Jane Austen’s lesser-known Mansfield Park begins decades before its heroine, Fanny Price, takes the stage (though far from willingly––she avoids all attention). The setup of this quiet, subdued drama is the marital choices of three sisters, the new Mrs. Price into relative poverty, the new Mrs. Norris into circumstances slightly better, and the new Lady Bertram into a vast estate and a title (!).
Years later, when Mrs. Price’s oldest daughter, Fanny, is ten, the Bertrams, with Mrs. Norris’ urgings, take on Fanny for somewhat selfish reasons, and bring her to Mansfield Park. There, she is perpetually behind the Betrams’ daughters in care and attention, and faces constant criticism from her older relatives, and manages to take it all in stride, with carefully-cultivated humility and an unfailingly sweet temperament. If you’ve ever wondered what Jane Eyre would’ve been like if she’d never protested the cruelty of her aunt and cousins, Mansfield Park is it. If you like it when characters stand up for themselves, it may test your patience.
But to Fanny, more than most, there’s more than meets the eye. Her eternally bowed head and boundless shock absorption belie the true substance of one of Austen’s most perceptive characters. Mansfield Park can’t beat the likes of Pride and Prejudice when it comes to a powerful struggle of wills, but its keen observations about how selfishness governs the actions of Fanny’s wealthy not-quite peers rival Pride and Prejudice‘s cleverest social satires, and the conflict in Mansfield Park is incredibly promising––much more interior, and deeply concerned with how best to preserve the dignity and feelings of others (in a subtler, interpersonal sense) when one is far from in power, both personally and socially. With this approach, and these ideas in mind, Mansfield Park levies more pungent and lingering criticism than much of Austen’s better-loved and better-known work.
It can be dispiriting, actively frustrating, even, to watch Fanny be picked apart by her extended family and their wealthy crowd: our dramatic instincts, especially in an era that pursues and uplifts stories about empowered women, have trained us for a fight. In a particularly irksome instance, Mrs. Norris, the cruelest of Fanny’s benefactors, firmly tells her, “Remember, where-ever you are, you must be lowest and last,” and Fanny, after being subjected to an extended lecture in the same general tone, extends a “Yes, m’am,” and demurely accepts her fate. What it suggests is not, as might be tempting to say, a spineless main character whom things just happen to, but rather, Austen’s careful attention to circumstance. She doesn’t merely play at writing a heroine who is told she is lowest and last wherever she goes; she seriously considers the kind of person this rearing would produce, and appreciates how little reprieve some satisfying, fiery retaliation would bring. The “spine” Fanny seems not to have is actually a luxury that only a happy accident of social currency can buy. Even with a richer family than Elizabeth Bennet, Fanny Price doesn’t have half the means to defend her honor or raise objection to an indignity. Austen knows the substance of this situation, and never compromises it to satisfy.
One of the great ironies of this book (Austen, in her infinite wit, never allows it to escape her notice) is how well the Bertrams’ hopes to render Fanny contrite and self-denying actually prove to work. She ends up so pliant, so repentant, that all their attempts to truly wound her fail. In fact, she stumbles into becoming one of the very few dependable members of the family, almost despite herself. Even if Mansfield Park makes for a fairly drastic response to Austen’s own criticisms of Pride and Prejudice as “rather too light,” it’s still pretty piercing in its irony. One long, amusing sequence in which Fanny’s rich cousins injudiciously attempt to stage a salacious play at the house while Sir Bertram is abroad, causes nothing but angst for Fanny, but in its absurdity is an absolute joy to read.
This owes mostly to the way Austen uses supporting characters as both a model and critique of the rich. Fanny’s cousins, Julia, Maria, and Tom (besides Edmund, who shares Fanny’s uncompromising principles), all have a basic sense of propriety, enough to operate in high society and be generally seen as acceptably polite, but they, as well as the visiting party, are haunted by the specter of privilege, cursed to make a fuss of even the simplest amusements. (As evidenced by the struggle to find a play to perform: “They wanted a piece containing very few characters in the whole, but every character first rate, and three principal women. All the best plays were run over in vain.”) They are also cursed, crucially, to be completely ignorant of how foolish they look––this is where Austen works her magic.
But that doesn’t mean they lack any complexity. The two new arrivals that set much of the book in motion, vibrant young socialites Henry and Mary Crawford, are fleshed out rather generously, a hypnotizing presence at the heart of the story, with tantalizing promises of betterment. In Mary’s case, it’s a spell Edmund, Fanny’s only morally upright cousin, falls for, one that Austen than uses to examine him and the abundance of credit he often trips into giving his own kind––those born exorbitantly wealthy. Both he and Fanny, though, seek out friendship in the Crawfords, she a little more attuned to the family’s faults. Through their discerning (and also rather passive) eyes, we see into the relationship between conscientiousness and circumstance, one Austen depicts consistently but complexly. Some economic turn in every character’s past allows Austen to explain why they do or do not take the needs of others into account, from the harshness that pushes Fanny’s mother to be callous to the luxury that makes Lady Bertram such an absentee adoptive parent. It’s far from satisfying to those who want to be the masters of their own fate, but it’s much richer than many of the ideas of inherent goodness––held at Austen’s time and beyond––could ever hope to be.
Yes, it takes its leads out of the driver’s seat and makes a habit of turning up its nose. But it’s far from a footnote to Pride and Prejudice‘s fame.