As an admirer of Jane Austen, I am fascinated by her ability to expand her skills as a writer. In each novel, without varying her exquisite prose style, she set a new challenge for herself.
After writing the sparkling and satirical Pride and Prejudice, she determined to write something more serious. In Mansfield Park, she designed away all sparkle from her hero and heroine. Neither Edmund nor Fanny are witty, nor do either possess brilliant accomplishments or buoyant spirits. Instead of writing comedy, Austen turned to tragedy. What many readers complain of in Mansfield Park, I see as Austen’s genius.
Some readers also complain of Austen’s next novel, Emma. Although happy that Austen returned to comedy, they bemoan the story’s lack of action. “Nothing happens!”, they exclaim. The marriages in the book all cement the couples in their former stations. (Even Jane Fairfax’s marriage enables her to stay in the station in which she had been raised.) Every scene takes place in Highbury, whence the heroine has famously never traveled!
In contrast, Mansfield Park is overflowing with action. The characters are constantly coming and going. The young people explore Sotherton and act a play. Every few chapters something changes. And at the end, everything is shaken up from what it could likely have been from the beginning.
I think this busyness explains the monotony of Emma. Austen wanted to try something new. What if she wrote a story in which nothing really happened?
Illustrations by Hugh Thomson of Dr. Grant and Fanny Price in Mansfield Park and Mr. Weston, Miss Taylor, and Emma Woodhouse in Emma.