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Thursday, August 22, 2019

The Dark Side of Jane Austen from Eliza Shearer

I mentioned earlier in AIA that there's a lot of discussion of Mansfield Park this time around, much of which is making me look at the book in a new light. Here today we have another such piece, from Eliza Shearer, who's taking a look at the darker aspects of the story — and how they may reflect Jane, herself.
Check it out below and let us know your thoughts in the comments! And make sure to keep an eye on this year's Austen in August mega prize packs, because Eliza's book, Miss Darcy's Beaux, shows up in 3 of them!

Mansfield Park, or the dark side of Jane Austen

It is a truth universally acknowledged that, while all Jane Austen admirers admit they enjoy Pride and Prejudice, dissent appears at the mention of Mansfield Park. The Mansfield Park protagonist, Fanny Price, who is arguably Austen’s least popular heroine, has no small share of the blame.
Granted, Fanny’s love story with Edmund is a far cry from Elizabeth and Darcy’s in Pride and Prejudice. However, I have revisited the novel a few times over the years, most recently while writing Miss Price’s Decision, a variation with spirited Susan Price as main character, and I have learned to appreciate its depth.

Jane Austen was in a darker, more mature place when she wrote Mansfield Park, and it shows. Fanny may not be a favourite Austen girl, but some of her other characters are amongst Austen’s best. Quite a few of them seem to be distorted versions of some of the archetypes we see in her other novels. Here are the ones that got me thinking the most.

The good girl gone bad

Austen’s novels are full of good girls that have a soft spot for naughty, undeserving gentlemen. Be it Marianne Dashwood’s ill-judged love for Willoughby, Emma Woodhouse’s flirtation with the unreliable Frank Churchill or Elizabeth Bennet’s passing attraction for Wickham, it is a bit of a theme in Austen’s novels.

Maria Bertram, however, is a different story. Unlike her Austen sisters, she is utterly disgraced in the process. Even foolish Lydia is saved by matrimony. The only other Austen character with a worse fate is Sense and Sensibility’s Eliza, Mr Knight’s first love. The difference is that, where Eliza is only mentioned in passing, in Mansfield Park we watch Maria’s seduction and downfall in horror, and in real-time.

The dangerous rogue

We can’t talk about Maria without mentioning Henry Crawford, perhaps the most dangerous man in Austen’s novels, and here’s why. First of all, unlike the Wickhams and Willoughbys of this world, he is not particularly good-looking. Women don’t feel they have to protect themselves upon meeting him.

Secondly, Henry Crawford’s behaviour is much more twisted. When he sets out to make the Bertram sisters fall in love with him, he doesn’t act out of greed. Instead, it is a sport for him, because his morals are entirely corrupted. Unlike Wickham and Willoughby, who are shown to have a price, Crawford is financially independent and can afford to move on untouched.

The insolent girl

In Pride and Prejudice, Lady Catherine de Bourgh calls Elizabeth Bennet “insolent girl,” but the reader knows that her ladyship could not be more wrong. Elizabeth is witty and doesn’t mince her words, but she isn’t insolent as such. She simply refuses to let an awful woman who has no respect for her or her family to tell her what to do.

However, in Mansfield Park, Austen shows us what a genuinely insolent girl looks like. On the surface, Mary Crawford is lovely and sweet, but, like her brother, she is corrupted to the core, and her flippant comments, double entendres and philosophy of life truly fit the definition of insolent. Lady Bertram would have a heart attack if she were ever to meet her.

The self-absorbed mother

Austen’s novels have a fair share of dysfunctional mother figures. From Mrs Bennet’s embarrassing meddling to Mrs Dashwood’s cheerful impracticality or Maria Musgrove’s hypochondria, there are many instances of mothers who fall short of setting a good example for their children.

However, Mansfield Park’s Lady Bertram is perhaps the most egotistical and indolent mother of them all. She is so self-centred that she does not care a jolt about her daughters’ education. Her pug is much more important to her than her four children. It is perhaps no wonder that the seeds of Maria’s elopement are planted when she is supposedly in her mother’s care.

The callous connection

Austen novels contain a fair few unpleasant relatives. Fanny Dashwood, Elinor and Marianne’s selfish and scheming sister-in-law in Sense and Sensibility, and Pride and Prejudice’s Lady Catherine de Bourgh are excellent examples of meddling, manipulative women who want everyone to bend to their wishes.

However, nasty Aunt Norris is in a league of her own. Like others, she is tight with her money and prepared to do everything necessary to increase her fortune at the cost of others, but you only need to re-read the opening of the novel and see how cruelly she treats little Fanny Price to realise that she is truly heartless.

The too-grave hero

Mansfield Park’s Edmund Bertram is handsome and generous, with a heart of gold and a strong moral compass. However, as a hero, he is somewhat defective. He takes himself too seriously, has little to no sense of humour and behaves like a much older man. On paper, that sounds dangerously like Mr Collins.

But if you think that Edmund’s seriousness is due to his profession, think again. Just compare him to Edward Ferrars or Henry Tilney, who are also men of the cloth. Worst of all, Edmund spends most of the novel in love with another woman. If you think about it, it is quite extraordinary and quite unlike the behaviour of Austen’s other leading men. No wonder he never makes it to the list of Most Adored Austen heroes.

The too-timid heroine

I have a soft spot for Austen’s introverts. Persuasion’s Anne Elliot is one of my favourite heroines, and the protagonist of my first Austen variation, Miss Darcy’s Beaux, is Darcy’s little sister, Georgiana, a very shy young woman. However, Fanny Price’s timidity and stubborn silence make her passive in the extreme.

During most of Mansfield Park, Fanny spends her time as an anxious, trembling little mouse, running errands for bullying Aunt Norris and selfish Lady Bertram. Compare her behaviour with Anne Elliot’s. Anne is also quiet and unassuming, but in the midst of a crisis, like the events on the Cobb, she is resolute and capable of drawing admiration. No wonder that poor Fanny is not as popular as other Austen heroines.

What are your thoughts about Mansfield Park’s characters? Can you think of any other similarities with characters in other Austen stories?

Eliza Shearer is an author of Austen continuations and variations. A member and regular contributor of Austen Authors, she also writes about Jane Austen in her blog. Her Austeniana series so far includes Miss Darcy’s Beaux, which tells Georgina Darcy’s story, and the upcoming Miss Price’s Decision, with spirited Fanny Price as protagonist.

Jane Austen, Austen in August, blog event, Jane Austen fan fiction, JAFF, The Book Rat, BookRatMisty
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  1. I do spot a bit of Lady Susan in Mary Crawford. But, surprisingly, I admire Fanny Price because her situation is far more precarious than Elizabeth Bennet's when she refuses the match with Henry Crawford and stands against her Bertram male relations' wishes- and unlike, Elizabeth, Fanny is not fooled or bedazzled by Crawford's attentions like Elizabeth allowed with Wickham or Emma with Frank.

    Great discussion, Eliza. Loved Miss Darcy's Beaux btw.

    1. That's a great point, actually. Fanny does show a surprising bit of backbone.

    2. I agree, Fanny Price is under a lot of pressure to marry Henry Crawford, particularly during her Portsmouth stay. One might argue that she is the most constant of Austen heroines, and she definitely shows quite a bit backbone!

      Thanks for reading btw - really appreciate the feedback :)

  2. I agree with you Eliza about Fanny, but Rose has a point. I prefer Ann Elliot as well.

    1. Anne is like Wonder Woman next to Fanny, that's for sure!

  3. A very interesting discussion of Mansfield Park! Many of the characters do seem like extreme versions of others, almost caricatures. I wonder if this was intentional on Austen's part? The point made about Henry being particularly vile because he plays games with others' feelings for sport, rather than for a price, really resonated with me -- I think that's why I always found his character especially repugnant (I know there are a lot of Henry-should-have-been-redeemed fans out there, but I'm not so sure he could have been).

    1. I recently read 'Only a Novel: The Double Life of Jane Austen', by Jane Aiken Hodge. It's a biography that suggests that Austen went through a deep personal and spiritual crisis around the time she wrote MP, so it would not surprise me if the darkness were deliberate.

      As for Henry, he is vile, and perhaps Austen's most dangerous male character.

  4. Interesting points. I confess I prefer Henry to Edmund, I perceive him not as evil but as selfish, spoilt and thoughtless, characteristics that I think can be redeemed if he had a serious motive. I can't like Edmund at all

  5. Your comment made me smile. People complain about Fanny, but in my opinion it is Edmund the one who makes Mansfield Park a less than satisfactory novel for many!

  6. I agree with your assessment and it is the reason why I don't love Mansfield Park as much as Jane's other books. I just don't find the characters that likable. I wanted to like Henry and have him change his ways but then he ruins Maria. I wanted Edmund to see through Mary Crawford much sooner and I wanted Fanny to be appreciated more. It is why I enjoy variations of Mansfield Park so much.

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