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Mansfield Park and You: A Guide for the 21st-Century Girl

August 12, 2011

Quick meta-blog tidbit: posts are going to be a little sporadic for a while, as I’ve been having a hectic time of it for the past couple weeks.  The short version is that I got an internship in New York!  So I’m trying to sort out moving cross-country, finding a place to live, and store transferring at the olde coffee-shoppe place of part-time employment.

That’s part of why this blog post is a bit delayed.  The other part has to do with the subject matter, and how god-awfully long it took for me to finish my read-through of Mansfield Park.

I started the book way back in June, as my first novel-length reading expedition on my Kindle.  And although I’ve stopped along the way for dalliances with The Name of the Wind, Dances with Dragons, A Confederacy of Dunces, and other books, I only just finished this one–the only Jane Austen novel left for me to read–on Wednesday.

Here’s the thing.  I love Jane Austen.  I love her narrative voice, I love her characters, and I love her works’ pervasive tone of fond-but-scathing social satire.  Most of the time, I like taking an imaginative visit to the world of the gentry of early-19th-century England in her capable authorial hands–even though it’s a world in which women amount to little more than pianoforte-playing, silk-embroidering ornaments who scramble over marriageable men and start to qualify as hopeless spinsters once they approach the positively ancient age of 27.  I’m a quiet sort of feminist, but my views on the subject are deep and uncompromising, and in more recent works, such sexism gets on my nerves to say the very least.

It’s the world Austen had to work with, though, and I have fun poking fun at it along with her.  And usually, Austen’s books are home to characters, like Pride & Prejudice’s Elizabeth and the eponymous Emma of Emma, who alleviate some of my readerly frustration because they’re spirited, witty, clever, and far more in command of their own lives than one might expect in that society.  When I read Pride & Prejudice, for example, I feel like I’m standing with Elizabeth against all those sexist odds.

And yet reading Mansfield Park was like pulling teeth.  It’s not that Austen spares the inmates of Mansfield from her usual satirical commentary.  It’s not that the men of Mansfield are any more obnoxiously patriarchal than the ones from her other novels.

It’s that I can’t stand Fanny Price. 

This girl has zero self-esteem and zero agency.  Here’s a heroine who is “almost as fearful of notice and praise as other women [are] of neglect,” who “rated her own claims to comfort as low as even” her disagreeable and stingy aunt does.  She has one thing going for her: her moral judgment and unfailing sense of propriety (as dubious a virtue as that even is to a modern-day reader whose moral compass doesn’t point anywhere close to the 19th century’s north).  And yet even when asked for advice on that front–by the cousin she secretly pines after for the whole book–she says things like “Do not ask advice of me.  I am not competent.”

Right.  This is a gross oversimplification, but here’s what we learn from Fanny Price: shy away from attention, pine secretly after your cousin for years, say nothing even when he’s pursuing another woman whose character you’d disapprove of even if she weren’t your rival in love, and reject your only other suitor while inviting disapproval from your entire family because you don’t dare say your affections lie elsewhere–and eventually, through no doing of your own, and because his other love interest is knocked out of the ring by a family scandal, your cousin might realize he’s really in love with you!

All this might even be fine, were there a female character who inspired less teeth-gnashing anywhere to be found in the book.  A more positive spin on Fanny’s trajectory might read, “shy but virtuous girl wins her true love through constancy and true friendship when he really needs her.”  Not my favorite kind of heroine, but one I would be able to live with.

Except, here are our other female characters: Maria and Julia Bertram, Fanny’s cousins, spoiled to death and raised to be vain and self-important at the expense of their shy, unassuming younger house-guest; their mother, Lady Bertram, who spends most of her appearances in the novel half-asleep and incoherent; their aunt, Mrs. Norris, whose loudmouthed meddling and spendthrift ways do little to endear her to anyone; and Fanny’s mother, who when Fanny visits home is a source of not motherly love, but shame and embarrassment.

The most witty, clever, and likeable female character might otherwise be Mary Crawford–cousin Edmund’s other love interest.  But no.  She proves to be a selfish flirt who toys with Edmund but can’t abide by his choice of a career in the clergy, and who is characterized–through the filter of Fanny’s perception–as morally bankrupt.  And yet she isn’t even allowed to lose Edmund on her own merits, or lack thereof.  Rather, it’s Mary’s brother–who runs off with Fanny’s newly-married cousin (gasp!)–who seals the deal, ruining his sister’s prospects of marriage quite possibly forever by his scandalous behavior.  (Granted, Edmund’s objection is mostly to Mary’s lack of principle in her objection to her brother’s actions: she scorns him for getting caught, not for doing the deed itself, and he’s horrified.  And yet he was able to ignore all her other moral shortcomings before.)

All this means my 21st-century readerly self has no characters to willingly identify with.  Fanny, our heroine, is too spineless and limp to be likeable; Mary Crawford is selfish and immature; and their male counterparts are by turns silly playboys or thick-headed young men like Edmund who take the women in their lives for granted and can’t see what’s right in front of them–because said gem won’t speak for herself.

Some of this is Austen’s point, I know, I know.  Now if only it were less annoying to read, we’d be in business.

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