Saturday, September 29, 2018

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

When the general disorder and upheaval from my big move (mostly) settled down, I found myself far behind my usual pace in reading. It's hard to snuggle into a cozy spot with a cup of coffee and a good book when everything is in confusion and your schedule is all out of order. With the end of the year approaching at an alarming pace, I decided to tackle the next book in my Back to the Classics Challenge this year, Jane Austen's Mansfield Park.

I've always had a tenuous relationship with the works of Jane Austen. I usually find myself bored while reading her novels, but generally warm up to them as they end, with the sweet romances of the main characters making up for the rambling, uneventful stretches of prose that came before them. In truth, I want to like Austen more than I do, and I keep trying her books hoping to see the appeal that other lovers of classic literature are able to find so easily. I came the closest to truly enjoying one of her novels with Pride and Prejudice, and I was hoping to continue the trend with Mansfield Park, a novel that many readers consider to be her most mature and complex work.

The plot of the novel follows Fanny Price, a young woman who is sent to live with a wealthy aunt and uncle as a small child. As Fanny grows up under her relations' care at Mansfield Park, she is made keenly aware of the difference between herself and her four cousins. Coming from a poor background, she is not worthy of the same privileges as everyone else around her, and while no one is cruel or abusive towards her, she is clearly regarded as being the "lesser" member of the household. She runs errands for her aunts, keeps her opinions to herself, and spends time in quiet pursuits like reading. As her personality is extremely shy and conservative, she doesn't much mind this isolation, and is grateful to her aunt and uncle for their continued hospitality. She bears her disappointments quietly and tries to be useful to those around her.

The one exception to state of casual disregard for Fanny is her cousin Edmund, who has always been kind to her. He is the most sensitive and thoughtful of all of her cousins, even as a young boy. He sees to her needs, spends hours in conversation with her, and helps to shape her mind over the years. By the time they are both young adults, Fanny is secretly deeply in love with him. Edmund, however, sees her as nothing more than a dear sister. Fanny firmly believes that she has no hopes of a romantic relationship with him, and never voices her feelings aloud, but she hangs on his every word and admires him deeply.

Her quiet life is changed, however, with the arrival of a Mr. and Miss Crawford, a wealthy brother and sister who move to the area to live with their relations. As the pair are the same general age as the young adults at Mansfield, they all become fast friends and frequently take walks, socialize, and dine together. Fanny, who is always at the periphery of these gatherings, soon observes that the influence of Mr. and Miss Crawford upon her family is anything but beneficial. Both seem to show a lack of appropriateness sometimes, with Miss Crawford, Mary, making questionable remarks and being altogether too forward, and Mr. Crawford, Henry, flirting shamelessly with her cousins Maria and Julia.

Being who she is, however, Fanny says nothing to anyone about her misgivings. Soon, she is devastated to see Edmund fall under Mary's spell entirely. He begins planning a marriage proposal to her and is frequently discussing his feelings about this with Fanny, which is very difficult for her to hear. Maria and Julia, both thoroughly in love with Henry by this time, begin to fall out with one another as they battle for the affections of this man, who does not appear to be seriously attached to either one of them. The situation spirals steadily downward, with hurt feelings and disappointments cropping up at every turn. Eventually, in a move as surprising to Fanny as it is distasteful, Henry turns his attentions on herself, and begins an aggressive romantic pursuit which throws all of her feelings into confusion and alienates her from her family. In typical Austen fashion, misunderstandings, heartfelt yearnings, and hurt feelings abound until a scandal brings about a turning point that sets the honorable characters on the right path again.

As in all Jane Austen novels, this one ends happily, with the poorly behaved characters punished and the well behaved ones rewarded. I experienced my usual highs and lows while reading. This novel is just over 400 pages and for 325 of them, I struggled. The pace was glacial, with most of the plot consisting of Fanny being disapproving or faintly embarrassed by things in turns. She was such a virtuous, introverted, and conservative character that is was hard to be engaged in her story. If she was wealthy enough to have a strand of pearls, she'd have been clutching them throughout most of the novel. That being said, she was the most like me, by far, of any Austen heroine I've read. I'm a bit upset that I couldn't bring myself to like her more. Perhaps I saw in her an intensification of all my lesser qualities. Like Fanny, I have a tendency to remain quiet, seek out solitude, and avoid being the center of attention. However, in her, these tendencies are carried to quite an extreme, making her rather boring and prudish to read about. It forces me to wonder, is that how the more outgoing people in the world see me? It's not a fun question to consider.

Fanny isn't the only character I struggled to enjoy. Edmund was also an issue. He was even more conservative and virtuous than Fanny, if that's even possible. He was, to put it mildly, not fun or alluring in the slightest. This made him Fanny's perfect match, but it didn't make him particularly endearing. I was also a little weirded out by the idea of Fanny being romantically interested in a man that she calls her brother. I know that cousin marriages were common in Austen's day, but these characters had been living together as brother and sister from the tender age of ten. It was a little bit off-putting to root for them as a couple.

Pacing issues and self reflection aside, other elements of the story haven't aged well, which impacted my enjoyment of the novel. Fanny is pushed and pulled through the plot, with everyone around her trying to manipulate her into making the choices they think are best for her. The most egregious example of this comes towards the end of the novel when Henry is trying to secure her hand in marriage. Fanny steadfastly refuses his suit, as she knows from his previous flirtations with her cousins that this man is incapable of remaining faithful to one woman. This is virtually the only time in the novel that she makes a decision for herself and sticks with it, in spite of what her family wants. Her family, especially her uncle, is baffled by her choice. They believe that this is the best offer she is likely to get by far, and they begin on a campaign to force her to change her mind. They subject her to constant prodding about the issue, with even her beloved Edmund taking a turn to tell her what's best for her. Her uncle goes so far as to excoriate her and call her ungrateful for refusing the match, which is incredibly painful to someone like Fanny, who lives to please her relatives, to hear. Eventually, the family decides to send her back to "visit" with her mother and father, who are poor and coarse individuals, to shock her into changing her mind. This time spent with her original family is devastating to Fanny's mental and physical health and is profoundly painful to her. She endures much suffering under this manipulation, and the plan very nearly works until Henry does something scandalous enough to remove himself from the picture. This kind of emotional abuse of women plays particularly poorly in today's more progressive atmosphere. While the time and place of the novel excuse these sorts of plot points, I still struggled to find enjoyment in a story that treats women so poorly.

The last 75 pages or so of the novel went much more quickly than the pages that proceeded it, with all of the interesting bits of the story happening in rapid succession. This seems to be a consistent tendency of Austen's. For me, most of her plots start out extremely slowly, then pick up at the end. The endings are almost enough to make up for the dreary beginnings in many cases. Mansfield Park, however, proved to be an exception to this trend. Rather than continue the narration of the story in the third person limited (mostly) style of the rest of the novel, Austen herself steps in for the final chapter and directly speaks to the reader, telling them everything that happens to the characters in the future. It felt awfully disappointing to be robbed of seeing the first tender words or romantic embraces that Fanny finally gets to enjoy after so much suffering and self-denial (even if they were with her cousin-brother). I wanted to be there when that turn happened, not hear about it afterwards. It was disappointment all around with this one.

As for the idea that Mansfield Park is the most mature and complex of Austen's novels, I have to admit that I didn't see it. Fanny is undoubtedly a very mature character, but she isn't a particularly complex or interesting one, and her conservative views on matters only function to delay her happiness in the story. In fact, she was very close to reversing her decision and accepting Henry's suit despite her high-minded refusals. Henry ended up ruining things for himself through his impulsive behavior. Fanny's virtue wasn't so much a triumph as a win-by-default situation. In fact, many characters in the novel end up blaming Fanny for Henry's behavior, claiming that he might not have made the choices he did if she had accepted him sooner. Even Austen herself directly states this point through her narration in the novel's final chapter. Whatever point Austen was going for was muddied by these assertions. Did Fanny's virtue serve to protect herself from a villain, or did it lead to the ruin of Henry? It's ultimately left unclear.

Ultimately, I found this novel to be a bit of a rambling mess (kind of like this review, at this point). I didn't completely dislike it, and by the end I was eager to figure out the fate of all the characters, but I can't say I enjoyed this reading experience. Fanny was too prim and proper for me to fully enjoy her, Edmund was a self-righteous bore, and the emotional manipulations of the supporting characters felt overly cruel. Everyone roots for a character that can't catch a break, and I did begin to root for Fanny by the end of the story, but it was too long a road to get there. At the novel's close, I still found myself struggling to understand the overall theme of the story.

One day I will give up on trying to enjoy Jane Austen, but I'm still determined to get a review up for all of her works on the blog (which will even entail some rereading of novels I tackled long ago). I suppose I'm a glutton for punishment in this regard. At least I can say that I finished a Back to the Classics category with this read, as well as a selection from my Classics Club list. I'm more than ready to move onto my next literary conquest now and leave my perpetual Jane Austen struggle behind for a little while.

Challenge Tally
Back to the Classics (a classic by a woman author): 8/12
Classics Club (#71 on my list): 31/100

Total Books Read in 2018: 33