Tuesday, May 3, 2011

50/2011: Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

Mansfield Park was the final Jane Austen I had to read: it was on my 50/2011 list of books (see sidebar) and I completed it this week.


As someone who loves Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion, and Sense and Sensibility (the novels before the films) and who has been to the Jane Austen Center in Bath, I would consider myself a fan of the writer and her style but not a worshipper at the altar of Jane.

I found Mansfield Park in some ways lighter weight than the others, with less wit and humor. This has more to do with the way in which Austen fashions her main character, Fanny, as a more traditional "helpless" female whose strength comes from her inner moral compass. Fanny, unlike the Bennet sisters, is removed from the bosom of her family (which we discover late in the novel was a very good decision) and placed with her wealthy aunt's family as a young girl; she grows up in this household as "the poor relative" who is the object of charity and too often turned into the unpaid servant "for her own good."

Like other Austen heroines, Fanny must negotiate ungrateful relatives, unwanted suitors, and hold out for what never seems possible: that the one she loves will return her love, despite everything. And that fate will willingly bring them together, in the end.

As a social commentary on class and gender, Mansfield Park is less charming than P&P or S&S. Not less revealing or true, however, and the novel's charm comes with the spectrum of folly committed by Fanny's cousins, their local acquaintances, and friends, while Fanny, slowly but steadily, comes to be the center of right behavior in the novel. Little do we imagine that the fearful little girl we meet initially will become the still shy but clear-headed young woman who refuses to be fooled or seduced by a handsome face or charming manner with no substance behind it. 

Of course, I think the recent films of Austen's films has not served her work particularly well, in that the films have framed her stories as "romances" or "Gothic" (this sounds a bit like my review of the recent Jane Eyre film, yeah?) -- no surprise that I like the BBC six-episode version of P&P and the Emma Thompson film of S&S better than the Keira Knightly version.

What I love about Austen's novels is that with all their inherent charm, wit, and romance, their underlying layers of family dysfunction and loyalty, envy and betrayal, class and gender, and marriage as a social, political, and personal event are compassionate, wickedly intelligent, and unflinching. She is also a damn good writer who hooks you into caring about her characters' fates while holding steady on what good, civilized behavior is--interactive behavior which should be practiced daily by people in society, meaning everyone but hermits--and the ways in which we should treat others and conduct ourselves. The new book Jane Austen Education is by another person who surprised himself by finding Austen a kind of life guide... without being sappy about it.


Austen in neither Candace Bushnell nor Emily Griffin: she writes about women but doesn't do "chick lit." Which is good, for me.

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