Oh Lord. I thought this book would be the undoing of my Jane Austen project. It was an absolute chore to get through it. I don’t want to say I hated it. But I have strong feelings of not liking it. With the fire of a thousand burning suns. Here’s why.
1. Fanny Price
It’s not a good sign when the number one reason for not liking a novel is its heroine. Fanny Price is insipid, weak, timid, and just too damn scared all the time. I tried to reason that her behavior was shaped by having to move in, from an early age, with relatives who constantly belittled her and reminded her that she was not one of them. She was basically bullied by the family at Mansfield Park. But if she had a personality, any spark, it should be evident to the reader, even if the story required her to present a more submissive front to the Bertrams. Sadly for us, Fanny has no fight in her. She is not funny, she is not smart. She just endures and endures.
2. Edmund Bertram
I thought Edward Ferrars from Sense and Sensibility was a big wimp. That was because I hadn’t met Edmund Bertram yet. Although Edmund is not so much a wimp as he is a self-righteous, patronizing drip. He demonstrated his stupidity when he pursued Mary Crawford. When the youngsters of Mansfield Park wanted to put on the play, Edmund lectured against it. But the moment Mary invited him, he had a justification for his decision to join them. Edmund is not meant to be funny, one whose foibles we can forgive easily, because he is painted as a serious character, taken seriously by the author. And of course we all know he is meant to end up with the heroine. So it makes it that much more difficult to understand him and his motivations. There wasn’t enough of an arc for him to be redeemed and become worthy of Fanny. On the other hand, Fanny is not that great a catch either. She just sat by and longed for him like a puppy pining for his master, so in the end they actually deserved each other.
3. The ending
There was a point in the novel where my interest was actually piqued. After Edmund finally realized that Mary Crawford was in fact a horrible person, I was excited to see how Austen would resolve everything. Would there be an impassioned declaration to Fanny? An eloquent letter? A dramatic encounter? Alas, no. The wedding between Edmund and Fanny was treated as an afterthought, almost like an insignificant passage in the middle of other matters. After plodding through the book, I was looking for a nice ending as a reward. Instead, the resolution felt rushed, almost like Austen had lost interest or time and just wanted to wrap up everything.
One other thing that bothered me, though not enough to be a factor in disliking the book, is the fact that Edmund and Fanny are first cousins. Was it just me? I completely understand that at the time, it was completely normal for cousins to marry. So I guess I’m more bothered by the practice than by its being a part of the story at all.
Funnily enough, the character I liked best turned out to be Henry Crawford. Yes, he is a cad, but at least he knows it and owns it. Someone like Edmund Bertram is more dangerous, because he thinks he is morally superior and better than you. Lady Bertram is also a well drawn out character. She is lazy and self-absorbed, but she is still easy to appreciate because she is true to life. She makes sense. You can hate antagonists in a story because they are meant to be disliked, but if they are fully realized, you can appreciate them and the role they play, or the contrast they provide to the heroes. You may not be drawn to them emotionally, but on an intellectual level, you can still see their merits. Edmund Bertram and Fanny Price are not likable at all. Not only was I not drawn to them, I was actually repulsed.
I’ve seen other, more forgiving interpretations and analyses of Edmund Bertram, and it does make me wonder why I simply cannot appreciate him. I must be seeing him through a different filter. Or maybe there are just so many aspects of his personality that are anathema to me – his moralizing, his judgmental nature (I have enough of this on my own, thank you), and his lecturing. Where others would see his attitude as helpfulness and compassion for Fanny, I just see it as annoying. Perhaps my feelings about Mansfield Park say more about me than about the novel. At this point, I don’t really have enough strength to reread it. I believe if books don’t do you any good, it’s perfectly okay to leave them!
I love Jane Austen unreservedly. That’s the reason I am candid about my feelings for Mansfield Park. Because I know that my love is unchanged.
However, I had to take a two-month break from Austen after this. Thankfully the next book offered a redemption. Stay tuned!