My TBR for Jane Austen July ✨

Hello everyone!

So there’s this Jane-Austen-themed reading event floating around 👉👈

Predictably, I couldn’t resist the temptation to make a TBR. For this year’s annual Jane Austen July (Goodreads group here), there are seven strictly optional challenges (five reading, two watching), and I’m going to try to hit them all in one extremely nerdy and ambitious go!

If you’re also participating, be sure to let me know in the comments! And if you need any ideas for the challenges, read on 💕

1. Read one of Jane Austen’s main six novels!

Guess who loves Jane Austen but still hasn’t read Pride and Prejudice 🙄. I’ve watched multiple adaptations, started it twice, and even went to a book club with it unfinished (!!!) but I have yet to actually complete Austen’s most enduring and beloved work. So, this month, instead of me rereading my most adored favorite, Mansfield Park, I’m going to start what seems like the whole world’s favorite, and see if it becomes mine.

2. Read something by Jane Austen that is not one of her six novels!

For this challenge, I’ll be diving into Austen’s epistolary novella Lady Susan (which also happens to be the group read for the second half of July!). Like its positively sparkling film adaptation from 2016, Love and Friendship, it follows a widow who’s looking to pull every string she can to get her and her daughter advantageously married. I love a complicated female lead, and Austen’s trademark irony, obviously, so I think I’ll have fun with this one.

3. Read a non-fiction about Jane Austen or her time!

This is an area in which I’m totally new, so I decided to go with one of the hosts’ recommendations and read What Matters in Jane Austen, a look at Jane Austen’s works by an English professor. With chapters on everything from the use of weather in her novels to how and when she depicts the working class, this book promises to cover a lot of ground and I’m so looking forward to diving in!

4. Read a retelling of a Jane Austen book or a work of historical fiction set in Jane Austen’s time.

Being a historical fantasy, it’s an eccentric choice for this challenge, but Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is set in England during the Napoleonic Wars, so it technically counts! At just over a thousand pages, it’s maybe a bit foolish for a month of challenges, but I’ve wanted to pick it up for ages now, and a girl has to get her fantasy novel in somewhere during a classics readathon!

5. Read a book by a contemporary of Jane Austen!

For this, I’ll be reading Frances Burney’s Camilla, a coming-of-age story set in high society that comes to us from 1796. With Burney said to hold a lot of Austen’s charms, I’m eager to see if I agree––though I’m of course a tad intimidated by the page count 😅. (And by the fact that while I adore the clothes, I find books from the 18th century to be quite daunting.) I have high hopes, but if I truly can’t do it, I’ll just read a play instead: Lovers’ Vows, anyone?

6. Watch an adaptation of one of the books.

Whatever our consensus on that trailer is supposed to be, I WILL be watching the new version of Persuasion on Netflix this month. Besides that, I’m also planning to dip in to a few old favorites: Ang Lee’s marvelous adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, Love and Friendship, the 2020 version of Emma that I’m still totally obsessed with. Needless to say, July will be a very busy month for my Letterboxd.

7. Watch a modern screen adaptation/retelling of a Jane Austen book!

If you haven’t watched the Lizzie Bennet Diaries on YouTube, you should absolutely go do that, but in lieu of a rewatch, I’ve decided to go for Metropolitan, which is a very loose retelling of Mansfield Park set in the New York socialite scene. It’s a more off-the-beaten path choice, but that’s precisely why I’m excited about it: the class dynamics are what I love most about Mansfield Park, and this choice of setting is a great place to re-examine them.

Thank you so much for reading! What are your July reading plans? Austen or no, I’d love to hear anything and everything from you, in the comments 💕

The Subtle Brilliance of “Mansfield Park”

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 strict expectations and ethical shortcomings of her rich benefactors loom over Fanny Price in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. Collage by Pippin Hart. Credits in this post.

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.