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Sunday, August 25, 2013

Mansfield Park: Love It or Loathe It? - a Janeite conversation

Time for round 3! 
I hope you guys are enjoying our little Janeite conversations (and I hope you've noticed that commenting on them gets you bonus points in a number of the giveaways... ;P). But either way, it's time for another one. This time, we're taking on the book that people either love to defend or love to hate.

I asked:

MISTY: Alright, ladies, as we've seen so far in all of the Mansfield discussions, this is probably Austen's most polarizing book - where does every body fall?
NANCY: HAH! I am so far into the loathing side that I’ve only skimmed the second half of the book. (Yes, that’s my Janeite confession.) I think the difficulty is the characters. Most of them are really, genuinely unlikeable. Fanny is one of the few who isn’t flat-out unpleasant, and she is too passive for most readers to root for. Edmund... but I’ve written an entire post ranting about him.
MISTY:  You don't say... ;)
ALEXA: Well, I adore Mansfield Park.
MISTY: See? Polarizing.
ALEXA: Though it's the gloomiest of Austen's novels (and the most resembling a Victorian one), it's also the meatiest, and every time I read it I'm astounded by the scope of the undertaking. The book is endlessly complex, as are the reactions of readers to it. For example, while I feel an innate impulse to protect Fanny, who I think resembles Elizabeth Bennet far more than her detractors will admit, I can't stand Edmund, who I think the most infuriating of Austen's many provoking heroes (Edward Ferrars coming in a close second).
CAROL: Jane Austen was a master of comparison. She presented her case by pitting characters with good judgment and values against characters with unsound judgment and/or values. In my opinion, the cast of characters in Mansfield Park is a bit too heavily weighted on the side of flawed judgment. MP is a story I can definitely appreciate, but has never been one of my favorites.
JUNE: “Loathe” is a strong word, but I do dislike Mansfield Park. Many of the characters fail to grow – Lady Maria Bertram, Mrs. Norris, Maria Bertram, the Rushworths, and Mary Crawford. I see the orphaned Henry Crawford as a tragic character; could he have been satisfied with the conquest of Fanny’s affections, there would have been every probability of success and felicity for him. And the novel mentions only once that Mansfield Park was supported by slavery in Antigua. Slavery!
SALLY: I think Jane said it herself, it is not as entertaining as Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility. I suspect the dark undertones tend to put people off. Can’t really say I’ve re-evaluated my stand because unlike some I’ve never loved nor loathed it. Because people on the whole consider serious subjects to be more ‘literary’ than light hearted ones Mansfield Park is considered by many Austen’s masterpiece. I don’t agree. Her real gift was making the everyday lives of her characters interesting and fun.
MISTY: I'd absolutely agree with that, Sally.
DEBORAH: I’m not sure I actually do fall into one of these camps. I think MP is an incredible book, but I don’t have quite the passionate love for it that I do for Persuasion, Emma and Pride and Prejudice. I see what a monumental work it is, I think I understand what Austen is trying to do in it, I admire her artistry immensely – but I just can’t help finding Fanny somewhat thin gruel. 
MISTY: Oh, that is SUCH a good way to explain her!
DEBORAH: Not self-righteous, or priggish, or manipulative, or any of the other things people throw at her – just not that much fun to hang out with for 400 pages. When Sir Thomas is trying to bully her into marrying Henry, and she can’t bring herself to point out that, about ten minutes ago, Henry was breaking the hearts of both Maria and Julia, I just want to scream in frustration.
MISTY: God, yes.
DEBORAH: And yet. . .The other day, I was keeping my 76-year-old mother company during a long emergency room visit, and, whipping out my Kindle, I suggested that I read something aloud. Pride and Prejudice, maybe? No, she said, pick one I don’t know as well. How about Mansfield Park? So we whiled away the next few hours reading the first chapters of MP, and I saw again how amazing it is – the witty turns of phrase, the way a whole gallery of people comes to life in just a few short strokes, the beautiful and moving delineation of Edmund’s kindness to the 10-year-old Fanny (which is why you’re going to forgive him when he behaves like such a clueless jerk for the rest of the book). It’s extraordinary. And we hadn’t even gotten to the Crawfords yet – two of Austen’s most fascinating characters, in my opinion. So I end up where I always do when I talk about an Austen novel: feeling that I really need to read it again.
MONICA: I lean towards the not liking as much side, but I don’t loathE it. There’s a dark side to it with the plantation background that makes it different from Austen’s other works. I find it puzzling that she can produce two feisty heroines like Elizabeth Darcy and Emma Woodhouse and then come up with someone like Fanny.
MISTY: Totally agree. And I can't help but wonder which she prized more...
MONICA: Whenever I pick it up, I become aware of the cultural gap between Jane Austen’s world and ours. This is where we part ways. To my mind, Fanny is a pre-Victorian heroine, a sign of things to come. She’s morally upright which is great but I get impatient with her holier-than-thou attitude. It’s funny because when you look at the actual Victorian heroines that have stood the test of time like Jane Eyre, Catherine Earnshaw (Wuthering Heights), Maggie Tulliver (Mill on the Floss) and Becky Sharp (Vanity Fair), they’re all rebels. To me Fanny is like St. John Rivers in Jane Eyre – a little bit too cold for my liking.
MISTY: I don't know that I've ever been able to quite peg it in the way you just have, Monica.
MONICA: Having said that, I know some people like Diana Birchall think of her as a feminist heroine, which is an interesting take. I suppose generally I’m sitting on the fence and whistling while watching the other parties hurl abuse at one another.
CASSANDRA: I fall almost in the middle, but perhaps leaning more towards loathe. I don't hate the book per se, just find it a harder read than Jane Austen's other stories. I find Fanny too colourless to empathise with. I feel I ought to re- read it now I have watched two TV adaptations as sometimes that helps me with getting into the book (a method I employ with some Dickens novels).
KARA: I regret to say that I merely LIKE Mansfield Park. I can see the value of the story and the struggle it must have been for Fanny to be raised in a family, but was not fully included in and by that family. She is certainly not a favorite heroine, but I think you can find traces of heart and soul in her.
LAURIE: I used to dislike Mansfield Park, but I have come to admire its artistry, its suspense, and the complexity of its characters, especially Henry Crawford and Mary Crawford. Here are antagonists who have such a blend of ruthlessness and charm that they are simply fascinating to watch. My problem with the book was/is the heroine, Fanny Price. I used to think of her as a prude, but I have come to admire her astonishing strength of character and ability to withstand pressure, even from those she is dependent on. Despite her timidity and low self-esteem, she is unbending when it comes to resisting anything she knows to be morally wrong, and I can't help but admire that.
MISTY: I think that's the place I'm at with it now, Laurie. I respect it - it fascinates me - but I don't know that I can ever love it.
ALEXA: In many ways, it's the dissatisfaction this novel inspires that keeps me coming back to it. I know the ending will always be the same, but I keep trying to find within the plot a greater sense of peace with it. I love Mansfield Park because of the challenges it poses: because I'm forever reevaluating my response to it.
LAURIE: Thankfully, Fanny's not perfect; she suffers the agonies of jealousy over her rival in love just like any girl. But I'd still likely have more fun hanging with the wisecracking Mary Crawford than listening to Fanny rhapsodize about the glories of nature, even though I admire and agree with every word. Edmund is also problematic; yes, he's a very decent human being, but he's the sort of buttoned-up Mr. Holier-than-thou whom you just want to get drunk till he loosens up and makes a fool of himself. And enjoys it. But he'll never do that.
MISTY: Yes! It's sort of like, if Mary was the main character of Pride and Prejudice instead of Lizzie! It would be entirely different, just having it be from that buttoned-up perspective. And I think it'd end with the same level of dissatisfaction for us... Anyone else?
ALYSSA: I'd honestly say that I come down in the middle. Maybe because I identify with Fanny Price. But if I had to guess what prompts a negative reaction from others, I'd say that while Fanny stays true to herself, that means that she must deny every bit of fun the others indulge in, and even then, she doesn't really come to a very happy ending. After all, Edmund was seduced (to a point) by Mary Crawford, and while he found his way back to her, she must live with that knowledge, as well as the unsavory truths about the rest of the family. Whereas in most Austen novels, I'm inclined to like most of the characters, I really, truly only like Fanny in Mansfield Park. And Edmund a little bit. That makes a difference.
MISTY: A big difference.
MARIA: I like Mansfield Park, though not as much as other Austen works. I think people dislike Fanny Price as a heroine. Compared to Austen’s other heroines, she is more passive and more a helpless victim than other heroines. She quiet and meek and does not have the impact on her word like the others do. It is hard to want to be like her. Even so, each time I read it or watch the movies I discover a new layer in the story. Most recently I was struck by the helplessness of Fanny’s situation and how easily her uncle could have send her away into destitution without a second thought for her. She was utterly dependent, something I think that does not resonate well with modern readers.
MISTY: That's one of the things I find so interesting - the more I feel myself wanting to rattle her, the more I find I go back and make excuses for her, and feel like she couldn't really be any other way...And Jessica? You look like you're champing at the bit, there...
JESSICA: Loathe! One word: Edmund. I can forgive quite a lot about Mansfield Park and I understand the way Fanny is...the poor dear didn’t have much of a choice in her situation. Her resemblance to a wet dishrag isn’t really her fault. But Edmund just brings out the rage in me. Seriously, he makes me want to gouge out my eyes with a dull spoon.
MISTY: Tell us how you really feel. ;)
JESSICA: How much do I hate him? I once went on an Instagram rant on The Suckage of Edmund Bertram...
MISTY: ... I kinda love you right now.

On that note, let us know what you think of Mansfield Park in the comments - are you a love or a loathe? And has your opinion of it changed any?

Participants in this discussion:
Alexa Adams, author of the "A Tale of Less Pride and Prejudice" series
Carol Cromlin, author of Fitzwilliam Darcy such as I was
Monica Fairview, author of The Other Mr Darcy, The Darcy Cousins, et al.
Alyssa Goodnight, author of Austentatious, Austensibly Ordinary, et al.
Maria Grace, author of the Given Good Principles series
Cassandra Grafton, author of A Fair Prospect
Jessica Grey, author of Attempting Elizabeth
Nancy Kelley, author of the Brides of Pemberely series
Kara Louise, author of Only Mr Darcy Will Do, Pirates and Prejudice, et al.
Sally Smith O'Rourke, author of The Man Who Loved Jane Austen
Laurie Viera Rigler, author of Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict and Rude Awakenings of a Jane Austen Addict
June Williams, co-author of Headstrong Girls.
and Deborah Yaffe, author of Among the Janeites

Click the pic to be taken to the Austen in August Main Page!
Thanks to faestock & inadesign for the images used to create this button.


  1. Well I first read MP years ago and wasn't that fussed so I took the opportunity of this event to read it again and I am so glad I did because I really enjoyed it, possibly because the first time I read it, I saw it more as a bit of an unsatisfactory romance, and the second time as more of a study in human nature, and nature v nurture in particular.

    Fanny is a hard heroine to get behind though, as although I pitied her I found her very judgemental. When she went back to Portsmouth (where her reception by her family appalled me, so uncaring!) and realises that her sister is the product of her environment rather than inherently like that I was so pleased to see that Fanny had softened her judgement. And of course you have to admire her standing her ground in refusing to marry Mr Crawford.

    I actually don't mind Edmund. He is the only one in his family who sees Fanny's distress, and not only does he assuage that at the time, but he looks out for her for the next 8 years or so. I am not happy that he overlooked Fanny when Miss Crawford came on the scene but I don't think any the worse of him for falling in love with her; it was a genuine mistake, and at least he wasn't stupid enough to actually propose (Edward Ferrars, looking at you here). As for not seeing Fanny as a potential wife until the end, I think it's natural enough considering she was 10 years old or so when they met, it was probably only when Crawford became interested in her that Edmund would have seen her as a woman. I don't blame him for not doing heroic things, because really, what is he in a position to do?

    I thought all the exploration of how these characters upbringing shaped their characters was fascinating, I found myself thinking about the book when I wasn't reading it, which is always a sign that you're enjoying a book. The characters are so flawed, with the exception of Will Price and I think you see some of them learn and grow by the end of the book. Sir Thomas learns of his parenting mistakes and will try and rectify this, Tom will change his reckless habits, Julia I assume will have a happier future since Sir Thomas takes her husband in hand. Edmund at least recognises he was deceived by Mary and both he and Lady B have a greater appreciation for Fanny, which helps her blossom as a character. While Mrs Rushworth and Mrs Norris don't learn anything, at least they are punished for this, which is satisfying for the reader :)

    While I can't see this book becoming a favourite in the same way that Pride and Prejudice or Persuasion is for me I'll certainly read it again and I won't leave it so long next time!

  2. I love Mansfield Park, but I have to admit my love developed over time. I actually enjoyed it the first time I read it, but the various film adaptations pulled me this way and that. It wasn't until I saw the 1983 one with Sylvestra La Touzel that I was satisfied. And then I listened to the audio book at Librivox. Suddenly a challenging novel became quite easy to embrace.

  3. Well, I happen to think that Fanny is an underrated heroine(which is part of the reason that I'm writing an e-book version of the story with her fighting vampires at the moment!)and while Mary Crawford is rather droll,she's completely selfish and totally uninterested in anything other than her own particular set of interests(she even jokes about it with Fanny regarding shrubbery in one chapter).

    Fanny's mild nature can be seen in other Austen ladies,such as Elinor Dashwood,Anne Elliot and even I dare say,Jane Fairfax. Her restraint in not revealing her true opinions is both a blessing and a curse. During the Sir Thomas incident,for example,she could've made Maria's open flirtation with Henry Crawford known as proof of his bad character but she wouldn't want to do that at the expense of her cousin's reputation. Granted, Maria was never a close friend to Fanny(or even her own sister Julia,in my opinion) but that is what makes this action as noble as it is.

    Next year happens to be the 200th anniversary of MP and I hope Fanny gets to shine in the spotlight as she richly deserves:)

  4. I first read Mansfield Park as a teen and my reaction was to think her impossibly good and to wish I had that sort of 'turn the other cheek' restraint because at the time I could seem to find no filter on my lips even when words wouldn't change my situation. I guess that is what I admired about Fanny. She understood her place and situation well and picked her battles. I never really saw MP as a love story which is probably why I enjoyed it more than others around me did and do.

    I still really love the story in fact it is my second favorite Austen, but life and maturity now allow me to turn my focus broader so that more than just the heroine occupy my interest. I've learned to compare Fanny's circumstances to others in the story and even other Austen novels (I've already referenced in an earlier post's comments that I saw her as more admirable than Elizabeth Bennet b/c while both girls refused suitors Fanny was the one who had the most to lose by doing so). I enjoy how the characters are not two dimensional and don't fall into hero/villain categories, but are a blend of both though they lean toward one or the other. I see the growth in some characters which is why I can more than tolerate Edmund as Fanny's hero even if his growth took place so late and maybe even beyond the last pages of the novel.

    So to bring my thoughts altogether, I like the book and my opinion hasn't changed about that.

    Thanks so much Misty and ladies for such insightful comments.

  5. It look several readings before I warmed up to MANSFIELD PARK. Edmund is still unworthy in my eyes.

  6. I didn't really like Mansfield Park the first couple of times I've read it, but I do appreciate it now. I love it that Maria and Mr Crawford get their comeuppance. I love it that Mary Crawford doesn't get Edmund. I don't like Edmund spending the whole book in love with MaryCrawford and then going, "Oh I guess I should marry Fanny instead" in the last two pages or so.

  7. As I have never finish reading Mansfield Park (started the first chapter but never got round to complete it), I don't loathe it or hate it. I guess I'm in the middle ground but leaning more to dislike after reading the guest posts here. It does not convince or inspire me to take up the book and read it so I have to put aside and read it another time

  8. After my most recent re-reading of MP, I am more than ever convinced that an alternate ending (with an alternate coupling) would have made for a more satisfying read, at least for this reader. I could see Fanny with Crawford and Edmund not with Mary. Wonder if Austen herself was uncertain as to how the story would end?

    Loving this discussion and so grateful for the insights and humor! Thank you, Misty, for hosting!

  9. I can't stand Edmund and I am not sure why Fanny would want a guy who can just treat her with so little regard. I loved that she stood up for herself with Crawford but I just wish she could have made Edmund work for it like she did him. I think then her ending up together wouldn't have been such a travesty.


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