Just a Few Years in Mansfield Park

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

Reviewed by Peter W.

Oh, how can I convey the pleasantries that have ensued in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park? Our young Fanny Price has grown indeed. Taken in by generous Sir Thomas Bertram more than 8 years ago at age 10, Fanny has grown into quite the respectable and pretty lady, though she does not want to admit it. Always kept at bay in modesty by the likes of the evil and conceited Mrs. Norris, Fanny has spent 8 years away from her family and yearns to see her brother William in the navy, though they are in lengthy correspondence. At her new home, she immediately picked a role model and idol in Mr. Edmund Bertram, a fine and morally-strong character who the reader is invited to respect from the beginning. He is light-years ahead of his idle and indulgent brother Tom and similarly more compassionate than his arrogant sisters, Maria and Julia. Lady Bertram (the mother of the family), though not unkind, is too indolent and indifferent to provide much support for a meek Fanny.

Unlike near-perfect characters such as Henry Tilney and Mr. George Knightley from Austen’s other novels, Edmund does have some recognizable faults that torment the reader. Despite his kind moral conviction, he is often taken astray by the likes of a lively Miss Crawford. He is even “taken in” (to use Miss Crawford’s own words) to the evils of acting! Blessed me, the poor chap is in a devilish practice indeed! Though acting may not seem so dreadful to the modern reader, it is an immoral and unforgivable act in the world of Jane Austen, where mock ceremony and affect are gravely looked down upon as prevalent evils. I enjoy this part consistent with all of Austen’s novels. She treasures truth in action and unaffectedness in manner, perfectly embodied by the Emma quote as “the unceremoniousness of perfect amity.”

Fanny’s first big change in the family is the departure of Sir Thomas Bertram to Antigua. This produces no unhappiness to the sisters Maria and Julia, who never had tender feelings toward their father, and really does not seem to hurt any of the family. Edmund takes charge naturally and begins to exercise perfect control. Then come the Grants to the Parsonage at Mansfield Park, followed by the more significant Crawfords (the brother and sister of Mrs. Grant). These birds from London have immensely different morals and values, raised in divisive circumstances by an Admiral and his wife. Miss Mary Crawford vexes Edmund with her extreme domestic standpoints paired with her stunning appearance, while Mr. Henry Crawford preys on the hearts of the two Miss Bertrams, pitting them against each other and drawing Maria from her insipid though well-circumstanced fiancé, Mr. Rushworth.

Imagine poor Fanny’s and Edmund’s mortification when Tom Bertram and his improper friend Mr. Yates draw the group into acting! And try to conceive Fanny’s astonishment when Edmund breaks down on Miss Crawford’s account and goes along with the group! Fanny’s heart is torn seeing Edmund play Miss Crawford’s lover Anhalt in Lover’s Vows (the play’s title). The production is getting blown way out of proportion, with professional carpenters producing the set and decorating Sir Thomas’s room in his absence. Henry Crawford is, of course, the best actor, showing Jane Austen’s feelings against him. Unluckily for the young people, Sir Thomas comes back from his long stay at Antigua earlier than expected and puts an end to the play, calmly burning every copy of Lover’s Vowshe finds in the house. Henry Crawford bids his departure at this unlucky time, breaking Maria Crawford’s heart and any hope for an escape from her engagement to Mr. Rushworth. She promptly turns to revenge and marries Mr. Rushworth, becoming the new Mrs. Rushworth and taking Julia with her to leisure in London.

But now Fanny is in danger. Though she has established a superficial friendship with Miss Mary Crawford, Mr. Henry Crawford has returned to Mansfield Park, with no other girl in his eye than our own Fanny Price…

Mansfield Park is a greatly exciting novel for Austen readers everywhere, though it may seem drab and slow on the surface. The little actions are what captivate: a stray look of the eye, the holding of hands at a painful moment, or a little invitation to a small dinner at the Parsonage. No great violence or physical action ensues. Indeed, walking is considered heavy exercise, and the greatest action in the book so far may just be the walk through Mr. Rushworth’s place. However, the great reality and authenticity of the emotions and “trifles” are what give this book its value.

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