Mansfield Park

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Mansfield Park book cover

Mansfield Park is a novel by Jane Austen. Written between 1812 and 1814. Mansfield Park was written at Chawton Cottage, and published in July 1814 by the Mr. Egerton who had given to the world its two predecessors. When the novel reached a second edition, its publication was taken over by John Murray, who was also responsible for bringing out its successor, Emma. It is, perhaps, the most satirical of Austen's works.

Plot

The main character, Fanny Price, is sent at an early age from her poor family to live with her rich uncle and aunt, Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram, at Mansfield Park. She grows up with her four cousins, Tom, Edmund, Maria and Julia, but is always treated as inferior to them; only Edmund shows her real kindness. Despite often being unhappy during her childhood, Fanny grows up with a strong sense of propriety and virtue. Over time, her gratitude for Edmund's kindness grows into love, and she secretly forms an attachment to him.

Fanny's other aunt, Mrs. Norris, is a miserly busybody who spoils the Bertram children while putting Fanny down and verbally battering her. Sir Thomas tries to correct the influence of Mrs. Norris on his children, but only succeeds in setting himself up as a severe patriach from whom they become accustomed to conceal their true feelings and opinions. Maria and Julia end up vain and convinced of their own worth simply by dint of being beautiful, accomplished women of consequence, whilst Tom is an irresponsible partygoer and gambler. Only Edmund survives his upbringing with his sense of virtue unscathed.

The bulk of the action of the book takes place while Sir Thomas is away for two years in Antigua, dealing with problems on his plantation there. The romantic entanglements begin after the arrival of two siblings, Mr. and Miss Crawford, to visit their sister Mrs. Grant, who is the wife of the inhabitant of Mansfield Park parsonage. Miss Crawford and Edmund begin to form an attachment, though Edmund often worries that she displays a lack of correct manners and worryingly irreverent opinions, particularly towards his chosen vocation of the priesthood. The growing affection between them grieves Fanny, who feels that love is blinding Edmund to deep flaws in Miss Crawford's character. Mr. Crawford meanwhile sports with the affections of both Bertram sisters, despite the fact that Maria is already engaged to the rather dull, but very rich, Mr. Rushworth.

On Sir Thomas' return, he finds the young people in the midst of a grand scheme to put on a play (considered a highly inappropriate activity for gentry women to participate in, and ultimately opposed only by Fanny). Maria's marriage to Mr. Rushworth goes ahead, despite the jealousy engendered in him by her behaviour with Mr. Crawford and they leave on honeymoon, taking Julia with them. In their absence, Fanny becomes of more consequence to the family and her uncle shows her much greater affection than previously. When Mr. Crawford returns to Mansfield Park after an absence, she becomes the new target of his flirtations. However, her genuine gentleness and kindness cause this plan to backfire, and he falls in love with her. But when he proposes her knowledge of his previous improper behaviour towards her cousins, as well as her existing attachment to Edmund, cause her to reject him. Her family is dismayed at this; Sir Thomas abuses her for insubordination and ingratitude. But Fanny holds her ground, knowing that she has acted correctly (she cannot bring herself to implicate Maria by explaining her reasons).

Sir Thomas contrives a plan to send Fanny back to her family's shabby home for a few months, so that she might realise that a rich husband is a very useful thing to have. Mr. Crawford comes to visit her to demonstrate that he has changed his ways and is now worthy of her affections, and this strategy begins to soften Fanny's attitude, though she is still far from accepting him. However, shortly after he leaves for London, Fanny begins to hear rumours of a scandal involving him and Maria; it later emerges that on resuming their acquaintance in London, Crawford recommenced his flirtations, which ended up in an elopement. Between this and an illness suffered by Tom (in the aftermath of a drinking binge), the situation at Mansfield Park is dire, and Fanny is recalled to be of both use and comfort to her aunt and uncle. In the aftermath of the scandal, Edmund breaks off relations with Miss Crawford, and eventually returns Fanny's affections.

Critical Appraisal

Mansfield Park is not amongst the most popular of Austen's works. Many modern readers find Fanny's timidity and disapproval of the theatricals difficult to sympathise with, and the idea (made explicit in the final chapter) that she is a better person for the relative privations of her childhood rather unpleasant. Other critics point out that she is a complex personality, perceptive yet given to wishful thinking, and that she shows courage and grows in self-esteem during the latter part of the story. The story contains much social satire, particularly at the expense of the two aunts. It is also perhaps the most socially realistic Austen novel, with Fanny's family of origin, the Prices, coming from a much lower echelon of society than most Austen characters, and the novel's suggestion that the wealth of the Bertrams is derived from slavery in the West Indies.

The novel has been adapted for the screen twice: a 1983 TV mini-series directed by David Giles and starring Sylvestra Le Touzel as Fanny and Anna Massey as Mrs. Norris, and a 1999 film directed by Patricia Rozema and starring Frances O'Connor as Fanny and Jonny Lee Miller as Edmund (interestingly, he also featured in the 1983 version, playing one of Fanny's brothers).

External link

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