Mansfield Park: the luxury of silence
Mansfield Park is Deceptively Deep
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First of all, before we start any critiques of the book we need to start out by saying that there are a lot of controversies surrounding the novel that are not always addressed. My husband and I watched part of the 1983 miniseries and it did not give as much depth to a really serious part of the book and one that is extremely controversial then and now. The owners of Mansfield Park were slave owners. No one knows exactly when the book was written so there are a lot of hidden meanings in the book if it was and what the setting was. Austen wrote a lot of books that were published later. In fact, a lot of her books were believed to have been set in the 1790s. Remember how I said you can’t tell that the books mentioned Napoleon and the French Revolution? This one alludes to some really important things that happened during her lifetime. Namely, England formally abolishing slavery. Sidebar- if you want to read a book that is excellent and puts these ideas into perspective please read The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation. I haven’t read the predecessor to the book The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution which takes place during Austen’s lifetime. I can say the Emancipation book really opened my eyes to a lot of things. In Emma, Mrs. Elton is considered really gauche and the slave trade is alluded to as the cause of her fortune. Mrs. Elton looks awful when she defends it. I’ve heard abolitionists were some of Austen’s favorite writers but what did she really mean? One would assume that she was so ahead of her time she was trying to make a point about slavery but what do we know? What people remark on is that Fanny Price asks her uncle how he felt about slavery and he answers with “dead silence.” Again, if you believe the setting of the book is 1808...this is a completely loaded question and there are things in the plot that are alluded to but not explicit. So what does it mean? It’s worth looking into.
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Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. Jane Austen
So now that we’ve addressed the dark part of the book, let’s talk about the book and its plot. The plot is there are three sisters and one marries incredibly rich, one marries a pastor and lives off the rich sister, and one marries a naval man and proceeds to have 8 kids and can’t afford them. The two older sisters take in one of the girls, Fanny Price, and raise her in luxury in Mansfield Park with the Bertram family. Fanny communicates with her brother William who is on a ship at age 12. The book has a lot of shout outs to Jane Austen’s brothers who were naval officers. Austen mentions the ships they were on and some of the gifts William gives Fanny were actually given to Austen by her brothers. Anyway, the two rich aunts are horrible to Fanny and treat her like a servant. Three of her four cousins are self-centered and treat her like she is nothing. Fanny is very close to her cousin Edmund who introduces her to poetry and romantic literature.
The oldest Bertram loses all his money gambling and the plantation that the Bertram family has in Antigua starts taking financial loss after financial loss. So Sir Thomas and his oldest son go to the islands. While they are away, the oldest Bertram girl gets engaged to a really boring but really rich man. Another family of young people comes in from London (the Crawfords) and all kinds of desires come to the surface. There is a beautiful woman who is sassy and fashionable named Mary Crawford. Her brother is a rake who seduces women and leaves them. He goes about seducing the engaged Bertram sister. Mary Crawford entices Fanny’s favorite Edmund. Fanny watches all of the family get entangled with the Crawfords and is just horrified throughout the whole thing. She dislikes both of them. When Sir Thomas gets back from Antigua his oldest daughter gets married and Henry Crawford decides he is in love with Fanny. He proposes. She says no. She goes to stay with her family and realizes she is much happier at Mansfield Park and that her aunts and her mother are blood-related but that is it. They have no affection for each other. Meanwhile, Henry runs off with the now married Bertram sister and ruins everything in the family. Austen makes a point that Henry had the capability of being good but he always chose the worst possible option and lost that in him. Edmund gets his heart broken. Eventually, everyone realizes Fanny was right. Fanny and Edmund marry. No one talks about slavery or the bad pun about “knaves and rears” that Mary Crawford made that alluded to homosexuality in the navy ever again. It’s a book with a lot of depth and is it about a woman succeeding in the nineteenth century? Is it something else? To be fair, bad puns, fashion, and no filter and no real ill will towards people makes me a Mary Crawford. I also am way too forgiving of the men in my life. I could not really relate to Fanny because she was just quiet and in the corner. I also wish she hadn’t married her cousin it’s just kind of weird. That didn’t age well.
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The Poor Basket
Remember how I said that Jane Austen never mentions revolutions? Ok, well they allude to it in this book because all the ladies of leisure have to work on sewing in the “poor basket.” Basically, they would give their work to poor people so they wouldn’t resent the rich. It’s really dark in a way and again, did Austen mean it as some kind of dark joke about the obliviousness of the rich? Lady Bertram never leaves her couch and she is played by the wonderful Angela Pleasance. She was amazing. If you get a chance you should see the Six Wives of Henry the VII. I watched it during my maternity leave and some of the acting is top notch. Angela Pleasance played Catherine Howard and she plays that naivety so well and your heart breaks for her.
Mansfield Park also focuses on beauty and nature. This was a huge part of the book. Austen was very much influenced by the Romantic ideals of the time. Many of the illustrations I found focused on the woods and the grounds of the book. I think it’s fascinating that the people were obsessed with architecture, gardening, and grand house tours. It’s like HGTV is nothing new. People have always been interested in those things. When Fanny goes to Portsmouth she misses the country air and walking. Fanny is really frail but no one really explains why. One really cool thing about Austen is that she is very accurate about the beautiful parts of cities and you feel like you are visiting them in the nineteenth century. You feel like you are walking on the ramparts with a gentleman who is holding your arm so you can walk farther. Although all of the characters are focused on manners and watching the mini-series I realized that Mansfield Park is a bit like the Office with Fanny as Jim’s reaction shots. Like, look at these crazy selfish rich people. Her cousins are terrible and oblivious. Basically, everyone in the book is selfish and self-motivated except for Fanny. She’s just a quiet person who doesn’t attend to her own needs. Eventually, she gets noticed and all her dreams come true.
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from: Cents of Style
Thoughts on the Book
To be honest, I gave it three stars out of five. It was my least favorite of the Austen books I have read so far. It wasn’t a bad book and I got into it at the end. However, there were a lot of unanswered questions and I didn’t really like the moral. It was odd. It was a bunch of terrible people being miserable for the most part. Austen was an avid observer of character and I wonder what she was like in real life. I almost wonder if she wanted Fanny to marry Henry Crawford and then changed her mind. To be honest, this is pretty realistic. There are lots of people who could be good and choose the easy cruel route. She notices the influence of guardians on children and the Crawfords grew up in a dysfunctional household. The Bertrams were just overindulged. The Crawfords observed people and took what they could get from them. They were kind of like Becky Sharpe in Vanity Fair . In short, it was the kind of toxic chemistry that ruins families. The two families could not have been worse for each other and yet they met. I think the point was decorum at the time and money hid a lot of flaws. Fanny was from a poor family but she was the wisest and most elegant of all the women in the book. However, being an American woman in the 21st century, I knew that. This wasn’t revolutionary to me. My family saw “Hamilton” and it was interesting to see the American perspective on this time in history as opposed to what Austen writes about. King George in Hamilton is just portrayed as outdated, clueless, laughable, and evil. America is just known as a “troubled” place in her books. We also lived with the slaves that they got money from. Our country is still dealing with the issues that slavery wrought. So for us, we can’t just be “silent.” I mean it hit me that of course they could bring up these things and be casual because if they got offended by people improperly introducing themselves how could they have wrapped their heads around what was going on. How could they live with themselves if they knew how they got their money? Austen makes a case for these people being in total denial because they were awful.
While it is good to understand texts, I would like to have a disclaimer that I am a white lady and I am not an expert on slavery, economics, or anything else touched on in this book. You want me to review educational materials for your health science library or help with a systematic review? Can do. Not an expert on anything else. But I feel it would be a disservice to not address these issues. Slavery is wrong. They knew it in the nineteenth century too. In America, we fought a war about it and we’re still fighting today. Thanks ya ignorant rich colonizers! So I guess I didn’t really care too much about the Betrams or their struggles. On to Northanger Abbey!
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The following are pictures from the British Library. The paintings are by AF Lydon from the 1870’s and the drawings are from Hugh Thomson in the 1890s.
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