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Mansfield Park
Jane Austen

First Published in 1814
Published by Gramercy Books/NJ in 1981

A Book Review by Bobby Matherne ©2004


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What a marvelous writer Jane Austen is! Her omniscient narrator lets us in on everyone's thoughts and feelings about each other, especially feelings, and we are able to compare how they act at variance to those closely held feelings while expressing socially acceptable versions of those feelings. When Fanny Price leaves the rough and tumble seaport town of Portsmouth for the linen and silver environs of Mansfield Park to live with her aunt, Lady Bertram, we wonder how she will ever adjust to living in a grand house where she is clearly an outsider. Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram are determined that Fanny will not ever be a "Miss Bertram."

[page 367] "There will be some difficulty in our way, Mrs. Norris," observed Sir Thomas, "as to the distinction proper to be made between the girls as they grow up: how to preserve in the minds of my daughters the consciousness of what they are, without making them think too lowly of their cousin; and how, without depressing her spirits too far, to make her remember that she is not a Miss Bertram. I should wish to see them very good friends, and would, on no account, authorize in my girls the smallest degree of arrogance towards their relation; but still they cannot be equals. Their rank, fortune, rights, and expectations will always be different. It is a point of great delicacy, and you must assist us in our endeavors to choose exactly the right line of conduct."

In this short paragraph, Austen gives us the unanswered question we are to hold until the very end of this novel, "How will Fanny handle being treated as a second-class citizen in Mansfield Park?" Fanny is relegated to quarters in the attic and even later although she is allowed access to the larger adjacent room when it becomes available, no one bothers to see that the fireplace in the room is ever tended to provide heat for Fanny's comfort. When the two Miss Bertrams grown up and begin going to Balls, Fanny is not invited. When they visit nearby friends and relations, Fanny is not invited -- as everyone assumes that she is needed to take care of Lady Bertram.

But Fanny has one good friend, her cousin, Edmund Bertram, who is always ready to assist Fanny, watch out for her, and confide in her. Such as when she wants to write to her brother William and Edmund offers to get her paper and writing material.

[page 369} He continued with her the whole time of her writing, to assist here with his pen-knife or his orthography, as either were wanted; and add to these attentions, which she felt very much, a kindness to her brother which delight her beyond all the rest.

I wonder how many school kids today know what Edmund did with his pen-knife (or even what a pen-knife is) or how he assisted Fanny with his orthography. Since the time Austen wrote was before the age of pencils, Edmund was likely using his pen-knife to sharpen the nib on her goose quill ink pen. And he helped her with her spelling (orthography). He also helped her get her exercise and gradually through the course of the novel removes obstacles of wrong-thinking which enables Fanny to succeed almost to the level of a "Miss Bertram".

[page 379] Though Edmund was much more displeased with his aunt than with his mother, as evincing least regard for her niece, he could not help paying more attention to what she said, and at length determined on a method of proceeding which would obviate the risk of his father's thinking he had done too much, and at the same time procure for Fanny the immediate means of exercise, which he could not bear she should be without. He had three horses of his own, but not one that would carry a woman. Two of them were hunters; the third, a useful road-horse. This third he resolved to exchange for one that his cousin might ride; he knew where such a one was to be met with; and having once made up his mind, the whole business was soon completed. The new mare proved a treasure; with a very little trouble she became exactly calculated for the purpose, and Fanny was then put in almost full possession of her. She had not supposed before, that anything could ever suit her like the old grey pony; but her delight in Edmund's mare was far beyond any former pleasure of the sort; and the addition it was ever receiving in the consideration of that kindness from which her pleasure sprung, was beyond all her words to express. She regarded her cousin as an example of everything good and great, as possessing worth, which no one but herself could ever appreciate, and as entitled to such gratitude from her, as no feelings could be strong enough to pay. Her sentiments towards him were compounded of all that was respectful, grateful, confiding and tender.

In one of the few examples of humor Austen provides in the novel, Miss Crawford is asked by Edmund what she knows of admirals, and her reply is funny, whose humor she disclaims, but whose humor, Austen cannot disclaim.

[page 390] "Do you know anything of my cousin's captain?" said Edmund; "Captain Marshall? You have a large acquaintance in the navy, I conclude?"
       "Among admirals, large enough; but," with an air of grandeur, "we know very little of the inferior ranks. Post-captains may be very goo sort of men, but they do not belong to us. Of various admirals I could tell you a great deal; of them and their flags, and the gradation of their pay, and their bickerings and jealousies. But, in general, I can assure you that they are all passed over, and all very ill used. Certainly, my home at my uncle's brought me acquainted with a circle of admiral. Of Rears and Vices, I saw enough. Now do not be suspecting me of a pun, I entreat.

The above passage also reveals flaws in Mary Crawford's character that are written on Fanny's heart and brings her to despair the closer Edmund gets to marrying Mary. One need only consider the "gradation of the pay" of a country parson, which position Edmund later considers, to ken the reaction that Mary would have to marrying such a man. In the below passage we see keenly both the virtues of Fanny and the flaws of Mary revealed.

[page 402] "It is a pity," cried Fanny, "that the custom should have been discontinued. It was a valuable part of former times. There is something in a chapel and chaplain so much in character with a great house, with one's ideas of what such a household should be! A whole family assembling regularly for the purpose of prayer is fine!"
       "Very fine, indeed," said Miss Crawford, laughing. "It must do the heads of the family a great deal of good to force all the poor housemaids and footmen to leave business and pleasure, and say their prayers here twice a day, while they are inventing excuses themselves for staying away."
       "That is hardly Fanny's idea of a family assembling," said Edmund. "If the master and mistress do not attend themselves, there must be more harm than good in the custom."

Fanny's nemesis was not Mary, however, but rather her aunt, Mrs. Norris, who was constantly putting Fanny into what Mrs. Norris deemed Fanny's place to be. With a friend like Mrs. Norris, Fanny had no need for other enemies. Mrs. Norris concealed her evil stepmother tactics behind the mask of a good godmother and may even have concealed it from herself. The results of her venom were most obvious to Fanny and well-hidden from anyone else -- although the effects of her maneuvers were counteracted by Edmund when he discovered them.

[page 464] Mrs. Norris fetched breath, and went on again.
       "The nonsense and folly of people's stepping out of their rank and trying to appear above themselves, makes me think it right to give you a hint, Fanny, now that you are going into company without any of us; and I do beseech and entreat you not to be putting yourself forward, and talking and giving your opinion as if you were one of your cousins, as if you were dear Mrs. Rushworth or Julia. That will never do, believe me. Remember, wherever you are, you must be the lowest and last; and though Miss Crawford is in a manner at home at the Parsonage, you are not to be taking place of her. And as to coming away at night, you are to stay just as long as Edmund chooses. Leave him to settle that."

Later when Mary Crawford expresses her idea of the improvements that Thorton Lacey will require before Edmund moves into it, Edmund expresses his own view which is greatly at variance with Mary's view.

[page 474] "And I have two or three ideas also," said Edmund, "and one of them is, that very little of your plan for Thorton Lacey will ever be put in practice. I must be satisfied with rather less ornament and beauty. I think the house and premises may be made comfortable, and given the air of a gentleman's residence without any very heavy expense, and that must suffice me; and, I hope, may suffice all who care about me."

When Henry Crawford becomes enamored of Fanny and expresses to his sister Mary how he sees Fanny as "dependent, helpless, friendless, neglected, forgotten," Mary points to Edmund as the remedy for these deficiencies, but Henry misses the significance and places himself as the sole remedy. We readers, privy to the thoughts of Fanny thanks to Austen's omniscient narrator, are wont to answer Henry last question about what Edmund may do thusly, "A whole lot!"

[page 500] "Nay, Henry, not by all; not forgotten by all; not friendless, or forgotten. Her cousin Edmund never forgets her."
      "Edmund! True, I believe he is, generally speaking, kind to her, and so is Sir Thomas in his way; but it is the way of a rich, superior, long-worded, arbitrary uncle. What can Sir Thomas and Edmund together do, what do they do for her happiness, comfort, honor, and dignity in the world, to what I shall do?"

It is one of the paradoxes of Miss Crawford that she admires qualities in Fanny that are lacking in herself. Here she praises Fanny for having heart and it is easy to see that Mary is unable to see that heart imbued in others in the world because she so lacks the quality in herself. Thus, one can attribute her attraction to Fanny to a desire to foster in herself the qualities so prominently displayed by Fanny to all.

[page 528] "Yes, very true. Mrs. Fraser has been my intimate friend for years. But I have not the least inclination to go near her. I can think only of the friends I am leaving; my excellent sister, yourself, and the Bertrams in general. You have all so much more heart among you than one finds in the world at large. You all give me a feeling of being able to trust and confide in you, which in common intercourse one knows nothing of. I wish I had settled with Mrs. Fraser not to go to her till after Easter, a much better time for the visit, but now I cannot put her off. And when I have done with her, I must go to her sister, Lady Stornaway, because she was rather my most particular friend of the two, but I have not cared much for her these three years."

Fanny gets all that's coming to her as does the two Miss Bertrams, Mary Crawford, Henry Crawford, Mrs. Norris, and Edmund. Their fates are as different as their personalities and everything turns out the way it's supposed to. Even Austen, in the voice of her omniscient narrator, takes a personal liking to Fanny when in the last few pages of the novel, she refers to her as, "My Fanny."

[page 577] Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can, impatient to restore everybody, not greatly in fault themselves, to tolerable comfort, and to have done with all the rest.
       My Fanny, indeed at this very time, I have the satisfaction of knowing, must have been happy in spite of everything. She must have been a happy creature in spite of all that she felt, or thought she felt, for the distress of those around her. She had sources of delight that must force their way.

And, dear Reader, you and I after we have read all of "Mansfield Park", we will undoubtedly know that Fanny will dance from the last page of this novel into a happy future. We know that she will be a happy creature because we will have shared her feelings and thoughts in so many of her circadian activities as to have doubt of the matter.


Any questions about this review, Contact: Bobby Matherne


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