I absolutely adore reading - my love for books has had a huge impact on my life! I'm going to grad school to be a children's/YA librarian.
At the age of ten, shy, vulnerable Fanny Price leaves behind her impoverished family in Portsmouth to go and live with her rich relatives at Mansfield Park.
Growing up with her cousins Tom, Edmund, Maria and Julia, she is aware that she is different from them and that her place in society cannot be taken for granted, although she is not treated unkindly. A dashing couple from London, Mary Crawford and her brother Henry, enter this stable, rural world. They succeed in dazzling everyone at Mansfield Park, except for Fanny, who sees through their shallow veneer. Throughout the dramatic events that follow it is she who is able to bring back some stability to the ruptured lives of those around her.
One of the great novels of the nineteenth century, Mansfield Park echoes Jane Austen's fears and awareness of the dawn of a modern age, which was to bring about a complete break from the old country traditions and way of life. (source)
Jane Austen and I have a love/hate relationship. Yes, she's one of my favorite authors - because when she's good, she's really good. But it often takes me forever to get into her books. It took me like 5 tries to get through Pride and Prejudice (and then I finally grew to love it), I've started Emma like 3 times with no success, I've started Sense and Sensibility with the same result, and this was my second attempt at Mansfield Park, which thankfully resulted in me finishing it. The only one of Austen's novels that I've actually loved from the start on the very first try was Northanger Abbey, which is why whenever people ask me for a Jane Austen recommendation, I point to that one. But on the whole, I find Jane Austen to be more verbose and pretentious than is strictly necessary and sometimes, it works, but sometimes, it just doesn't.
It took me to about 50% to really feel invested in this book, and even then I had to force myself to read it. This is a prime example of a book that could have desperately used more thorough editing. To be completely honest, I felt the characters of Tom, Maria, and Julia to be unnecessary - their stories simply added length to the novel, in my opinion, and while their experiences did add weight to Fanny's distrust of the Crawfords, I think that her hesitance to embrace them could have been accomplished in a less round-about manner.
In Mansfield Park, Austen demonstrates her mastery of the love triangle - or pentagon? Hexagon? Suffice to say that in this book, everyone loves someone, but that someone always loves someone else. I think the easiest way to start the chain is with Mary Crawford. She's basically the new girl next door type of character and she's kind of a bit of a rebel and, while outwardly proper, can be pretty devious at times, but she's gorgeous and she knows who to be nice to - and the guy who she decides to be nice to is future clergyman Edmund Bertram. But she's a bit of a gold-digger, despite her own considerable wealth, so she is hesitant to fully commit to him. Edmund is self-righteous and pretentious; he has an opinion on everything and is convinced that his opinion must be right at all times because it's always rooted in morality and church teachings and what's proper. And yet, Edmund falls for Mary's charms and professes himself to be head-over-heels in love with her. He confesses this to his cousin, Fanny Price, the novel's heroine. Unbeknownst to Edmund, Fanny's fallen in love with him (ew, I know, I found it gross, too - I guess we could blame it on this taking place in the 19th century, but romance between first cousins was frowned upon even in the Tudor era, so I'm just gonna chalk this up to uncharacteristic redneck tendencies on Austen's part. Yeesh.). So yes, Fanny loves Edmund and basically parrots his every belief. She's also the conscience in this book - even on the rare occasion when Edmund strays from the straight and narrow, Fanny's there to gently re-direct him in her understated, shy, and self-conscious way. Somehow, Fanny attracts the attention of Henry Crawford, Mary's brother. This starts out as a bit of a joke between the siblings - Henry basically decides to seduce Fanny just to prove that he can. As you likely can tell just from that, he's a real charmer. Great guy. Well, believe it or not, Henry actually genuinely falls for Fanny. Unfortunately for him, Fanny sees right through him and plus, as previously mentioned, she's in love with her cousin (ew, again). So that sucks. And then both of Edmund's sisters, Maria and Julia, have set their eyes on Henry. Henry's most responsive to Maria, but, again, he's more of a "thrill of the chase" kind of guy, so nothing really comes of that (at first). And meanwhile, Maria's engaged to a Mr. Rushworth. He's kind of an idiot, so no one's in love with him.
As you can see, this is quite a sticky situation. Without delving too much into spoilers, let me just say that the ending was fairly predictable (though it was preceded with some unexpected but thoroughly welcome scandal) and there was a happy ending for the heroine, as any Austen fan would expect.
One thing that I found set this apart from other Austen novels that I've read/attempted to read is that while the majority of the novel is told in third-person-limited POV from Fanny's perspective (much as many if not all of Austen's other novels are), it does expand to other character's perspectives from time to time. Most interesting to me was when Austen chose to write about a conversation between Mary and Henry Crawford, one that Fanny was not privvy to. It made it quite clear that Henry's feelings for Fanny were genuine, even if he wasn't the most upstanding character, and I was glad that Austen chose to let the reader see this side of him - it made him a more developed character and added depth to the story, in my opinion. It also made me feel like the ending of Henry's story was all the more deplorable. I realize that he's not a character that we're necessarily supposed to like, but I actually liked both Henry and his sister - I guess it's the whole "bad guys" attraction thing, haha - and so I was actually rooting for both of them to reform and end up being awesome. The one speech that Henry gave to Fanny about how much he loved her could have come straight from Mr. Darcy's mouth. But I'm digressing from my point with this - I thought it was really cool that Austen chose to show perspectives and motives other than Fanny's because, aside from the fact that I found Fanny to be sort of boring because she was so perfect, it added depth to the story and created more developed characters.
A similarity that this shares with many other Austen novels is her inclusion of a completely ridiculous character. In Pride and Prejudice it was Mrs. Bennet, in Emma it was Mr. Woodhouse, in Mansfield Park it's Aunt Norris and, to a lesser degree, Aunt Bertram. Aunt Norris is pushy and thinks extremely highly of herself and her opinions. She thinks of herself as a tremendous help to all those around her, in spite of the fact that she never helps with anything if it inconveniences her to the slightest degree. She's whiny and obnoxious and could be very annoying - but she could also be hilarious. Aunt Bertram is lazy to a ridiculous degree - she doesn't even like to get up off of the couch, let alone leave the house. She is easily upset and can't be bothered with anything - but in the end, she proves herself to be quite loving, even if she is essentially useless. I thought both of these characters added some much needed comic relief to this story.
I'm glad that I forced myself to finish Mansfield Park. While it could be very, very tedious, it had its moments of the eloquence and brilliancy that I love about Austen's work. However, it was much, much longer than it needed to be and I found the main characters to be nauseating in their self-righteousness. I don't know that I'll re-read this book. I'm glad I read it, but I'm not sure that it's worth a second read - the first read of it wasn't enjoyable enough.