“Me!” cried Fanny…”Indeed you must excuse me. I could not act any thing if you were to give me the world. No, indeed, I cannot act.” Fanny Price, Chapter 15
Gentle readers, Please join us for the third in a series of six diptych reviews of the revised editions of Jane Austen’s six major novels and three minor works that were released this summer by Oxford World’s Classics. Austenprose editor Laurel Ann is honored to be joined by Austen scholar Prof. Ellen Moody, who will be adding her professional insights to complement my everyman’s view.
Mansfield Park, by Jane Austen
Oxford World’s Classics Rev. Edition (2008)
Laurel Ann’s review
In a popularity poll of Jane Austen’s six major novels, Mansfield Park may come close to the bottom, but what a distinction that is in comparison to the rest of classic literature! Even though many find fault with its hero and heroine, its love story (or more accurately the lack of one), its dark subtext of abuse, neglect and oppression, and its overly moralistic tone, it is still Jane Austen; with her beautiful language, witty social observations and intriguing plot lines. Given the overruling benefits, I can still place it in my top ten all-time favorite classic books.
Considering the difficulty that some readers have understanding Mansfield Park, the added benefit of good supplemental material is an even more important consideration in purchasing the novel. Recently I evaluated several editions of the novel currently in print which you can view here. For readers seeking a medium level of supplemental material, one solid candidate is the new reissue of Oxford World’s Classics (2008) which offers a useful combination of topics to expand on the text, place it in context to when it was written, and an insightful introduction by Jane Stabler, a Senior Lecturer in English at the University of Dundee, Scotland and Lord Byron scholar.
Understanding all the important nuances and inner-meanings in Mansfield Park can be akin to ‘visiting Pemberley’, the extensive estate of the wealthy Mr. Darcy in Jane Austen’s more famous novel Pride and Prejudice. One is intrigued by its renown but hard pressed to take it all in on short acquaintance. The greatest benefit of the Oxford World’s Classics edition to the reader who seeks clarification is Jan Stabler’s thirty page introduction which is thoughtfully broken down into six sub categories by theme; The Politics of Home, Actors and Audiences, The Drama of Conscience, Stagecraft and Psychology, Possession, Restoration and Rebellion, and Disorder and Dynamism. Written at a level accessible to the novice and veteran alike, I particularly appreciate this type of thematic format when I am seeking an answer or explanation on one subject and do not have the time to wade through the entire essay at that moment. Her concluding lines seemed to sum up my recent feelings on the novel.
“The brisk restoration of order at Mansfield Park and healing of the breach between parent and child is underwritten by the same doubt that lingers around the last scene of Shakespeare’s King Lear: ‘Is this the promis’d end? (v. iii 262). Recreating the urge to defy parental authority while teaching us to sit still, and pitting unruly energy against patient submission to the rule of law, Mansfield Park is an enthralling performance of the competitive forces which governed early nineteenth-century politics, society and art.”
For me, Mansfield Park is about Jane Austen teaching this unruly child to sit still and enjoy the performance! With patience, I have come to cherish Fanny Price, the most virtuous and under-rated heroine in classic literature! Re-reading the novel and supplemental material was well worth the extra effort, expanding my appreciation of Austen’s skills as a story teller and the understanding of the social workings in rural Regency England. I am never disappointed in her delivery of great quips such as
“But there certainly are not so many men of large fortune in the world as there are pretty women to deserve them.” The Narrator, Chapter 1
Also included in this edition are four appendixes; the first two on Rank and Social Status and Dancing which are included in all six of the Oxford World’s Classics Jane Austen editions and have been previously reviewed, followed by; Lovers’ Vows (the theatrical that the young people attempt to produce in the novel), and Austen and the Navy which helps the reader understand Jane Austen’s connection to the Royal Navy through her brothers James and Francis and its influence on her writing. The extensive Explanatory Notes to the text help place the novel in context for the modern reader while offering helpful and insightful nuggets of Regency information.
Mansfield Park may have the dubious distinction of being Jane Austen’s most challenging novel, but I have come to appreciate her characters and plot by better understanding of the subtext through supplemental material and further re-readings of the novel. It is now one of my favorite Austen novels. Readers who hesitate to read Mansfield Park because of the ‘bad rap’ that it has received over the years are reminded of heroine Fanny Price’s excellent observation to the unprincipled character Henry Crawford, “We have all a better guide in ourselves, if we would attend to it, than any other person can be“. The Oxford World’s Classics Mansfield Park is certainly a fine edition to help you discover your own better inner-guide to the novel!
Rating: 4 out of 5 Regency Stars
Please join us for the next review of Emma in September
Read my previous reviews in the Oxford World’s Classics – Jane Austen Collection
Mansfield Park by Jane Austen
Oxford World’s Classics
Oxford University Press, Rev. Ed. (2008)
Trade paperback, 480 pages, ISBN-13: 9780199535538
James Kinsley, editor
Jane Stabler: Introduction and Explanatory Notes
Vivien Jones: Select Bibliography, Chronology and Appendixes
Biography of Jane Austen
Note on the Text
Prof. Ellen Moody’s review
“The World as a “take-in”: the latest Oxford _Mansfield Park_
Tom Townsend (Edward Clements, the Edmund character) regaling Audrey Rouget (Carolyn Farina, the Fanny Price character) with Trilling’s commentary; she is not thrilled.  (1990 _Metropolitan_, free adaptation of _MP_)
Many covers of _Mansfield Park_ feature a grand ancient house seen in
the distance (even though Austen tells us it was modern)
As Laurel says, here we are for a third go at a series of diptych reviews. This time our topic is _Mansfield Park_, a book which has become controversial first as utterly dislikable — boring, distasteful, and worse yet, a grave moral comedy; and then as radical — subversive, a book intended to expose the viciousness and ruthless exploitation upon which the comfort of the powerful and rich depends, indeed the most profound and far reaching, the richest of Austen’s books, not a mere love story, which element in the book often nowadays scarcely gets a look-in by some critics. This singling out of the book as particularly “difficult” and needing especially diligent defense begins in 1944 when the first of the 20th century texts about Austen written by non-academic ordinary women readers, popular novelists themselves, Sheila Kaye-Smith and G. B. Stern’s _Speaking of Jane Austen_ hit the until then overwhelmingly male-dominated mostly high-minded criticism-land of Jane Austen (Mark Twain’s resentful venom and Rudyard Kipling’s ironies are rarities). You see, as Edmund Wilson then (in reaction) condescended to explain, it seems “there is something wrong with _Mansfield Park_ and [Kaye-Smith and Stern] have a great deal to say it.” Edmund Wilson’s “Long Talk about Austen” informed the world, among others, the today still supremely prestigious Vladmir Nabokov, that Jane Austen must be included in courses of great authors; the story goes Nabokov bristled, at which Wilson huffed, so Nabokov swallowed hard and reluctantly put _Mansfield Park_ in his syllabus.
The iconic scene of all the _MP_ movies: Fanny (Sylvestre Le Tousel) writing, this case her beloved brother William; in all three costumed dramas, but especially this first (1983 BBC) she is the (unusal female) narrator of much of the story through subjective retrospective scenes. Here we see her in her “nest of comforts,” her attic (as yet unheated).
Here (1999 Miramax) she will when grown up (Francis O’Connor) will write stories (sometimes for her beloved sister Susan, Sophia Myles), but the function is occasionally the same, if the mood, upbeat comedy and directed at someone near her, like Edmund (Jonny Lee Miller) despite the gothicized surroundings, has been altered.
Hitherto I have confined myself to complementing Laurel’s reviews with contextualization in the form of brief surveys of recent editions of the novels, covers and illustrations, film adapations available, and secondary issues about the book as a book, for “Ours is a competitive business, sir:” the latest Oxford _Sense and Sensibility, the problem of which text to choose (1811 or 1813); for A novel many novel-readers feel called upon to read: on the latest Oxford _Pride & Prejudice_, some sense of a series of book and movie events which have led to the book’s having become since the second half of the 20th century a transcendent best-seller (beginning with her nephew’s 1870 memoir, and including the usefulness of the book’s archetypal strong romance for movies, careers in and outside classrooms, and the heritage industry).
I will again offer some description of other recent editions, and talk about the problem of which text to chose (we again have two texts printed in Austen’s lifetime, 1814 and 1816), and end on the movies, one of which is in my judgement a masterpiece of filmic art, the 1983 BBC _Mansfield Park_, one of the best film adaptations of an Austen book, and there have been many. The difference will be this time I will discuss the book’s content directly with the aim of doing as many have done before me (I’ll quote them) explaining why there seems to be such disquiet to the point we are told (by Kingsley Amis, be it noted a misogynist in his fiction) _Mansfield Park_ is not the real Jane Austen, is utterly uncharacteristic, a product of imposed self-denying “revulsion physical and particular,” this Marvin Mudrick’s response partly to her heroine who stands for a type whom all right-minded people avoid and whose pious hypocrisy (aggressive-passiveness if you prefer) they see through in life and fiction. continue reading
Fanny at the moment when Tom (Christopher Villiers) has suddenly called upon her to take a part (from the other side of the room, where he is busy suiting his convenience) and then insists: as she becomes the center of a scene she is intensely distressed (Edmund, Nicholas Farrell, and Mary, Jackie Smith-Wood, sit behind her) as
fn1. Audrey Rouget, _Metropolitan_, in Whit Stillman’s _Barcelona/Metropolitan_ (London & Boston: Faber, 1994):192-93. She is discussing Lionel Trilling’s essay (see my discussion of this and other essays on _MP_ below).
fn2. See (and read if you haven’t as yet) the fascinating Sheila Kaye-Smith and G.B. Stern’s _Speaking of Jane Austen_ (New York: Harper, 1994), published n England as _Talking of Jane Austen_; Edmund Wilson, “A Long Talk About Jane Austen,” _Classics and Commercials: a literary chronicle of the forties_ (New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Cudahy, 1951):196-203; and the overpraised “Jane Austen: Mansfield Park,” in Vladmir Nabokov, _Lectures on Literature_, ed. Fredson Bowers (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980):9-60. Nabokov analyzes the design and themes of the incidents at Sotherton and the play-acting, but the description of Austen’s novles as “delicate patterns, with her collection of eggshells in cotton wool,” in comparison say to the rich wide world (“tawny port“) of Dickens reveals the masculinist disdain of Austen: he writes: “Personally I dislike porcelian and the minor arts … Let us not forget there are people who have devoted to Jane all their lives, their ivy-clad lives …” and so on and so forth (p. 63).
fn3. For me undoubted masterpieces of filmic art which seriously engage with Austen’s texts are the of the apparently faithful adaptations: 1972 BBC _Emma_, 1979 BBC _P&P_, the 1983 BBC _MP_, the 1995 BBC/WBGH _P&P_, 1995 Miramax _S&S_ and 1995 BBC _Persuasion_ (95 was a great year), _ and the commentaries the 2007 _Persuasion_ and 2008 _S&S_. Of the free adaptations another _MP_ film stands high, Whit Stillmans’ independent 1990 _Metropolitan_, the Tamil 2000 _I have Found it_ (_S&S_), Victor Nunez’s independent 1993 _Ruby in Paradise_ (_NA_) and the 2006 Warner _Lake House_ (_Persuasion_) seem the best in the serious vein, the Amy Heckerling’s 1996 Paramount _Clueless_ (_Emma_ and 2001 Columbia Tristar _Bridget Jones Diary_ (_P&P_) in the comic. I also find of real interets the 1987 BBC _NA_, 2007 BBC/WBGH _NA_ , and the much-maligned (lie the book), 2007 ITV _MP_
fn4. Kingsley Amis, “What Became of Jane Austen,” _Jane Austen: A Collection of Critical Essays_, ed. Ian Watt (NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1963):141-43; Marvin Mudrick, _Jane Austen: irony as defense and discovery_ (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1952); 155-80.