Jane Austen #3: Mansfield Park

February 12, 2009

Mansfield Park is published in July 1814, is controversial and is considered the least popular of Jane Austen’s novels.

mansfield-park

The book tells us about Fanny Price, a young girl from a poor family, who is brought to live with her uncle and aunt, the rich Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram of Mansfield Park. Fanny’s mother, Lady Bertram, and a widowed Mrs. Norris who lives near Mansfield Park (the late Mr. Norris was the parson of Mansfield Park), are sisters, and while Lady Bertram made a succesful marriage (by succesful, I mean she married a rich man), Mrs. Norris an honourable marriage with a clergyman, their sister, Fanny Price née Ward (Fanny Price’s mother), married a lowly Marine officer and subsequently her sisters shut her out.

Fanny Price then grows up in Mansfield Park with her four cousins, Tom, Edmund, Maria and Julia, but is always treated as inferior to them (especially by their aunt Norris); only Edmund Bertram shows her real kindness. He is also the most virtuous of the siblings: Maria and Julia are vain and spoiled, while Tom is an irresponsible gambler. Over time, Fanny’s gratitude for Edmund’s kindness secretly grows into love.

When the children have grown up, the stern patriarch Sir Thomas leaves for two years so he can deal with problems on his plantation in Antigua. Henry Crawford and his sister Mary arrive in the village, which begins a series of romantic entanglements. Mary and Edmund begin to form an attachment, though Edmund often worries that, although her manners are fashionable, they hide a lack of firm principle. However, she is engaging and charming, and goes out of her way to befriend Fanny. Fanny fears that Mary has enchanted Edmund, and love has blinded him to her flaws. Henry plays with the affections of Maria and Julia, despite Maria being already engaged to the dull, but very rich, Mr. Rushworth. Because Fanny is so little observed in the family circle, her presence is often overlooked and Fanny sees Maria and Henry in compromising situations several times.

Encouraged by Tom and his friend Mr. Yates, the young people decide to put on Elizabeth Inchbald’s play Lovers’ Vows; Edmund and Fanny oppose the plan, believing Sir Thomas will disapprove, but Edmund is eventually drawn into it, offering to play the part of Anhalt, who is the lover of the character played by Mary Crawford. In particular, the play provides a pretext for Henry and Maria to flirt in public. Sir Thomas arrives unexpectedly in the middle of a rehearsal, which ends the plan. Henry leaves, and Maria is crushed; she marries Mr. Rushworth and they leave for their honeymoon, taking Julia with them. Fanny’s improved looks and pleasant temper endear her to Sir Thomas, who pays more attention to her care.

Henry returns to Mansfield Park and decides to amuse himself by making Fanny fall in love with him. However, her genuine gentleness and kindness cause him to fall in love with her instead. When he proposes marriage, Fanny’s knowledge of his improper flirtations with her cousins, as well as her love for Edmund, cause her to reject him. The Bertrams are dismayed, since it is an extremely advantageous match for a poor girl like Fanny. Sir Thomas rebukes her for ingratitude. Thereafter she soon returns to her impoverished family where she wishes to return to Mansfield Park. Sir Thomas is hopeful that she will realize the usefulness of a rich husband. Henry goes to visit her there, to demonstrate that he has changed and is worthy of her affection. Fanny’s attitude begins to soften but still maintains that she will not marry him.

Shortly after Henry leaves, Fanny learns of a scandal involving Henry and Maria. The two met again in London and began an affair that, when discovered, ends in scandalous elopement and divorce. To make matters worse, the dissolute Tom has taken ill, and Julia has eloped with Mr. Yates. Fanny returns to Mansfield Park to comfort her aunt and uncle and to help take care of Tom. Although Edmund knows that marriage to Mary is now impossible because of the scandal between their relations, he goes to see her one last time. During the interview, it becomes clear that Mary doesn’t condemn Henry and Maria’s bad behaviour, only that they got caught. Her main concern is covering it up and she angrily implies that if Fanny had accepted Henry, he would have been too busy and happy to flirt with other women. This reveals Mary Crawford’s true nature to Edmund, who realises he had idealised her in to something she is not. He tells her so and returns to Mansfield and his living at Thornton Lacey. “At exactly the time it should be so, and not a week sooner” Edmund realises how important Fanny is to him, declares his love for her and they are married. Tom recovers from his illness, a steadier and better man for it, and Julia’s elopement turns out to be not such a desperate business after all.

Austen points out that if only Crawford had persisted in being steadfast to Fanny, and not succumbed to the affair with Maria, Fanny eventually would have accepted his marriage proposal – especially after Edmund had married Mary.

***

My favorite adaptation of Mansfield Park:
The 1999 movie starring Frances O’Connor as Fanny Price, Jonny Lee Miller as Edmund BertramHarold Pinter as Sir Thomas Bertram, Lindsay Duncan as Lady Bertram, Sheila Gish as Mrs. Norris, James Purefoy as Tom Bertram, Victoria Hamilton as Maria Bertram, Justine Waddell as Julia Bertram, Alessandro Nivola as Henry Crawford, Embeth Davitz as the bewitching Mary Crawford,  Hugh Bonneville as Mr. Rushworth, Charles Edwards as Yates, and Sophia Myles as Susan Price, Fanny’s younger sister.

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