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Mansfield Park

I will have to start this post with a few words about Jane Austen. First, I think her prose is worth mention. I believe her to have been a well-read woman who took time with her words insofar as expertly arranging interestingly descriptive sentences. I like that she has realistic characters in believable settings whereby the dialogue and motives of those characters are both diverse and concise. I have a wellspring of respect for her as a woman writing timeless novels in a society that did not value female writers. That being said, (with the caveat that I have only read Pride and Prejudice apart from Mansfield Park) Jane Austen is not my favorite author.

Perhaps that is unfair, given that I loved watching Downton Abbey, so I’ll include that tidbit here as well. Sorry Jane Austen, but also, thank you for inspiring generations to celebrate British literature, culture, and storytelling in a way that started out as being uniquely your own. I do celebrate you.

Mansfield Park is allegedly the darkest of Jane Austen’s novels. I picked it up because of this, and because Vladimir Nabokov referred to it with some acclaim in his lectures. (I am a Nabokov fan, due to his wickedly intelligent sense of wit and vocabulary.) I wanted to know what made Mansfield Park different from the frivolous drama of finding a suitable husband that I would otherwise have expected. I wanted to know, how does Mansfield Park break the stereotype?

Primarily, the main character Fanny Price is not the vapid girl in a frilly dress that predominates these kinds of stories. She’s a Cinderella archetype with sense and gravity, though I did feel this conferred a slow pace to the novel. It is almost as though Fanny has a magnetism that affects the reader and draws them deeper into her story. Her quiet verisimilitude is attractive, compelling, and pleasantly calm.

Though her contemporaries in the novel are somewhat disposed of the mania more frequent in Dostoevsky, Fanny is the wallflower that everyone is aware of, but few heed. She faces ridicule because she’s an easy target (she doesn’t fight back), but also because others are jealous of her more refined qualities (she’s pretty, intelligent, and not at all brazen about it). I think Jane Austen excels here in understating Fanny in a way that the reader realizes that there is more to her than anyone in the novel is actually capable of stating.

Unfortunately, that was as far as my compulsion to be interested in this novel went. I could summarize the whole thing by saying that some things happened to a group of people I mostly cared nothing about and then it was over. My curiosity about Fanny faded about halfway through. It took me a week to finish the last hour and sixteen minutes of the novel simply because I got bored. My main complaint? I did not see a single character become anything more than what they were at the beginning.

I like to see characters grow and feel this makes them more interesting.

There are no great character arcs here, like Kitty in W. Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil. There is no apparent point to the relationships between characters like in the Brother’s Karamazov by Dostoevsky. I saw no real insights, message, or tone. It didn’t seem as though Austen knew what she wanted to accomplish. The sense I got was when the story failed to pan out, she ended it.

With the concern that maybe I missed something along the way, I took a trip over to the Spark notes page for this novel. Usually, there are entries for themes, motifs, and symbolism. There are entries for chapter summaries available and some quizzes there, but nothing else. (Maybe it is not just me!) If you’ve read this novel and feel otherwise, maybe you could clue me in to what I missed?