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.
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.
If you’ve ever watched the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, you’ll easily recall the key scene of the ball at Netherfield Hall. The balls in Austen’s novels are important devices by which she reveals aspects of the main characters and how they interact with each other. But they also give us insight into the society in which the stories are set and some of the prevailing conventions. So in the Netherfield ball for example, the clumsy Mr Collins not only manages to make a hash of dancing by turning the wrong way and stepping on his partner’s toes, he commits the ultimate faux pas of engaging with Mr Darcy without the benefit of a formal introduction. One of the younger Bennett sisters is chastised for hogging the piano so that other females don’t get their own chance to ‘exhibit’ their piano playing and singing skills.
Regency dancing involved lots of skipping and prancing – I spent most of my time on the front parts of my feet, so that afterwards my calf muscles were clenched like cricket balls. It was also very boisterous. If I’m honest, I’m not sure I ever really got the hang of some of the steps, one of which was a kind of quick rhythmic flutter of each foot followed by a pert hop. It was so physically demanding everyone was glistening by the end.