I finished reading Mansfield Park today. Without a doubt it’s my favourite Austen, and very unlike a number of other Austen novels (I’m looking at you, Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Northanger Abbey). Most Austen novels have one or two fairly dubious characters — but in Mansfield Park basically everyone is awful, with the exception of our heroine, Fanny Price (and even she has a couple of moments of envy of her rival Mary Crawford).
Fanny’s brother William is okay as well, as is her sister Susan (whose generally good character suffers in the home of her unloving mother and uncouth father, but who flourishes under Fanny’s guidance).
I’m trying to think through what the book is trying to say about what makes a good moral character: Fanny’s father and mother and most of younger siblings suffer from poverty, but the family also falls into bad character because of her mother’s indolence and her father’s love of drink and swearing); Fanny’s cousins Maria and Julia suffer from bad parenting (their aunt is overindulgent, their father too controlling and distant, their mother shares the laziness of her sister Mrs Price). Fanny, by contrast seems to be good because she escapes the squalor of her parents’ home, but is also denied the love and indulgence of her cousins (because Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram and aunt Norris are determined that Fanny should remember she is not the same class as her cousins). Fanny is forced to learn to be humble yet gentle; but she also has a natural timidness that makes her unwilling to confront her abusive relatives, and a seemingly natural goodness that prompts her to try to respect her uncle’s authority, to quash all feelings of ingratitude, and to never ever complain.
Much of her refusal to complain is also prompted by inherent feelings of worthlessness, initiated by her parents’ willingness to give her away to the Bertrams, and continued by Norris and her cousins’ constant reminders that she possesses no social value whatsoever. But her sister also experiences lack of love from her mother and seems to possess an inherent sense of self-worth that makes her quarrelsome in her parents’ home, but able to stand up for herself at Mansfield in a way that Fanny never could.
Also, Edmund Bertram keeps reminding Fanny that Mary and Henry Crawford suffered from a poor upbringing in the home of their aunt and uncle, the latter of whom seems to have been abusive, abrasive, and profligate in a number of ways. But then Edmund himself is entirely different in nature than his own brother and sisters, despite having grown up in the same environment. (Edmund is fairly self-involved and ends up hurting Fanny throughout the book because he’s entirely unaware how his actions affect her, but he is at least well-meaning.)
So it’s difficult to tell if the novel blames poor parenting or an innate lack of morality/decency for the ways that people behave badly. By the end, Sir Thomas begins to realise some (though decidedly not all) of the ways he’s been a bad parent and helped his children on to their various downfalls — but there’s also a sense throughout the book that a lot of people are just awful. Society, upbringing, or environment might make them more corrupt or less, but mostly people are shallow, selfish, and cruel.
It’s also quite a humourous novel in a lot of ways, and I’m pretty convinced it’s satirical, but my goodness is it bleak and bitter as well.
25 October 2014
Post script. Things were not great for ladies in Austen’s time. But things were pretty great for pugs and other lapdogs. I’m not sure where to go from here.