Saturday, September 5, 2009

Mansfield Park

Fanny Price is not the typical Jane Austen heroine.  She's not witty, or confident, or even obviously competent like the slightly downtrodden Anne Elliot.   Weak and shy, Fanny comes across as someone you want to admire for her unwavering goodness, but can't like because she's so frustratingly passive.  You want to jump into the book and shake her, telling her, "It doesn't matter that you're in the right if you don't do anything to correct those who are wrong."

This is the third time I've read Mansfield Park, and this time I concentrated on the supporting characters.  The main plot, about Edmund Bertram and Fanny finding true love with each other after escaping romantic entanglements with indiscreet siblings Mary and Henry Crawford, never captured my attentions.  Like attracts like and there are few characters in Mansfield Park who are as dull and moralistic as Fanny and Edmund.  For the same reason, I don't believe Henry Crawford actually fell in love with Fanny.  He may have been infatuated with her because she was the rare woman able to resist his charms, but the novelty would have worn off quickly.  Mary may have forced herself to believe she was in love with Edmund, but she was more in love with his position as the potential heir to Mansfield than with the dull, moralistic, clergyman-to-be.  Additionally, Henry never really comes to life.  He seems to exist only to serve the plot, flirting with Julia, courting Fanny, and running off with Maria shortly after her ill-advised marriage.

I enjoyed Mansfield Park almost in spite of its routine plot and bland main characters because much of the supporting cast is drawn with an acid-tipped pen.  On this reading, I realized just how avaricious Aunt Norris is, constantly finding leftovers at Mansfield Park which she can take to her own, small home and probably saving a (meager) salary by using Fanny as an unpaid servant.  I'd realized on previous readings that Mr. Rushworth, Maria Bertram's eventual husband, was an idiot, but this time I realized that he's one of the dimmest characters I've encountered in literature.  He's Hugh Laurie's portrayal of the Prince Regent as a private citizen, unable to distinguish the characters in a play with which he was familiar and probably botching most of his "four and twenty" speeches.   Tom Bertram's friend Mr. Yates made an impression for the first time as well.  Like Tom, he's an unfettered rich kid, the sort who today gets an SUV for his 18th birthday and totals it a few months later because he's texting while driving or speeding because he can.  He goes through life totally untouched by his surroundings, and we realize that when he doesn't follow the Crawfords out the door when Sir Thomas unexpectedly returns from Antigua.  He's so unaware of the consequences of his theatrical plan that he practically brags about it to the obviously angered Sir Thomas.

I found other characters to be more sympathetic this time around.  Julia Bertram is a self-absorbed rich girl, but she's also aware that Aunt Norris considers her second best to her manipulative sister Maria.  Her eventual marriage to Mr. Yates isn't unexpected, but possibly not a bad choice.   They're like Pete and Trudy Campbell in Mad Men, immature and wealthy but not without hope of eventually reaching maturity.  Sir Thomas felt like a remote paterfamilias when I read Mansfield Park for the first time.  This time I saw a man who cared about his family, giving Maria the option to break off her obviously doomed engagement and becoming the first to realize that Fanny had grown from a meek little girl to a pretty young woman who'd been cheated of the attention heaped on her cousins.  I also felt more sympathy for Mrs. Price.  She's too passive to handle life as the wife of a disabled and unemployable alcoholic, but when she married for love, there was no way for her to know that her husband would be wounded in battle and that she'd bear ten children in fifteen years.  

What strikes me most about Mansfield Park, though, is how of its time it is.  Austen's other five major works all feel modern, but I can't see Mansfield Park in a 21st Century setting.  Emma and Pride and Prejudice were both brought into the 1990s, and I can see Northanger Abbey cast with sorority sisters or Sense and Sensibility played against the current recession, but Fanny Price feels so strongly tied to the 18th Century that I can't see how the plot could be adapted to a modern setting.   Maybe that's the attraction - with the rest of Austen's books, I'm trying to see how to fit them into present-day Philadelphia, but with Mansfield Park, I just let it be.