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Sunday, 10 April 2016

The Pleasures of Jane Austen's 'Mansfield Park'

Despite reservations I have expressed elsewhere, there is much that is admirable about Mansfield Park. If you stop considering it just as the story of Fanny Price and remember that even Jane Austen said (no doubt tongue-in-cheek) that it was a book about 'ordination', you can sit beside the log fire with your glass of chianti and find much to ponder and much to make you waggle your toes and chuckle. For example, (taking at random Chapters 3 to 6 that I have just re-read) - the delightful undercurrents of antipathy between Dr. Grant and Mrs. Norris; and Mary's lively expressions of unconventional opinion on anything from marriage to the 'improvement' of estates and from men's laconic letter-writing to her ironic view of admirals.

What about the first paragraph of Chapter 6? It is a masterly example of the novelist's art. It begins by taking us inside Mary's mind. We see the assembled company from her perspective. We are made aware of her attitudes and motivations. But incidentally, without actually describing them, Jane Austen manages to let us know exactly what mealtimes were like before Tom left; and how Edmund's becoming the head of the table changes the atmosphere. Then from Mary's observations of the newcomer Mr. Rushworth, we quickly learn what a tedious fellow he is, and finally the paragraph opens out from Mary's consciousness into a full view of a discussion at table. Throughout all this, we learn by implication almost all we need to know about Tom, Edmund, Rushworth and especially Mary herself. Mary found the meals lively when Tom was there to tell stories of 'my friend such a one'. The reader is left to form his or her own view of whether such tales would have appealed to all.

Anyone who tries to see this novel as a study of the relative importance of environmental and hereditary factors in a child's development will find much to explore, and considerable complexity.

When she returns to Portsmouth, Fanny finds her old home chaotic and looks back fondly on Mansfield Park as a peaceful, civilized place where 'everybody's feelings were consulted'. However, her impressions are not borne out by what we can observe. Mansfield is not a shining example in bringing out the best in people: the eldest boy is debauched, the mother is indolent, the daughters are unprincipled and superficial; and snobbery prevails. Yet Portsmouth, despite its relative poverty, has produced two sons (John and Richard) who have respectively obtained a clerical post in London and become a midshipman; it has produced another - William - who is well regarded at Mansfield; and Sam who is intelligent and also destined for the Navy; and Susan who shows courage, energy and good understanding; not to mention Fanny herself. Even Mr. Price can be animated and polite (when with Henry Crawford). In truth, it seems Fanny has acquired her values as much from nature as from nurture.