Classic Book Review: Mansfield Park

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen
Mansfield Park
by Jane Austen

5 out of 5 stars

Fanny Price goes to live with her rich relatives, who make her feel inferior and criticize her. She befriends her cousin, Edmund, but is belittled by her cousins, Maria and Julia. When the Crawford siblings arrive as new neighbors, Maria and Julia compete for the attention of Mr. Henry Crawford, while Edmund gradually falls under the spell of the beautiful and wicked Miss Crawford. Only Fanny is undeceived by the Crawford’s pretty manners.

Marvelous story! Each time I reread it, I find something deeper in the story and the characters. But I always want to slap some sense into Edmund, until he realizes how delightful Fanny is.

Jane Austen’s writing never fails to amaze me. She has such a perceptive way of laying bare every thought and action of each character with exquisite insight into the little vexations and desires of human nature.
The funniest line in the entire book is when Miss Crawford, Fanny, and Edmund are walking through a wood and arguing over how far they have come. Miss Crawford insists they must have walked at least a mile, and Edmund pulls out his watch and says, “We have been exactly a quarter of an hour here. Do you think we are walking four miles an hour?”
Miss Crawford responds, “Oh, do not attack me with your watch! … I cannot be dictated to by a watch.”
haha! I always laugh my head off at that scene!

The first time I read this book I was very frustrated with Fanny’s character. She is so timid and shy that she annoys me. Why doesn’t she get some backbone and speak up for herself?! But when rereading it years later, I think I begin to understand her personality a little better. She has a quiet strength that gives her the endurance and fortitude necessary in her circumstances.

I counted nine times in the book when she stands up for herself, and will not let anyone bully her into doing something she doesn’t want to do. When it is important to her, she DOES stand up for what she believes is right. She does ask for the things she needs or wants. She knows how to pick her battles, and only shows her true strength when it is really needed.

At one point, Fanny says, “I was quiet, but I was not blind.” (pg.318) The other characters tend to overlook Fanny because she is quiet, but she sees everything that goes on and understands what is really happening behind the scenes. And that is why she is able to stand firm in her principles and see the true character of people like the Crawfords, even when others are deceived.

Another part of the book says that Fanny’s “gentle manner concealed the sternness of her purpose.”(pg.288) And another paragraph says that “She had all the heroism of principle, and was determined to do her duty.” (pg.235) I think that is the key to Fanny’s character. She is quiet and timid until she is called upon to do battle for what is right and good. Her strength is in her dutiful attitude and her constant devotion to honor and truth.

When the rest of the family are all taking part in a questionable play and flirting through the improper lines, Fanny is the only one who is consistent in her disapprobation of the play. She is the strongest one of them all. Even Edmund is roped into participating in the play, even though he knows it is wrong. Fanny is the only one who remains true to her principles and beliefs.

Fanny’s mannerisms and conversation are gentle and quiet, but her decisions are strong. Her emotions are easily upset and her temperament is nervous, but her mental agility and spiritual courage are what make her an amazing person who eventually gains the respect and admiration of everyone who knows her. The fact that she can have so much fortitude despite her anxious thoughts, sensitive personality, and constant fears is truly an act of heroism.

The best thing in this whole book is seeing Fanny’s character development, and especially the way the other characters gradually begin to realize just how sweet and good Fanny really is. “Her disposition was peculiarly calculated to value a fond treatment.”(pg. 319) They finally begin to appreciate her for who she is and treat her accordingly with respect and affection.

The scenes that I love best in this book are the scenes between Fanny and her brother William. William is a midshipman in the Navy, and these two siblings rarely get to see one another, but their family bond is so powerful. I love to see how Fanny comes alive when she is with William. She is sure of his brotherly love and has no fears. She is completely comfortable and secure, and she lights up from inside with a radiance that her aunts and cousins can never see because of their criticism and emotional abuse.

Another character that baffled me the first time I read this book is Lady Bertram. She is so lazy and indolent. She doesn’t seem to care about anything or have any actual opinions on anything. How can she be so lazy and stupid all the time? But then I considered her sister, Mrs. Norris, is always bustling around doing everything, bossing people around, planning and organizing with her finger in every pie. No wonder Lady Bertram is lazy! Mrs. Norris does everything for her, so there is no need to lift a finger.
Fanny even says of Lady Bertram that “[Fanny] felt how unprofitable contention would be,” and that “Nothing could be hoped from attacking her understanding.” It’s no use trying to explain anything to Lady Bertram. Her mental powers won’t even register what you are saying to her.

I love the Crawford siblings because they are such a delightfully wicked duo. The thing that makes them so interesting is that they both have good qualities. Both the reader and the characters in the book are ready to believe that the Crawfords could be reformed, but we are left wondering around every corner of the plot whether they will end up evil or good by the end. Just when one of them seems to be leaning towards good, the other one does something nasty and selfish. They influence each other dreadfully, and it is a fascinating train wreck to watch.

Edmund is a wonderful character full of goodness and affection. He is kind and generous to Fanny from their childhood, but it annoys me how the narrative often refers to his molding her character and training her mind. Certainly, it seems that he gave her some advice and help along the way by recommending books for her to read and talking with her about life and duty and godliness; but the narrative makes it sound like he single-handedly made Fanny who she is. That girl was already lovely and sweet before you came along, Edmund!

And then Edmund is fooled by Miss Crawford. He is blind to her faults, and equally blind to Fanny’s merits. What an idiot! He gets on my nerves sometimes, but I love the depth of his personality and how he goes through a lengthy character development to realize the truth. I love that he makes mistakes and those mistakes have consequences. I love the internal struggle Edmund goes through as he tries to sort through the nuances of his duty to his family and the gray areas of social morality versus true religious morality.

On that note, I love the deep moral themes in this book. Ideas of right and wrong and Christian ethics are explored through the lens of desire or duty. Every character has a choice to make. Do they choose to follow their own wayward emotions, or do they follow a higher ideal of righteousness? Austen was a preacher’s daughter, and as a preacher’s daughter myself, I always love to see these beautiful Christian themes celebrated in her books.

Spoilers:
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I was very disappointed in Edmund’s resolution and how he falls in love with Fanny. I mean, we spent half the book with Fanny being hopelessly in love with Edmund, and going on that journey with her as she begins to realize the depth of her feelings for Edmund. And then when Edmund finally gets his head on straight, we get ONE PARAGRAPH about how he realized that Fanny is pretty great after all and he might as well marry her. I needed more of a journey for Edmund to gradually explore his feelings for Fanny. I feel like there needed to be more of a denouement at the end of the book. Edmund should have had some catalyst that suddenly made him realize his true feelings for Fanny. Something she did or something someone said to him could have sparked a new train of thought and made him think of Fanny in a different way. It was all too quick and boring after such a long build-up.

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