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Monday, 5 September 2016

Jane Austen's 'Mansfield Park' - some random observations

As in Pride and Prejudice, the opening pages of Mansfield Park provide concisely a large quantity of essential information.. We are informed about the characters, marriages and fortunes of the three Ward sisters of Huntingdon. Later, notice how we move in a couple of pages from Fanny at 15 to Fanny at 17.

A theme of Jane Austen’s novels is the question of when to hold to our own opinions and when to allow ourselves to be swayed from them. Edward Ferrars, Marianne Dashwood, Catherine Morland, Elizabeth, Darcy, Edmund, Henry Crawford, Harriet Smith, Anne Elliot (in the past), and Louisa Musgrove all either wrestle with this question or illustrate some point about it. So especially does Fanny Price.

Among the characters we are invited to admire in this novel, there are no Mr. Bennets or Elizabeth Bennets or Henry Tilneys - characters with a taste for wit and irony. The only people in Mansfield Park who enjoy making others laugh are Henry and Mary Crawford; but their jokes show insensitivity and bad taste which is contrasted with the sensitivity and natural good taste of the heroine, who endures with fortitude the cruelty and selfishness of those around her. Henry teases Edmund by saying he will go and listen to him preaching and that he will take a pencil in order to 'note down any sentence pre-eminently beautiful'. The reader may enjoy such flippancy but Fanny sees it as disrespectful to the cloth and distinctly unfunny.

Henry Crawford is one of the few Jane Austen male characters whose motivation we are made fully aware of, albeit briefly.

By the way, have you noticed that, in all Jane’s novels, there are very few scenes in which men converse alone together? 

Tom Bertram has some of Mrs. Norris’s characteristics: he too likes to give the impression that he is willing to put up with deprivation in order to contribute to the general good. When parts are to be cast for the play, he says: ‘the rhyming butler for me – if nobody else wants it – a trifling part, but the sort of thing I should not dislike, and as I said before, I am determined to take anything and do my best..’.

The complete overthrow of Mrs. Norris comes in the penultimate chapter. The scandal involving Maria and Henry (indirectly attributable to Mrs. Norris's influence) had finished her: 'She was an altered creature, quieted, stupefied ... unable to direct or dictate, or even fancy herself useful'. She goes off to live with Maria in her exile from society.

At one point, Mrs. Norris claims to have given a considerable sum to Fanny's younger brother. (Jane Austen told niece Anna and nephew James-Edward that the 'considerable sum' Mrs. Norris claimed to have given William Price was a mere £1!) 

Incidentally, William Price’s professional activities exactly reflect what the British Navy was doing at the time, particularly against the French, protecting trade through the Mediterranean and, for example, blockading Toulon. Cruisers - such as the ‘Texel’ to which William was assigned - protected merchant ships approaching the Thames. 

For the social historian: Mansfield Park gives us a little bit of nostalgia in reminding us of what the city street-life once was: recalling their earlier days in Portsmouth, William says to Fanny, 'We used to jump about together many a time, did not we? when the hand-organ was in the street?' 

Incidentally, Lady Bertram's pug is a male: 'Sitting and calling to Pug, and trying to keep him from the flower-beds, was almost too much for me'. A few pages later, we read of 'the barking of pug in his mistress's arms'. However, later, Lady Bertram says: 'And I will tell you what, Fanny – which is more than I did for Maria – the next time pug has a litter you shall have a puppy'. Has Pug changed sex? Well, maybe Lady Bertram means 'sires a litter'!

Ultimately the most ambivalent character is the narrator! For much of the novel, she seems to allow for great subtleties, but in the final pages she offers nothing but a dogmatic and evangelical advocacy of religious principles such as is not found elsewhere in Jane's novels.