Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park and its heroine Fanny Price have many detractors, but they also have many defenders and admirers. This post is part of a series of ‘Friend of Fanny’ (FOF) posts that I am putting up in appreciation of the latter.
Richard Jenkyns is Professor of the Classical Tradition and Fellow of Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford. He has written several books, including A Fine Brush on Ivory: An Appreciation of Jane Austen. In his preface to this book, Richard Jenkyns comments,
‘Jane Austen and . . .’ books abound: there are studies of her in relation to food, music, theatre, the clergy—works which often illuminate quiet corners of social and cultural history. And since her œuvre is not large, every part of it has been closely scrutinized.
A writer may feel some embarrassment, therefore, at adding to the pile of books about her. My reason is essentially that I thought myself to have something to say. Anyway, the deed is done, and in Mr Darcy’s words, ‘farther apology would be absurd’. (pp. vii-viii)
The fourth chapter of the book—’A Park with a View’— is about Mansfield Park. Richard Jenkyns writes,
Mansfield Park is the book which divides Jane Austen’s readers most. It is reputed to be the least popular of her novels, and some people dislike it quite strongly …. many readers have felt that Edmund and Fanny are too priggish, or perhaps that Jane Austen herself has turned prig. There seems to be almost universal agreement that Fanny is an unsatisfactory heroine. But it is also generally acknowledged that the novel is in most respects extraordinarily accomplished …. Most of those who know Jane Austen best appear to regard Mansfield Park as a masterpiece, a deep book.
I share the view that Mansfield Park is a very great novel. But I want to go further. I think that it is not far from being a perfect novel. Most rashly, I shall suggest that the treatment of the heroine is masterly and profound: Fanny Price may stand comparison with Emma Woodhouse. Indeed the two are appropriately set side by side, for each is a study, in very different circumstances and upon very different personalities, of the effects of repression. But the Fanny problem (as it seems to so many readers to be) is best approached after considering the book’s form and rhythm, its distinctive colour and tone. What kind of book is it? Should we indeed class it as a comedy at all?
A difficulty which very few artists have had to confront is how to follow perfection, and in particular comic perfection. Mozart faced it after The Marriage of Figaro. In this opera he had composed a virtually perfect comedy of manners, with at the same time a deep humanity. Its perfection, as with Pride and Prejudice, is not only a happy characteristic but part of its essence: at the heart of the aesthetic experience is the enjoyment, among other things, of a wonderful piece of machinery. Such a thing could not be repeated, and indeed Mozart never wrote another opera with that special quality of perfection. Where could he go next? …. Don Giovanni is not a less great work than Figaro, and it is indeed fabulously accomplished, but it is essentially puzzling and strange. Yet its oddness does not mark a regression on the composer’s part: it was the necessary way forward.
Shakespeare faced the same issue after Twelfth Night. He followed it not with comedies of an even more perfected mellowness, but with the problem plays. Mansfield Park is Jane Austen’s problem novel, and as with Don Giovanni and Measure for Measure we may perhaps reckon it to be a comedy, but only just. After the perfection of Pride and Prejudice she tries a new tone; Mansfield Park is essentially odd and uneasy, and fittingly so. It is an experimental novel in various aspects, most strikingly in the intertextual relationship with the play Lovers’ Vows. …. She also experiments with touches of symbolism and develops a new sense of the significance of place; and she dares to invent a very unusual type of heroine. A surprising number of critics in effect take Emma as the type of the Austen novel, and judge the others by the extent to which they match or fail to match that pattern; but whether we judge her to have succeeded or not in Mansfield Park (and I myself think that she succeeds magnificently), we should at least recognize in it the ambition to strike out on a new and original path. (p. 93-95)
Jane Austen once declared that she was ‘going to take a heroine that no one but myself will much like’. She was referring to Emma, but for many modern readers it is Fanny Price who fits the description best. That may tell us something about changing tastes and mores: the Victorians were too fond of the meekly perfect heroine; we, on the other hand, may be too reluctant to admire goodness, especially when it takes the form of passive, unspectacular endurance. I hope to avoid the trap of awarding marks for moral superiority to those who find Fanny likeable, but it is perhaps worth noting that both the men in Fanny’s life, Henry and Edmund, take quite a while to see her as an object of desire. With all the other heroines, the man’s physical attraction to her is immediate of even antecedent to the beginning of the story. Fanny Price takes some getting to know. For what it is worth, my own experience has been that the longer one lives with Mansfield Park, the more lovable she becomes.
Certainly, in choosing someone like Fanny Price for a heroine, Jane Austen is taking a risk. Though the meekly virtuous heroine is common enough in the Victorian novel, she appears most often as a subsidiary character, who has nothing much to do but wait for the hero to bestow upon her the privilege of his love. Where she is expected to take the principle role, as in Little Dorrit or Bleak House, she becomes a drag upon the book: Esther Summerson is a serious defect in Bleak House, through Dickens’s ill-judged decision to make this drippily sweet character narrate a large part of the story; and if Amy Dorrit does not do much damage in the later novel, it is because, as so often in Dickens, the notionally central characters are rather less important than the lively world that swirls around them. Jane Austen’s self-imposed challenge is to make the good little mouse the very heart of the story. (p. 109-110)
The subterraneous plot pattern in Mansfield Park is that of the successful adventuress, who rises from humble beginnings to social triumph, seeing off anyone who gets in her way. It is a splendid irony, both witty and touching, that this role is handed to so gentle and self-effacing a creature. …. The weakliest of the heroines has become the most potent. (pp. 133-135)
Richard Jenkyns’s book is a charming look at several of Jane Austen’s novels. It is not all about Mansfield Park, but has a great deal to say about it. It explores the art of Jane Austen’s novels, and her characters, her humour. This is my favorite “Jane Austen” book besides the actual novels. It is easy to read, but though-provoking.
All quotes from: A Fine Brush on Ivory: An Appreciation of Jane Austen by Richard Jenkyns (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).