Sunday, December 07, 2014

Mansfield Park (1814)

In many ways I find I approach Jane Austen novels much like mystery stories. Where the latter has a murder or other crime, the former will have a marriage. There is always a plucky, handsome, and most sensible heroine—in this case one Fanny Price, an impoverished niece of a "great" family—and one or two or three prospects, at least one of whom will turn into some variety of rat. The pleasure for me is all in the subtleties of character, which Austen is so good at conceiving situations to show. Good people turn out to be something less than good, and bad people can mend their ways, so it's never clear where things are headed, except generally toward the sacred altar of betrothal. The most interesting character for me in this one is a Miss Mary Crawford, who is lively and spirited and seems capable of an interesting development. Unfortunately (and I think unfairly) she turns out to be something of a villain, doing things I don't think fit with her character as I understand it. Now and then the judgments (of the author? the characters?) are blurred and distorted and hard to read—antiquated, I guess. The way "theater" is routinely deplored as corrupting, for example, and indeed shown to be so. That seemed on the wrong side of ridiculous to me, and I particularly thought Miss Crawford's skepticism about religion was sharp, apt, and well-placed. But I think it is also intended to make her villainous. Thus, alas, I run somewhat afoul of what I believe are Miss Austen's own biases and morality. I am altogether just a little cockeyed to her judgments here. But honestly that's part of the engrossing appeal for me of her work. These are generally well made worlds she has left us, and it's fascinating to feel through the moral labyrinths to find how one is aligned. The resolutions reached in Mansfield Park may feel off to me, but I'm sure many find them by and large satisfying. But I don't. I would like to speak up again for Miss Crawford, and gently remonstrate against the felicity of first cousins marrying. But there you have it. Now I'm trying to write like Jane Austen. She casts that strong of a spell. Mansfield Park is not as good as her gold standard Pride and Prejudice but it's plenty fine.

In case it's not at the library.

1 comment:

  1. I agree it is very fine! Troublesome for many because of the stoicism rather than charm of Fanny, and especially compared with other Austen heroines, but what I particularly like is the just demolition of the odious Miss Norris at the end. It takes the authorial control to wonderfully extreme heights, but it is perhaps where Austen in all of her apparently prim and proper preoccupations lets us see the genuine power of satire and moral fortitude in attacking the nasty sham of some establishment representatives!