Mansfield Park

Mansfield Park - Jane Austen

As a heads up, although I do intend to keep this free of spoilers that are not tagged, this is a re-read (for possibly the third time), so if you want to remain completely and totally even hint-free on what happens in this book (though, given this is Austen, there are a few things you can probably guess just from the existence of popular culture...), read at your own risk.


This is my least favorite Austen novel.


That's not an uncommon statement, it seems, especially given what it is up against, and I do like the book, but I can never, despite reading (and this time listening!) to it several times, do much more than "like" it.


Here's where I differ from the more common opinion: it's not Fanny's fault.


I don't dislike Fanny. I even feel sorry for her, and I don't think that she is as weak a character as many people seem to paint her. She has strength of convictions, even when those convictions are no longer the mode, and she holds to them despite the ramifications forced upon her by her friends and family. What is that if not strength? She is quiet and meek, certainly, but it is the kind of quiet and meek that hides an inner core that is rather shocking.


My problem with the book actually is due to the hero and the entirety of the romance.


Fanny is clearly in love throughout, and, like most Austen heroines, she suffers for this love to some extent, often from social embarrassment and awkwardness, and occasionally because the one she loves appears to have eyes for another. All of this is de rigeur for an Austen novel, and not something I complain about. The problem is that I don't think she settles on someone actually worthy of her.


Complaints can be made about a few of Austen's heroes, probably, but I've never felt that the romance was unsatisfying. The problem is that the hero spends pretty much the whole book in love with someone else.


By the "pretty much the entire book", I actually kind of mean "the entire book". Fanny ends up an endnote. It almost feels like she is rewarded for her good behavior throughout by getting the man she wants in the end, despite a complete lack of build-up towards that except her obvious affection for him. There is no chemistry, no banter, nothing charming about Edmund. He is not morally challenged and there's no reason for him to be boring, and yet his obsession with Mary makes him so and tinges the whole of his "relationship" with Fanny with a level of falsity that leaves me with a bad taste in his mouth. He is a good cousin, but a bad romantic partner, because all I can ever feel (and all I can imagine poor, sensitive Fanny feeling) is that she was his consolation prize for not being able to marry Mary.

(show spoiler)



All of this is extremely frustrating for someone who wants an ending that doesn't feel tacked on, and I hate even thinking that, let alone saying it, but that is what it feels like. That sours the whole book for me, on some level: I don't feel like Fanny got her just desserts for everything that happened to her, and I just don't associate Austen (or any kind of regency romance, really) with that feeling, especially when I get the odd feeling that it wasn't really intended. This isn't supposed to be a bittersweet ending, it is supposed to be lovely and happy.


That is more than enough whining for a book that I did enjoy, even on a third reading, and that has a lot to recommend it. The side characters, as in all Austen novels, are charming (or not, as the case may be) almost-but-not-quite caricatures of people most of us probably know, even today. They come alive on the page, and have the ability to cause you to hold your breath when they are up to something they shouldn't be, gasp when things are discovered, be ashamed for them when they ought to be but aren't, and be angry when they are cruel. Or I'm crazy empathetic and get way too attached to characters--it's probably a coin toss on that front.


The Crawfords are very vivid and interesting, and I was significantly more impressed with the Bertrams this time around than previously. The first time I read the book, Fanny's uncle read to me the way he read to her--as a moderately terrifying figure of authority. This time around I had the space to appreciate his character quite a bit better.


The audio was quite well-read, as well--Juliet Stevenson is definitely my favorite narrator of Austen's works, and she absolutely did not disappoint here.