Mansfield Park by Jane Austen: a novel of tension

Mansfield Park, Jane Austen’s third novel “seethes with sex” according to an article published in the Daily Telegraph to mark the 200th anniversary of the book. Was I reading a totally different novel or was the article’s author overly influenced by Andrew Davies’ determination to fit sex into every one of his TV adaptations of Austen’s work?

Passion and sexual tension were there in abundance in Pride and Prejudice but I could find few indications in Mansfield Park that “… eroticism, danger, illicit love and incest simmer below the surface.” The scene that apparently resonates with sexual undertones is the one where the Bertrams (who live at Mansfield Park) and their lively visitors Henry and  Mary Crawford take a day trip to the country manor of a wealthy, but stupid, young man. Trailing along with them is Fanny Price, a poor cousin of the Betrams who’d been uprooted from her loving but noisy home in and sent to live in a mansion where few of the inhabitants pay her the slightest attention.

MANSFIELD-PARK-BBC_400

Simmering tension in this 2007 adaptation of Mansfield Park

The trip contains plenty of undercurrents as both Bertram sisters compete openly for the attention of Henry Crawford and he plays one off against the other. Apparently we are meant to see as significant that they stroll along a serpentine path until they reach some phallic iron railings that separate the landscaped estate from the wild countryside beyond. Fanny warns Maria against climbing over the railings: “You will certainly hurt yourself against those spikes, you will tear your gown.” which the Telegraph columnist suggests has sexual connotations. Clearly I am a naive reader since I just read that as practical advice..

 

That’s not to say the novel is devoid of tension.

Much of the novel turns on the diametrically opposed attitudes of the Crawfords and the Bertram sisters to how they should disport themselves. The stylish, witty Crawfords arrive at Mansfield Park trailing the glamour of London society life, an aura which proves utterly seductive to Maria and Julia, leading them to  forget decorum to the point where they  stage an erotic play and indulge in some risqué jokes. It’s not the only clash of attitudes seen in Mansfield Park. Running through the novel is an issue of a landowner’s responsibility to manage his estate appropriately. Henry Crawford is an absent landowner who cares little for his duties to the land and to the local farmers, putting him at odds with Fanny and Edmund Bertram who are both sensitive to nature and tradition. Both Bertram sisters are on the side of change, seeing the estates as playgrounds for the wealthy rather than a critical part of the agrarian society of England.

And then we have the thorny question of how these members of the landed gentry earn their wealth. Sir Thomas Bertram, Mansfield Park is a sugar baron whose wealth comes from his plantations in Antuiga. At the start of the novel he sets off for his plantations in the West Indies to sort out a problem of “poor returns” on his investments.  His absenteeism causes him to lose focus on his duties at home, both as a father and a landowner. By leaving Mansfield Park and placing it under the control of a thoroughly inappropriate guardian in the shape of Mrs Norris, he creates an atmosphere in which moral chaos reigns.

These issues kept my attention though Mansfield Park is still not one of my favourite Austen novels. I kept getting confused at the beginning between the Bertram sisters and I also found the opening chapters a bit slow. Once the odious Henry Crawford came on the scene and showed his true colours, the novel perked up immensely. Like many readers I had an issue with Fanny Price. As kind and patient as she is, she still felt rather insipid compared to the feisty Liz Bennett of Pride and Prejudice and the protagonist of Persuasion the intelligent, witty, and considerate  Anne Elliot. I have a feeling though that this is  a novel that rewards re-reading.

About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on July 12, 2016, in Bookends, Classics Club and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 39 Comments.

  1. Yes! You should. I like more every time I read it. Enjoy!

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  2. My absolutely favorite of her books. I re-read it every year; never grow tired of it.

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    • I’m curious to know what makes this novel so special for you?

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      • Oh my goodness! Just noticed your question…So sorry for the delay. Well, let’s see. Many things. For one, I love Fanny’s resolve to not allow her family’s belittling nature towards her to dissuade her from writing, reading and educating herself. It’s definitely Jane Austen’s most risque novel with serious political undertones. I love that she abhors the idea of a society that inculcates the idea that slavery is necessary to contain and instruct an “uncivilized” and “primitive”people under the guise of mercantile trading. Fanny is perceived as being reserved, uncomplicated, simple and impartial. When in fact she is very strong willed, loyal, well-informed, emotionally smart and conscientious. In the end she proves to be the best of that motley crew. She loves Edmond for who he is and not what he is to acquire. She’s admirable. She’s my fav. Can you tell?! Lol

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  3. This novel absolutely rewards re-reading 😀 It’s probably my favorite because every time you re-read it you get a different feeling about Fanny. The whole nature/nurture is fascinating when you look at it differently each time.

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  4. I couldn’t comment directly beneath the point I’m responding to (it was about people in the former colonies). I’m from the Caribbean and the school and college reading list included more (much more) than its fair share of British and American lit – some like To Kill a Mockingbird (on the American side) and Great Expectations (Dickens), I fell in love with because, good writing is good writing, and setting and perspective aside, I did find points of relatability…though it couldn’t compare to discovering a book like Annie John that reflected my own world or Wide Sargasso Sea which was made that much more rich because I had read and liked Jane Eyre and was fascinated by the way it wrote back to “the empire” in a sense as a prologue that made the woman in the attic more than just a shadow. It gave her her own story and as a writer of stories and a Caribbean person this appealed to me. And was revolutionary, really. My introduction to Austen were Persuasion and Sense and Sensibility, when I was in A levels, and I remember liking both. But I only recently read Mansfield Park as an adult and part of why it had always been on my radar to read was I heard that it referenced Antigua where I live. Reading it, there was a weird double awareness in my consciousness that so much of the idleness that their wealth afforded them was built on what was going on in the colonies, in Antigua, and the fact that the father is away in Antigua for a period of time makes Antigua very present in the story for me (in a way that I wonder if it is for a non-Caribbean, maybe non-Antiguan, reader). But there was the echo of the whip, the too sweet smell of the sugar cane, the suffering that was part of the larger picture (kind of like a painting where there’s this drama of manners in the foreground but so much turmoil way in the background, if you know it’s there). That had nothing to do with why I didn’t fall in love with Mansfield Park. No that’s mostly on Fanny, a sympathetic character initially who becomes too passive and sanctimonious for my tastes…plus even given the milieu, it just felt like not a lot happened. I still love Austen – and Elizabeth Bennett is a favourite fictional character of mine – but I didn’t love this one. Sorry this ran long … I just find the discussion interesting.

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    • what a fascinating insight. you might want to read some critical articles about the issue of colonialism in Jane Eyre if you’re intrested in that aspect. here is one of the accessible ones – http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/bronte/cbronte/cho10.html

      did you read the comments from Whispering Gums in which she argues that Fanny isn’t passive. I must admit she gave me food for thought there

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      • Thanks for the link, I’ll check it out. Yes, I did read the counter-argument by Whispering Gums. It is very convincing… but… I will admit I still felt the urge to shake her at points, and honestly I do think some of this is skewered by me/us being modern thinkers evaluating a different time…she didn’t have a lot of agency and, with the limited agency she had, she could be quite mutinous when she wanted to be…I see that… but still.

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        • there is certainly a risk that we judge something according to our own knowledge/experience of the world. I often see comments that people are offended by certain words (usually racist) used in novels but not appreciating this is how people thought at the time.

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  5. But here’s the thing (sorry to be late, I hit the road the day this was published and am still away, so not doing a good job of keeping up), Fanny is NOT passive. Think about her. She’s the poor relation brought into the house and treated very badly by many in it – particularly by Aunt Norris and her female cousins. She’s given the cold distant room. But she is given room, board, education and it’s far more pleasant than her home in Portsmouth. You’d think she’d be a pushover. But she’s not. She stands by her digs – she will not do a play which she feels is wrong (and she sees the danger of Maria playing opposite Crawford, the inappropriateness of it), she will not marry Henry Crawford despite Sir Thomas’ threats, she rejects Henry to his face. She understand’s Edmund’s sense of responsibility to the job marked out for him. She needs to be read in terms of her position in those times – and if you do that you see some universal truths about strength of character, I think. No, I don’t see her as passive at all.

    This is a novel that is so rich and deep and can be discussed endlessly – the morality, the city versus country, the sense of duty versus frivolity. There’s a whole little sub-theme about “improvement” going on. Mr Rushworth’s improvement of Sotherton and Edmund’s rejection of Mary’s improvement suggestions at his parsonage. There’s respect for what is decent and appropriate versus her desire for show and status. (She’s an interesting character too though).

    I wouldn’t say it’s my favourite but it’s a great novel in which Austen adds another layer to what people think on the surface is just another marriage plot. It’s not sparkly like some of the others, it’s more earnest BUT Fanny is not passive! (OK, you can say she’s passive if you like, of course you can, but I won’t be agreeing! Haha!)

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    • Hmm, rich food for thought here. I agree that she does stand up for what she thinks is right (i.e., refusing to take part in the play) but i hadn’t thought about some of her other ‘defiances’. Darn it, you are making me think I need to read this book again!

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  6. Not my favorite Austen book either but I definitely liked it better after a second reading. There is quite a lot of sexual tension in the book and I do feel a bit sorry for Fanny in her so very dependent position. Nabokov calls this one a Cinderella story and that casts a different light on it for me.

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  7. MP was one of my school setbooks and I recall being bored witless by the story – there wasn’t much common ground between the English society described, and the agricultural African country in which I was educated, mid-50s. And as for the seething sex: no? huh? where? really? some of the critics need to get over themselves. Phallic palings, indeed! Seriously?

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    • I can’t imagine a bigger contrast than the english country house setting and the South African veld. I often think about that when I hear how schoolchildren in other countries (usually the former colonies) are made to study English classic literature – my friend in India tells me that she suffered hugely reading Austen because she simply couldnt relate to it at all.

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  8. I thoroughly enjoyed Mansfield Park but it wasn’t my favourite Austen novel either. While I found Fanny nice I often wanted to give her a shake. I started to really enjoy the novel once Henry arrived and the Bertram sisters left which seemed to give Fanny space to come out of herself a little. I missed all the supposed sexual tension though 😀

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  9. I am so ambivalent about Mansfield Park, I almost skipped past this review. I’m glad I didn’t. I think you’re right on in your assessment…and suspect you may be right that it does better on repeat reading. And re all the sex, maybe whoever’s claiming that needed to do something to keep them engaged. I’m not going to lie, I struggled with this book. Buuuut I found I had a lot to say about it when I was done. Here’s what I wrote:

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    • sometimes I feel that critics have a theory and then go looking for evidence to back it up.

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      • Yep! Oh btw tried to link what I’d written about Mansfield Park but it didn’t take. If interested, it’s in the Blogger on Books ll section on my wadadlipen dot wordpress dot com site. Just wanted to explain since the “Here’s what I wrote:” is kind of just dangling there lol

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  10. I do agree that Mansfield Park isn’t the most immediately grabbing of Austen’s novels. But Mary Crawford is All About That Bass, by which I mean sex. She’s the hot girl. She’s a terrific flirt. She even likes acting (which we all know is a profession full of strumpets)! It’s a novel where the shy girl triumphs over the sexy one, which makes it maybe even more open to charges of wish-fulfillment than Pride and Prejudice. She’s like Louisa Steele in Sense and Sensibility, only better. Plus, doesn’t Maria Bertram have an actual affair? It’s probably the most sexual Austen book, now that I think of it (though it can be tiresome to read about phallic railings… but the Telegraph guy might have a point. *winks hugely*)

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  11. I do love Mansfield Park – the earnest ugly sister of the Austen novels. My personal theory is that Fanny is her most psychological heroine. After being openly rejected by her mother and then bullied throughout her childhood she is self-effacing to a degree that makes her sadly insipid company. Given her only chance to receive any love or affection is by acting up to this cipher-like character I really have a lot of sympathy for her and I love that Austen refuses to make a dependent poor relation engagingly feisty.
    Also, I love Mrs. Norris and will re-read her monologues any day!

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  12. I was still in school when I read this novel so the details have disappeared now. It wasn’t my favourite Austen, I can remember that much. Maybe it’s time for a re-read of one of her books, it’s been quite a while…

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    • whenever i feel a need for some Austen reading, its either Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility or Persuasion that I go for. The one I’m not keen on is Northanger Abbey though I do love some of the dialogue with Isabella Thorpe (Austen captures her vacuousness perfectly). M Park will come somewhere between…

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  13. I giggled so many times at this review, though I have to say that a woman climbing a fence made out of spikes would certainly make me think of her nether-bits, if only to be concerned about their safety.

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  14. I’m with you, are we reading the same book?
    Sometimes I think film-makers go through these old 19th novels with a highlighter picking out anything that has even a remotely sexual connotation … e.g. iron railings…oh, they must be phallic symbols…
    I suppose that if they needed to sex up a contemporary novel with *gasp* no sex in it, they could use our telephone poles … though they don’t generate erotic impulses for me…

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    • It reminds me of a comment I read about the seminal work by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar (The Madwoman in the Attic) where they are accused of repeating the same points over and over again to back up their theory.

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  15. Haha! I especially loved the first half of this. “Seethes with sex”… whaaat?? Were we reading the same book??

    Mansfield Park was always my least favorite Austen (I think it is for most fans?), but it’s been ages and ages since I read it. I need to give it another chance, as you said. I just read Lady Susan after seeing Love and Friendship — have you seen it yet? It’s hilarious, and Kate Beckinsale is perfection. Highly recommend if you haven’t gotten to it yet.

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  16. This isn’t my personal favorite either, for all the reasons you cite. But despite that, I think it may be her masterpiece…

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    • Why would you say its a masterpiece Jillian?

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      • I read Lovers’ Vows by August von Kotzebue — the play the other characters perform in Mansfield Park, which at the time would have been well known among Austen’s readers. (It was considered scandalous and Jacobin.) Austen is totally subverting that play. Fanny is like Bartleby the Scrivener throughout the whole novel: “I would would prefer not to.” She never changes, never submits, never grows harsh. She just says over and over, “No, I cannot act.” (Act as in perform her social role, I think.) I love the scene where Sir Thomas is angry that the kids are acting and shouts at them for it while literally standing on the stage himself: he is the ultimate performer. IRONY. And at the end of the novel, Fanny literally lives in the shadow of Mansfield Park. I don’t know: it strikes me as a brilliant tragedy about an enormously strong woman no one knew was strong, who transforms the family like violets breaking through rocks. But I’ve only read it once, a couple years ago. I’m speaking mostly on hunch right now. I’d need to read it a couple more times to begin to put it into words…

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