The Trouble with Mansfield Park

Mansfield Park is probably the most neglected Austen novel. It is certainly the title with the poorest film / TV adaptations.

I really tried to love this one better on my recent Austen re-read marathon. And I did find myself appreciating it more than my last re-read.

But it’s by no means straightforward and this time, I think I might be able to explain why it’s not one of my favorites.

No one seems to know what to do with our heroine, Fanny Price.

Fanny is highly moral, slightly sickly, and usually quiet. She deeply loves her brother William and her cousin Edmund. She fears almost everyone else.

Despite the less than sparkling heroine, Austen writes a layered and intriguing story. She dances on the edge of some truly Brontë-an conflict.

the trouble with mansfield park

The Trouble with Henry Crawford

I’ve seen some apologetics for Henry Crawford and some readers wish that Fanny would have accepted him. I see why Austen did not write the story that way. Fanny doesn’t believe that she can “make him a better person.” (To use a modern construction.)

But while Fanny (and perhaps Austen) doesn’t believe it in this particular novel, you have to contrast Emma. Emma is the next published work by Austen and the last published in her (tragically short) lifetime.

Contrast MP’s Henry Crawford (not redeemable, it seems) with Emma’s Frank Churchill (redeemed by Jane Fairfax).

So, which is it? What did Austen believe? Can a good woman make a not good man better than he is?

Austen doesn’t seem to know herself. Conjecture on my part: yes, she thought it could happen.

But she didn’t want it to happen in Mansfield Park.

Which is the real weakness, I think.

The Problem of Momentum

Mansfield Park as a novel rolls downhill like a steam train:

1. The Bertram daughters behave foolishly and immorally (at least in Maria’s case).

2. Tom (who comes and goes as Austen wishes in the plot and only exists because she doesn’t want Edmund to be the eldest) is weak, but possibly improved thanks to his family.

3. Edmund is ready to marry Mary Crawford despite her deficiencies.

Until the very end.

Fanny rejects Henry Crawford because she must, for Austen’s sake.

Edmund “begins to love Fanny”, because that is what Austen wants to happen.

The entire last chapter is wish fulfillment on Austen’s part. It is less worthy of the book as a whole.

I can forgive Austen for not wanting to descend into Brontë sister level tragedy. Our beloved Jane said herself in the last chapter of Mansfield Park:

“Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can, impatient to restore everybody not greatly in fault themselves to tolerable comfort, and to have done with all the rest.”

But it’s fun to think about what could have happened in the story if Austen had gotten out of the way of her characters.


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Comments

  1. Yeah, MP has a lot of problems. My daughter says that the trouble with Fanny Price is that she doesn’t change and grow enough. She’s always good and she’s always right, which makes her point of view kind of dull. Edmund’s story would have been a lot more interesting.

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