First, a confession: I love Jane Austen. On finishing Mansfield Park I have accomplished my personal goal of reading all of her major novels. I’ve loved most and hated others (I’ll take Clueless over Emma any day). Either way, I think she is fascinating and her work is, for the most part, enjoyable and complex.
It seems there is a stigma attached to women who love Austen’s work. You either aspire to be an Austen heroine, or you think of her novels about domesticity and marriage as fluff. This stigma may exist as a mainly female construct. So what’s the deal? As women, why is our relationship with Jane Austen so complicated?
It is easy to write-off Austen’s work as trite, or as an affront to feminism, but I strongly disagree with those impulses. One of the best things about Austen’s novels is the immersive experience of reading. She invites readers into a world with morality and customs very different than ours. Women are relegated solely to the domestic sphere, spending their days embroidering, learning musical instruments, reading books, preparing for balls, agonizing over the said and unsaid, and walking around gardens - or, in one of my favorite scenes of Pride and Prejudice, walking around the room so as to show off their svelte figures for Mr. Darcy, who, with his prickly charm, reveals that he is aware of their motivations.
Everything is a strategy in Austen’s world, especially marriage. The economics of the early nineteenth century are on display as her characters maneuver and manipulate, her anti-heroines marrying on a frivolous whim or for monetary security, her heroines holding out for love, no matter their chosen lovers’ economic castes. Austen herself never married. She had suitors but never found any suitable enough for a loving marriage, and she and her sister both chose to take care of their widowed mother instead.
Austen’s refusal to marry colors and complicates her personal opinions on the subject. Mansfield Park presents characters in the throes of elaborate marital, familial, and economic decisions. For me, this is the most complicated of her novels. It is much more difficult to decipher the heroes and heroines throughout the text. Fanny Price is as weak and timid as she is honorable and loving. She is full of prejudice and is unwilling to allow mistakes to be mended and character improved. She is also discerning, patient, morally unblemished, and selfless to a fault. She could never marry for any other reason than love, and is unfailingly constant and devoted. Truthfully, I found her very hard to like. She is unlike Elizabeth Bennett in her passion and cleverness. In other words, Elizabeth Bennett can speak truth to power; Fanny maybe can, eventually, but she will tremble and fret and agonize over every word and every social circumstance.
My dislike for Fanny made it difficult to locate Austen’s position on her character. Is she suggesting that we as readers should aspire to be like Fanny? Should we love the people she loves and dislike those she dislikes? I could do neither.
Mansfield Park gives readers a dark perspective on marriage in general: “...speaking from my own observation, [marriage] is a manoeuvring business. I know so many who have married in the full expectation and confidence of some one particular advantage in the connection, or accomplishment of good quality in the person, who have found themselves entirely deceived.” Austen has created a world of generally unlikeable characters trapped in acting out, at one point literally, the social customs of the time. Marriage becomes a farce, and the characters are forced to realize that the commitments marriage requires are not laughable, but serious and long-lasting. The frivolity of theater demeans those commitments; real life relationships do not follow a script and require vows, devotion, and constancy. Most of these characters are not up to the challenge, with devastating consequences for everyone involved.
One of the things I love about Jane Austen novels is that you usually know what you’re in for when you begin. You know that you’ll be transported to a time quite foreign from ours. You’ll love some of the characters as much as you love to hate the others. You’ll cheer for your favorites and ultimately, love will prevail.
That was not my experience with Mansfield Park. This was the first of Austen’s novels where I could not predict the ending after reading the first five pages of the book - another charming comfort afforded by her work. I was often left cheering for no one. The ending turned out to be rather chilling; for me, it complicated the notion that one should always marry for love. I’m still undecided as to whether I like this book, which somehow made me enjoy it even more. I find that I am still thinking and puzzling over it, in a much different way than I did Pride and Prejudice or Persuasion, my favorite of Austen’s novels. I cannot feel quite satisfied with Fanny’s choices throughout the book, but I thoroughly enjoyed reading along with them. The ambiguity is uncomfortable, and perhaps more realistic than Austen’s more mainstream and well-known novels.
So, as a happily married feminist, I implore other women to give Austen a chance. Her works should not be neatly categorized as flowery domestic novels espousing the beauty and ease of courtship and married life. I submit Mansfield Park as evidence of that.
After you read it, let’s talk about it, because I’m still reeling from this one.