Mansfield Park is the third Austen novel I’ve come to read. I didn’t expect to read it so soon, honestly, but there was a book group online who read it in March and I decided it was time for another classic and jumped right in.
Mansfield Park is not one of Austen’s novels beloved by the masses. The heroine, Fanny, contrasts so much against some of Austen’s other leading ladies’ I don’t think people are quite prepared for the gap in character. Personally, I don’t think it’s fair to use a comparison to Austen’s (or anyone’s) other novels as the main critique, although I’m guilty of the same in certain instances. But that’s not why I didn’t love this novel.
First a brief setting: The novel begins with three sisters: One married very well, one modestly, and one for love (decidedly a lower marriage than she could have accomplished). The well married woman had four children, two boys and two girls, the modestly married one had no children, but lived in the same community with the well married sister and helped her raise her children, and the one who married for love was continually pregnant and was too poor to offer any of them good prospects. The two sisters had been excommunicated to the lower married sister for eleven years (beginning when she ran away to marry her love), but when her oldest children were getting older, she decided to apply to her well married sister for any help she can give. The well married sister’s husband gets her oldest son a position in the Navy, and after the persuasion of the modestly married sister, they decide to invite the oldest daughter, Fanny, to live with them and come up with more opportunities than she would have with her own family. Confused? Yeah, it’s a tangled web of relationships as in all Austen novels (that I’ve read so far). And that’s all in the first few pages. The novel follows Fanny through her adolescence growing up at Mansfield Park with her two aunts, uncle, and four cousins.
The problems I had with the novel were not due entirely to the nature of the characters, but with the writing itself. To me, it seemed as if Fanny was a regurgitation of Edmund, her closest cousin. Everything he said aloud, she claimed to have seconded, mentally. Either she was in punch drunk love with the boy and wanted to be exactly like him (not unlikely, given her age), or she was just no fun and had little to no actual personality or backbone. She wasn’t believable. That is the problem I have with a few of the characters – they were developed, but the way they were made to act in the novel seemed unnatural to me. I won’t get into the details because I don’t want to ruin the plot for anyone, but it seemed very flawed, which I realize is a huge risk to say about a classic novel.
Parts of the story were so populous with characters who were all called Miss […whatever their last name is], while sisters were present, that it was very confusing to actually sort through what was happening and who was actually doing what. That was hard for me.
All and all, a reread might sway my opinion of this novel. It’s possible that one factor of the story irked me and then my outlook of the whole thing was skewed from then on (does that happen to anyone else?). For now, the rating I gave it on goodreads is 3 stars, because although I had issues with it, it was readable, it was interesting, and it was engaging. I knocked off two stars because it just seemed to me that the author struggled to make the characters do what she wanted when the characters really didn’t want to do them. Perhaps it was because we’re made to be sympathetic to Fanny (which I wasn’t, really). Eh, okay, I’m finished.
I find myself confused by Austen, actually. I loved Pride & Prejudice (like, it’s a nearly perfect novel – it’s in my top ten of all time, easily), but I’ve not liked either Sense & Sensibility or Mansfield Park. Then again, P&P is the only plot I was familiar with before reading the novel, so perhaps that played a part, but I was able to follow the story lines in each quite easily, so I’m not convinced that’s the reason. I suppose only more experience will tell the true tale. Persuasion or Emma will be next.