Jane Austen is my jam, y’all. I started off my love affair with her at the tender age of 12 or 13, when Pride and Prejudice was featured on a Wishbone episode. Obviously, I owe a lifelong debt to PBS for this. I checked out P&P from the library and promptly devoured it. At 14, I checked out the entire anthology of her published works. Though I was definitely young, it was an experience I never forgot, and I spent my teen years slowly collecting all the novels for my personal library. As a young adult, I tried to cycle through all her novels each year–and though I’ve had to abandon that scheme for other unread books, I can discuss each work with great and vociferous animation. In short: Austenite to the bone. Thankfully, I will be able to incorporate Austen into my dissertation, and I had to read Mansfield Park for a class I am enrolled in this semester.
So, let’s talk about one of Austen’s most problematic novels. Mansfield Park chronicles the arrival of the queer, solemn, prudish Fanny Price from her humble home in Portsmouth to the grand estate in Northamptonshire, Mansfield Park, owned by Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram, her aunt and uncle. Brought up on their charity, she is encouraged by her other aunt, Mrs. Norris (and yes, she *is* catty!) to think lowly of herself and not to elevate herself above her “true” station in life. When Sir Thomas is called away to deal with his plantation in Antigua (and that small subplot has yielded all kinds of scholarship on abolition, post-colonial narratives, the slave trade), the young people start to test the boundaries of what is good, proper, moral, etc. A young pair of siblings–Henry and Mary Crawford–move into the parsonage next door, and the fun really begins. Mary is a sassmouth, Henry a cad, and the rest is history.
Fanny is often cited as the least favorite Austen heroine, but she’s my personal favorite. While she lacks the sparkle of a Mary Crawford, the outright evil deliciousness of Mrs. Norris (miaow! I mean really, J.K. Rowling hit the nail on the head with Filch’s cat), or even the witty vivaciousness of P&P’s Elizabeth Bennet, she is steadfast and resolute in her convictions. The only power a woman has in her social position is to say no–and say it she does, at a most crucial moment in the novel.
If you liked Pride and Prejudice, I’d suggest that you give Mansfield Park a try. Be prepared: it is vastly different. My husband did not care for it. I, however, treasure it and try to re-read it every year.