Jane Austen was wrong. In “Mansfield Park” she wrote that “nobody minds having what is too good for them,” but the book’s poor reception proves otherwise. It is the least popular of her literary offspring — not because of its vices, but because of its virtues.
Written after “Pride and Prejudice,” “Mansfield Park” presents a very different sort of heroine. Many readers find the timid Fanny Price difficult to relate to. Her secluded life as the poor cousin living with her wealthy relatives also gives her less scope to develop and shine than the lively and charming Elizabeth Bennet of “Pride and Prejudice” (men want her, women want to be her).
Despite this, Fanny has some attractions and virtues. She is intelligent, kind, principled, and grows up to be a very pretty young woman. But her intellect is hidden by her shyness, her kindness is taken for granted, her principles are misunderstood, and her beauty is often overshadowed by others’.
Fanny Price Isn’t Showy or Glamorous
Instead of being the center of attention like the witty Elizabeth Bennet, Fanny spends the first portion the novel in the background, observing as others drive the action. The other characters move around her stillness.
Although this precludes a quick unfolding of her character, it does allow Austen to develop some of her most vivid secondary characters, from the dim-witted Mr. Rushworth to the officious Mrs. Norris. The character sketch of the latter might be the most devastating that Austen ever composed, as good as, or even better, than anything Charles Dickens or Anthony Trollope created.
Because of this slow development, the heroine’s character arc is more subtle than many of Austen’s other creations. Miss Price is good, but not glamorous. Her struggle is to retain her goodness and principles while moving from the background to the foreground.
Thus, even when she begins to come into her own, her story is dominated by a refusal. Doubting his character and constancy, she will not consent to marry Henry Crawford, the rakish, eligible man whose heart she had inadvertently captured. Standing one’s ground is an action, but it is harder to dramatize than the alternatives.
‘Mansfield Park’ Isn’t a Typical Romance Novel
It is also less alluring to most readers than a straightforward love story. But, contrary to popular opinion, Austen’s works are not romance novels in the common sense of the term–they are comedies of manners. “Mansfield Park” is almost an anti-romance novel, as it is full of couples who should not be wooing, let alone marrying, each other.
By the end of the story, these ill-advised romances have ended in disaster, and Fanny’s judgment and character are vindicated. Austen, in her most judgmental book, pronounces a happy ending for her virtuous characters, and suitable chastisement for the rest. The ending feels rushed, but there was not much left for Austen to do after rewarding the righteous, rehabilitating the middling, and punishing the villains and fools.
Of course, Austen’s moralizing is not to current cultural tastes. For instance, we might censure a woman who marries a dullard for his money and status. We might even excuse, rather than damn, her for later abandoning her first husband for another man. What we see as correcting a mistake, Austen saw as compounding it.
Thus, the neglect of “Mansfield Park” is due in part to our provincialism. For all the talk of multiculturalism, Americans are not multicultural. We do not understand other cultures. We barely understand our own, and certainly do not apprehend its past. So because “Mansfield Park” is dependent upon the particularities of English society in the early 19th century, appreciating it necessitates understanding a culture other than our own. No wonder Hollywood has yet to make a good adaptation of the book.
Readers Struggle to Understand the Cultural Context
Popular period pieces and costume dramas tend to consist of a historical veneer over modern characters and cultural concerns. “Mansfield Park” does not readily succumb to such treatment. For example, I doubt that many professed Austen fans could explain why private theatricals were such a moral sticking point for the heroine, and the book has many other culturally alien points that do not readily cater to modern sensibilities.
Unfortunately, it is not only casual readers who struggle to appreciate “Mansfield Park.” Critics may help explain the cultural peculiarities of its setting, but many of them are uninterested in the novel itself. Good criticisms explain and illuminate; bad criticisms obscure and ignore.
For the latter sort, Austen’s stories are just a way to get to what they really want to write about: class and privilege and sex and all the rest. Austen touched on these topics, but as a novelist and a Christian she saw them as background for writing about people–not in terms of group identity, but as individuals. She was more concerned with character, and characters themselves, than with class and social systems. The latter had a place in her writing, but as “Mansfield Park” in particular shows, Austen not only valued virtue above rank, and character over charm, but gave them the first place in her writing.
Unfortunately, whether from critics looking to ride their hobbyhorses or readers looking for a typical romance, “Mansfield Park” has not received its due. It would not be fair to inquire into an author’s exact estimate of her own books’ perfections, but, at a minimum, “Mansfield Park” is better than “Northanger Abbey” and “Sense and Sensibility.”
Its relative unpopularity is probably due less to its artistic shortcomings than to it being the Austen novel that caters the least to modern sensibilities. For those willing to engage with cultural differences, and to take the time to understand it, “Mansfield Park,” like its heroine, has much to offer.