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Susan’s Bookshelves: Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

Mansfield Park has the name of a house as its title – as do, for example, Bleak House, Howards End, Wuthering Heights, The House at Pooh Corner and Small House at Allington. It usually means that the house is more than a building. It has to symbolise something.

Returning to Mansfield Park now, after a decade or two away from it, I’m struck more forcibly than ever that Sir Thomas Bertram’s titular Northamptonshire pile represents stability, decency, order and all the traditional things which most of the young people in the novel are reacting against, as things threaten to become less stable. Trouble is that three of the four Betram children are the victims of a sloppy upbringing by a pleasant and sometimes assertive but generally hands-off father and a hopeless mother who thinks more about her lap dog than her children. And eventually it shows. Somehow, though, one of the Bertram quartet turns out very different.

Fanny Price has been born into contrasting disorder because her mother has married (a long way) beneath her whereas one of her sisters married Sir Thomas Bertram and the other a, now dead clergyman to whom Sir Thomas granted a living. Sir Thomas and his sister-in-law take in Fanny to give her a better life at Mansfield Park. Once she recovers from her home sickness she settles down to be the quiet, well behaved, often troubled poor relation whose only real friend is her older cousin, Edmund, the second Bertram son, who is destined for the Church and so unlike his siblings that you can’t help wondering how he got there.

It’s easy to scoff at Mansfield Park. When Sir Thomas is away on business the young people daringly decide to stage a slightly risqué  play, called Lovers’ Vows at Mansfield Park. In 2024 we regard drama as a heathy way of exploring life, emotions and relationships and it seems a pretty harmless project to modern readers. In 1814 it was seen as licence to say things to people with whom you would normally be reserved so pretending to be someone else becomes disreputable and sexually daring. Fanny, who doesn’t take part but reluctantly helps with hearing lines and so on, is horrified. Then Sir Thomas returns unexpectedly and that’s the end of that.

The drawing of Mrs Norris, Fanny’s childless aunt, is masterly. She is relentlessly unkind, patronising, miserly and sanctimonious, arguably one of Austen’s finest creations. Anna Massie’s brilliant performance in this role is the only thing I remember about the 1983 TV serialisation apart from Angela Pleasance as the languorous, indolent, pug-loving Lady Bertram who rarely stirs from her sofa.

Late in the novel Fanny returns to Portsmouth to visit her own family – Austen’s only attempt to depict life outside grand houses. It is often said that it’s a world she fails to understand. I disagree. Austen actually lived in a small house (you can visit it at Chawton in Hampshire) and as a clergyman’s daughter would have done plenty of pastoral visiting. For me the presentation of the noisy, overcrowded house with its tiny rooms and narrow passages rings completely true. Yes Austen stayed in a number of large houses as a guest and understood the dynamic but she also has a pretty good handle on how working people lived.

I had another thought at this rereading too. Mrs Price, who isn’t much of a coper, has a huge, chaotic family. Some of the children are still very young.  One presumes that she and the lusty, hard drinking Mr Price have to share a bedroom.  Her sister, Lady Bertram probably has her own bedroom which, years ago, Sir Thomas would visit by occasional appointment. That’s why there are only four Bertram children.

The background to all Austen’s novels is war with France and in this instance, obliquely, the slavery which funds Mansfield Park.  At one point someone actually asks Sir Thomas how slavery works on his Antiguan estates. Consider the dates. Slave trade (but not the ownership of slaves which remained legal until 1838) had been banned in the British Empire in 1807.  Mansfield Park was published in 1814 so, by inference, perhaps the reason Sir Thomas has to go to Antigua to attend to estate business is related to that. There are hints, too, that money isn’t flowing quite as freely as it once did.

And as for the war, when Henry Crawford uses his contacts (overt nepotism) to get Fanny’s brother, William, promoted to naval lieutenant it is clear that this will lead to “rewards” once young Price starts overpowering enemy ships. That’s how it worked. Frederick Wentworth in Persuasion, for example, goes to war with nothing but comes back rich enough to marry Anne without anyone objecting.

Henry Crawford – a wealthy man – who comes with his sister to stay near Mansfield Park, wants to marry Fanny. She disapproves of him (with good reason and foresight as it turns out) and refuses him although he’s very persistent and all her family think it’s an offer she shouldn’t dream of rejecting. With Henry is his alluring sister, who says things she shouldn’t and exudes mysterious sexuality especially when she plays her harp. Edmund is smitten.

Fanny, who idolises Edmund, is jealous, although that’s a blunt summary of something which is quite subtly depicted. Finally, there’s the most low-key happy ending in fiction and Fanny gets her man.

Two points: First, I can accept that cousins can fall in love and marry if they meet in adult life – and have known a couple of real life instances of that –  but when they’ve grown up in the same household it seems disconcertingly incestuous.

Second, Fanny and Edmund are both so well behaved and concerned with decorous decision making – almost to the point of priggishness –  that it’s hard to disagree with the waggish critic who once commented that there’s unlikely to be much passion at the parsonage on Saturday nights.

Nonetheless it’s an interesting novel and good to come back to.

Next week on Susan’s Bookshelves: Lovebroken By Finley de Witt

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Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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