Rant About Jane Austen’s ‘Mansfield Park’

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So, I don’t usually do book reviews on this blog, but Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park is so frustrating, I just have to vent about it somewhere. If you haven’t read it or what to avoid spoilers, don’t worry, you can skip this post.

Mansfield Park is a book that has had love and hate poured out on it over the years (probably more hate than love). I didn’t know this when I first read it, I just picked it up because it said ‘Jane Austen’ on the front. And anything by Jane Austen is highly superior, if only because of her adept writing style. But Mansfield Park is, well, frustrating – the first time I read it I thought it was because I didn’t like how it ends (the climax – spoiler! – is exactly the same as in Pride and Prejudice, but with slightly different results), but now I think it’s just frustrating the whole way through.

Pride and Prejudice – Corrupted?

To me, Mansfield Park is like a corrupted version of Pride and Prejudice. In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy change for the better because they met each other, but in Mansfield Park it’s like Jane Austen decided to warn all those impressionable young girls out there that people rarely do change. Nobody fundamentally changes in this novel. The main character, Fanny Price, remains steadfastly quiet and shy the whole time, and she is vindicated in the end when her unfavourable opinion of Mr. Crawford turns out to be right (instead of, say, a prejudice like Elizabeth’s opinion was). It’s like Jane Austen’s saying – girls, don’t believe what I said before about men changing because of love for you. They don’t change. And if you think a man is a cad, you’re probably right. Don’t let him convince you otherwise. Which might be perfectly true in reality, and probably is a good lesson for all romance readers out there. But in a novel, where character arcs are important, it requires that what appears to be a character arc for Henry Crawford (and Mary Crawford too), to be chopped off and revealed to be a non-arc. It also requires for there to be no character arc for Fanny, and none for Edmund either.

Also, in Pride and Prejudice, the two central couples are matched up happily. In Mansfield Park, only one couple is, leaving the two leftover spares to misery. In Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Darcy steps up when Lydia runs away with Wickham, and saves the Bennet family from shame. In Mansfield Park, no one saves the Bertram family from shame, though the result is that Edmund is free to marry Fanny.

So, corrupted version of Pride and Prejudice? It seems so to me – even Mary Crawford is like an exaggerated version of what Lizzy would be like if she were a little bit too free with her tongue. (And had more corrupted morals).

And What a Self-Assertive Main Character!

Most of the hate for this book centres around Fanny, and I have to admit, she is a problematic main character. Any time you make a shy, passive person the main character of the novel, you risk making the reader annoyed because they don’t do anything. But while I realize it limits the novel, I don’t absolutely hate Fanny, because I share enough similarities with her. I am a shy introvert myself, who really should take initiative more often, but just don’t have the guts. I will sit back in a room full of noisy people and watch them, and notice all the little ways they are hurting and irritating each other, when they themselves don’t even realize it. I guess I have strong moral principles too, and while I don’t understand her objections to acting in a play, I do understand her objections to accepting the attention of a man she knows plays with women’s hearts. In fact, I really would like to love Fanny. I like it when introverts get their due. Which just leads to frustration when her passivity gets in the way of advancing the plot.

The Honourable Romantic Hero

And another reason the book frustrates me is Edmund. I know he is honourable, upright, and all the rest of it, but he is also bland and boring. More than any of Jane Austen’s other heroes, his good qualities appear to be more informed attributes. She never really makes it clear why Fanny is so in love with him, other than the fact they grew up together and he is the only one who notices her once in a while. Anyway, it is difficult to cheer for a romantic hero who spends ninety-nine percent of the book chasing after another woman who is all wrong for him. And perpetually forgetting Fanny because of it, though Fanny is apparently too used to being taken for granted to care. But the reader notices!

Sorry, No Hope Here

But my biggest frustration is that I have: that there is no hope for Henry Crawford and Mary. This is the way the book has to end, and after re-reading it several times, I see redeeming them would completely ruin the main point of the story. But it is so sad for them! They are likeable people, Jane Austen makes sure of that. They are not like Mrs. Elton in Emma, whom you would love to see being taken down a notch or two. But Henry Crawford abuses women’s affections abominably, and to let Fanny fall in love with him would make it seem like that fault doesn’t really matter. Also, she would probably never make him happy because she doesn’t possess the nerve to stand up to him. If he trotted off to flirt with other women after they got married, she would hardly have the ability to protest that it makes her miserable. So I can’t see the book ending in any other way, but I wish for the Crawfords’ sake that they could somehow learn from their mistakes. That they wouldn’t just let their blindness, bad morals and folly ruin their lives. This leave me with a frustrating, unfinished feeling when I reach the end of the book – and if there has to be more to the story that will tie up these loose ends. As if a sequel is begging to be written.

So there you have it – all my thoughts on this book out on paper. A quick search of Jane Austen sites on the net will show there are many, many more people frustrated with this book, for a variety of reasons. But I will say, I don’t regret reading it, or re-reading it again and again, because it is of Jane-Austen-quality. Her worst book (and I don’t know if this is her worst) is better than many authors’ best. I also really, really want to like Mansfield Park. And large chunks of it are very enjoyable. That, of course, just makes it more frustrating.

What about you? Have you read Mansfield Park, and what did you think of it?

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15 Comments

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15 responses to “Rant About Jane Austen’s ‘Mansfield Park’

  1. Pingback: Reactions to an Engagement – ‘Mansfield Park’ fanfiction | Stories and Stuff

  2. SL

    I just finished reading Mansfield Park for the first time, and I can totally understand all the hate. I was explaining to a friend as I was going through it that I was utterly bored by Fanny. Like you, I’m more of an introvert than an extrovert, and often times I accept whatever position delegated to me by others, a la Fanny Price. I get that that’s a bad thing… but that’s my life, and frankly I don’t want to read about someone like that. There’s a reason we all love Elizabeth – for her growth, her backbone, her spunk, etc. Reading about how everybody is stepping on Fanny is only interesting for so long before I want to jump into the novel and tell Mrs. Norris to shut up.

    Edmund… oh, darling darling Edmund. How can you be so bland? There’s absolutely nothing else I can say about him. He’s just… a nice guy. So vanilla.

    I think it’s amazing that it took Edmund that long to realize that Mary’s moral scruples didn’t quite match up to his. There are a bunch of times when Mary says something that doesn’t quite agree with Edmund, yet somehow none of that matters and he loves her anyway. Or thinks himself in love.

    Ending was too abrupt for me… I didn’t ever see romantic love happening between Edmund and Fanny except in really vague references about Fanny feeling sad when Edmund’s hung up on Mary Crawford.

    BTW, I love your Mansfield Park fanfic. I’m not sure I’m a Fanny/Henry fan, but I think that couple is infinitely more interesting than Fanny/Edmund. *Yawn*

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    • Yes, Fanny is VERY different from Elizabeth, and I think part of the hate is because people expect ‘Mansfield Park’ to be like ‘Pride and Prejudice.’ Like I said in my review, I appreciate some of what Jane Austen was trying to do with this book. But I can see how people find it boring. Because I struggle with how to look at the story too.

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  3. beejeez

    Just finished it myself, and I’m mystified at the book’s defenders. The final chapter reads as if Austen realized that she had failed in her experiment in seeing whether her readers could care about two judgmental, ineffectual prigs as hero and heroine, and she had better just minimize the damage fast with a catch-all final chapter.

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    • Perhaps that’s true! But Austen has been known to wrap things up suddenly and quickly in other books as well, leaving her readers going ‘but… but… I wanted to know about the wedding!’ Lady Susan is an example where the ending frustrated me with its suddenness, and you could never accuse the characters in that one of being priggish!

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  7. I adore Mansfield Park. Not all heroines must be Elizabeth Bennett, and don’t forget that there was a 10 year time gap for Jane Austen to mature in between writing Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield. Why do you dislike the novel because the characters aren’t as interesting as in P & P? If you wanted MP to be P & P, then perhaps you should just read P & P. Mansfield is a novel of improvement, it is more mature than her earlier works and is not a romance. That’s what angers people. Jane didn’t always write romances, and Mansfield Park has so much commentary on social class, time, city vs. country, morality, adultery, religion—everything! If another author would have written MP, one without a branded rom-com genre stamped on her forehead, the novel would be hailed as one of the first female coming-of-age novels from the heroine’s childhood (which it is). But, because we narrow Jane Austen and her incredible depth of work into romantic period chick flicks, we don’t understand how she could write a novel and a character so un-Elizabeth or un-Emma. That’s because she’s not a romantic figure, she’s a woman born of her circumstances, and the superficial judgement that she “doesn’t laugh enough” or “gets tired easily” is appalling! She was taken from poverty into wealth with NO explanation, and all everyone’s concerned about is that her suitor is “boring” as she is, and that she has no redeeming effeminate or witty qualities. Did EVERYONE miss the point of the novel? Superficiality is for the Crawford’s!

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    • Bobby

      Ditto! I just reread MP recently and was struck by the fact that Fanny shows quite a few symptoms of PTSD. She’s basically pretty much a Cinderella figure in Mansfield, treated like a servant by her cousins and her horrid aunt and neglected half the time by Edmund, the one truly good person in her life in that place, and all people can say is why is she so passive? Why can’t she be more outgoing? She doesn’t have the luxury people! She’s been conditioned always to think she deserves nothing, and that’s hard as hell a mindset to get out of, with her tormentors always around. I’d like to think that at the ending of the book with her cousins and aunt out of the way, she might get better. In that respect, I do understand why JA ended it the way she did. With Fanny the eventual seeming to be mistress of Mansfield, it’s like poetic justice, Cinderella becoming princess at last. . .

      I do dislike Edmund very much though. I hate their dynamic, because she will never be able to stand up to him and he will never truly understand her. I do agree with Henry Crawford it would’ve been more interesting in that it would’ve given them both a chance to grow and work around their different flaws. Fanny could’ve seen more of a value in others and be no longer so self-righteous, and he less cynical, selfish and self-absorbed. Ahhh what could’ve been!

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  8. Matthew (Bibliofreak.net)

    Hi Harma-Mae – I come here via another post on Mansfield Park I was reading on which you commented. I’ve just finished Mansfield Park and I’m really interested by the differing views on it. I will say, I quite enjoyed it and think it is a very accomplished novel, although I did have certain, inevitable problems with it.

    It’s been mentioned already but I think this is a more mature vision of the world from Austen – people probably don’t change, not really, and happy endings are, largely, for fiction. It’s not optimistic but it is probably true to life. But, fiction needn’t be true to life need it? Pride & Prejudice may be a less centred, realistic look at life but it is a fun read with a more engaging heroine (if not a morally superior one). I have no real problem with less interesting protagonists per se, but Fanny is unlikely to stick in the mind like Lizzy Bennet. She does, however, like everything in the novel, serve a purpose. Austen is a magnificent writer and Mansfield Park shows so many of her skills. I can understand why a lot of readers can’t warm to it and, being somewhat unitiated in Austen generally, it is fascinating to read the various discussions.

    My review: Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

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    • Yes, I agree–since this was written so much later than P&P, I do feel that in some respects it’s mirroring P&P in a less happy-ending way. In that way it’s more mature and brings up very thoughtful questions. I think all Jane Austen fans should read it, but it’s certainly not a perfect novel!

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  9. Bobby

    Wow! I actually never really thought of it that way, but what you say does make sense, how MP is like a P&P corrupted, right down to the heroines. Where Elizabeth is so much wit, Fanny’s entirely without, only having virtue, like Austen’s challenging us to still love her. Although if you read her next book Emma right after, it’s not untrue to say she grew tired of too much virtue too haha. I truly enjoyed reading this article, and agree almost completely with it, especially with the Crawfords! Sad because they really were redeemable villains 😦 I like Edmund best when he’s realizing too late that he loves Fanny after she marries a reformed Henry. Otherwise, nah. Still can’t get over how he’s one of the few people Fanny looks up to and he fails her so miserably. And also hypocritical. Probably where Fanny learned it from XD Fanny is a classic study in child abuse; it’s not a pretty picture. Especially compounded with her natural shyness. She definitely took virtue a bit too far, but hey, when it was the only thing she got going for her. . . It took me a couple of readings and a bunch of essays to understand her worth, so I can understand where most of the frustration is coming from. She was too goodie goodie for me on my first read as well hahah.

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    • Thanks for your insights and thanks for visiting! I really, really relate to many aspects of Fanny’s character, and I think it’s a worthwhile experiment for an author to write about a passive character instead of constantly creating lively extroverts. However, passivity does create issues for moving the plot forward. And Edmund has very little to recommend him, I agree. I still both love and struggle with this novel!

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