Give a girl an education

Mansfield Park
by Jane Austen

So I’m still not sold on Jane Austen, having read four of her seven novels. I don’t think I will ever be a big fan, but I do increasingly appreciate her smart wit, her irony and sarcasm.

Fanny Price, however, is my least favourite Austen heroine so far. Her fate is predictable, telegraphed from the first few pages, but that’s not so bad if the journey is still enjoyable. However, Fanny is no fun at all. She’s delicate of health, oversensitive, prim, determined to believe that people can’t change, surprisingly impractical and generally a right goody-two-shoes.

Fanny is the oldest girl in a very large, not very well off family. When she is 10 she is adopted by her aunt Maria, who is married to the wealthy Sir Thomas Bertram, so Fanny moves from her chaotic but happy home in Southampton to the grandeur of Mansfield Park in Northamptonshire. She is shy, scared of her uncle and badly misses her home and family.

“Give a girl an education, and introduce her properly into the world, and ten to one but she has the means of settling well, without further expense to anybody.”

To make matters worse, although her Aunt and Uncle Bertram educate her alongside their own children and give her everything she needs, her other aunt, Mrs Norris, never lets an opportunity pass for reminding Fanny that she is separate, different, less than – and she is not kind about it.

The story really gets under way six years later when Sir Thomas goes to his plantation in Antigua and during the years of his absence, a new family befriends the Bertrams. Siblings Henry and Mary Crawford are close in age to the Bertram siblings (Tom, the eldest, a bit of a tearaway and a gambler; Edmund, the serious, austere, proper one; Maria and Julia, who are largely interchangeable personality-wise). Maria is engaged to the rich but dull Mr Rushworth and is just waiting for her father’s return to get married. This doesn’t prevent Henry Crawford from making overtures to her as much as her sister Julia. The only person who seems to notice this and disapprove of it is Fanny.

Meanwhile, Mary Crawford and Edmund are falling in love, but he is destined for the clergy and Mary cannot entertain the idea of being married to a priest, or indeed the rather small income this would mean they had to live on. Fanny is convinced that this reveals Mary to be an unpleasant gold-digger, but she might be blinkered by the fact that she’s in love with Edmund herself.

Initially I admit I got confused by all the names, particularly with the 19th century trend of calling the eldest child Miss or Mr X and the rest by their first names – until the eldest gets married. Perhaps it was also the slow-moving story and the stilted tone giving me trouble. As is usual for Austen, there is very little description but what there is, is ironic and archly funny. I did genuinely laugh at times.

“ ‘With all due respect to such of the present company as chance to be married, my dear Mrs Grant, there is not one in a hundred of either sex who is not taken in when they marry. Look where I will, I see that it is so; and I feel that it must be so, when I consider that it is, of all transactions, the one in which people expect most from others, and are least honest themselves.’ ”

I appreciate that there were some unpredictable turns to the story before it reaches its inevitable conclusion. I appreciated both Edmund and Fanny having passionate simmerings under their oh-so-moderate exteriors. I didn’t appreciate the way it took far too long to reach its point and then rushed the ending. (In common with other Austen novels, the story is wrapped up in an epilogue, so there is no satisfying declaration of love scene, only a brief sketch of the next few years.)

Apparently, some critics argue that Fanny Price is a parody of the romantic heroine, taking her fragility and morality to an almost absurd degree. I like the idea that Austen knew her heroine was super irritating, but I’m not convinced. And Edmund is exactly the typical Austen hero: humourless, proper, paternal. Or, in other words, dull. It’s perhaps also of note that this is the one Austen novel that mentions plantations and slavery, but the issues are not in any way debated, they are merely brief facts demonstrating the wealth of Sir Thomas.

After I read this book I re-watched the BBC Pride and Prejudice starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle and was reminded just how much more fun Lizzy Bennet is. But maybe that’s Andrew Davies’ script more than Austen’s original, remembering how unimpressed I was by the book.

First published 1814.

Source: Project Gutenberg.