The act of reading ... begins on a flat surface, counter or page, and then gets stirred and chopped and blended until what we make, in the end, is a dish, or story, all our own.
— Adam Gopnik
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July 27, 2010

Mansfield Park (and Jane Austen: A Biography)

'Her misfortunes are so keen that were not her fortitude quite equal to them, she would be a downright nuisance.'
-- Elizabeth Jenkins, in Jane Austen:  a biography

Re-reading Mansfield Park was part of an organized reading project that I started thinking about with a few years ago. {The general idea was that I would choose an author - Jane Austen was the first - and read all or most of his/her works and a biography or two, watch movies based on their works, and maybe even visit the author's homes and haunts, if I could. I haven't been as organized about following this plan as I was about putting it together.  But I also realized, to my very great surprise, that I haven't yet read all of Jane Austen. I've never read Persuasion (or Sanditon, or Lady Susan, or The Watsons) , and it's been years since I read Mansfield Park or Emma. The idea behind this was to recreate my love of literature, and of learning about it. I wanted to feel as though I knew something about the authors I had picked out to work on, and I do think I've accomplished that with Jane Austen, even in less-than-organized way.} So I started re-reading her in order, and reading Mansfield Park came up at a time, and in a way, that helped me through a little bit of a patch.  (I put a ebook version on my computer and read the first half or so on screen when things were slowing down at work...the modern technological equivalent of reading under the covers with a flashlight when you're supposed to be in bed?)

Coincidentally - but in a good way - other readers were talking about a novel by Elizabeth Jenkins called The Tortoise and the Hare, and someone mentioned that she had written a biography of Jane Austen. After reading all the contemporary biographies, I thought it would be so interesting to read an older one (this one was published in 1949). It has been...not for the biographical details, because of course there's nothing new, but Jenkins focuses as much on a literary analysis of the novels as she does on Jane Austen's life. And somehow, it's worked out that I was reading about Mansfield Park at about the same time as I was finishing Mansfield Park.

For a while, to be honest, I found Mansfield Park a bit of a slog. I kept putting it aside, pretending that I wanted to pay closer attention to it, but parts of it seemed very slow-going.  Fanny is sensitive, and intelligent, and principled; she strong feelings for Edmund, and she sees through the Crawfords. But the other characters (Lady Bertram, Mrs. Norris, the Crawfords, even soppy Mr. Rushworth) are sometimes more interesting. Edmund is disappointing as a hero. And (except for a few bits, with Lady Bertram's pug and Mr. Rushworth's pink coat) there's less humor, too. Or am I missing something?
'...but what is perhaps the most striking expression of opinion ever uttered on Jane Austen's works came from Mrs. B.'s daughter-in-law Mrs. Augusta B., who 'owned that she thought S. and S. and P. and P. downright nonsense, but expected to like M.P. better, and having finished the first volume, flattered herself that she had got through the worst.'

But it would be hard for me to dislike Jane Austen, and I think this one, even though it won't be a favorite, will be worth re-reading (maybe sooner rather than later?)  And I was especially interested in the ending, if only because I remember that when the 1996(?) movie came out, people made a fuss because the filmmakers changed the ending. I have the movie on DVD, and as soon as I have a chance I'm going to watch it again, just to see what they did.

I didn't want to be influenced by Elizabeth Jenkins' thoughts on the book, but that was more or less inevitable. She is impressed by the novel's subtlety and emotional honesty (Jenkins is essentially positive about all the books, but she is harsh in places about Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility.)  She comments that Mansfield Park allowed Jane Austen to do two things -- 'create 'her strongest portrait of a truly hateful woman' and 'her one contribution to the painting of squalid interiors' -- two examples of 'the story's complex and subtle strength.'  I was wrong about who the 'truly hateful woman' was (I thought the character in question was more of a Sir Walter Elliot caricature than someone truly hateful), but I agree with her that the 'coarsegrained and unscrupulous' Crawfords are the most interesting characters in the book. I think Mary Crawford {'complaisant as a sister...careless as a woman and a friend') is the character Jane Austen drew the best. There's an interesting discussion in the biography about whether (as her family later claimed) Jane Austen used her cousin Eliza as the model for Mary Crawford (Jenkins argues that she wouldn't have, and didn't.)

One more interesting thought from Elizabeth Jenkins...

Mansfield Park itself is the matrix of the story to an extent that could not be claimed for Northanger, or Pemberley, or Hartfield, or Kellynch. We have, it is true, Fanny’s excursion to Portsmouth; an eventful day is spent at Sotherton; there is a description of Edmund’s Thornton Lacey; Fanny’s brother comes ashore; Sir Thomas Bertram returns from a voyage to Antigua, in the course of which he was nearly nabbed by a French privateer; but for the greater part of the book we are conscious of no life, in village or town or distant country, except what is within Mansfield Park itself, and the Parsonage at one side of its park, and the White House at another. In the seclusion of this great retreat, where some of the characters are fixed, and from and to which the others go and come, the heroine is, for the greater part of the book, immovably settled; as the lowest and the least, the fagger of errands for Mrs. Norris and the tacker-on of Lady Bertram’s patterns, she has no gaieties to take her out, dances in neighboring great houses, or public balls at Northampton, or extended rides; since then the others took them, her horse was wanted for Mary Crawford. Edmund’s determined efforts for her pleasure took her as far as joining the expedition to Sotherton and dining one evening at the Parsonage. All she sees and hears, all she thinks and feels and suffers for the important part of the book, is experienced in the radius of the house with its great and lofty rooms, the park, with its scattered trees and closer wood, the rose garden, the shrubbery and the lane.
Emma next!


Coffee and a Book Chick said...

I am ashamed to admit that I've only read Pride and Prejudice -- I'm excited to hear your thoughts on Emma, too!

Rachel (Book Snob) said...

What a marvellous post! I loved The Tortoise and the Hare and would be very interested to read Elizabeth Jenkins' take on Jane Austen. I love JA and have read all of her novels, MP being my least favourite, though I am due for a re-read, as I read it when quite young. Persuasion and Emma are my two favourites; they are absolutely superbly written novels, with wonderful characters, and I hope you love Emma as much as I do!

El said...

You always find such great books. It reminds me that I need to spend more time reading!

Thank you for visiting!

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