The Short Version: Fanny Price, daughter of a poor relation of Lady Bertram, is brought to live at Mansfield Park in the hopes that she might succeed more at life as well as take a burden off of her belabored family. She grows up with her four cousins and they all get wrapped up in some romantic shenanigans – and Fanny remains quite the wet blanket from start to finish.
The Review: So we reach the midway point of Austen 2013 and I have to say, this one will be intensely more difficult to complete than Dickens 2012 if the remaining books are more like Mansfield Park than Emma. I have been told that Mansfield is perhaps the least-likable Austen novel and I take some comfort in that… but good god, this one seemed to have little of the joyous comforts I’ve just begun to warm up to.
First and most importantly, Fanny Price. Could not be. A bigger drip. Wet blanket. Party pooper. Etc etc etc. My god, she’s the most passive ‘heroine’ in the history of literature and she’s such a prig to boot. I’m not going to support the scandalous behavior of most of her relations (we’ll come to that in a moment) but at least they seemed to be living life and having a bit of fun doing it, whereas Fanny just can’t abide a single thing. She goes on walks and complains of being tired, she doesn’t want to do the play because she thinks it’d upset her uncle in some hypothetical sense (seeing as he hypothetically would never have KNOWN ABOUT IT, had he not magically returned just then), she takes the verbal abuse from her other aunt without ever really putting up any sort of fight, she allows herself to basically be bundled into the next step of life without ever so much as considering anything for herself. Hell, in the end, she only ends up ‘happy’ because Edmund was like “oh, well… I guess there’s Fanny!”
If you couldn’t tell, I was confused by this book. Here’s an author who has developed a reputation over the last 200 years as having been one of the first real writers of strong female characters. I mean, obviously within the socio-political strictures of the day – it’s not like Elizabeth Bennet was going to be Prime Minister (although I’d read the hell out of that fan-fic)… but I digress. She has this reputation for writing strong female characters and then she presents us with a novel in which the main female character is anything but strong. Unless you consider her strong in her steadfast opposition to things like “fun” and “joy” and “anything remotely resembling an active engagement in life”, in which case sure. Go ahead.
Everyone in this novel seems a little skeevy, to be honest. We’ve seen elopements and such scandalous behaviors before (hey, younger Bennet sister whose name I never remember!) but this book seemed to have a bit more of a moralistic bent. We see (or rather just hear) about a woman leaving her husband for another man, the husband getting a divorce; meanwhile another woman elopes. And Fanny ends up with the upstanding soon-to-be-pastor – and their lives are probably upstanding and moral and God-fearing, amen. Where’s the romantic spark of such so-wrong-they’re-right couples as Bennet & Darcy or Woodhouse & Knightley?
All of this vigorous confusion and distaste aside, there are things about this book to recommend it as an interesting addition to the canon. Firstly, as you can tell, it seems to stick out like a sore thumb and thus one could have a critical field day comparing it to the rest of Austen’s works. But secondly, I wonder what old Dickens would’ve thought of this book. The section (unnecessary and far too long, honestly) near the end where Fanny is sent back to Portsmouth – presumably to show her where she came from / how terrible it is to be poor – was incredibly Dickensian. Or, to put it more chronologically accurately, Dickens’ work shows roots in this passage of Austen. The children running around, the quirky lower-class lives… it felt like something out of an entirely different novel and moments like Mrs. Price explaining why they have the young ones run around with messages because they haven’t gotten the bell fixed… pluck the Prices out of this novel, drop them into any Dickens novel, and I dare say you’d have a seamless fit. It’s like Thursday Next had to patch up a text-hole and the only thing available was a third-tier Dickens family (hey, Jasper Fforde, if you read this? I want a shout-out for that idea).
Anyway, it’s all a bit strange, this book. Weird sudden appearances, major plot points delivered (and then expounded upon) via letters, and a main character who couldn’t have less agency if she tried. Actually, that’s quite true – because if she tried, she would inherently have agency. And she does not try in this book, really, at all. To do anything.
Rating: 2.5 out of 5. I just can’t get past the fact that Fanny is such a drip. As a result, everything about this book feels long and frustrating and dare-I-say “wrong” – because our main character thinks its all wrong in one way or another and we’re stuck with her point of view, so inevitably it all feels off. I truly hope that this, this halfway mark of Austen 2013, is the low-water mark – and that it’ll only be uphill from here.
(ed. note — I’m well aware that many people dislike Northanger Abbey even more than this book. And I disliked it when I ‘read’ it my freshman year of college – BUT I’m now prepared [literally; I have a degree that entitles me so] to look upon it as Austen intended: a send-up of the Gothics. So, come October, I’ll have a ball. Slash it can’t be any worse that this.)