Monday, November 10, 2008

CLASSIC REVIEW: "Mansfield Park," Jane Austen

The Chick: Fanny Price. The daughter of poor, struggling parents, as a child she was taken away to live at Mansfield Park with the family of her wealthy uncle Sir Thomas Bertram, as a favour to her mother, Sir Thomas' sister-in-law.
The Rub: In the years she spent growing up in Mansfield on her uncle's charity, her vicious aunt Mrs Norris and her vain cousins Maria and Julia never let her forget her status as the inferior, ignorant "poor relation" - and as a result, she developed a crippling shyness and fear of being noticed.

The Dude: Edmund Bertram. The second son of Sir Thomas, he is the only Bertram family member who ever goes out of his way to show kindness to Fanny (who, as a result, secretly adores him).
The Rub: Oblivious to Fanny's affections, he falls for the sophisticated and ambitious Miss Mary Crawford. Also possesses all the romantic qualities of a wet dishrag.

The Other Dude: Henry Crawford. Brother to Miss Crawford, he's wealthy, handsome (if short!), and has a way with the ladies - but finds himself truly attracted to the shy and retiring Fanny, the only girl who makes no effort to impress or amuse him.
The Rub: Well, he is a rake - and those habits die hard.

The Plot:

Sir Thomas Bertram: Let's adopt a poor relation!

Fanny: *adopted*

Maria, Fanny's Vain, Slutty Cousin: Hello, poor relation!

Julia, Fanny's Slightly Less Vain, Slutty Cousin: Hello, poor relation!

Mrs Norris, Fanny's Monstrous Hell-Bitch Aunt: Stop dirtying the carpets with your tears, poor relation!

Edmund: Hello, Fanny.

Fanny: *in luuuuurve*

Eight Years Later

Henry and Mary Crawford: Hello! We're new to the neighbourhood!

Henry: *winks*

Julia and (the now married) Maria: *swoon*

Fanny: *unimpressed*

Mary: Oh, Edmund, I shouldn't love you because you're a worthless second son destined to be a poor, pious clergyman! And yet I do! Isn't that quaint?

Edmund: Aww! You're so cute when you say things that go completely against my personal beliefs! Want to ride my horse?

Fanny: *SO unimpressed*

Henry: Hey, Fanny, wanna go out?

Fanny: No, thank you.

Henry: Please?

Fanny: No.

Henry: Pretty please?

Fanny: No.

Henry: Suit yourself. *bangs cousin Maria*

Mary: Oh, Henry, you rascally scamp! What delightful scrapes shall you get into next?

Edmund: *ideals shattered* Oh man, what a fool I was! She was the only woman I could ever think of marrying! Now what'll I do? Hey Fanny?

Fanny: Yes?

Edmund: You'll do.

Fanny: *delighted!*

Romance Convention Checklist:

1 "Poor Relation" Heroine with Low Self-Esteem

1 Hero Oblivious to Heroine's True Feelings

1 Horrid Aunt

2 Rascally Rakes (let's not forget Tom Bertram Jr!)

1 Woman Who Would Actually Be Pretty Cool if She Were Alive Today, but In Regency Times is Kind Of a Bitch

1 Cuckolded Husband

1 Failed Theatrical Attempt

1 Hasty Elopement

The Word: The novel begins with three sisters - one marries a baronet (Lady Bertram), one marries a clergyman whose living was provided by aforementioned baronet (Mrs Norris), and one marries a sailor (Mrs Price). Years later, Mr and Mrs Price aren't doing so well, thanks to an overabundance of children and Mr Price's fondness for drink. Sir Thomas, Lady Bertram, and Mrs Norris, to help Mrs Price out, decide to adopt one of her kids - that way Mrs Price has one less mouth to feed and at least one of her children will get a chance at a decent education and upbringing.

Fanny Price, by virtue of being the oldest Price daughter, is promptly uprooted from the only home she's ever known and sent to live with strangers. Mrs Norris and the Bertrams give themselves a giant self-righteous pat on the back. However, they're convinced that while Fanny's improvement is assured now that she's in gentler-bred surroundings, it's unrealistic to suppose that she'll ever be the social, intellectual, or moral equal to the Bertrams' own children Thomas, Edmund, Maria, and Julia. Fanny's terror and homesickness are met with little sympathy, especially from the childless, widowed Mrs Norris who treats her like an ungrateful leech on the saintly Bertrams' charity, nevermind that her own position in the Bertram household is hardly less self-serving. The only family member who makes any effort to treat her with compassion is her cousin Edmund.

Time passes, and eight years of languishing in the shadow of her beautiful, educated, accomplished, and spoiled cousins Maria and Julia have transformed Fanny into a shrinking violet, a severely timid and shy young woman who would prefer to fade into the wallpaper, who trembles with horror at the thought of being remarked upon, even in a positive way (which is rare, thanks to Mrs Norris - who dispenses one acidic retort in Fanny's direction for every ass-kissing compliment she gives Maria and Julia). The only thing the Fanny feels at all strong about is her all-consuming adoration of Edmund.

Their quiet country existence is upset by the arrival of two newcomers - the half-siblings of the current rector's wife: Henry and Mary Crawford. Sophisticated, intelligent, and urbane, Henry captures the attentions of both Julia and Maria (even though Maria is engaged to the unintelligent Mr Rushworth), and Mary catches Edmund's eye. Henry is very obviously a rake who trifles with both cousins' affections and appears to take great pleasure in pitting one against the other - Mary, however, is a more ambiguous character. Materialistic? Certainly. Ambitious? Most definitely - however, even though she claims she could never condescend to marry a second son and has no respect for the clergy, she surprises even herself in her affection for Edmund. She is also endearingly kind and thoughtful towards Fanny, even as Fanny silently ties herself into knots watching Edmund fall fast and hard for a woman whose moral compass is clearly not pointing in the same direction as his.

Mansfield Park was a novel I both did and didn't like. Fanny is a frustrating character to relate to, as her social phobias continually force her into the role of a passive observer, particularly in the novel's first half, where inwardly she despairs of Edmund and Mary's growing relationship and disapproves of Henry and Maria's deepening flirtation but is too anxious to do anything about it. She cries and she trembles and she sits in the corner and stares while the much more interesting plot points happen elsewhere.

However, things begin to take off in the novel's second half as Fanny finds it increasingly difficult to fade into the background. With one daughter already married off, Sir Thomas finally starts to take notice of Fanny, and remarks upon the "sudden" improvement in her looks, manners, and bearing. Rather belatedly as it seems to me, Sir Thomas decides it is time to introduce Fanny to Society, a prospect Fanny regards with pure fear. The scenes of Fanny's coming-out are laced with Austen's trademark delicious irony - while inwardly, Fanny is a nervous wreck in perpetual deer-in-the-headlights-mode, outwardly her precise and automatic behaviour is interpreted as impeccable manners, which earns her Sir Thomas' approval and, more amazing still, the attention of Henry Crawford.

Reading this novel for the first time (without knowing how it was to turn out), I rejoiced when Henry found himself falling for Fanny, the shy wallflower who refused to swoon at his feet like the others. He was smart, handsome, rich, and a more healthy romantic alternative than Edmund. Trust me, it's not because Fanny and Edmund are biologically first cousins. While Edmund is kind to Fanny, none of his actions towards her before the end are anything but brotherly, and while he alone of all the Bertrams makes an effort to befriend her, he also takes her for granted for much of the novel and remains generally oblivious to her feelings and inner turmoil. He "thoughtfully" lets Fanny ride his horse, but once Mary enters the picture, this gift to Fanny, thoughtlessly given, is just as thoughtlessly taken away when he lends it to Mary instead.

As well, Fanny's love for Edmund veers a little too close to obsession to my tastes. One has to wonder - does Fanny really love Edmund for who he is, or does Fanny fixate on Edmund because she's the starving dog and Edmund the only one who threw her crumbs from Sir Thomas' table?

Ultimately, what won me over to Henry's suit was that he, not Edmund (nor any of the Bertrams, for that matter), caught on to Fanny's deep-seated fear of social situations and acknowledgement. Henry, in a conversation with his sister regarding his intentions for Fanny, is the first one to see the Bertrams' neglectful treatment of Fanny for what it is, and connect the dots between it and Fanny's shamefully low self-image. At one point he actually makes a speech about how he plans to devote himself to convincing Fanny of how lovely and delightful she actually is, and I was sold. Yes! Yes! Yes! I thought. Go for it, Fanny!

Sadly, it doesn't happen that way, and the end rapidly arrives all the errant plot threads start wrapping up at once. Fanny can't trust Henry because she remembers all too well his emotional manipulation of her cousins, and (perhaps as an angry response to her perception of Edmund's moral capitulation to Mary) refuses to relinquish her moral standards in favour of Henry's affection. Things proceed very quickly from there - Henry's impatience gets the best of him and he runs off with Maria, Julia elopes with a Mr Yates, Thomas Bertram Jr falls deathly ill after being abandoned by his wastrel friends, and Mary reveals her true colours when she responds to the news of Tom Jr's illness with a little too much glee.

While the ending is sudden, the message it sends is a valid one: the overall theme of Mansfield Park being that money and education can't buy class. Sir Thomas' biggest mistake comes at the beginning of the novel when he assumes that Fanny, coming from a poor family, can never hope to become the equal of his own children, all four of whom have been given the best education and instruction that money can buy. And how does that turn out? Tom Jr fritters away Edmund's inheritance and nearly kills himself with degenerate living, Maria humiliates her husband and ruins her reputation by running away with another man, and Julia elopes with a fop. Of the five children in Sir Thomas' household, only the socially-inferior second son Edmund and "poor relation" Fanny emerge from the novel's climax with their reputations intact.

Built on this mistaken assumption that an expensive upbringing automatically bestows moral fibre, Sir Thomas' plan to improve Fanny by removing her to more wealthy surroundings backfires - Fanny is emotionally crippled rather than improved by her stay at Mansfield Park.

Similarly, the novel's theme applies to the Crawfords as well - the Bertrams are initially attracted to the wealthy, sophisticated siblings, so much so that even steadfast Edmund is entranced. The Bertrams cannot understand why Fanny refuses Henry's suit, seeing only his good name and fortune while Fanny is able to see beyond the superficial fripperies and judge his character from his actions rather than his upbringing. In fact, when Sir Thomas decides to punish Fanny for refusing Henry, his idea of the perfect sentence is to return her to her impoverished home, thinking that might make her see Henry in a more positive light.

So thematically, I thought Mansfield Park to be an interesting and relatively entertaining book, but romantically, I thought it was terrible. Instead of ending up with the handsome, entertaining man who genuinely noticed her inner torment, Fanny ends up as a consolation prize for a man who politely ignored her for much of the novel.

There's no romantic build-up a la Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy from Pride and Prejudice. Edmund and Fanny's interactions for 99% of the novel remain on the level of brother and sister. Edmund literally realizes his feelings for Fanny within a single paragraph on the last page of the novel. One minute, he's pining for Miss Crawford, and the next it's "Hey, wait a minute, Fanny has lady parts, too!" Edmund shows his brotherly affection for Fanny many times in the novel, but he never showed any understanding for or even awareness of Fanny's true character - her poor self-image, her social terrors, her keen eye for observation. Their marriage at the end of the novel is ultimately one of convenience - for both the characters and as a narrative device by the author. To me, they didn't get married because they loved each other - they got married because they were there and unattached.

When it comes right down to it, while I appreciated the points Jane Austen made with this novel, I found I couldn't connect or empathize with the characters, or the romance elements of the story. While I enjoy Austen's writing, Mansfield Park wasn't nearly as enjoyable a read as Pride and Prejudice or Northanger Abbey. C.

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