The gentleness and gratitude of her disposition would secure her all your own immediately. From my soul I do not think she would marry you without love; that is, if there is a girl in the world capable of being uninfluenced by ambition, I can suppose it her;
Mary Crawford on Fanny Price, Mansfield Park, Chapter 30
If Pride and Prejudice is the darling of Jane Austen’s oeuvre, then Mansfield Park is the red headed step child. Even opinions of it were divided among Jane Austen’s friends and family prior and after publication, which she collected into an undated manuscript circa 1814 and 1815.
“We certainly do not think it as a whole, equal to P. & P. — but it has many & great beauties. Fanny is a delightful Character! and Aunt Norris is a great favourite of mine. The Characters are natural & well supported, & many of the Dialogues excellent. — You need not fear the publication being considered as discreditable to the talents of it’s Author.” F. W. A. (Francis William Austen)
“liked it better than P. & P. — but not so well as S. & S. — could not bear Fanny. — Delighted with Mrs. Norris, the scene at Portsmouth, & all the humourous parts.” Anna Lefroy
“owned that she thought S. & S. — and P. & P. downright nonsense, but expected to like M. P. better, & having finished the 1st vol. — flattered herself she had got through the worst.” Mrs. Augusta Bramstone
“All who think deeply & feel much will give the Preference to Mansfield Park.” Mrs. Carrick
“did not much like it — not to be compared to P. & P. — nothing interesting in the characters — Language poor. — Characters natural & well supported — Improved as it went on.” Fanny Cage
Such enlightening comments! In fact, a quick analysis of all of the collected remarks by family and friends reveals that readers today feel much the same; Mansfield Park is not equal to Pride & Prejudice and Fanny Price is annoying and insipid. What is it about this novel that is so unsatisfying in comparison to Pride & Prejudice? Why do readers dislike Fanny?
To answer completely would require more time and space then I can impart at this moment, but I can give you a quick response. The themes and characters in Mansfield Park make us uneasy. They introduce the reader to some of the dark aspects of human nature, and more disturbingly, how we treat each other. That is unsettling. Fanny Price as a heroine is picked upon, belittled and degraded. She has been so un-empowered by her circumstances that she chooses not to oppose them. This angers and frustrates us. We want her to speak up for herself like Lizzy Bennet or tell others what to do like Emma Woodhouse, but that does not happen. Instead, Fanny is silent, patient and dutiful. Why?
The answers are eventually revealed by Jane Austen. The ending does reach a satisfying conclusion, rewarding the patient and dutiful reader who like Fanny must wait for the happy ending in Mansfield Park. Understanding the enigma that is Fanny Price, – – well, I fear that will remain one of the mysteries of the ages.
Be sure to mark your calendars and set you watches for the premiere of Masterpiece Classics’s Mansfield Park, starring Billie Piper as saintly Fanny Price, Blake Ritson as Edmund Bertram her friend and saviour, and Hayley Atwell and Joseph Beattie as twisted siblings Mary & Henry Crawford on Sunday, January 27th. at 9:00 pm on PBS. It should be a enigmatic and elightening evening.
*Steel engraving of Newby Hall, Yorkshire by Nathaniel Whittock, from A New and Complete History of the County of York by Thomas Allen (1831). Newby Hall stared as Mansfield Park in the ITV production that will air on The Complete Jane Austen presented by PBS this week. On a very weird side note to anyone who knows how family history can connect serendipitously, Newby Hall was originally owned by the Blackett family who built the present manor designed by Christopher Wren circa 1690. The Blackett family made their fortune in lead ore mines in Yorkshire and Northumberland. My ancestors were miners working for the Blackett-Beamont family for centuries in Allendale, NBL. So, you could say in a round-about way, that my family helped pay for the hall.