In Mansfield Park, Fanny Price is the “poor relation” who helps to relieve her family’s financial woes by going to live with a more prosperous aunt and uncle, the Bertrams, when she is ten. Her other aunt, widowed Mrs. Norris, lives near the Bertrams and has more influence with the family than Lady Bertram. Sir Thomas Bertram is imposing and, though not unkind, neither is he warm. Mrs. Norris feels it her duty to constantly keep Fanny in her “place.” Fanny’s female cousins, Mariah and Julia, are selfish, spoiled, and vain and interact little with her. Her oldest cousin Tom takes little notice, but cousin Edmund sympathizes with her and helps her find ways to learn and to interact. Fanny is quiet, shy, “finding something to fear in every person and place,” but eventually the family decides that, “though far from clever, she showed a tractable disposition, and seemed likely to give them little trouble.”
The family continues on this way for years until their neighbor’s younger sister and brother, Henry and Mary Crawford, come to town for an extended visit. Both are bright, witty, vivacious, and personable, and the young people –except for Fanny — soon become best friends. Fanny’s high regard for Edmund has become secret love over the years, but Edmund, who is planning to join the clergy, begins to fall for Mary, who has no use for the clergy and tries to talk him into changing to a profession where he can “distinguish” himself. Fanny begins to see some of Mary’s flaws, but Edmund is willing to excuse them. Meanwhile Henry, who has been showering attention on both the Bertram sisters, begins to show a decided favor not towards unattached Julia, but rather to her engaged sister. Thus the stage is set for the character of each one to be displayed in the ensuing conflicts.
I’ll leave the plot there for the discovery of those who have not yet read the book, but I did want to discuss a few other aspects of the book.
In the introductory notes of this edition as well as the introduction to the recent Masterpiece Classic version on PBS, there seemed to be an almost apologetic tone that shy, quiet Fanny is the hero of the story rather than vivacious and witty Mary. Amanda Claybaugh, who wrote the introductory notes, writes that “Fanny differs not merely from Mary, but also from our most basic expectations of what a novel’s protagonist should do and be. In Fanny, we have a heroine who seldom moves and seldom speaks, and never errs or alters.” I am not the expert Ms. Claybaugh is, but that is not my impression at all. We’re shown many of Fanny’s inner thoughts, and I find the conflict is in Fanny’s staying true to her moral core despite everyone else’s failure to varying degrees. Edmund says of Fanny at one point that she “is the only one who has judged rightly throughout; who has been consistent.” She is far from self-righteous and ungracious, however, and though morally she does not change, she does mature and grow. Though her nature remains shy and reticent and fearful, she begins to overcome it or act in spite of it in situations like heading a ball in her cousins’ absence and standing up to Sir Thomas when he wants her to marry someone whom she not only does not love but in whom she sees moral flaws that she cannot expound on.
In almost all of Jane Austen’s books, she subtly points out the ironies of life in her time. Perhaps the irony here is the truth that though Fanny lacks the characteristics that are highly valued in her setting — wit, wealth, and worldliness — she possesses qualities far more valuable in her moral goodness, graciousness, insight, and steadfastness.
I enjoyed this book very much and found it very readable. I highly recommend it.
This completes my reading Jane Austen’s novels. I had read Emma back in college and would love to revisit her, but all of the rest I have read over the last couple of years in a quest to catch up on some of the classics I somehow missed along the way. I know I will enjoy reading these books again in the future.