Starting Mansfield Park

November 19, 2020

I’m 25 chapters into “Mansfield Park” now, though I had not intended to read it. I was going to see only the movie from 1999, since I’d seen adaptations of all her other novels and knew nothing about this one.  But I liked the story and movie so much that I opened up the book and started on it voraciously.

And seeing the movie has made the reading much easier, in fact.  The opening chapters, introducing the main characters and their relationships, would have been a slog; but having seen the movie, I could glide right through it.

(Maybe this is why “Pride and Prejudice” was such an easy read:  I knew the story and characters by heart already.)

I’m also using a Kindle annotated version of the novel, with commentary by Richard Fadem.  His comments are lengthy, and you would think that this slows down your reading, but it’s actually having the opposite effect.  Countless of his footnotes clarify meaning for me (were all the other novels needing so much clarification?); and the longer comments are so interesting that I’m doubly interested in the story.

(Fadem, incidentally, chooses Mansfield Park, Persuasion, and Emma, particularly the latter, as Austen’s greatest novels; these are works begun and ended in her mature period as a writer.)

I’m really enjoying the debates between Mary Crawford and Edmund Bertram about religion and the clergy.  I think, naturally, that Edmund has on balance the better arguments; but Mary is a force to be reckoned with.  It’s not so much the logic of her arguments as the force of her life-energy, unpersuadable by tradition, that challenges him.  Her love of life makes her uninclined to contemplative living; and her vivid intelligence makes her wickedly alive to easy piety and hypocrisy.  All this leaves him, and really all the tradition he represents, without a sufficient answer.

Slavery turns out to be only glancingly mentioned in the novel, compared to the movie, where it was made a heavy-handed theme.  I do think Austen could have a better novel here, if she had delved into politics, particularly the debates in her time about the slave trade.  If you can imagine real tension and debate around that theme; some impact of this tension on the plot; and all of Austen’s insight to boot; you can easily imagine a greater novel.  But I can hardly say that the novel suffers much, or fails to stand on its own, without the theme being developed.  Already I think the novel gains a lot from what it’s doing with religion; and really I’m finding the entire story interesting, maybe for reasons that are still unclear to me.

I don’t think the slavery theme added much to the movie, however.  The scenes about slavery are, if nothing else, too short to add very much; they feel either tacked-on or intrusive.  I would like the movie just as much, if all of them were not in it.

The play-plot of this novel is really interesting, the best part so far.  By comparison very little was done with this in the movie.

Onscreen, Fanny is magnetic from first to last, very different from the novel, in which she’s a veritable mouse, quiet and painfully shy.

Movies often make the central characters of novels into the most physically attractive and dynamic members of the cast, even in a case like Fanny.  With Mary Crawford there’s less of a problem, because she’s dynamic both onscreen and on the page.  But she’s played by Embeth Davidtz, who is all those things that Austen explicitly says that Mary is not:  “tall, full formed, and fair.”

The only movie that takes a plain Austen heroine and keeps her plain is “Persuasion.”

It almost makes you agree with Henry Crawford when he says that most actresses would fail at portraying the plain woman, Amelia, who is a central character in the play they are attempting to put on:

“I consider Amelia is the most difficult character in the whole piece. It requires great powers, great nicety, to give her playfulness and simplicity without extravagance. I have seen good actresses fail in the part. Simplicity, indeed, is beyond the reach of almost every actress by profession.”

Julia refuses the role of Amelia because she detests the character as an “odious, little, pert, unnatural, impudent girl.”

Amelia clearly is a stand-in for Fanny, who is virtually ignored as “nothing” by everyone around her. 

Fanny is intrigued by human memory and is lifted out of herself by star-gazing, two points on which I can relate to her, and on which, I wish Austen had given more.

Henry Crawford announcing to his sister Mary that he will be targeting Fanny (do any of Austen’s other rakes announce themselves so openly as this one does?) reminds me just a little of God and Satan knocking back and forth about poor Job.

Mary admonishes: 

“I do desire that you will not be making her really unhappy; a little love, perhaps, may animate and do her good, but I will not have you plunge her deep, for she is as good a little creature as ever lived, and has a great deal of feeling.” 

To which Henry replies: 

“No, I will not do her any harm, dear little soul! only want her to look kindly on me, to give me smiles as well as blushes…”

Yes, I admit, with this Job-analogy I’ve gone too far.

Still, you cannot tell me that Fanny is not the best-hearted – the most naturally good – of all Austen’s heroines.

Looking forward to the second half of this play.

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