Thursday, October 24, 2019

Book 204: Mansfield Park

"The meeting was generally felt to be a pleasant one, being composed in a good proportion of those who would talk and those who would listen; and the dinner itself was elegant and plentiful, according to the usual style of the Grants, and too much according to the usual habits of all to raise any emotion except in Mrs. Norris, who could never behold either the wide table or the number of dishes on it with patience, and who did always contrive to experience some evil from the passing of the servants behind her chair, and to bring away some fresh conviction of its being impossible among so many dishes but that some must be cold."

Dates read: January 23-29, 2018

Rating: 8/10

It's easy to romanticize the past. Before selfies! Before the internet! Before television! Before phones! Back when people wrote letters to each other to stay in touch! Don't get me wrong, I love good quality stationery and the feeling of getting a note in the mail. But while we're longing for the good old days, we forget that there was an awful lot of human history that was lived before penicillin, when a simple infection could legitimately kill you. Before effective corrective lenses so if you couldn't see well you were just doomed to always be squinting and probably struggled to read. A lot of us have mothers who weren't lost in childbirth that otherwise might have been. There's a trade-off.

It's never quite specified what exactly ails Fanny Price, the heroine of Jane Austen's Mansfield Park, but she's physically weak and often sickly, and can't walk very far before she needs to rest. Maybe asthma? Whatever it is, it's likely something that could be treated easily if she'd lived in today's world. Oh well. She is the way she is. And maybe it plays into her personality, for she's as retiring emotionally as she is physically. It takes Fanny, a naturally shy creature, quite a while to adjust when her aunt, Lady Bertram, decides to relieve her sister (Mrs. Price) of one of her many children to help ease her financial burdens, and Fanny's taken out of her familiar home and brought to the country estate of Mansfield Park to be raised alongside (but not quite the same as) her cousins, Frederick and Edmund and Maria and Julia.

Of the lively Bertram children, it is only Edmund that makes the effort to draw Fanny out of her shell, and so by the time she becomes a young woman of marriageable age, she's of course quietly-but-devotedly in love with him. To the rest of the family, she's sort of halfway one of their own. But things turn upside down when a new parson arrives, complete with his wife and her half-siblings: Henry and Mary Crawford. They're Londoners, and have city attitudes that contrast sharply with Fanny and her country morals. Henry's flirtations nearly break up one of the Bertram girls' happy engagements, while Mary and Edmund begin to grow closer despite her concerns that his planned future, as a clergyman, won't be lucrative enough to sustain her in the lifestyle she'd like to lead. And then Henry, to amuse himself, decides to try to make Fanny fall in love with him...only to find that he's the one who grows besotted. Since this is Austen, it ends with a happily made marriage and everyone getting more or less what they deserve.

Those who like to read Jane Austen for her sparkling, witty female leads, like Eliza Bennett or Emma Woodhouse, will be disappointed here: Fanny Price is more like Elinor Dashwood, but with the fun quotient dialed down to almost zero. I'm glad I didn't read this book until I was in my 30s, because I think if I'd read it when I was younger I would have found her so tiresome and boring I would have put the book down. That's my most significant criticism of the book: Fanny can be hard to root for, even though we're clearly supposed to. She's definitely sympathetic, but she's also kind of a stick-in-the-mud. She always always behaves appropriately and is horrified by transgressions of her strict moral code. At the end of the day, I found her good heart outweighed the irritation of her teacher's pet persona, but I can imagine plenty of readers finding it hard to really like her and therefore really like the book.

But even though "bad kids" Henry and Mary are much more interesting than our protagonist, I still very much enjoyed reading this book. Jane Austen's turns of phrase and lively wit are just as much a part of this book as they are her others, and it's her quality of writing that I find enjoyable more than her characters anyways. It's maybe a trifle overlong. If you haven't read her work before, I wouldn't recommend starting here, because it's one of her slower books (start with Sense and Sensibility instead). But if you have read her and like her and wonder if you should read this, too, I do recommend it.

One year ago, I was reading: Detroit

Two years ago, I was reading: White Fur

Three years ago, I was reading: The Executioner's Song

Four years ago, I was reading: Through The Language Glass

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