Jane Austen

 

Mansfield Park

 

Itís hard to review this book in the way that I prefer to: subjectively and unselfconsciously. I donít want to be particularly conscious of the fact that Iíll be reviewing a book while Iím reading it Ė the reading should be for its own sake. Moreover since Iím not writing under any commission or compunction I should be unconcerned about reactions. I donít have the time for lots of rewrites, and if most of the point of the exercise is personal pleasure itís absurd if Iím writing as a chore.

 

However Ö I canít shake the knowledge of approaching Austen as part of the canon of English Literature. Her sacrosanct words have been praised and pored over unreservedly for centuries and her fans are legion (a sister of mine could virtually site you chapter and verse of any sentence you read her). Offering an opinion of anything sheís written places you in the sights of a whole genre Ė as opposed to, say, mentioning that you didnít enjoy the last Clancy thriller. Itís like that old line about responding to a da Vinci: itís not the painting thatís being judged.

 

So with all that baggage, onto the review.

 

It was refreshing to spend some time in a book so different to most others I read. Once youíve got your 19th century language Ďsea-legsí (something that generally settles after a few chapters) the novelty is no longer an obstacle to enjoyment Ė quite the opposite. Moreover the structure of the book felt different: Austen has no problem having major characters suddenly virtually disappear, as with the Miss Bertrams. Also thereís the usual pleasure of stepping outside the assumed values of your own century Ė thereís nothing that quite highlights your own assumptions as reading those contrary ones of different times.

 

That being said, this book is quite didactic, stiflingly so in the first half where I was growing weary of the sheer volume of gratification I was supposed to gather by the constant belabouring of Mrs Norrisí abundant shortcomings Ė or rather of her single, if major, shortcoming. I wasnít at all clear on whether we were meant to wryly smile at (the now unfortunately named) Fannyís naÔve blanket moral condemnations of just about everyone except Edmund, or rather to similarly look down upon the characters with the assured condescension of the author herself. Did Austen so blithely judge, rank and dismiss those of her own acquaintance with the regal arrogance she did with these fictional characters? The right way to interact with society it appears is to almost instantly decide the quality of the character of the person you meet, and to not be swayed from your initial assessment: Fannyís severe and almost universal moral condemnations are utterly vindicated at the novelís unambiguous conclusion.

 

I suppose I found the ubiquitous censure uncomfortable: Wodehouse could poke fun at languid, self-indulgent aristocrats without requiring our contempt. To relish this Austen I feel you have to relish your smug superiority over most everyone.

 

Yeah, I suppose itís the smugness that dilutes the pleasure of this highly developed morality tale. Along the way we get an ably narrated window on two lifestyles of the early 19th Century. For all of Austenís theme that virtue overrides wealth (and, indeed, that wealth and indolence are a great danger for the young), class is massive: probably the first thing you need to know about a person, even before you know their character, is what theyíre worth. Have we changed all that much since then? I suspect so: at least now itís somewhat bad form to inquire about and discuss the relative incomes of your friends and acquaintances Ė here itís the very first thing that must be established.

 

Interesting to have as your heroine a shy, relatively inarticulate girl whose only assets are her high moral standards and personal integrity (oh, and she looks OK Ė but by no means the belle). Others fall by the wayside who show much greater sparkle, wit, verve, passion, good humour, talent, beauty or wealth. Austen really hammers home the condemnation of shallow worldliness, the nominalism that plays at virtue as merely an aspect of social point scoring. That being said, thereís no room for Scarlet Letter development of personality or awareness of hypocrisy: you make one mistake of a publicly sexual nature and you are rightly tagged for life; you maintain your marriage Ė on whatever terms Ė and youíre essentially OK.

 

The conclusion of the novel felt pretty sudden, and I was surprised, along with the rest of the characters, to find that young uncompromising Fanny was right to dismiss the charming Mr Crawford all along (I should have remembered he always was a consummate actor). Itís a fairy tale for good girls, and she gets her man, despite all circumstances and the fact that she never had the pride to seriously hope for him. Holier-than-thou squares are more commonly a target for fiction, even if, as in other Austens, they may only be affectionately pilloried. Here we donít get to smirk at her unconscious jealousy of Miss Crawford: when it came down to it, Edmund was being a fool after all.

 

I did love the single sentence where Austen pops in personally, as authors were far more prone to do back then:

Let other pens dwell on guilt an misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can, impatient to restore everybody, not greatly in fault themselves, to tolerable comfort, and to have done with the rest.

Itís like your little DVD extra, where the author explains their approach. Not to be overused, likewise I liked Lodge popping in just for a few words in How Far Can You Go.

 

So, an interesting and non-formulaic read, but without a lot of the humour and wit that established Austenís popularity. Austen herself said of it:

ďI hope on the credit of P. & P. [it] will sell well, thoí not half so entertaining.Ē

My sister tells me that itís not the Austen sheíd recommend anyone start with.

 

December 2004