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Mansfield Park by Jane Austen | Book Review

Mansfield Park is a social commentary on propriety, morals, and class in Victorian England. One of the finest classic novels I’ve read.

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

 
Published: 1814
Paperback : 488 pages
Publisher: Penguin Books
Genre: Classics

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I picked up Mansfield Park by Jane Austen as it made the list of books to read for Downton Abbey fans. My love for the show brought me into a mood to read something historical, set in England, spanning a cast of characters ranging from those who come from humble backgrounds to minor nobility. Austen’s third novel, written after Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice, seemed like the perfect choice. 

Set in Victorian England, Mansfield Park opens with an introduction about three sisters – Miss Maria, Miss Ward, and Miss Frances – and the marriages they make. Maria marries fortune and becomes Lady Bertram, living in a large country house – Mansfield Park. Miss Ward marries a clergyman Rev. Mr. Norris, while Miss Frances marries a nobody, a Mr. Price. 

Illustration for Chapter 2 of Mansfield Park, published as part of the Series of English Idylls, by J.M Dent & Co. (London) and E.P. Dutton & Co. (New York).
By C. E. Brock (died 1938) – http://solitary-elegance.com/mp-brock.htm, Public Domain

Their fortunes are such that Lady Bertram and Mrs. Norris have a more steady and intimate relationship while Mrs. Price is burdened with many children and lives in an impoverished state. It is her daughter, Fanny Price who is our protagonist.

Fanny is ten years old when she comes to Mansfield Park to live with her wealthy aunt and uncle. Coming from a humbler and poorer background compared to the Bertrams, Fanny is always reticent and inward-looking. In more ways than one, she is made to feel like an outsider, not quite on par with her cousins – Maria, Julia, Edmund, and Tom – who are all elder to her. 

She is constantly reminded by the treatment meted out to her (though never explicitly harsh) by her cousins and even her Aunt Norris just how lucky she is to be taken in by the Bertrams as an act of charity and just how grateful she needs to be. 

“Nothing amuses me more than the easy manner with which everybody settles the abundance of those who have a great deal less than themselves.”

The years pass and Fanny turns into a young woman of 18, still being treated as an outsider, or at least not quite as one of the family. While Maria and Julia court young men, Fanny is not even made to “come out” in the traditional way into Society. It is only the consideration and kindness of her cousin Edmund that gives her any hope of having a friend and a social life. Otherwise, she is mostly ignored by her other cousins and her uncle and aunts. 

Fanny spends most of her time in the East Room, a cold room without even a fireplace to keep her warm during the winter months. But this is a place that Fanny can call her own. It is here she finds solace and quiet and goes on to have many introspections. 

“One cannot fix one’s eyes on the commonest natural production without finding food for a rambling fancy”

Mansfield Park is thrown into drama and disarray with the arrival of the Crawford siblings, Henry and Mary. Flirtations begin, jealousies emerge and emotions are thrown into turmoil. 

Edmund and Mary get interested in each other, only for Mary to discover that Edmund is bound to be a clergyman. She continuously keeps undermining his vocation, dropping very obvious hints that Edmund could choose a different life for himself, and Mary could then choose him. Mary is not ready to settle for a clergyman nor will she commit herself to anyone not wealthy.

“Children of the same family, the same blood, with the same first associations and habits, have some means of enjoyment in their power, which no subsequent connections can supply”

On the other hand, Henry flirts with Maria who is already engaged to Mr. Rushworth, arousing the jealousy of both her beau as well as her sister Julia, who is attracted to Henry herself. 

In all of this, Fanny is a spectator, but not a silent one. She only has to witness the growing fondness of Edmund for Mary and her conviction that Mary is not right for Edmund, which gives her the strength to confront her brother several times. But the truth, which Fanny struggles to acknowledge even to herself, is that she is in love with Edmund, and is not above envying herself at the thought of Edmund preferring another woman. 

As if all this drama wasn’t sufficient, we have another affair thrown in. After flirtations with the two Bertram sisters that lead to nothing more than a few wagging tongues, Henry finds himself declaring his passion for Fanny. This shocks Fanny to no end, and despite her repeated insistence that she will have nothing to do with a man of such low morals, everyone around her encourages the match, including Edmund. 

It takes a scandalous event to finally make a break between the Crawfords and the Bertrams. Reputations will be spoilt, tears shed and hearts are broken – before finally, we have a resolution that we hope all romance novels do. 

I absolutely love classic literature, especially books written before the 20th century. There is something very poetic about the prose. Even mundane events and observations seem to take a life of their own. 

“Her eye fell everywhere on lawns and plantations of the freshest green; and the tress, though not fully clothed, were in that delightful state when further beauty is known to be at hand, and when, while much is actually given to the sight, more yet remains for the imagination.”

I certainly liked Mansfield Park a lot better than Pride and Prejudice. The novel was treated as a social comedy when it first came out in Victorian times in 1814, even though it was a few years before it gained some popularity. 

Title page from the first edition of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park
By Jane Austen (1775 – 1817) – Lilly Library, Indiana University, Public Domain

Along with the social commentary it encourages, Mansfield Park is also about a time and place in which questions of propriety, morals, theatrical performance, ordination, and religion abound – and it is very interesting to be reading about all this now, over two hundred years later. 

There is also a deep examination of a woman’s worth in society – Fanny is the dependent poor relation of the Bertrams and everything that is done for her, which is not much, is made out to be an act of magnanimous charity. 

Fanny is a girl of her time. She disapproves of theatre and has been labeled as priggish by several book critics. However, knowing that the context of the novel places her in a society where morality marked a woman’s worth and a man’s value was attached to his wealth, Fanny goes on to show immense courage and self-esteem when refusing Henry Crawford’s advances, despite being told that she could not hope for a better matrimonial alliance given her middle-class status.

The only place where I did find Fanny acting like a snob was when she was back in Portsmouth in her childhood home, visiting her parents after seven years. Here, Fanny finds herself surrounded by noisy siblings, disorder, bad manners, and a mother and father who rarely seem to give her any attention. Before long Fanny finds herself yearning for Mansfield Park, for she has now come to think of it as her home. 

“… sunshine appeared to her a totally different thing in a town and in the country. Here, its power was only a glare: a stifling, sickly glare, serving but to bring forward stains and dirt that might otherwise have slept. There was neither health nor gaiety in sunshine in a town.”

There is also the matter of Fanny not being all that virtuous she is made out to be. For one thing, I did not find mention of anything that was especially harsh in the treatment of her by her cousins – except perhaps that she is not involved directly in the pursuits and social life of her cousins and is instead left with her aunt to sit and read to her or knit. 

In the beginning, I could only see Fanny as being on the weaker side physically – she tires easily while taking exercise. Perhaps this frail physicality is necessary to show her mental strength later on in the novel.

Then we have the character of Mary Crawford. She is witty and ironic and stands out in sharp contrast to Fanny. Mary can ride a horse without tiring, she can take long walks with immense pleasure and she can debate endlessly with Edmund on the vices of clergymen and virtues of wealth. 

It is not that Fanny is any less intelligent – but then she doesn’t quite express herself out loud. Where Mary can boldly state her mind, Fanny has to spend over four hundred pages in the novel secretly loving Edmund. 

“To me, the sound of Mr Bertram is so cold and nothing-meaning, so entirely without warmth, or character. It just stands for a gentleman and that’s all. But there is nobleness in the name of Edmund. It is a name of heroism and renown; of kings, princes and knights; and seems to breathe the spirit of chivalry and warm affections.”

I wish there was more to Fanny and Edmund’s love, which seemed to get wrapped up pretty quickly towards the end of the novel. It was quite rushed and I wish Fanny had had more space to see Edmund grow in love with her. 

The characters of Mansfield Park are very well-crafted. When it comes down to visualizing them I can find several faces from Downton Abbey that they remind me of. There’s Mary Crawford, like Mary Crawley who is snobbish, looks down on others, and thinks of her self-interest foremost with little consideration for the other’s emotions. The fact that their names are eerily similar works too well. Then there’s Mrs. Norris, an interfering, taking-credit-for-it-all, much like Isobel Crawley at her worst – interfering in affairs that are not her concern. Julia is a strong parallel to Edith Crawley, jealous of her elder sister and the affections she attracts.  

I’ve enjoyed reading Mansfield Park immensely and I’m pretty certain that this is one of the classic novels, along with Jane Eyre, that I’m going to be re-reading over and over again in the coming years. 


Have you read Mansfield Park? How does it compare to other Jane Austen novels in your opinion? Let me know in the comments!

By Sanskriti Nagar

I'm a storyteller on a journey - to connect people with places, the past with the present, the contemporary with the traditional. I'm just stepping into the shoes of an explorer, aspiring to be a globetrotter, and someday, a novelist. Follow me through my journeys, and if something does resonate with you, or you'd like me to cover a story for you, I'd love to catch up. (PS: I love coffee!)

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