Saturday, January 19, 2008

Mansfield Park

Jane Austen (1775-1817)

When I think about the wonderful prose and beautiful story of Mansfield Park one thing comes to mind; cousins getting it on. That's basically what this Jane Austen novel comes down to. It's a Jane Austen work so we can assume a couple things. First, there are some rich aristocrats hanging out at a really nice estate. Second, there's some love shenanigans. Third, there's some legitimately funny writing.
Mansfield Park focuses on the story of Fannie Price, a girl who has moved from her poor family in Portsmouth to her rich aunt and uncle's estate. Although she is loved there, she is clearly seen as inferior to her cousins, Maria, Tom, Edmund and Julia. These Bertrums are also accompanied by Lady Bertram, who seems to be on perkoset most of the time, Sir Thomas, a stern man who evolves, and another aunt, Mrs. Norris who is pretty much the same person as Aunt Livinia from Washington Square. Cranky, self-important aunts seem all the rage in the 1800s.
Fannie comes to find her place at Mansfield, helping out and hovering in the background. The only person who shows her genuine kindness is Edmund, the younger son destined for the clergy. As soon as the hormones start rolling in the kids they are making matches. Maria hooks up with the blowhard but rich Mr. Rushworth. Two new characters are introduced, Henry Crawford and his sister Mary. Mary sets her sights on Edmund and Henry goes after everyone. Crawford's untoward advances to Maria, who's engaged and Julia irk Fannie. Mary is a seductress who seems like she's after some cash. The real action starts in the latter half of the book when Don Juan Crawford decides he's in love with Fannie. It started as a teen movie kind of joke, "I'll make her fall in love with me for fun," but then he actually starts to love her. Fannie is horrified. Although he is a gentleman, Crawford is abhorrent to her. Despite Crawford's very determined efforts and Mary's friendly urgings, Fannie holds out. No one can understand why she'd turn down such a upward move in status. In the meantime Edmund is in love with Mary Crawford. They have a difference of priorities when it comes to money. Edmund is about living humbly (even though he lives at an estate with a boatload of servants) while Mary is all about the glamorous life. This rift turns into an unconquerable obstacle when the unthinkable happens. Despite his protestations of love for Fannie, Henry Crawford runs away with the married Mrs. Maria Rushworth. This scandal is taken relatively lightly by Mary, who urges Edmund to make the best of the situation without criticizing the absconding duo. This enrages and saddens Edmund and he ditches her.
Fannie is vindicated by Crawford's faithlessness but the mood at Mansfield is dour. She comforts Edmund and eventually he starts to see her as she has always seen him, as a potential mate. This cheers everyone up and they live happily ever after.
Money and class are central to this novel. Fannie comes from a poor family and moves to Mansfield. The manners and decorum of the place, the respect for each other that is present at the estate is not at her Portsmouth home. When she returns home after years away she can't bear the din and racket of the city house. Money is also a key to the relationships in the book.

Rating 9/10: A wonderful story and fun read. Austen is outstanding.

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