Mansfield Park is the story of Fanny Price who, at the age of ten, goes to live with her uncle and aunt, Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram. For Fanny, who has spent her early years in Portsmouth as part of a large working-class family, the Bertrams’ estate, Mansfield Park, is like a different world. While Fanny is grateful for the new opportunities she’s been given, she is made to feel inferior and insignificant by her cousins, Maria and Julia, and another aunt, Mrs Norris (surely one of the nastiest characters in any Austen novel). Only her cousin Edmund offers her any real kindness and friendship, and as the years go by Fanny begins to fall in love with him, although she doesn’t admit it and everyone, including Edmund, is unaware of it. And when Mary Crawford and her brother Henry come to stay at the nearby parsonage, Fanny’s peaceful life at Mansfield Park is suddenly thrown into turmoil.
I first attempted to read Mansfield Park when I was fifteen, immediately after finishing Pride and Prejudice, which I had loved. Compared to Pride and Prejudice I found this one very dry and boring, and gave up after a couple of chapters. Returning to it ten years later, I managed to read it through to the end but still didn’t like it very much. My recent re-read has been an entirely different experience and this time I found that I really enjoyed it!
Fanny Price is a shy, quiet person and seems to be Jane Austen’s least popular heroine, but I’ve never really had a problem with her personality. Not everyone can be witty and lively after all, and since arriving at Mansfield Park Fanny has constantly been reminded that she will never be equal to her cousins and treated almost like a servant, so it’s not surprising that she doesn’t have the confidence of some of the other Austen heroines. I would agree that she’s maybe not the most interesting of characters to read about, and I suppose I can understand why other readers might prefer Mary Crawford, but I personally don’t mind Fanny. I do think she has an inner strength and complexity which wasn’t really apparent to me the first time I read the book but which I could appreciate more this time – one of the reasons I think re-reads are so worthwhile!
I still didn’t like Edmund though, apart from at the beginning when he seems to be the only person who genuinely cares about Fanny. Without him her early days at Mansfield Park would have been a lot more miserable, but later in the book, particularly after the arrival of the Crawfords, he starts to really annoy me.
While Mansfield Park is never going to be my favourite Jane Austen novel, I’m glad I’ve given it another chance. If you’re new to Austen, though, I don’t think I would recommend starting with this one.