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Monday, August 19, 2013

What's Wrong with Mansfield Park? | guest post from Deborah Yaffe, author of Among the Janeites

Some of you may be struggling through Mansfield Park right now as part of the read along, muttering under your breath, "Mrs. Norris" this and "Fanny Price" that... And some of you may have put off tackling Mansfield because of its frustrating reputation. (And who knows? Maybe a few of you reading this are those rare birds who list Mansfield as their favorite of Austen's works...) Among the Janeites author Deborah Yaffe, whom you met yesterday in our chat about reforming Austen's rakes, is here to talk a bit about just what it is that gives Mansfield Park a bad name - and just what it is that she loves about it.

What’s wrong with Mansfield Park?
Even among Janeites, Jane Austen’s third novel doesn’t get much love.  Talk to a bunch of Austen obsessives, as I did while researching my new book, Among the Janeites: A Journey Through the World of Jane Austen Fandom, and you’ll hear stories about youthful readers, fresh off happy encounters with Pride and Prejudice, taking fright at its forbidding successor, that dark story of a mistreated young girl, a predatory rake, and a family punished for neglecting their children’s moral education. 
 Mansfield Park’s relative unpopularity is such a Janeite given that it’s fodder for an inside joke in the new Austen spinoff Jane, Actually: a minor character, musing on her fandom, thinks to herself, “She’d read the six novels so many times – OK, Mansfield Park not so often.
This anecdotal evidence is backed up by data: in Jeanne Kiefer’s 2008 survey of forty-five hundred Austen fans, only 4 percent called Mansfield Park their favorite Austen novel, compared with 53 percent who picked Pride and Prejudice and 28 percent who chose Persuasion. (For the dubious distinction of least favorite Austen novel, however, Northanger Abbey, chosen by 40 percent of survey respondents, edged outMansfield Park, with 34 percent.)
I, however, seem to have liked Mansfield Park from the start. I finished reading it for the first time on January 31, 1977, age eleven, and wrote in my diary, “It is a wonderful book. I love Jane Austen.”  I can’t remember what I liked so much back in sixth grade, though I must have been gratified to see quiet, bookish Fanny Price triumph over flashy Mary Crawford in the competition for Edmund Bertram’s heart.  I spent much of that year nursing a hopeless crush on a clever, sensitive boy who preferred a prettier, bubblier girl; only in the pages of books did the story come out the way I felt sure it was meant to.
Still, for Janeites whose imagined Austen heroes wear clingy wet shirts or stammer adorably, Edmund is no romantic dream: a dithering moralizer, distracted by Mary’s dangerous charm and pathologically oblivious to the ideal woman under his nose, he seems to deserve the nickname bestowed upon him by Maggie Sullivan of AustenBlog -- “The Lord High Mayor of Wankerville.” Forty percent of Kiefer’s survey respondents called him their least favorite Austen hero. Far more attractive is anti-hero Henry Crawford, who fascinates even as he undertakes the nasty project of “making a small hole in Fanny Price’s heart.”
Whatever Edmund’s failings, however, it’s Fanny herself who makes it hard for even Austen-lovers to love Mansfield Park. More than a third of the respondents to Kiefer’s survey named her their least favorite Austen heroine, and her physical weakness, overtly religious moralism, and inability – or unwillingness – to speak her mind render her deeply unfashionable in the post-feminist twenty-first century.  (Even a devoutly Christian Janeite I interviewed confessed to finding Fanny spiritless.) She has her defenders, of course – one online Austen discussion group was periodically convulsed by arguments so violent they became known as “the Fanny Price wars” – but for many readers, it’s once again the sexy, vivacious antagonist, Mary Crawford, who seems like fun. 
Protagonists we dislike, villains we love: what’s a moviemaker to do? No surprise that, nearly twenty years into the era of pop-culture Austen fandom, Mansfield Park lacks a beloved, broadly faithful film adaptation. Two of the three versions available on DVD throw up their hands at the Fanny problem, replacing Austen’s quiet, virtuous heroine with a modernized, Mary-like substitute: Patricia Rozema’s controversial 1999 film endows Fanny, played by Frances O’Connor, with the madcap creativity of the young Jane Austen (leaving home, this most un-Fannylike Fanny quotes Austen’s juvenilia, advising her younger sister, “Run mad as often as you chuse, but do not faint!”); and Billie Piper, the star of ITV’s 2007 adaptation, is all deep cleavage and bedroom-tousled curls – Fanny as St. Pauli Girl.  (Only the BBC’s little-seen 1983 adaptation, starring Sylvestra Le Touzel, sticks close to book-Fanny.)
Yet, amid the Mansfield Park doubters I encountered in the course of my research, I found at least two people who named it their favorite Austen novel. It’s no accident, I think, that both are English professors.  Among academics, precisely the qualities that make ordinary readers uneasy about Mansfield Park – the icky courtship of first cousins, the Christian underpinnings, the oddly rushed happy ending, the darkness lingering in its wake – are gifts that keep on giving.  Is Jane Austen accepting or critiquing the exploitative West Indian slave economy that enables the Bertram family’s affluence? Does she really disapprove of play-acting, despite the happy childhood hours she spent performing in family theatricals? How intentional are those incestuous overtones? Are the perilously attractive Crawfords avatars of corruption, or truth-tellers in a lying world? The doctoral dissertations practically write themselves.
The clash over Mansfield Park is a microcosm of the difference between fan appreciation of Austen and academic attitudes toward her. For many fans, literature is about losing yourself – or imagining yourself – in a story; for academics, it’s about finding cruxes, interesting problems demanding further investigation. Mansfield Park is a problem novel par excellence, filled with uncomfortable ironies that make us question our own responses. It’s harder to get lost in a story like that, all bumps and thorns, than in the superficially smoother, happier Pride and Prejudice.
But bumps and thorns offer their own pleasures. Henry Crawford is a more complicated seducer than George Wickham in Pride and Prejudice, Mary a more nuanced competitor than Sense and Sensibility’sgold-digging Lucy Steele.  It takes effort to see what’s heroic in Fanny’s principled resistance, or to be moved by Edmund’s painfully won insight, and sometimes we place more value on that which we earn with effort. I think I got it right back in sixth grade. Mansfield Park is a wonderful book.


–Jeanne Kiefer’s survey of Janeites: http://www.jasna.org/persuasions/on-line/vol29no1/kiefer.html

–AustenBlog: www.austenblog.com

–Sylvestra Le Touzel film:

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  1. Very interesting argument! :) I read somewhere that Austen herself often criticized P&P as the bubbliest and least satisfactory of her stories, so this flows nicely into the question of what Austen was trying to do academically and for literature as a whole. I've also read somewhere (else) that Fanny's life in some ways reflected the life Austen was living at the time. Meekly caring for her mother, pressured by circumstances and lost chances, constantly maneuvered by others instead of making her own independence. Just because *all* of Austen isn't as easily translatable into postmodern feminism, that doesn't mean it's not worth the trouble of digging for gold.

    Thanks for unearthing some!

  2. I think you've hit the nail on the head there re. the difference between enjoying a book as a reader and enjoying it for other reasons. I've read Mansfield Park twice, first as a teen, when I enjoyed it, but I thought that Fanny was a bit of a wet blanket, and I was disappointed by the lack of romance compared with other Austen novels. Fast forward to now and I enjoyed it so much more, it really got me thinking, about the themes explored and why it's harder for a modern audience to take Fanny Price to their hearts in the same way you can with Elizabeth Bennet, for example.

    Also, why I've never found a decent adaptation of it - I only vaguely remember the 90s adaptation, but I thought it was quite different from the book. I was surprised at the slavery coming through so strongly when it's only briefly referred to in the book and From what I remember this version was quite sexualised. I liked Jonny Lee Miller as Edmund though. I wasn't impressed with the later version because (aside from Billie Piper having very obviously dyed hair as her eyebrows are a completely different colour, very distracting in a period drama!) it just wasn't meek little Fanny Price but an entirely different character.

    I will add, though, that I always preferred Edmund to Edward Ferrars so he wouldn't win least favourite hero for me :)

  3. Lord High Mayor of Wankerville, indeed! Once again, Mags nailed it on the head. I love Mansfield and am one of those who feels fiercely protective of my poor, sweet Fanny, often throwing Edmund to the dogs in my arguments in her defense. The courage she shows in rejecting Henry Crawford is remarkable. I have a very hard time understanding how a woman so true to her own moral convictions can be deemed spiritless.

    This was a great overview of the Mansfield Park controversy. Thank you!

  4. I'm actually a fan of Mansfield Park as my second favorite Austen novel. I've always admired Fanny if not Edmund and I appreciate some of the points you've made here. To me, a poor relation rejecting a 'gentleman' of Henry Crawford's ilk took more guts than Elizabeth Bennet's rejection of Mr. Collins and later Mr. Darcy. Unlike Lizzy being fooled by Wickham, Fanny wasn't fooled by Crawford. Not that I don't love Lizzy, its just that I see Fanny as a strong gal too.

    Thanks for putting together a well thought discussion.

    1. That's a good point, Lizzy was probably confident that her father would back up her decision, whereas Fanny must have known that the best thing for her family would have been to accept Crawford, and she still stays firm and says no. for such an otherwise compliant girl this must have taken a lot of strength.

      I think Fanny is a very good judge of character, and it must help her judgement that nobody is trying to get into her good graces until Miss Crawford, who she'll never judge too kindly because of Edmund. Wickham is doing his best to obtain Lizzy's good opinion, and trying to hide his flaws from her. If Fanny hadn't already seen the type of man that Crawford was by the time he was actively trying to seek her good opinion I wonder how well she would have been able to see his flaws.

    2. That's a good point about Wickham being an unknown and Henry Crawford being more known. Thanks Ceri!

  5. The complexity of Mansfield Park is what makes it enjoyable for me. I wrote my senior thesis on it in undergrad! Fanny is actually a really accurate representation of what happens to neglected and unloved children when they grow up. The lack of support shown her in her childhood makes her conviction in her morals all the more astonishing and laudable.

    And for people who dislike Mansfield Park simply because they dislike Fanny, I quote the recent Publisher's Weekly interview with Claire Messud: "Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in The Corrections? Any of the characters in Infinite Jest? Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis? Or Orhan Pamuk? Or Alice Munro, for that matter? If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. "

  6. Mansfield Park isn't my favorite, but in my ranked list it's above Emma and Sense & Sensibility. (IF anyone cares, it's P&P, Pers, NA, MP, S&S, E!) I do love the Sylvestra adaptation, too. This is a great article, and you made me think, I wonder if Fanny rejecting Henry was at all like Jane rejecting...who was it? Bigg-Withers? I won't take time to look up his name now. But surely there were similarities. She knew she was turning her back on assured security and comfort, though her family wasn't destitute. It must have been her last chance to meet society's pressure to be a married woman, with the social standing I believe that still brings with it!


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