This review contains some spoilers.
About a year ago I started a Jane Austen project, which has involved listening to the six major novels on audiobook, most of them narrated by Juliet Stevenson, who is simply wonderful at bringing Austen’s characters to life. It says something about me that in this period I have listened to Persuasion twice. It says something else about me that I left this book until last. That I did so won't come as a big surprise to admirers of Jane Austen's novels. This is the novel which is most likely to be disliked, even by readers who would otherwise call themselves fans of the author. That includes me. I have read Jane Austen’s other novels innumerable times, but this one only twice before: once at school and once at university. Until this week it was not a novel that I would have described in positive terms.
One of the main reasons for the unpopularity of Mansfield Park is the heroine, Fanny Price. A lot of what is perceived to be wrong with Fanny comes from the fact she is so unlike other Austen heroines. She lacks the wit and liveliness of Elizabeth Bennett, the warmth of Anne Elliot, the energy of Elinor Dashwood, the passion of Marianne Dashwood, the self-confidence of Emma Woodhouse, the youthful high spirits of Catherine Morland. Fanny is shy, quiet, nervous, physically weak and very serious. She has a strong sense of right and wrong. She lacks a sense of humour and many would describe her as unbearably self-righteous and a prig.
Fanny’s character has always divided opinion. According to Austen’s biographer Claire Tomalin, Austen’s mother thought that Fanny was insipid. Austen’s niece and one of her nephews couldn’t bear her. Her sister Cassandra was fond of Fanny but wanted her to marry Henry Crawford. So, the problems with Fanny as a character are not merely a result of her moral principles being at odds with a modern sensibility. Fanny is just not a good fit with the Austen heroines readers know and love.
However, even though Fanny has some unattractive personality traits, she is still a very interesting character. It’s not hard to see the scared, lonely and frightened little girl in the reserved young woman she becomes. In addition, it’s clear that Fanny’s dislike of Henry and Mary Crawford is not just because of her good principles. It’s also because she is in love with Edmund (and therefore can’t love Henry) and Edmund loves Mary (so Fanny is jealous of her). So while Fanny proves to be a good judge of character, she also has her very human flaws.
My own response to Fanny shifted back and forward during the novel. I felt for the unloved child, but I wanted to shake the passive young woman. I understood her love for Edmund and I wished she liked Henry. She would annoy me and then say something profound. My reaction to the other characters was also complex. I loved Edmund’s care and compassion for the young Fanny, but found his self-righteousness annoying. I was charmed by the Crawfords, but deeply aware of their very considerable flaws. There was nothing complex about my response to Mrs Norris and Lady Bertram, though. Mrs Norris’ malevolence and Lady Bertram’s stupidity are worth the purchase price of the book.
There’s so much more to say about Mansfield Park than I have written in this review. Maybe the best thing I can say is this: it is a novel which has made me think a lot, both as I was listening to it and since. That’s not my usual reaction to Austen. Normally, I read Austen and simply enjoy the writing, the characters and the wit. This time was different. I found Mansfield Park interesting, engaging, frustrating and puzzling. It’s gone up to a four star read and I won’t be waiting another thirty years before I read it again.