Last year was the bicentennial of Jane Austen’s classic novel, Pride and Prejudice. I took part in the celebration hosted by austenprose.com, which involved reading or watching (and reviewing) a number of spinoffs and DVD’s based on the book. I also added Pride and Prejudice to the books from which I put short quotes on Twitter @sueannbowling, and then explained the contexts on Wednesdays on this blog.
This year another of Jane Austen’s books has its 200th anniversary: Mansfield Park.
This is a book many critics tend to put near the bottom of Jane Austen’s works. Certainly it has far fewer spinoffs, retellings, or adaptations than Pride and Prejudice, and many readers tend to dismiss it because the heroine, Fanny Price, is merely good, rather than spirited and a bit kickass, like Elizabeth Bennett. This is particularly true since Fanny is set up against Mary Crawford, who seems everything that an Austen heroine should be.
I don’t agree.
Yes, Fanny is a quiet, modest girl who adheres to the mores of her time. But she does not lack a kind of quiet heroism of her own, as when she refuses the outwardly eligible Henry Crawford. And her observations of the other characters, and Jane’s drawing of those characters, is wonderful. I’ve read and reread many of Jane Austen’s books, and I would group Mansfield Park with Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion as far as the number of re-readings gives a ranking.
I’ve heard that Jane’s intention was to give Fanny only goodness, and to purposely show the contrast between the quiet, principled Fanny and the far more engaging but less scrupulous Mary Crawford. Yes, her uncle, especially after his return from Antigua, thinks her “very pretty,” but she is not set up as a great beauty, nor does that seem to be nearly as important, in the marriage market Austen describes, as are wealth and social position.
In fact all of Austen’s heroines are basically good, principled people. They may be naïve in various ways, but there is not a one of them who is not careful of the feelings of others or who would not view adultery (in either sex) with horror. Mansfield Park is the novel in which this characteristic appears in its purest form.