I have put off reading Jane Austen for years. At some point in my life, I developed a caricatured view of what her novels would be like - a light and airy mix of witty but practical heroines, with proper English manners, thrown into a blender of comic misunderstandings, ending in a very businesslike marriage arrangement, totally lacking in pathos - and was certain I would not find them of any interest. As if to confirm my prejudices I came across the following quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson: "I am at a loss to understand why people hold Miss Austen's novels at so high a rateā€¦Never was life so pinched & narrow. The one problem in the mind of writer in both stories I have read, 'Persuasion', and 'Pride and Prejudice', is marriageableness; all that interests any character introduced is still this one, has he or she money to marry with, & conditions conforming?" and like the mean and stupid human that I am, I decided I agreed with Emerson's opinion, despite never having read a word of Austen first-hand.

Well, I have just finished reading Mansfield Park and I have decided that I am now in total disagreement with Emerson's assessment. Perhaps if Emerson had read Mansfield Park he would have changed his mind about Miss Austen. Or perhaps not. Either way, I found so much to enjoy in this novel, and I found the subject matter so much richer than the single-minded preoccupation with "marriageableness" that Emerson attributed to Miss Austen's mind, that I decided to write a review, and explain to Emerson's departed ghost, or anyone still living who shares his opinion as I once did, why "people hold Miss Austen's novels at so high a rate." Of course, Mansfield Park is the only novel of Austen's I have read so far - though I certainly intend to devour the rest - so I will have to be satisfied for the moment with explaining why I hold Mansfield Park at so high a rate. Be warned in advance, there are SPOILERS in this review. Read with caution.

Where to begin? I suppose I will begin with the story. The novel centers around Fanny Price, who is the poor niece of Lady Bertram, and her sister Mrs. Norris. Within the first few pages of the book Mrs. Norris - a character who the reader comes to detest more and more throughout the book - decides that Sir Thomas Bertram, her brother in law, should adopt her niece and bring her to live at their rich estate in Mansfield Park. She expects nothing but gratitude from Fanny for her "favor" of ripping her from her family and forcing her to come and live with people she hardly knows but Fanny has a naturally shy and sensitive nature and is quickly overwhelmed. Sir Thomas Bertram and Lady Bertram have two daughters and two sons, and it is only the youngest son, Edmund, who shows Fanny any kindness, which leads her to develop an early attachment to Edmund, which eventually blossoms into love. The novel follows Fanny and the rest of the family over a period of about a year or so, as two other characters enter their lives, Henry and Mary Crawford, and create a rather chaotic mix of amorous attachments.

Such, in outline, is the basic story. The story is very reminiscent of Cinderella, with Fanny Price playing the part of the mistreated Cinderella. Fanny Price is both the moral and emotional center of the novel and Miss Austen is able to get a great deal of mileage out of having an "outsider" as the "center-of-consciousness" of the novel. Fanny is able to play the "straight-man" which allows the reader to see the often farcical and absurd behavior of the other characters. How each character treats Fanny also becomes an easy to recognize sign of their moral character. The novel is a novel about character but, it is also a novel about how difficult it can be to judge character from external signs, since people are often good at putting on disguises, and playing the part, when they have ulterior motives. Until late in the novel, no one has any ulterior motives with Fanny, so they wind up revealing who they really are in interacting with her. Also, since we get to see Fanny's feelings first-hand, we are often able to judge the relative blindness of the other characters based on how they interpret Fanny's behavior. Characters often judge Fanny to be self-willed, insolent, or ungrateful, but, because we know Fanny from the inside, so to speak, such judgments wind up highlighting how unperceptive some of the other characters are. Jane Austen handles all of this with great skill.


What really surprised me about the novel was the emotional power. Fanny is a very sensitive woman, she feels every slight and every kindness very deeply, and Austen is able to pour so much agony and emotion into the minutiae of everyday life that I was at times almost breathless while reading. This is one reason I disagree so strongly with Emerson's assessment. Emerson claimed that life was "never so pinched & narrow" as it appeared in Miss Austen's novels. There is a sense in which that is true: there are not that many characters in the novel and they lead a rather insulated life. Many commentators have pointed out that the novel takes place at the height of the Napoleonic wars but not a whiff of that appears in the book. The characters seem almost stranded on their own little solipsistic island. However, if the external circumstances of the novel make the character's lives "pinched and narrow" in one sense, Austen succeeds in making Fanny's experience extremely rich, despite her cramped external circumstances. One begins to realize that even a quiet life in the country is capable of containing all the tragedy and comedy that life has to offer.

Perhaps Austen's greatest gift is her gift for character. Not all the characters in this book shine equally brightly - the three brightest stars, in my opinion, are Fanny Price, Mrs. Norris, and Mary Crawford - but Austen manages to create fully rounded characters, as well as characters that almost border on caricature, without sacrificing realism. As extreme as Mrs. Norris can be it is not difficult to believe that such a person might actually exist and, indeed, has existed. People have complained about Fanny Price that she is too moral or too passive, but I think anyone who has been put in a position where they are out of place and outnumbered, anyone with a poet's soul who is surrounded by misunderstanding, or who has been the victim of ceaseless and subtle barbs, will feel a great deal of sympathy for Fanny Price. Her longing for a real "home" is portrayed very poignantly in the novel. As for her being "too moral", I think the real problem most readers have is that the morality in the novel feels so outdated. Staging a play is not going to awaken the kind of moral censure in a modern reader that it awakens in Fanny Price and so she is judged to be "too moral". I think if the references were updated people might find Fanny Price to be just moral enough.

In regard to Mary Crawford, I found her to be extremely interesting and enigmatic. Austen does a great job keeping the reader on the fence regarding both Mary and Henry Crawford. Fanny, as moral center of the novel, disapproves of both of them, and the reader, at times, is led to second Fanny's judgment. However, Fanny's love for Edmund could be blinding her. Edmund himself seems to be blinded by his love for Mary Crawford. And the Crawfords do have some good qualities: Mary is a good judge of character and both Mary and Henry are more perceptive, and more intelligent, than most of the Bertram family. The plot of the novel ultimately centers around the question: Are Mary and Henry Crawford redeemable or are they hopelessly corrupt? Austen manages to keep the reader in suspense over that question until the very end. Austen leaves the reader in little doubt as to how they are supposed to feel about Fanny or Mrs. Norris or Edmund but, in regard to the Crawfords, we remain undecided until the final denouement. Austen puts the reader in the same position of undecidability that Edmund and Fanny are in, and makes us see how easy it would have been to make the wrong choice, and plunge over the cliff into disaster.

Aside from the emotional power, brilliant characterization, and suspenseful plot - and the comedy which I have not yet mentioned - the novel also has some fairly substantive themes. I will highlight two. First, it becomes clear throughout the novel that suffering is actually a blessing. Fanny is the outsider and, as the outsider, and as a sensitive soul, she suffers terribly. However, her suffering brings her wisdom, it makes her sensitive to beauty and the simple, wholesome pleasures of home life, it orients her desires away from the superficial, and it makes her more perceptive and conscious. Fanny is the only character who perceives everything that is happening around her. All the other characters are blind in some way. Sir Bertram is blind when it comes to his daughters, Edmund is blind when it comes to Mary and Henry Crawford and their behavior, Lady Bertram and Mrs. Norris are blind when it comes to pretty much everything, and nearly everyone is blind when it comes to Fanny. Suffering, while being difficult to bear, increases consciousness. This theme is another reason why I consider it a mistake to assume that Austen's novels are only concerned with the question of "marriageableness". They are about much more than that - though marriage in itself is not an unimportant question.

Another theme is the self-defeating and ultimately empty nature of hedonism. The novel might seem a bit too moralistic for some readers but I think there are a few things that rescue this novel from being the equivalent of a moral sermon. The more subtle morals of the novel are conveyed through characterization and so the sermon is hidden in what we take to be the realistic behavior of the characters. For example, in the first half of the novel it is clear that Maria and Julia Bertram are hedonists whose entire lives are consumed with a flight from boredom. They constantly want something to stimulate them but the more they seek the more bored they become. This is in contrast with Fanny who is perfectly happy and at peace when she can sit quietly, go for a walk in nature, or read. It also becomes clear as the novel progresses that Mary and Henry Crawford, who have been devoted to hedonism their entire lives, are feeling the effects of being in the presence of more substantive fair. The reader gets the sense that Mary and Henry have been living on candy their entire lives and their stay at Mansfield Park is the first time they have tasted real food. This does seem to have a genuine effect on their characters but their old habits ultimately prove too powerful and pull them back.

So, to put a period on this rather lengthy review, I will simply say, there are lots of reasons why people hold Miss Austen's novels at so high a rate. I have listed a few. If you decide to read Austen I am sure you will discover some of your own.