Saturday, May 17, 2014

Why is Mansfield Park Jane Austen’s worst book? - Put yourself in Miss Crawford's place, Fanny.

Oh, there are so many reasons.  The priggishness of the heroine, Fanny Price, for example; the priggishness of one of the male romantic leads, Edmund Bertram.  There are a couple of scenes where they lecture each other on the faulty sense of duty of other people (not each other, not themselves), where even I thought boy, you two deserve each other.  Just be warned that at least one of your children will get so fed up with your righteousness that he’ll run off to join the circus.

My title question often turns into something ruder – “Why do so many people read Mansfield Park so badly?”  Sarah Emsley argues that readers mistake a tragedy for a comedy.  I cannot accept this as the answer, since I, too, take the book as a comedy, primarily because it is written in a comic tone, excepting those dreary lectures mentioned just above.  I laugh all the way through;  I even laugh at Fanny’s alcohol problem (“Never had Fanny more wanted a cordial,” Ch. 46).

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single reader in possession of the wrong idea about a book is reluctant to let it go.  So readers convinced for some reason that Mansfield Park is a romance – meaning the kind of book about troubles of the heart we now label romances – often persist in the notion that it is that kind of romance even when the text fails to do the things romances commonly do.  In this sense, Mansfield Park is a mediocre romance novel.  It botches the proposal scene.  A lot of what might seem like the primary action occurs offstage at the end, communicated to Fanny by letter.

I see now, though, that much of the confusion is built into the novel by Austen, likely deliberately.  I have written as if it is obvious that Fanny Price is the heroine of Mansfield Park.  It would be perfectly reasonable for the reader not previously warned to assume that Mary Crawford was the primary heroine.  She is introduced early in the novel, in Chapter 4, the outside observer at Mansfield Park.  Fanny Price, the poor cousin, has by this point lived there for many years, so how can she be the outsider?

Fanny is quiet, Mary is loud.  Fanny is a prig, Mary is fun and funny, more fun and smarter than the other women at Mansfield Park.  She is self-centered and snobbish, but what is the novel for if not to correct those flaws?  If I have picked Mary as the heroine, I might wonder why the point of view shifts to Fanny Price so often, but Fanny is apparently going to be a foil to Mary, and anyway the point of view moves around a lot.  Fanny will provide the B-plot, in which she will likely learn to assert her strength of character against the family that has mistreated and misunderstood her.

I think it would be possible to carry this idea at least halfway through the novel.  Mary will end up marrying, by the way, Fanny’s sailor brother William, overcoming her snobbishness etc. in the name of love etc.  See Chapter 24, and follow the theme of the loaned horse.

Around this point, Mary Crawford drops away and Fanny’s point of view takes over to the extent that Austen moves Fanny to a new setting with entirely new characters, as if to make even the stubbornest reader admit that the book is now permanently and fully Fanny’s, and has therefore been Fanny’s story all along.  “You have shown yourself very, very different from anything that I had imagined,” as one of the character’s says to Fanny in Chapter 32.

I take all of this as a testament to Austen’s ingenuity at storytelling and structuring a novel, the way she keeps so many possibilities alive for so long, long enough for readers to make guesses and develop preferences, some of which will be disappointed.  Readers are perhaps not reading badly but instead really entering the spirit of the thing.

The title is from Chapter 16, completely out of context.


  1. I have to disagree with you here. Fanny is not priggish nor is Edmund--they are simply people who really practice what they preach.
    This is what bothers modern readers so much--they will not conform to the lax values of their contemporaries and this bothers people today.
    They will not go long with the crowd and take the easy way out.

    Mary Crawford and her brother are evil to the core. they are selfish, self-absorbed, insensitive to others, and bent solely upon their own pleasure, regardless of who they injure.

  2. I can see that Mary Crawford's fun, charming, vivacious, witty..., in many ways similar to Elizabeth Bennet. But that's why Mansfield Park is the most psychologically complex novel by Jane Austen- she makes us like her the way Edmund does, she makes us complicit.
    Mary Crawford's selfish, egoistic, insensitive, amoral, frivolous, shallow, mercenary, self-indulgent, insincere, manipulative... These are not some 'acceptable' flaws like Marianne Dashwood's impulsiveness, Elizabeth Bennet's prejudice, Emma Woodhouse's snobbish and bossy attitude... but much more serious, i.e. Mary Crawford could be placed in the same group with Lucy Steele, Caroline Bingley, Isabella Thorpe... (the difference? Marianne, Elizabeth, Emma... mean well).
    I suppose many modern readers don't quite get Mansfield Park because:
    1/ We now favour extroversion and see introversion as a kind of handicap and therefore, instead of praising Fanny for being deep, introspective, etc, see her as boring, timid, passive...
    2/ People don't quite get the 'fuss' over the playacting. Nabokov says in Lectures on Literature that it's not that the play should be condemned, but such a play is only appropriate for professional actors. Not grasping that, people easily call Fanny priggish.
    3/ Mary Crawford is very, very similar to Elizabeth Bennet. I notice that the more someone loves Pride and Prejudice and Elizabeth Bennet, the more they dislike Mansfield Park.
    I find it so cool, what Jane Austen does here. Like it's her reaction to her own "light, bright and sparkling" book.

    1. DI,

      Thanks for spelling out in more detail what I was rambling about in my rant.

  3. I confess that I am one of those readers who had read this novel very badly indeed. Not that I had preconceptions about it being a romantic novel: but ... No, I really don't know why I had read it so badly. For some reason, I had mistaken Fanny's undemonstrative manner for emotional sterility. And the ending seemed to me a triumph of emotional sterility over warmth of feeling. My recent reading made me feel embarrassed - embarrassed that I could have been so bad a reader. Far from being emotionally sterile, Fanny seems to me a full-blown Romantic: she merely lacks the external trappings of Romanticism. Similarly with this novel: I had once said that Austen does not ave a Romantic bone in her body (Romantic with a capital R), but "Mansfield Park" now seems to me a Romantic novel, albeit without the external trappings of Romanticism. She is certainly a full-blown Wordsworthian.

    More later. I look forward to your future posts on this endlessly fascinating work. Maybe they'll help me formulate my own thoughts with a greater coherence.

    1. A clarification: when I said "she is certainly a full-blown Wordsworthian", I mean Fanny, and not necessarily Austen. Given the various levels of irony Austen employs, it's hard to know where exactly she stands.

    2. In a sense, Mansfield Park is a variant of Cinderella, without the fairy godmother and the pumpkin chariot and the glass slippers, etc.

      Austen has three outgoing heroines--Elizabeth, Emma, and Catherine--and three quiet, reserved heroines--Fanny, Elinor, and Anne. Those who insist on bright, outgoing, vivacious heroines will not be happy with Fanny, Anne, or Elinor.

      Mary Crawford is Austen's theme that being bright, outgoing, charming--males and females--does not make one a good person, those are just the surface attributes and what makes one a good person is what's inside. Fanny, as well as the other Austen heroines and heroes, has it, while Mary does not.

    3. I like Anne and Elinor, but don't really take to Fanny. I know better than to hold her in contempt. Especially in print! But the long-suffering-ness gets old, even when I'm aware that I might have a similar reaction if I'd lived her circumstances.

      One of the more interesting moments in MP that I noticed (and I'll have to look at it more closely) is the comparison Fanny does between her disposition and Susan's. My recollection is that she has the self-awareness and generosity to recognize that while Susan's conduct appalls her, it has some advantages that will serve Susan well at MP. There seems to be a tacit admission that, while Fanny was badly treated, there might have been other ways to respond.

  4. I don't think MP is a comedy and it strikes me as the least light of any of Austen's works. Personally, I think it's Sir Bertram's tragedy. It's odd, in that way. When I read it from the point of view of Fanny, it seems like she just survives (she and Edmund), while the other characters do themselves in, then when the debris of their calamities has been swept away, she picks up and goes on with her life.

    BTW, I realize Fanny's "just surviving" deserves more credit. But, unlike, say Elizabeth or Emma, Fanny doesn't really change, that I see. She finally comes into her own and we can admire her for sticking to her principles, but she hasn't changed.

    The people whose schemes have come a cropper are Sir Bertram and Aunt Norris. Bad as Aunt Norris is, she clearly only has power because of Sir Bertram's delegation to her.

    Fanny is more or less free to be happy with Edmund, but Sir Bertram has a ruined, disowned daughter for life. It just seems to me that the union of Fanny and Edmund is not the most important outcome of this novel. It has that marriage plot, but in the end, I don't think that's the central action.

  5. Perhaps we all miss the point. There is one word we need to remember above all others when reading Austen: irony. I'm told by a notable critic (Bloom) that most modern readers miss most of Austen's ironies. I am one of those modern readers.

  6. I'll tell you what is great about book blogging: when every comment a post attracts is better than the original post. I agree with all of it, or almost all of it.

    Austen's re-visiting and reworking of her heroines is more important than I had realized. After creating Elizabeth Bennet, the most likable character in the history of fiction, she was not going to repeat herself. She was even willing to parody herself, or attack the concept of "likable." Good for her. Who needs it.

    The next logical extension of what I wrote is to develop Austen's ethical argument about likability. What I think is going on is that Austen is deliberately misdirecting sympathy towards the wrong character. She wants to lose my head much like the characters do. Then see above (Fred, Di, Judith on the Susan character) for what happens next.

    This device is by itself immensely ironic, as is the tragedy Judith sees. Fanny's negative action, her refusal of an offer of marriage, leads to an amazing chain of consequences. Judith is certainly right that the marriage of the heroine is not the central plot; thus its placement in the denouement. I have seen readers who find this immensely frustrating. The book is not behaving like a proper romance.

    The commenters here seem to be handling Austen's irony pretty well.

    I should clarify "comedy," perhaps. Kafka generally wrote comedy. Beckett always wrote comedy. There is nothing inherently "light" about comedy. Mansfield Park is heavy - heavy with jokes ("her aunt tried to cry," Ch. 21).

    The notion of the novel as Sir Bertram's tragedy is quite different than what Emsley is arguing. I think. So there are at least two separate arguments that lead to "tragedy." Not many comic novels can claim that. It's a rich book.

    Himadri - don't look too far forward - this is the last one! I am even taking the first couple of days off next week.

  7. I've enjoyed reading your series of posts--and all the comments-- on MP. They've certainly given me some new things to think about on my next reread of an Austen (most likely MP, coincidentally). Such good conversation--and it's nice to read posts that aren't entirely about whether on not the given reader likes Fanny. But yet again you (indirectly) challenge me to be(come) a better reader--and a better thinker about my reading.

  8. Thank you and my pleasure. The conversation has been good, i will not argue with that!

    It seems that this book can be read with pleasure by readers who do and do not like Fanny. That is what really puzzles me about the issue. My partner in this enterprise is Austen, not Fanny Price.

  9. That's an interesting point about Susan--of course, Susan is now coming into a completely different situation than Fanny did. In a sense, Fanny prepared the way for Susan.

  10. Susan is Fanny's positive moral triumph, as opposed to the negative action of refusing a marriage, her use of her new position and new power (however minor) or doing good for someone else. As you say, it is a wise, knowing act, not egoistic at all.

  11. Agreed. One can only guess at the changes this will make in Susan's life.

  12. For the life of me, I have never been able to figure out why Fanny should be considered a prig. Because she doesn't "sparkle"? Because she worries about right and wrong? Because she's quiet? Because she's earnest?

    Doesn't objecting to those qualities cast a critical eye on us as readers, rather than on the character?

    But I enjoyed your essay.

    1. Yes, it does say more about those readers than it says about Fanny.

      If it is priggish and self-righteous to judge others for their behavior, then what are we to say about those readers who JUDGE her?

  13. Earnest is close. Fanny can be censorious, actually, moving towards self-righteousness. This side of her is really only revealed in certain conversations with Edmund, who has a similar character. She appears to be more priggish than her author.

    And she is certainly priggish in our contemporary terms, disapproving of the play and the adult-free courtin' and sparkin'. It can take imaginative effort to put myself into Fanny's, and I think the novel's, moral frame. Some contemporary readers don't want to do it. They want Fanny to go to bed with Crawford before she marries Edmund.

    1. Just in case you haven't read his lecture, the author of "Lolita" did briefly discuss this point:
      "There is no reason to suppose that Jane Austen's sentiments do not parallel Fanny's. The point is, however, not that the play itself, as a play, is to be condemned as immoral but that it is suitable only for a professional theatre and actors and most improper for the Bertram circle to act."
      "And she is quite right. There is something obscene in Amelia's part."
      Also, "Henry Crawford shows a devilish cunning in steering himself and Maria into the right parts", meaning Frederick and Agatha, so they constantly be together and embrace each other.
      Besides, you wrote "the adult-free courtin' and sparkin'". That's not the reason Fanny's repulsed by Henry. But because she "cannot think well of a man who sports with any woman's feelings; and there may often be a great deal more suffered than a stander-by can judge of." In my opinion, that's also Jane Austen's view.
      So no, I wouldn't say Fanny's priggish (though in some other places I don't agree with her).

  14. Fred, what if I rearrange the terms a little? "If it is priggish to self-righteously judge others for their behavior..." This is priggish, yes? A common definition of priggish, I think.

    So "priggish" is not about judgment as such, but the kind or tenor of the judgment. The true, great prig in Mansfield Park is actually Mrs. Norris.

    Now, having said that, I do find a lot of surprisingly moralistic judgment of Fanny by contemporary readers, even though the moral terms have changed. Some of it can be described as priggish - an assertion of moral superiority.

    The brilliant stroke of Austen's is that although Fanny can be quietly censoriousness, her judgment is always based on her truly keen perception of character, not just on an abstract, unforgiving system. So it is not that amateur plays are immoral, but that this play by these people in these circumstances is a danger. It looks, to other characters, and perhaps to readers, like priggishness, but s really something more clear-eyed.

    1. Now this is awkward. I wrote the comment without reading this one of yours.

  15. Awkward - I think we just crossed paths. One thing I have not done but really should someday is read that Inchbald play.

    By "adult-free courtin' and sparkin'", I meant that Fanny was judging other people's courting - just the parts you were describing, Maria and Henry misbehaving under the cover of rehearsing. Her own courting by Henry is surprisingly proper, but of course he is trying to clean up his act for her. You are right, I think, that Austen's view of Henry Crawford matches Fanny's - he is immoral, corrupted. I am amazed when I find readers who think Fanny (or anyone) should have married him.

    1. Same here. I've also seen readers who accuse Fanny of hypocrisy for distrusting and rejecting Henry Crawford due to inconstancy and then later accepting Edmund Bertram's proposal after he ceases to love Mary Crawford.

  16. The problem I have with Henry Crawford is with Austen herself, if I may be so bold. His pursuit of Fanny comes across as pretty genuine. Not that he has completely transformed, but that he's on the road. He seems sincere. At least, sincerely affected by Fanny.

    Clearly, Austen means us to conclude it was all a lie. But, that's undercut, I think because we don't see his behavior first hand when he takes up again with Maria. We only hear it reported. We have seen his behavior first hand with Fanny. Crawford's reversion has never seemed convincingly executed to me. It seems more dictated by the author's intentions. The character seems to be heading steadily in one direction, but then made to swerve.

    I have similar reactions to Mary Crawford. She demonstrates, from time to time, insight and feeling, for example, about the way Fanny is treated by the other MP inhabitants. There are other occasions in the novel when, ambitious and materialistic as she is, she doesn't come across as completely lacking in integrity.

    So, her sudden unmasking in regard to her attitude about Henry's behavior, seems hamhanded on the part of the author.

    I know where Austen is going - one can hardly miss it - but I feel like I've been coerced into seeing the characters this way, not convinced.

    I wonder if Austen herself didn't get a little too fond of Henry and Mary. Unlike, say, the Bertram sisters, the Crawfords are quite complex characters - self-serving, cynical, but then torn between "worldly" values and simpler, more genuine values once they're exposed to them.

    To me, the final judgment passed on the two is unsatisfactory.

    I'm all for Fanny & Edmund - Austen has meant that all along and that's fine.

    Maybe I'm reading as a modern. But, Henry and Mary and their developing characters strikes me as a missed opportunity. Even if they do have tragic ends...if the author had let us, we could have felt the loss of them not becoming better, more genuine people, not just say, 'ha, they were phony all along.'

    Phew! I can't believe I just wrote that. Understand, I am a long time Jane Austen devotee.

    1. I disagree.
      I don't think "Austen means us to conclude it was all a lie". Henry is sincere in his pursuit of Fanny- that he often sports with women's feelings doesn't mean he can never be sincere; and that he is sincere in this case doesn't mean that he has changed and will always be a good, reliable person; and that he is sincere at some point doesn't mean Fanny will be happy with him.
      You seem to think that a 'bad boy' like this can never have genuine feelings, but Jane Austen knew better than that, otherwise she would have created a caricature.
      About Mary, she's a fascinating character. More complex and better than Lucy Steele, she's not a complete bitch. Her selfishness, self-indulgence... are seen in the tiny, often-unnoticed things, as I often see in some people in real life, so her unmasking is not 1 bit surprising to me.
      Besides, I don't think people change. We do learn, we do get better, we do correct (some of) our foibles, but the core is still there, in my opinion.

    2. Here we may have another nice way to divide Austen readers - to what extent do people change?

      I think Austen works from an idea that very few people are capable of change or improvement. Mrs. Norris, for example, is hopeless. Some others, like the rigid Sir Thomas or even, amazingly, the insensible Lady Bertram, can at least be battered by experience.

      This is part of why the romance between Henry and Fanny is so enticing, I get that. Maybe he can change - he almost does. Or maybe it is too late. Fanny thinks it's too late.

    3. No, I don't think that a "bad boy...can never have genuine feelings..." what I think is that the reversion to bad boy is not convincingly least to me. My problem is not with the idea. I get the point, I get the possibility. I don't buy the execution.

      Lucy Steele is a great comparison with Mary Crawford. I wasn't surprised by Mary Crawford's "unmasking" in her final reaction to Henry & Maria's adultery. No one who's reading could be. The only person surprised at this point is Edmund.

      Again, it's the execution that I found wanting. Mary Crawford has been clever throughout the book. I think to be true to the character her reaction to Henry & Maria's scandal should have been a bit smoother, perhaps attempt to feign a bit of shame.

      After all, she's been around Fanny & Edmund both for quite a while. She must have known how seriously they both would take this. She has a tin ear if she thinks being dismissive can overcome Edmund's dismay at Henry's behavior and the reluctance that must have followed to ally himself with the Crawford family.

      But, maybe she was ready to throw in the towel with Edmund, anyway. Maybe she decided the whole thing was hopeless and she wasn't going to feign regrets she didn't have.

      Maybe it's time to move on to other novels...:)

    4. I barely remember Lucy Steele (Sense and Sensibility, for the equally forgetful). I should reread it someday. I did not think it was nearly as good as MP - see the posts on why MP is so good. Ain't much of that in S&S.

      But anyway, what is much clearer to me know is how Austen revises and parodies herself as she moves from book to book. In this way she resembles Dickens, of all people.

      There may be other novels, but I am trying to gear up to writing about Ibsen. Other novels will have to wait.

  17. Now that's a comment! Good stuff. I do this, too, comments so long - and on point - and well argued - and elegantly written - and probably lots of other good qualities - that I probably should have kept them for my own blog, or my memoir.

    Your comment makes clear some of our differences. I see no tragic ends, for example, not for anyone. So that sets us in separate directions right away. I don't need or expect comic antagonists to become better people. Worse, if anything.

    Henry's pursuit of Fanny becomes genuine, absolutely. The relationship is like a parody of Darcy and Elizabeth. Henry gets so close to not being a dog. That's the brilliance of his visit to Portsmouth. Almost, almost.

    Anyway, I fell convinced, not coerced.

  18. Mary and Henry Crawford are more human to me than Fanny Price or Edmund Bertram. All four are guilty of facing their personal flaws. But I don't see why I have cheer on Fanny and Edmund, who seemed capable of pointing out the flaws of others, while ignoring their own. Not even Mary and Henry are guilty of this.

    1. This belated comment gave me an excuse to look back at everyone else's comments on Mansfield Park - what a good thread. Thanks to everyone who chimed in.

      As for this new comment, as far as I am concerned the only real person involved in the novel was Jane Austen, and when reading I am not so sure about her.

  19. Actually, I feel that "Mansfield Park" is a good novel, even if it's not my favorite. But I do dislike the two leading characters - Fanny Price and Edmund Bertram. I have nothing against an introverted heroine. I happen to like both Elinor Dashwood and Anne Elliot. However, Fanny (and Edmund) are too hypocritical and lack any compassion toward others. And how can I cheer them for pointing out the flaws of others, when both seem incapable of acknowledging their own flaws?

    Had this been Jane Austen's intent - for her readers to see the flawed nature of Fanny Price and Edmund Bertam? Or the manner in which they had finally became a couple? Or did she really expect her readers to cheer them on?

  20. The Rush Blog,
    I've had this discussion too many times before, so I'm just going to put here some of my blog posts that respond to what you wrote:
    - The hypocrisy charge:
    - The lack of compassion charge:
    This post includes all the things I've written about Mansfield Park, people's misreading, and Jane Austen's ideas about depth, compassion, self-understanding, and balance:

  21. Di, keep in mind the possibility that "you" is a robot of some kind. Not that robots do not have the right to express their opinions on classic literature.

  22. Just in case anyone wanders and comes across this discussion, I've just put here a link to my new blog post about Mary Crawford:

  23. I will note that the Janeites I know do not seem to have a preference between Mary and Fanny.

    1. Haha thanks for the link, I still haven't read that.