Mansfield Park by Jane Austen, edited by James Kinsley and with an introduction and notes by Jane Stabler. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc. 2003. 480 pages.
In Mansfield Park, "All the world's a stage/And all the men and women merely players." The cast of characters of both the novel and the play within it is drawn from three families and their social circles: the Bertrams of Mansfield Park, the Grants/Crawfords of the parsonage, and the Prices of Portsmouth. Even as she refuses to participate in her cousins' staging of Lovers' Vows, Fanny Price is at center stage as the observer we observe in Austen's social and familial drama.
As the poor relation of the Bertrams, Fanny is a natural outsider. Lacking social or financial aspirations, she is free to see the folly of those around her and bound by what seems to have become a quaint form of honor from warning Edmund about his. For all her acquiescence to fate, however, Fanny is not weak. Just as she takes a firm stand about not appearing in the ill-fated Lovers' Vows with its ill-fated cast, she stays on her moral high road even when it requires her to assert herself to Sir Thomas, to whom she is beholden and whose own daughters dare not defy him so directly.
Marriage is central to Mansfield Park. Maria Ward "had the good luck . . . to be thereby raised to the rank of a baronet's lady, with all the comforts and consequences of an handsome house and large income." Despite the narrator's cynicism, the Bertrams have what seems to be an effective marriage; Sir Thomas is the domineering household head, while his decorative lady provides the services of her busybody widowed sister and her niece Fanny. Lady Bertram's passivity complements Sir Thomas's active nature; she is "guided in everything important by Sir Thomas, and in smaller concerns by her sister." She can do without companionship, but only if Sir Thomas reassures her.
Motivated by his money and status and her good looks, the Bertrams have established a solid marriage, but its sons and daughters are not its pride. Restrained by and resentful of Sir Thomas's patriarchal hand, his elder son and daughter rebel against and eventually flout his authority and threaten the family's good name. His younger daughter seeks escape through the closest means possible, and even his younger son is spared from his poor judgment only by fate.
Unlike Lady Bertram, her youngest sister marries for love, or at least on impulse, and suffers the consequences of ignoring what matters mostmoney and social standing. Self-condemned to a life of poverty and negligence, Mrs. Price cannot depend on either husband or servants to manage day-to-day life so she can indulge in her natural laziness, as Lady Bertram does. Even as her family lives in filthy squalor, Mrs. Price, could, if she were capable of noticing, take pride in Fanny's personal growth and moral fortitude, William's accomplishments and career, and Susan's promise. Like the Bertrams on their extensive estate, she is trapped in the narrow drama she has written for herself. Those who exitFanny, William, Susanare able, it seems, to craft a more positive narrative for themselves.
Like a proscenium arch, the trip to Sotherton and the use of Lovers' Vows frame Fanny's view of the relationships around her. Much of the action takes place out of her sight (to her dismay), but Fanny sees enough to disturb her sense of propriety and to bring to light her own desires. Fanny, and the reader, can only guess what is happening offstage and how it may affect her.
Relationships founded solely on money (Rushworths), rebellion or love (Prices, presumably), and lust (Henry/Maria) fare poorly, as does the Crawfords' sister's second marriage (to the admiral). Austen's narrator does not give up on the institution, however. "With so much true merit and true love, and no want of fortune or friends . . . happiness . . . must appear as secure as earthly happiness can be," the omnipotent stage director steps in to say after having dispensed justice and wisdom to those characters who require one or the other, just before before the curtain falls on Mansfield Park and environs. In the end and with a heavy hand, the narrator redeems marriage, at least for the deserving (Fanny) and the enduring (the Bertrams).
Readers who prefer strong, attractive women may not appreciate Fanny, her apparently rigid morality, and her seeming weakness of will. As a perceptive outsider who understands what she observes, Fanny is a complex character. She knows and respects how Sir Thomas would feel about Lovers' Vows and participates to the extent she can so she can keep an eye on Edmund. She knows where his future unhappiness lies, yet does not deter him although it is in her power. She may be judgmental, as people are, but she asserts herself strongly only when she is herself affected, for example, when she is wanted for the play and when Henry pays his attentions. She is true to herself and allows others the same freedom, succeed or fail, with her real feelings hidden within her inner emotional life.
Set in a time of war and slave-supported prosperity that seems remote, Mansfield Park can still reach across the years. In spite of the antiquated social and moral codes that rule their lives, the out-of-touch adults, the rebellious children, and the lonely and unconventional heroine still hold interest today.
Friday, 28 November 2008.
Copyright © 2008 by Diane L. Schirf.