“Life seems but a quick succession of busy nothings.”
So it is indeed! Especially when reading Jane Austen. This year, I have had the immense pleasure of taking a senior English class revolving around the famous authoress and all her musings about ‘busy-nothings’ of English society. Mansfield Park is infamously the least favourite text of Austen, and timid, little Fanny the least favourite heroine, especially when compared with bewitching Elizabeth Bennet and vivacious Emma Woodhouse, but at the same time it has a lot to offer, a story I refuse to be labeled as less important than all Austen’s others.
As already mentioned, Mansfield Park is centred around Fanny Price, the poor, diffident cousin of the much wealthier Bertram family situated at the Mansfield Park estate. As the product of an poor love-match marriage, Fanny has been the ward of the Bertram’s since childhood, growing up with the two daughters and two sons; not-so-secretly, Fanny is besotted with her cousin Edmund as the two bond over their judgmental critiques of other characters. Life at Mansfield Park is interrupted most grievously for poor Fanny upon the arrival of the Crawfords, brother and sister from Town, Henry and Mary, a much more worldly duo who aim to shake things up a bit at Mansfield Park. Like all young people with their raging hormones, the Bertram siblings are tempted to debauchery (save for eldest Tom, who has already crossed over) through play-acting and stolen glances in dances. Fanny is tested most utterly as Edmund falls for the cunning Mary Crawford, and Fanny finds herself pursued by the libertine Henry. Oh my!
Although still not my favourite of Austen’s novels, Mansfield Park was a compelling enough read, but I fear in only ways opposing Austen’s intentions. The most interesting aspect of this novel was embodied in Mary Crawford; I simply adore her. I know I am not supposed to, but I do. She’s dark, she’s disappointed, she’s deviant, and I can’t help but to admire her drive to disrupt life for Bertrams. Her brother may be a cut-from-the-same-cloth Wickham-type cad that Austen uses in nearly all her novels, but Mary finally presents a more intentionally wicked angle from the oh-so “fairer” sex.
I think most readers are absolutely bored stiff until Mary comes on the scene. When she isn’t physically starting drama, she plays with Edmund and Fanny’s minds with her remarkably cynical quips about society, delectably wonderful one-liners like: “selfishness must always be forgiven you know, for there’s no hope for a cure.”
I do not believe Austen intended this, but for the 21st century female reader, Mary really helps draw perspective on the issues that Austen barely seemed to question at all. Austen’s novels like Mansfield Park are chock-a-block of guidelines for female etiquette and feelings; they are didactic texts for those weak-kneed, persuadable types who might find themselves involved in a lurid affair or elopement. I struggle whether to see Austen as reaffirming the status-quo for the sake of propriety or rather maybe she realized that the world would always belong to men, and hoped her novels could at least avoid some disasters by presenting proper possibilities of marital bliss. Either way, a character like Mary Crawford finally is the first to point out the serious societal flaws and deal with them in the most realistic, albeit emotionally-shut-down way possible.
I don’t mean to entirely trample upon poor Fanny Price (God knows she’s had enough of that already), and I do admit that she too adds a different perspective to Austen’s remarkable line-up of protagonists. Fanny represents the type of woman who absolutely must be spoken for most of all. As “her own thoughts and reflections were habitually her best companions,” we see in Fanny as the lonely girl on the playground, the girl hiding from any sort of attention, feeling diffident of deserving a happily-ever-after. Even though I do find her remarkably judgmental (but Emma is too, and I adore Emma), Fanny is a character who I am really honestly happy for, and I wish her all the best in her completely boring, most likely sex-less life with Edmund Bertram.
Books Read: 3