I’m going to use nothing but contentious, aggravating titles while writing about Mansfield Park.
This one has an easy answer, though: Mansfield Park is the best written Austen novel, and it is best written because it has the most stuff in it. I knew a professor who had taken Vladimir Nabokov’s European Literature class many decades ago. He remembered an exam question that asked the student to identify what two characters in Mansfield Park had had for breakfast. Nabokov was asking students to remember this sentence from Chapter 29:
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.
Fanny is the heroine; William is her brother; Mr. Crawford is in pursuit of Fanny.
What a lot there is to like in this sentence. Four characters are invoked, two of whom are not really there, made present by their breakfast, the remnants of a scene that is implied but not depicted. No dialogue is necessary. Note the change in point of view after the semi-colon; as with Flaubert, the point of view of Mansfield Park moves fluidly and sometimes quite subtly. The scene is not really made visible – I have to fill in a lot to complete the still life, but that is imaginatively easy once Austen gives me the hooks. Austen is writing like Flaubert, not Zola. She is not going to describe everything.
But she describes a lot, far more than in the novels she had written previously (Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Northanger Abbey), and still quite a lot more than in the two she wrote subsequently (Emma and Persuasion), although the unfinished Sanditon fragment makes me wonder if Austen was going to try the more dense approach again – see the amazing Shandian butter-and-toast passage.
I do not just mean description, although Mansfield Park has most of Austen's finest descriptions, but rather that she has populated the world not just with people but with objects and places, and once she has done that much of the action and talk can be built around those objects. Characters in Pride and Prejudice talk about each other; characters in Mansfield Park talk about apricots, cream cheeses, necklaces, whether the turkey needs to be cooked tonight, horses, who gets to sit in which seat of the carriage, and which child gets to play with the knife. That last one does not sound safe. And, setting aside the special case of the parodistic Northanger Abbey, there are more books, too - the plays; Fanny’s William Cowper quotations.
I will continue to write about Mansfield Park’s pleasing detail. Feel free to remind me of examples from other Austen novels. The toothpick-case from Sense and Sensibility, for example, or the pianoforte in Emma. I do not think that Mansfield Park is more ethically complex nor that the portrayals of the characters are so different than in Austen’s other novels, but that the creation of a thicker fictional world, and the characters’ interaction with it, is itself a major artistic achievement.
An Austen reader might object, saying that he does not care about stuff in fiction, having plenty of that in his basement; that he hates Flaubert and is pained by the comparison; and that I have ignored everything that makes Mansfield Park so irritating. Of course, I know, I read book blogs. In that case, one of the others is likely Austen’s best book.
Mansfield Park was published on May 9, 1814, so this is the bicentennial and lots of people are reading the novel and writing about it. Professional Mansfield Park expert Sarah Emsley is hosting an academic blog party with, eventually, many guest posts. I hope someone is writing about those Cowper poems.