When my children have big projects or a great deal of homework to finish, I encourage them to tackle the hardest job first. That was my thinking when I chose Mansfield Park as my first Janeite at Forty re-read. It is my least favorite Austen novel and I have heard many other Janeites say the same. I believe the problem is that it is very difficult for a modern woman to relate to the book’s main character, Fanny Price.
I had hoped that a second read would provide a greater understanding of Fanny and her relationship with her cousin Edmund, and I suppose I did reach that goal. The problem is I dislike them even more this time around. I recently mentioned to a friend that in spite having left behind my preference for bad boys years ago, I still prefer Henry Crawford to Edmund Bertram. I might even prefer George Wickham to Edmund Bertram.
Edmund has his good qualities. He was always Fanny’s champion even when his attentions were diverted to Mary Crawford. His care for his brother Tom during his illness is commendable as is his genuine grief over his fallen sister. However, his self-righteousness is hard to swallow as is his willingness to set aside decorum if it means he can be closer to Mary.
I know several out there will disagree with me, but I do believe he genuinely loved Mary Crawford. He was willfully blind to her faults and even her preferences. If Darcy could see that Wickham would make a poor clergyman, Edmund should have seen that Mary would have been miserable as a clergyman’s wife. There was nothing just in her preference for town and society though she was raised among such. She had been poorly influenced. Of course, she should have preferred a quiet family party and if given enough time, surely he could make her see where she was wrong. Why shouldn’t he think he could change her mind, after all, he had formed Fanny’s to his liking.
Yes, he loved Mary and she broke his heart. So what else could he do but turn to her exact opposite? I believe he decided to marry Fanny simply because Fanny was there and would never disagree with him. Perhaps I am too harsh, but I just really do not like him!
I can happily say that two things stood out for me in this re-reading that were not there the first time. The first is the feeling of sincere sympathy for the little girl Fanny who was taken away from everything she knew and loved and plopped down in front of strangers who were primarily inconsiderate and often cruel. As a mother, my heart ached for that little girl and wanted very much to comfort her. My affection lasted only until the second or third time she praised Edmund as the best being in creation. In all seriousness, Austen does a beautiful job in showing us how words can affect a child, especially one as timid and out of place as Fanny. It is no wonder she gave her heart to Edmund as he was the only one who showed any kindness to her in those early years.
I think about what Fanny could have been had she been loved. Henry fell in love with her (as much as he could) when her entire countenance was changed in her brother’s company. Fanny was a woman meant to love and I wish I could see her as a mother. I can believe that she would find courage and strength in that role and give her children all the familial comforts that she was denied.
The second material change, or perhaps greater awareness, was the development of a true and genuine hatred of Mrs. Norris. I believe she talked Sir Thomas into taking Fanny in so that she would be above at least one person at Mansfield. Her cruelty to Fanny as well has her constant interference at Mansfield was hard to witness. How annoying is it to see a woman so concerned with the workings of another woman’s house? How many women do we know like her in real life?
One thing I enjoyed a great deal was the humor displayed throughout the book. While I believe the main characters lacked depth and likability, the narration was full of witty and thoughtful observance. If I ever read this again, I believe I will do so with an air of biting sarcasm. I will choose to believe that Austen wrote Mansfield Park as a parody of the weak, pliable female that was the expectation of so many at the time. I will go against the grain and determine Mary, Henry and even Rushworth as the more likeable characters.
Go on, despise me if you dare. I would love to hear your opinions on my observations as well as your own. Next month, I believe we will tackle Emma. I promise I will like the protagonists next time around. See you then!