Thursday, February 16, 2012

"A large income is the best recipe for happiness..."

Already this year I have gotten a good deal of reading done--most of which are books I have never read before. You must realize that is a triumph--I most often find my nose buried in books that are as dear and old and familiar to me as your most worn pair of jeans. But of top of the heap, right alongside another book I hope to review soon, was Jane Austen's Mansfield Park.
I picked it up with some misgivings...the name was not exactly gripping and from what I'd heard there was someone named Fanny (who I was deluded into thinking was the villainess) and some chap named Edmund. But my ever-faithful friend, Maryanna, implored me to read the book so we could gush over it afterward. We have a habit of gushing over books, she and I. And so I lugged home her 6-inch thick volume of Austen novels and preceded to begin Mansfield Park. It was nothing like I expected. Nothing at all. It was almost, in my opinion, not in the least like Jane Austen's normal books. And yet for all this, for all it's difference and fresh flavor, I loved it. I had not expected to love it. I had not even looked to love it.
As I thought about this review I wondered how I ought to encapsulate my thoughts on the subject and I decided that the best way would have to be to categorize. The first component of a good story is, of course, the characters.

Fanny Price is, in my opinion, on par with Amy Dorrit. She is sweet and unassuming, unselfish, and had a good head on her shoulders. Some have complained, as says,
"She is shy, timid, lacking in self-confidence, physically weak, and seemingly—to some, annoyingly—always right. Austen's own mother called her "insipid", and many have used the word "priggish". She is certainly not like the lively and witty Elizabeth Bennet of Pride and Prejudice."
 And yet for all those things, one can't help liking Fanny for it. Actually, when I think of the heroines in iterature vs. the girls I know in real life, not many of them have as much sparkling, toothed wit as Lizzy, nor the stunning beauty and social position of Emma Woodhouse, nor the impeachable good sense and responsibility of Elinor Dashwood. Fanny Price is a real girl--very sweet, very good, but not without her original, interesting side. I found myself examining my own heart and wondering if I was rather more like Mary Crawford than Fanny Price...I really did begin to think about it. And when a character influences you in such a way that you being to really think, you know they're good.

This, naturally, brings me to the point of the Crawfords. Henry and Mary Crawford...where do I start. Well, first off with a confession. In Mary Crawford (toward the beginning of the book) I saw a deal of myself in my flesh. A girl who likes attention, who knows her good points, who likes a witty banter, and who loves to laugh above all else. She is not bad, she is not even unkind. She is just self-absorbed. And we all must cringe at her dissertation of the clergy:
"Never is a black word. But yes, in the never of conversation, which means not very often, I do think it. For what is to be done in the church? Men love to distinguish themselves, and in either of the other lines, distinction may be gained, but not in the church. A clergyman is nothing." -Mansfield Park chptr. 9
Had Miss Crawford been raised in different family I think she should have turned out quite well. And then we have Henry. I will say as little of him as possible, for he torments me. That a man with so many amiable qualities, such a merry spirit, such cleverness and fondness should turn out so ill makes me weep. I actually liked him after he **SPOILER ALERT** fell in love with Fanny and I was really quite convinced he'd reformed until he ran off with Maria Rushworth. **END OF SPOILER ALERT**
The last character that requires mentioning here is, of course, Edmund Bertram. He was a good sort of fellow--not dashing, not clever, very blind, but kind and steady and I did grow fond of him. He was just the sort of husband Fanny needed, only I wish he hadn't been so enamored and blinded by Miss Crawford. Really, men do believe the silliest things about women they love.

The next category would be plot strength. The plot of M.P. ambled along rather than dashed, unlike Austen's other novels. And yet the style of the writing lent such an intimacy to the characters that I felt I grew to know them better than I had ever known any of Austen's other people. There are no broad impressions here--there are little sensibilities and--much to my girlish delight--there is at least one whole chapter devoted to Fanny getting ready for a ball! I glory in such details:
"The ball too—such an evening of pleasure before her! It was now a real animation! and she began to dress for it with much of the happy flutter which belongs to a ball. All went well—she did not dislike her own looks; and when she came to the necklaces again, her good fortune seemed complete, for upon trial the one given her by Miss Crawford would by no means go through the ring of the cross." Chapter 27
I loved the treat of hearing Austen's style in this manner--it is really a one-of-a-kind chance.

The third and last category I wanted to address is morality. I was extremely impressed with the  values held by Fanny, by Edmund, and by Sir Thomas Bertram. Even more so than her other novels, Jane Austen defended the family, the church, purity, and modesty in Mansfield Park. It has a more serious tone than the playful, whimsical Emma. It has less wit than Pride and Prejudice, and it is not as dramatic as Sense and Sensibility. And yet I would argue that this book is seriously undervalued. Open it up, read it, and lose yourself in a story of love and constancy. I promise your time will not be wasted.
"With such a regard for her, indeed, as his had long been, a regard founded on the most endearing claims of innocence and helplessness, and completed by every recommendation of growing worth, what could be more natural than the change? Loving, guiding, protecting her, as he had been doing ever since her being ten years old, her mind in so great a degree formed by his care, and her comfort depending on his kindness, an object to him of such close and peculiar interest, dearer by all his own importance with her than any one else at Mansfield, what was there now to add, but that he should learn to prefer soft light eyes to sparkling dark ones.—And being always with her, and always talking confidentially, and his feelings exactly in that favourable state which a recent disappointment gives, those soft light eyes could not be very long in obtaining the pre-eminence." Mansfield Park chptr. 48


Anonymous said...

Liked your review. But I'm wondering..was I the only one who sincerely disliked Henry Crawford from the beginning? I seem to be the only one. Makes me feel like a suspicious person.

Abigail Hartman said...

Oh, you dear girl! I love to see a defense of Mansfield Park; it is such a good book, when one gets it into one's head that it isn't like Austen's other novels. There are so many gems in it, and you have mined them and displayed them here.

The defense of the Church - the Church as it ought to be - was something that particularly stood out in my reading, and I very much appreciated it. It pleased me to know that, while Austen saw the deficiencies of clergymen (as in Mr. Collins), she did not give up the whole as a bad job. I have no idea what Austen's heart was, but I still appreciated it.

The Crawfords. Oh, the Crawfords! They are, I think, the most villainous of Austen's villains, because there is something very real about them. They are not over the top, but they are insidious. Their faults are the sort that one might easily find in oneself, and that makes them all the more terrible.

Anne-girl, I'm with you on the matter of Henry Crawford. Oh, doesn't he make me angry! Every time I read the book, I'm sure my blood pressure goes up. Mansfield Park is the only Austen novel that doesn't soothe me.

Unknown said...

Love, love, love it! :) That last paragraph is so sweet! I love the line about preferring "soft, light eyes to sparkling, dark ones." Good review Rachel, and right on, as usual. :)I liked your analysis of the Crawfords. I know what you mean about a character influencing you.:)