An open letter to Jane Austen, on the subject of Mansfield Park.
We have been good friends now for many, many years. I loved you first, before I knew anything about Emily or Charlotte. Reading Pride and Prejudice when everyone else was devouring the next Point Horror (which to be honest I secretly quite liked myself. Especially Caroline B. Cooney) made me feel grown up, and, if I’m being truthful, a little superior. Yes, I was that kid. There is one Jane Austen freak in every school, little fledgling book-geeks, dreaming of A Level English Literature and a glittering career in publishing…and…well, anyway, I digress. Thanks for the memories, Jane. I’ve read all your books now, several times. Mostly, I think you’re great, but I have just one, tiny problem. I have a little problem with Mansfield Park.
Mansfield Park. It is not one of your best, to be frank. I bet a lot of people haven’t even read it. And it’s probably been a while for you too, Jane, so perhaps your memory is hazy. Maybe you’ve forgotten about Fanny Price, her cousin Edmund and their not so respectable acquaintances, Mary and Henry Crawford. While I’m sure you remember that the novel follows your usual winning formula, and I am sure you recall the troubles and impropriety that can result from a group of friends staging an inappropriate play (what did they expect with a title like Lover’s Vows?), you might have forgotten a few of the nuances. I shall refresh your memory….
Fanny Price is a poor relation of the Bertram’s of Mansfield Park, brought to live with them as a little girl out of charity. So far, so good, I like impoverished wards. However, I don’t like my wards to be doormats, and Fanny wears me out with her spiritless acceptance of her family’s ill treatment, especially that of her horrid aunt. Mansfield Park is a dull place, but luckily the arrival of Mary and Henry Crawford liven things up considerably, Mary being the one bright spark in a novel of dull convention. Henry takes a fancy to Fanny’s engaged (to an idiot) cousin, Maria, then to Fanny, then to Maria again. They try to stage Lover’s Vows, (I was amused to discover this is a real play. It sounds brilliant, though I sense that you don’t approve of it.), and things descend into not so much a love triangle, as two love triangles, joined together confusedly. Fanny loves Edmund, but Edmund loves Mary. Henry loves Fanny, and Maria loves Henry. Mary loves Edmund right back but it can never be, and Henry also fancies a bit of Maria, who just got married to an idiot. That is the plot of Mansfield Park, in a nut-shell.
However, this novel does have many interesting times. I already mentioned Lover’s Vows, but I also like it when Fanny is sent back to live with her family to teach her to appreciate the comfort of wealth. I always enjoy your trips to the seaside, Jane. Yet you don’t make enough of this opportunity. Fanny spends the whole time sitting there, mooning over Edmund, waiting for letters and idolising Mansfield Park. Her character doesn’t develop. She simply worships Edmund throughout the whole novel, patiently hanging around until he realises that he loves her. And oh Jane, he’s so boring. Edmund possesses none of Mr Darcy’s dark, haughty demeanour, or Henry Tilney’s light hearted sense of humour. He’s not even in charge of a ship, like Captain Wentworth. He is impressively moral, and I’m sure he will make a fine clergyman. A fine clergyman and an excessively dull husband. Lucky escape, Miss Crawford.
I’m sorry I’m criticising you Jane, but that doesn’t mean I don’t encourage people to read Mansfield Park. On the contrary, my dear, I am interested to hear what other people think. Is the whole Edmund, Fanny thing a little bit too weird for anyone else? For me, it is a problem mainly of belief. I believe in Elizabeth and Mr Darcy, their relationship is vibrant and real, and the reader can see it develop gradually as the novel progresses. When you are good Jane, you are very good. Edmund and Fanny, on the other hand, are coupled together in the last few pages of a novel dedicated to their brother and sister relationship and Edmund’s passion for another woman. Who cares if she turns out to be morally corrupt, you don’t stop loving someone just like that. You can just settle for someone else though, your cousin perhaps, who you’ve moulded since she was a little girl into just the right sort of woman. And she even got pretty half way through the book. Bonus!
So yes, half way through Mansfield Park Fanny suddenly becomes a bit hot. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen, it just seems awfully convenient. This physical alteration accompanies Fanny’s transformation in the esteem of her family, and that of Mr Henry Crawford. Is it impossible for this social enhancement to transpire for a plain girl? Maybe it is. You are, after all, one of our most prominent realists. You knew this society you captured like the back of your hand; you lived it and wrote it. So I confess, depressingly, you’re probably right.
So anyway, Jane, I hope you don’t think I’m being impertinent, writing this to you. And I know that maybe, all things considered, it is perhaps a little late in the day to be giving you literary advice. It is certainly nearly some two hundred years too late for your day. Only one recourse remains to me. I have to ask, Jane. Are you serious about Mansfield Park, or where you being somewhat ironic?
I guess the most we can do is theorise. I just hope you know that I hold you in the highest esteem, whatever I said about you in lit. class,
Your sincerest admirer,