Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Why is Mansfield Park Jane Austen’s best book?

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.


  1. I do love Mansfield Park for its "thickness," among other things, and I especially love that it complete illuminates a woman's social lot and risks, tossing one of the cousins up to the pinnacles of wealth and social status before casting her down into lifetime hell with her annoying aunt, Mrs. Norwood, her personal devil. That gamut is always there for Austen characters, but sometimes a character is reprieved from ignominy (Lydia) or manages to gain understanding over time. Past social pitfalls and other dangers walks Fanny, discerning what is under the surfaces of people and situations and attempting to abide by what she knows is moral and right and kindred to her own soul.

  2. Yeah, that one character is punished in the worst way possible - a life with Mrs. Norris. Ha ha ha ha! I am as moralistic as Austen, laughing as the guilty are punished. Terrible, terrible, very un-Fanny-like.

    If I can get away from the apricots and cream cheeses, I may write a bit about Fanny Price's powerlessness, so central to the book, compared to the power some other women like her older cousin have - or like Emma Woodhouse has in the next novel.

    I think you identify the bit of Austen the writer that is in Fanny Price. Fanny is perceptive, more perceptive than anyone around her.

  3. You have once again given me a different perspective for another reading of something I long ago encountered. What I remember most about Austen are the characters. Now -- at your instigation -- I shall have to think more about the details. BTW, for whatever it is or is not worth, Harold Bloom's favorites are Persuasion and Emma. Oddly enough, my favorite is Northanger Abbey; I enjoy the tongue-in-cheek (if not completely successful) spoofing of Gothic novels. It is almost as if Austen had anticipated what Monty Python would have done with the same material. How is that for bizarre hyperbole!

  4. Austen did the best job - how could you plan to do this - of making her books different enough that the "favorite" designation can reasonably applied to any of them.

    No, not different enough, what do I mean. Well, that will have to do. I know an 18th century specialist who preferred S&S for similar reasons. He knew the canon of "sensibility" novels inside-out and loved the clever parody. Most readers, including me, can barely even see it, since we have not read all that horrible stuff.

    Northanger Abbey has the greatest Spoiler Alert in literature:

    "Oh! I would not tell you what is behind the black veil for the world! Are not you wild to know?"

    "Oh! Yes, quite; what can it be? But do not tell me--I would not be told upon any account. I know it must be a skeleton, I am sure it is Laurentina's skeleton. Oh! I am delighted with the book! I should like to spend my whole life in reading it."

    That is good stuff.

  5. Having only read Northanger Abbey, and being delighted by its satire, I declare it Austen's best novel.

  6. You make the minutiae interesting, Tom, when all too often I am dealing with the Gestalt.

  7. I'm not going to argue against any of the other books. Later I will argue against Mansfield Park, I think.

    The art of fiction is nowhere but in the details. I don't know what else there is besides the details. My books are all book-shaped.

  8. I'm with you. MP is my favourite Austen. Many times, during lectures, MP was labeled as the lesser Austen. Never could understand that. I always wonder what Bertram and his son got up to in Antigua. There's a Jean Rhys style prequel there somewhere/

  9. I love the idea of Sir Thomas in Antigua or whatever it would be called. The really daring version of this novel would be a comedy.

    I'm going to write a bit about reasons MP is the least favorite book of so many people. I will likely miss some of the many, many reasons.

    1. I wonder if the waif-as-heroine (a.k.a., the Cinderella complex), so different for Austen but so well done later by Dickens (for example), has something to do with readers' biases against MP. Of course, I could be very wrong.

  10. That sounds right. Some readers like Cinderella, and some react very strongly against her. A recent film version tried to undo this, portraying Fanny as the Strong Female Character, vigorous and powerful, which would seem to demolish the novel.

  11. Yes, yes!
    Did you see Violet's interesting post on Fanny?

  12. I am currently reading Pride and Prejudice which is my first Austen novel though I do not plan on it being my last.

    You wrote,

    "Characters in Pride and Prejudice talk about each other",

    You really hit that one on the head! When I think about it, to some extent that is the glue that is holding the book together.

  13. You might be interested in a visit to Whispering Gums where she talks about a symposium on Mansfield Park she just attended.

  14. I missed both those posts. How irritating - thanks for the pointers to both. I did not realize Violet had reopened the shop. Her defense would be stronger if she granted some of Fanny's less appealing qualities. But "insipid" is not right at all. Lady Bertram is insipid.

    The Gums post is irritating in that a number of book bloggers, including Gums herself, could have made presentations just as interesting. Australian Austen specialists: work harder!

    Brian, there is a significant difference between the three 18th century novels and the three later ones. The publication dates only confuse the issue. I don't know what happened in that decade when Austen was not writing fiction. Well, she read a lot, saw a lot, met more people, grew older - that is probably what happened. Whatever it was, her fiction really changed, or at least everything not related to characterization.

    As you see in Pride and Prejudice, she had already, early on, reached the limits of the form with her characters.

  15. I've always liked MP the most. It sounds real, more real than other Austen books just because the Mansfield universe is so complex and portrayed with such a loving detail. And yes, objects are as important as the characters - for example that big clock chiming so loudly that it could be heard outside the building.

  16. You have inspired me to reread Mansfield Park, more carefully. It's not my favorite Austen, since I find Fanny to be such a dishrag, but there are a lot of other great things about it. I'm a member of the Jane Austen Society of North America, and their upcoming convention has an MP theme. It might also interest you to know that one of the speakers, Janine Barchas of UT/Austin, is giving a talk titled "Reading Mansfield Park with Nabokov." I was on the fence about it, but now you've convinced me that I should definitely attend that one!

  17. The clock, oh, that's a good one. Only mentioned once, I think, but then you can imagine it governing all of those outdoor walks and conversations.

    I would love to hear the Barchas talk. She is an Austen expert with a Nabokovian spirit, tracking down every Austen name in the archives, organizing What Jane Saw.

    Fanny is definitely a dishrag. Except when it really counts, thus her triumph, but still, along the way... She is one of the great Weak Female Characters.

    1. "...a dishrag. Except when it really counts..."

      Indeed. Fanny chooses her fights carefully. And where it really counts, she is unmovable. It's not too hard to discern here a near relative to Richardson's Clarissa.