Thursday, June 2, 2011

Review: Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

Reviewed by Connie

Published: 1814

It's about: When her indigent parents give birth to their ninth child, Fanny Price, second oldest, is sent to live with her wealthy aunt, uncle, and four cousins to reduce the financial burden on her parents. Raised with respect but marked condescension, Fanny finds companionship with her cousin, Edmund, who treats her with kindness as an equal. Theirs is a friendship for the record books, but when a wealthy, well-connected brother and sister move to Mansfield Park, the whole family's lives are turned upside down and inside out, about to burst with the pressure of not just love triangles, but love hexagons.

I thought:
I had to push myself through the first half of this book, and I stuck with it primarily because it is the last Jane Austen novel I had yet to read. Fanny is not Austen's usual, strong-willed, outspoken, flawed but likable heroine. She is shy, modest, near-silent, withdrawn, sensitive, and generally a non-presence in any given gathering. Her strength that Austen wants the reader to admire is her sound judgment and solid morals. Yeah, it's about as interesting to read about as it sounds.

For the first half of the book, Fanny, the supposed heroine, neither acts nor is acted upon, but rather is a marginally interested observer in the goings-on of her cousins, which makes it rather slow-going. Fortunately, by the half-way point in the book, Fanny evolves into more of a central character, and as her relatives and neighbors evolve as well, they begin to recognize and include her. As Fanny grows into her role as leading lady, the speed an interest in the narrative picked up, and it was an enjoyable read from there on out.

This wasn't my favorite Austen. As the author's love song to a strong moral sense, it comes across as somewhat more didactic than her other works. And as I mentioned, Fanny wasn't the heroine I was wanting her to be, but then again, a good book is not based on whether or not you like the characters. There is tremendous character growth from beginning to end, and something about Fanny's reluctance to pry into the lives of her family makes the narrative style intriguing. The reader knows what's going on but never the whole story, and as Fanny is a non-presence, none of the characters tend to confide in her. I would liken the experience to overhearing an interesting conversation at a table next to you in a coffee shop -- you are interested to listen to what's going on, but you have to be satisfied with never knowing the whole story.

I did enjoy the book, and I found it to be less predictable than some of Austen's more famous works, so I was invested in the characters' outcomes. Plus, after all, it is Austen, and I always find it enjoyable to read her subtly witty commentary on life.

Verdict: Stick it on the shelf

Reading Recommendations: I wouldn't call it my favorite Austen. As a matter of fact, I'd put it toward the bottom of the list. But if you are like me and just have to have read every one of Austen's works, then, obviously, read it.

Warnings: None

Favorite excerpts:
"'There is not one in a hundred of either sex who is not taken in when they marry. Look where I will, I see that it is so; and I feel that it must be so, when I consider that it is, of all transactions, the one in which people expect the most from others, and are least honest themselves.'"

"It was a very proper wedding. The bride was elegantly dressed; the two bridesmaids were duly inferior; her father gave her away; her mother stood with salts in her hand, expecting to be agitated; her aunt tried to cry; and the service was impressively read by Dr. Grant."

"But Shakespeare one gets acquainted with without knowing how. It is part of an Englishman's constitution."

What I'm reading next: The Girl Who Was on Fire edited by Leah Wilson