Friday, November 30, 2007

Apricots and broken egg-shells - the beauties of Mansfield Park

Fanny Price, the protagonist of Mansfield Park, is not much of a heroine. She is almost always in an environment where she has no direct or indirect influence on events. She suffers, she endures, she is pathetic. Her greatest moment of weakness is allowing herself to be drafted into the Bertrams' play. Her greatest triumph is declining Henry Crawford's marriage proposal, on the grounds that he is immoral.

All of this happens before the last third of the novel, when Fanny returns home to her poor, vulgar Portsmouth family. The change of setting allows us to see how deeply Fanny has changed. She may still be passive, but is no longer pathetic. There has been enormous inner growth of character.

If you feel too sorry for Fanny, you can be her friend. Here is her Myspace page. Be warned, it plays music.

Anyway, I like Fanny well enough, despite her drinking problem ("Never had Fanny more wanted a cordial.” Vol. III Ch. 15). But I don't read Mansfield Park for Fanny.

The horrible Mrs. Norris, so generous with other people's money, is bragging about her late husband to the man who now has his living:

"It was only the spring twelvemonth before Mr. Norris's death, that we put in the apricot against the stable wall, which is now grown such a noble tree, and getting to such perfection, sir," addressing herself then to Dr. Grant.

"The tree thrives well beyond a doubt, madam," replied Dr. Grant. "The soil is good: and I never pass it without regretting, that the fruit should be so little worth the trouble of gathering."

"Sir it is a moor park, we bought it as a moor park, and it cost us - that is, it was a present from Sir Thomas, but I saw the bill, and I know it cost seven shillings, and was charged as a moor park."

"You were imposed on, ma'am," replied Dr. Grant; "these potatoes have as much the flavor of a moor park apricot, as the fruit from that tree. It is an insipid fruit at the best; but a good apricot is eatable, which none from my garden are." Vol I Ch. 6.

There is nothing much like this in Austen's earlier novels. Descriptive details or physical objects of any sort are extremely rare. When they do occur, they are often of a conventional nature. See Elizabeth's visit to Darcy's estate - it could be cribbed from a guidebook.

Fanny's beloved brother has just left, as has Mr. Crawford, who her fool of an uncle thinks Fanny loves:

After seeing William to the last moment, Fanny walked back to the breakfast-room with a very saddened heart to grieve over the melancholy change; and there her uncle kindly left her to cry in peace, conceiving perhaps that the deserted chair of each young man might exercise her tender enthusiasm, and that the remaining cold pork bones and mustard in William's plate, might but divide her feelings with the broken egg-shells in Mr. Crawford's. She sat and cried con amore as her uncle intended, but it was con amore fraternal and no other. William was gone, and she now felt as if she had wasted half his visit in idle cares and selfish solicitudes unconnected with him. Vol. II, Ch. 11.

These cold pork bones and flavorless apricots are to me very high instances of Austen's art - they supply artful detail to the scene, but also fill out characters in ways that make simple description seem very clumsy. Mansfield Park is full of this sort of thing - the entire episode by the ha-ha is another example, where the exact locations of the chracters are crucial to really understanding the scene. In Sense and Sensibility, people are mostly just in rooms together.

There is more literature in Mansfield Park than in Austen's other novels. The play is an actual play, by Elizabeth Inchbald. Fanny quotes Scott and Sterne and mentions William Cowper. Just more of Austen filling in the scene. When do the Bennets or Dashwoods ever mention what they read? Maybe the parody novels - Sense and Sensibility and Northanger Abbey - have more of this stuff than I recognize.

I think Austen's artistry makes a huge leap in the decade gap bewteen the writing of the first three novels and the last three. Maybe not her art of creating characters - she never recreates Elizabeth Bennet - but her prose is richer and she's becomes more observant.

The next time I read Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility, I'll see if I can prove myself wrong.

12 comments:

  1. Very nice. I must read it again next year.

    And I had no idea there were so many Austen characters in MySpace. At least they pick good music.

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  2. I also enjoy Mansfield Park, even over Sense and Sensibility (which ranks last for me, so far, having not yet read Persuasion). I did not find Fanny a bore and thought the satire and social commentary were just excellent. I had a lot of fun with it until the end when Austen's moralising kinda went into overdrive.

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  3. Mansfield Park has always been my least favorite Austen. But you and so many others are making me question my dislike and are going to force me to read it again in order to reassess it.

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  4. I have to agree with Imani here that I really enjoy the social commentary in Mansfield Park - the way Norris is so perfectly grotesque - but by the time I got to the end I couldn't help feeling bogged down by the moralizing. Yet, I think you make an excellent point here that there may be more art in Mansfield Park than in Pride and Prejudice. I should sit down and read Austen more carefully some day. Up to now, I have read them only for pleasure.

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  5. I wasn't sure if I should laugh or cry when I found MySpace Fanny. then I laughed. Laughed and laughed.

    There's much to dislike in Mansfield Park. Fanny at her worst is not just pathetic but insipid. And the moralizing strain, as Imani and A. Nonymous call it, is a big part of the book. But it's also a big part of Pride and Prejudice, and people seem to ignore it there.

    May I suggest the Borgesian experiment of reading Mansfield Park as if it were written by Flaubert? You will be amazed at his command of period detail and values, and astounded at the depth of his knowledge of 18th century English literature. In Mrs. Norris, you will see a cousin of M. Homais. In the ha-ha scene, you will find a version, or parody, of Emma Bovary's seduction in the barn.

    I'm only partly kidding.

    A. N. Onymous, the Amateur Reader reads only for pleasure.

    Thanks for the comments.

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  6. Well, I think Austen is a very moral writer, period, it's not something you can get away from in her fiction. Pardon the violent imagery but for me it's as if her characters are at the guillotine, which starts off at varying positions, and descend or ascend in direct proportion to their changing prospects. In most of her novels they move at a more or less gradual, steady pace before the fall or the relieved character walks away with her man and a barouche. But in Mansfield Park, near the end, someone oiled the pulley, and my eyes rapidly flicked back and forth to catch the heads rolling off the platform or the edge of a dress disappearing into a house before they all disappeared. And their seemed to be a little more oomph behind the ones that dropped.

    Oh dear. Children, this is what happens when you're up all night working on projects. Well, too foggy to change it. Hope it made sense. :p

    I do plan to reread Pride and Prejudice next year. I studied it in school but details now escape me.

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  7. The Crawfords do get their heads pretty well chopped off at the end of MP.

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  8. Now that's an interesting way to approach the book, to imagine it is written by Flaubert. Hmm. I will have to give it a try especially if I can find the edition Imani read that has heads rolling off a platform! ;)

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  9. "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote" is the greatest piece of literary criticism ever written.

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  10. oops, that anonymous was me. Sorry for the 'unclaimed' post. Mansfield Park as written by Flaubert...hmmm, there's one for a weekend reading experiment.

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  11. I'm not an Austen fan but I loved Mansfield Park - prefer it to all her other novels. It has more convincing descriptions of setting (very Victorianish) and the characters are admirably complex. Fanny is superb, because a witty charismatic heroine like Elizabeth is more likely to get her way in the end, but being frail and neglected, Fanny's fight is all the more to be commended.

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  12. Hi, welcome - well said. Although I would not call that convincing description "Victorianish" - plenty of Victorians could be plenty vague.

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