Book Review: Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

Another book finished in my read-through of the works of Jane Austen, that famous British author known for her tales of romance that were simultaneously good entertainment and critiques and commentaries on British society. This time it’s Mansfield Park, Austen’s third novel, published in 1814.

Some consider her works to be, and I hate this term, “chick lit.” That is, not a type of gum, but “literature for women.”

To borrow a phrase from our English friends, bollocks.

Good literature is good literature. Calling Austen “chick lit” is like saying a book like The Killer Angels a “guy book” just because it’s about the Civil War.

I see Jane Austen, in a way, as the intellectual forefather (foremother?) of Ray Davies, the great singer and songwriter for the rock band The Kinks. Both of them poked fun at English society and norms, not with meanness and snark, but with a great deal of love and affection.

Enough background. On to the review.

As with my reviews of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice, I don’t to rehash plot points here, and instead answer a very simple question:

What should anybody, particularly a male-sort of person living in the twenty-first century, read this book? What did I get out of it?

Again, being an American living in the year 2016, I am not quite as familiar with what was going on in English history in the year 1814 except as it implicates America (for example, there was this war between England and America that started in 1812 . . .). And to be fair, Mansfield Park is no sweeping historical novel, using world events as a backdrop.

I am also not that knowledgeable about the norms of the British class structure in the early nineteenth century, save for that it was pretty rigid and that, for women, marriage was one of, if not the, only way to improve one’s lot in life.

Instead, while reading, I focused on some of the more ordinary points that Austen tried to make, particularly as they pertain to relationships.

And in this regard, as with the other Austen novels I’ve read, Mansfield Park doesn’t disappoint.

Jane Austen

Mansfield Park‘s main theme, to me, seems good to remember in this day and age where we labor under this fiction that “It’s a man’s world.” Austen touches on something that everybody probably knows intuitively, but we pretend isn’t the case to impress our hip, oh-so intellectual friends, and that is the fact that women control things in relationships by withholding…you know what.

This, in turn, forces men to behave, or at least curtail our baser instincts.

There’s this character in Mansfield Park named Fanny Price. She is sent at a young age to the titular estate to live with her rich aunt, uncle, and cousins. She is a young woman of gentle character and charming beauty who has a thing for her cousin Edmund (yuck, I know, but these were the times when marrying cousins wasn’t frowned upon . . . and marrying first cousins is still legal in Massachusetts, so . . .).

Anyway, that’s not important. As Fanny pines for Edmund, who has a thing for a young woman named Mary Crawford, Mary’s brother Henry decides that he wants to woo Fanny for sport. It turns out that he ends up falling in love with her.

Here’s the thing about Henry, though: He’s a bit of a womanizer, a flirt, and a jokester, unlike the steady, upright, and reliable Edmund. Fanny doesn’t take Henry’s affections seriously, not even when he gives her meaningful gifts, including getting Fanny’s brother, who is in the Navy, a promotion. Not even when Crawford seems to moderate his behavior.

See, Henry is the one who changes, not Fanny. We saw this in Pride and Prejudice, with the haughty, principled Darcy trying to win Elizabeth Bennett. Now, obviously the women change as well. Elizabeth realizes that she had Darcy pegged all wrong and decides to be more understanding of him. And here, Fanny mulls over Henry’s proposal, wondering if, and how, she would be able to live with one so different to her, and how their characters would mesh.

Compatibility then, is a major theme in Mansfield Park. Edmund and Mary have their issues with each other. One of Fanny’s cousins marries a well-off man solely for the purposes of financial security, though she loathes the man (who is not a bad guy, just not right for her). There are many relationships in the story that Austen uses to examine what it takes to make a union between two people work.

There is a lot to Mansfield Park–about parenting, about family relationships, about people’s true nature, about class and status–but there are other places you can go for a synopsis. I just want to answer the question should I even bother reading this book and why? I can safely answer this in the affirmative.

First, the writing is excellent. Jane Austen writes some of the best dialogue I have ever read.

Second, in today’s confused times where man-woman relationships are muddled up to the point of nearly being broken (at least, as far as what the wider society tells us and how it conflicts with our intuition and our human nature), Mansfield Park, and Jane Austen in general, helps shed some light on important things we have lost, like courtship, moderation, and what to look for in a potential spouse.

As long as you, you know, ignore the whole “falling in love with a cousin” thing.

But then again, I’m a fan of John Irving, and family members, including siblings, having sex is a feature, not a bug, in his works, so maybe it’s just a writer thing, I don’t know.

Next up: Emma

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