whichever you choose!

message 21: by Eric (new) - rated it 4 stars

Eric wow, I am an old GR-er!

2007! I for one feel this review validates the size of our To-Read shelves, proves that they are not an optimistic oblivion. Mansfield Park spent two and a half years waiting--and once started, hung on doggedly during my spring Civil War orgy--but it got read.

I hope you like your next Austen, whichever you choose!

Persuasion, I think. But they all sound so good, even P&P, my undergrad terror. Thanks Kelly!

message 22: by Kelly (last edited May 25, 2010 07:18AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Kelly Mansfield Park spent two and a half years waiting--and once started, hung on doggedly during my spring Civil War orgy--but it got read.

Your Civil War orgy was great!- I particularly liked the review you did on Grant.

Persuasion- good choice. There are definitely some echoes of Romanticism such as your old reading self might appreciate. :) Enjoy!

message 23: by Esteban (last edited Jun 03, 2010 12:54AM) (new)

Esteban del Mal Eric, I mean this in a good way: you are the foremost thunder-lizard on Goodreads.

message 24: by Eric (new) - rated it 4 stars

Eric Aw shucks, Esteban, I'm justa natchul-born ma-yun. Love the Howells quotation you just added!

message 25: by Mark (new) - added it

Mark Wow. Have to say that somehow you have done the impossible and almost made me think of revisiting Mansfield park. read it first at 17 and adored it and Fanny and Edmund. re-read it at 32 and found them insufferable prigs and wholly unattractive. maybe i should reread now another 15 years on and see if anything has changed. Another really interesting take on what you've read though. Cheers

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