Sunday, September 9, 2012

Mansfield Park ~ Jane Austen

This is the first book I've read for the Classics Club, putting my 1/50 of my way to completion.  Woot!  Check out my Challenges page to see my progress and the full list of titles I plan to read in the next five years.

I had an English professor in undergrad, who compared English and French marriage literature, saying that in English lit, a woman's life ends when she gets married while for a French woman, that's when life really begins.  With that in mind, I feel that Jane Austen really must have hated married women.  Can you think of a married female character of hers who isn't just ridiculous, obnoxious, or absent?  In case you aren't sure, Mansfield Park will set you straight, having as it does such useless, annoying, and mockable married women (while married men tend to be just fine).  Which makes me wonder if that's why she ended her novels with her heroines' marriages, so that we don't have to see what a sharp decline they inevitably make afterwards.

Mansfield Park is the fifth novel I've read by Jane Austen and the most underwhelmed I've been yet.  Don't get me wrong - I'm not always underwhelmed.  Like any good English major, I loved Pride and Prejudice and really liked Northanger Abbey too.  Sense and Sensibility was okay, but so predictable after reading P+P, and Emma was just ruined by Emma and that same predictability factor.  But at least all of these heroines had personality (even if I though Emma was obnoxious and I would rather watch Clueless any day) and so I dealt.  The mockery of social customs was entertaining and I got by.

But Mansfield Park.  My oh my.  This was a rough one.  Let's start with the briefest of summaries.  Two sisters marry well, the third marries poorly, rich sisters decide to be all philanthropic and take in the eldest girl of poor sister's brood: Miss Fanny Price, aged ten.  Fanny grows up among spoiled cousins but always remembers her place and seems to be a big fan of God and propriety.  Cousins make friends, Fanny silently judges.  Others make poor choices, Fanny silently judges.  Rich somebody proposes to Fanny, Fanny silently judges and quietly says no (and is taken down a notch or two by her economically-conscious uncle).  It turns out Fanny was right, Fanny is Victorious and gets the man that we all knew she'd get from the beginning.  The End.

So I think my feelings about Fanny Price are clear from the above summary, but in case they're not, let me just say: Fanny is a judgmental, holier-than-thou little snot, and the only reason the others don't know it is because she would never deign to actually talk to such people.  Okay, maybe that's a little severe, but she's just so annoying.  And yes, Austen's heroines are generally flawed (the beloved Lizzy Bennett certainly was) but the thing is, in Fanny's case the text doesn't seem to know it.  Fanny is never corrected in anything and always found to be quite right in her thoughts and ways.  Even trying to keep a historical persepctive, I can't see why her behavior is considered so acceptable.  It doesn't seem very Christian to judge and not try to correct, to just let the people around you sin over and over, to the point of ruin for some, without attempting to help them.
"I do not pretend to set people right, but I do see that they are often wrong."
Incredibly enough, the above quite is not spoken by Fanny, but by another character who is shown to be quite flawed in manners and principles.  It is implied that demonstrating how to behave is sufficient, and therefore Fanny is awesome, but if her thoughts are wrong, how can that be?

In general, I had a tough time with the social commentary in this novel.  Most of the improprieties committed were baffling, and I often had to reread sections multiple times to find what it was that Fanny thought was so wrong in somebody's behavior.  And then there's the whole thing about the play.  Fanny's cousins and their friends decide to put on a play and Fanny is just mortified, even before they choose a play with a morally objectionable topic.  There's some fuss about how insulting it is to the master of the house, who is away on business and I just can't see why.  Is it because nobody's supposed to have fun while he's on a potentially dangerous voyage?  Or because acting is morally wrong and to do it in a pious household is even more wrong?  Or because the only proper way to be is sitting quietly and silently judging others?  I really don't understand the problem; if anybody could explain it to me, that would be really great.

The pacing of the novel was difficult too.  The beginning is really slow and spends a lot of time discussing very little (an insane amount of time is devoted to the play) and then, at the end, a whole lot is packed into a relatively short space.  It felt very unbalanced.

All in all, it was a rather boring and most irritating book.  I'd rather be friends with Fanny's rowdy and supposedly morally lacking cousins, because Fanny herself is just so unpleasant and at least they have fun.  The only character I really liked was Aunt Norris and only because she was so very hateful and obnoxious as to be absolutely hilarious in her ridiculous plans and justifications (though of course I would despise her in real life because she's just awful).  Oh, and apparently Mrs. Norris is named after her, which is appropriate.


For some crazy reason, I committed myself to a total of three Austen novels for the Classics Club, in the hopes of finally finishing the collected works I was given years ago.  I've heard Persuasion is really good, so I really hope that Mansfield Park is not totally indicative of what I have awaiting me.

5 comments:

  1. I've always thought Mansfield Park is Austen's weakest story, largely because it's protagonist is so difficult to even like, leave alone root for. It's a little disconcerting that Elizabeth Bennett and Fanny Price are creations of the same pen. Persuasion I liked very well so I think you're in for a treat. Have you read The Jane Austen Book Club? Maybe you could give it a try after you're done reading all of Austen's works.

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    1. I have not, but I shall add it to my Goodreads to-read shelf! Love recommendations, thanks!

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  2. I love this review. I haven't read the book yet, but with all the Austen reviews flying around from the 'Austen in August' event - this is the first I feel is more critical and not just gushy over Austen. I haven't made my mind up about her yet, but I appreciate your thoughts here! -Sarah

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    1. Aw, thanks! Especially when it comes to dead writers, I am not at all afraid to give my honest opinion, lol!

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  3. Interesting review, I've not read this Austen yet so I'm keen to see if I will disagree or agree with you! I did like Emma though, I know Emma herself is annoying but I found it kind of lovable.

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