Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Mansfield Park (Reviewed April 2008)

Mansfield Park, Jane Austen (1814)[****] My rating of this book is relative; it is, of course, a very fine book, and much better than many other books that I might rate with four stars, but relative to the rest of Jane Austen that I have now read, it was not so perfect. Fanny Price is a different sort of heroine than Elinor, Marianne, Elizabeth and Emma, both in background and disposition. Though related to gentry, her large family is poor and coarse, and at 10 years old, she becomes essentially the foster child of her aunts Norris and Lady Bertram, and her uncle, Sir Tom. Their benevolence stems mostly from their own sentimental and largely theoretical desire to feel themselves benevolent and to "save" their niece from her life of deprivation. They are hardly equal to the actual, day-to-day task of nurturing a young girl traumatized at being torn from her family, to whom, despite chaos and neglect, she is deeply attached. The Bertrams, with whom she lives at Mansfield Park, are kind enough but generally cool or self-absorbed; her ever-present aunt Norris is the namesake of Filch's cat in Harry Potter ('nuff said, at least for the HP fans). I don't know if it is fair to analyze this work through a modern psycho-social lens, but this not-unlikely foster-adoption story, and the effect it might have on Fanny as she grew, was intriguing to me. Through the first two of three volumes, I thought Jane Austen was doing something really interesting. She seemed to be making of her heroine a sort of un-heroine, her own foil; Fanny is meek, submissive, principled, and humble, but also self-righteous, ungrateful, judgmental and jealous. It is primarily in her relationship with the Crawford siblings that Austen seemed to be developing this complicated portrait of Fanny. Mary and Henry Crawford (who, interestingly, have their own formative adoption stories) become a regular part of the social circle of Mansfield Park, and their behavior at first does not speak very well of their principles or character. During the production of a somewhat ribald and, in Fanny's mind, entirely inappropriate play called "Lovers' Vows," Mr. Crawford flirts madly with Fanny's cousin Maria, who is already engaged to the stupid but wealthy Mr. Rushworth. Mary Crawford likewise flirts with Fanny's cousin Edmund, all the while being vocally disgusted with Edmund's intended profession as a clergyman. Edmund has been the one kind and gentle presence in Fanny's life at Mansfield Park, and she has fallen in love with him. Fanny can be accused of being jealous during this time, but she is quite right to be critical of the Crawfords; under the influence of Edmund's philandering older brother Tom, who is the theatrical mastermind, they are quite unprincipled and unattractive characters. But in the next section of the book, Tom is gone and the Crawfords, Fanny and Edmund settle into a quieter and more respectable intimacy during which Edmund falls in love with Mary, Mary shows genuine kindness and friendship to Fanny, and Henry -- under the self-imposed challenge of making Fanny love him -- begins instead to fall genuinely in love with her and show her real kindness. It was in this section that I thought things got really interesting. While certainly still deeply flawed, it seemed to me that Mary and Henry showed themselves to be capable of good character and worthy of Fanny's friendship and even love. I was rooting for both of them. But Fanny is unrelenting in her judgement of their flaws (while excusing Edmond all of his), and unwilling to show them the sort of generosity of spirit that might actually have influenced them to become more of their better selves. In addition to having many good and noble qualities, I found Fanny hard-hearted under her gentle exterior, petty in her jealousy of Edmond's attention to Mary, and generally ungenerous to the Crawfords. I liked this complicated heroine -- her combination of self-absorbed humility on the one hand, and righteous judgment on the other, calls to mind the narcissism that can stem from a formative childhood wound. I apologize for imposing a perhaps too-modern analysis on Jane Austen, but I thought this was all exactly right. Alas, in the third volume, things fell apart -- or, at least to my mind, got way less interesting. Without going into excessive detail, it turns out that Fanny is not meant to be petty, or self-absorbed, or judgmental, or stingy or any other negative (i.e. interesting) thing. Rather, she is just right; her judgment has been perfect, and she has been much wronged by those who did not share her clear-sighted assessment of Mary and Henry's complete wretchedness and unworthiness. I found the many turn-abouts in the third volume a tiny bit incredible and very disappointing. I guess I'm just a shades-of-grey kind of gal. I also found the third volume somewhat tedious in that the last 100 or more pages contain almost no conversations at all; dialogue being one of Austen's fortes, this was disappointing. The (I suppose inevitable) match between Fanny and Edmund (revealed only at the very end in a summing-up that felt like the disappointing last episode of a generally really good TV series) I found creepily incestuous -- they are first cousins raised essentially as siblings. I may again be imposing my modern sensibilities on their match, but I found it a pretty unsatisfying and disappointing conclusion.

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