Mansfield Park (Barnes & Noble Classics Series)

Mansfield Park - Amanda Claybaugh, Jane Austen Mansfield Park is a departure from what I thought the "typical" Jane Austen novel would be. There is a seriousness and complexity to Mansfield Park that is almost absent in books like "Pride and Prejudice" or "Emma". Somehow the stakes are higher, the situation more desperate, and the outcome more uncertain.The novel opens with the heroine, Fanny Price, forced by poverty to leave her home and family to live with distant, wealthy relatives. She is received with aloofness by her uncle, Sir Thomas Bertram, and most of his family. Fanny is young, plain, physically weak, and painfully shy. She lacks many of the positive qualities found in most of Austen's characters. What Fanny does possess is an unerring ability to read the character of others, an unwavering conviction of what is right, and the strength of character to abide by her convictions even in the face of universal opposition. Fanny grows up in the home of her uncle as little more than another servant. Though humble, gentle, kind and genuinely good, she is constantly browbeaten and reminded of how fortunate she is to be living there. She is surrounded by wealth, but deprived of tenderness. Her two female cousins, Maria and Julia, are spoiled and vain, and they treat Fanny with disdain. Her aunt, Lady Bertram, is lazy and dimly aware of her own existence. Another aunt, Mrs. Norris, is cruel, depriving Fanny not only of tenderness, but basic necessities. Of her two male cousins, Tom, the eldest, is an irresponsible spendthrift who barely knows that Fanny is there. Only Edmund sees Fanny as who she is and responds with gentleness. As the only person who treats Fanny well, it is not surprising that she grows to love Edmund and hopes to marry him. In spite of the indifferent and cruel treatment she receives from most of the family, Fanny retains her good nature, and her moral strength and courage. These qualities are tested time and time again, most notably in the introduction of Mr. Henry and Miss Mary Crawford. Beautiful, wealthy, sophisticated and vibrant, Henry and Mary introduce an element of temptation into the atmosphere of Mansfield Park. They are morally loose and make a game of seducing and corrupting others, particularly the innocent. Mary sets her sights on Edmund, Henry on Fanny. Fanny, alone, sees through the Crawfords and knows what they are. Everyone else is taken in by their appealing exterior, and what follows is a subtle war between good and evil that occupies most of the rest of the book. During this time, Fanny is relentlessly attacked, both directly and indirectly, from all sides. The Crawfords, and even her family, try to bend her to their will or force her to compromise her integrity in some way. Even Edmund is deceived by the Crawfords and joins with them against Fanny. She is alone in a way that few Austen heroines experience. What saves Fanny is her steadfast adherence to what is true, right, and good. Henry Crawford, frustrated by Fanny's resolve, leads another astray in an act that brings shame to the family of Sir Thomas, and exposes both Crawfords. Ultimately, Fanny is vindicated and her love for Edmund requited.There is so much that could be said about "Mansfield Park". It is deeply ironic. For example, Fanny is told how fortunate she is to benefit from living at Mansfield Park, but the truth is exactly the opposite. It is Sir Thomas and his family who benefit from Fanny's presence. It is her character that forms the moral core of the family. They rely on her, and her constancy serves them well. She cares for them and nurtures them repeatedly. "Mansfield Park" also reverses the typical arc of development for Austen's protagonists. At the beginning of the novel, Fanny already possesses the mature character that comes only gradually to Emma or Lizzie Bennet. Indeed, it is Fanny's constancy that is the catalyst for change in others. Sir Thomas, Mrs. Norris, and even Edmund believe that Fanny must change, and urge her to do so. But when the Crawfords are exposed, Fanny's constancy shines radiantly and she inspires others to evaluate their prejudices and presuppositions. Her character is the rock on which the wickedness of the Crawfords, Mrs. Norris, and others, is broken. "Mansfield Park" was a difficult book to read. Fanny's plight is frequently pitiful and she has nowhere to turn, no one to protect her. It is this, though, that makes her vindication so satisfying when it finally comes. I look forward to reading it again.