YES, I’m in love, I feel it now,
And Cælia has undone me;
And yet I’ll swear I can’t tell how
The pleasing plague stole on me. 1
Why is Mansfield Park my favorite of Jane Austen’s novels? To quote from the book: “Nothing could be more impossible than to answer such a question, though nothing could be more agreeable than to have it asked.” 2 How “the pleasing plague stole on me” I could not say. 3 However, I will attempt to list a few reasons.
It is possibly the most profound and complex of Jane Austen’s writings. Of all her novels, I have found it to be the one with the most doubtful ending. In the words of Mr. J. Plumptre, “I never read a novel which interested me so very much throughout, the characters are all so remarkably well kept up & so well drawn, & the plot is so well contrived that I had not an idea till the end which of the two would marry Fanny, H. C[rawford] or Edmund.” 4 Jane Austen wrote of her brother Henry’s opinion of her book, “Henry has this moment said that he likes my M. P. better & better ; he is in the 3d* volume. I beleive now he has changed his mind as to foreseeing the end; he said yesterday at least, that he defied anybody to say whether H. C. would be reformed, or would forget Fanny in a fortnight.” 5 While, as far back as I can remember, I have always known how the book ended, it still interests me every time I read it to think how it could have ended. As far as I can recall, it is the only novel in which Jane Austen tells us how it would have ended had something else happened. I find the possible alternative ending intriguing.
The characters in Mansfield Park are intricate, and, as Lizzy Bennet tells us, “intricate characters are the most amusing. They have at least that advantage.” 6Their intricacy builds the complexity of the book, the doubtfulness of the ending. How will such a character act under these circumstances? Sir Thomas is upright and generous, yet he fails to bring up his daughters well. Miss Crawford is charming, yet she is morally corrupt. Mr. Crawford is unscrupulous, yet he almost reforms. Mrs. Norris is detestable in her cruelty, yet she “would have been a more respectable mother of nine children on a small income” 7 than Fanny’s mother is. These are not flat characters.
And there are the amusing characters: the buffoonish Mr. Rushworth, the gourmand, Dr. Grant, who “brought on apoplexy and death, by three great institutionary dinners in one week” 8, and even Mrs. Norris, who “consoled herself for the loss of her husband by considering that she could do very well without him.” 9 Mansfield Park is, perhaps, one of the least comic of her novels, but Jane Austen seems to never have ceased viewing life with a sense of humor and irony.
Fanny Price herself is wonderful to study. Her patience under mistreatment, her timidity, diffidence, discernment, tenderheartedness, gentleness, loyalty, fortitude, and vulnerability, all unite to give her a depth and complexity that has the capability of delighting anyone who, like Elizabeth Bennet, is “a studier of character.” 10 Richard Jenkyns, in his book A Fine Brush on Ivory, comments, “Most of those who know Jane Austen best appear to regard Mansfield Park as a masterpiece, a deep book.” 11 He declares that it “is not far from being a perfect novel” 12 and that “the treatment of the heroine is masterly and profound.” 13
Fanny is much abused, not only by characters in the book, but also by critics. Perhaps I enjoy going against a popular opinion. There is a certain pleasure in defending someone. Not that Fanny doesn’t have her following of admirers, but of all of Jane Austen’s heroines, she is said to be the least liked. (Not necessarily a very low position, given the popularity of Jane Austen’s novels!)
Of course, I find all of Jane Austen’s novels delightful and fascinating, but these are a few of the reasons that Mansfield Park has come to be my favorite of her works.
1. First verse of The Je Ne Scai Quoi by William Whitehead (1715-1785).
2. Mansfield Park, by Jane Austen, Chapter XXX.
4. From Jane Austen’s collected Opinions of “Mansfield Park” (These can be accessed at: http://www.pemberley.com/janeinfo/opmansfp.html)
6. Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen, Chapter 9.
7. Mansfield Park, by Jane Austen, Chapter XXXIX.
8. Ibid. Chapter XLVIII
9. Ibid. Chapter III.
10. Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen, Chapter 9.
11. A Fine Brush on Ivory, by Richard Jenkyns; New York: Oxford University Press, 2004; Chapter 4, pages 93-94.
12. Ibid. Chapter 4, page 94.