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Mansfield Park

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So–I got my midterm grades in, and all my correcting done, and even a few things done around the house, in the middle of a crisis where a pipe that goes from my house to the water main exploded and it was apparently all my fault.

It was one of those things where, if I didn’t have very good friends, I would have been sunk completely. 

It also gave rise to the speculation that there are some people for whom “cut off  your nose to spite your face” is a philosophy of life.

But to explain that, I’d have to go into local government out here, and I’m not ready to do that at this hour of the morning.

Let me get back, instead, to Jane Austen.  To recap something I probably said last time:  a friend sent me a book, from an English publisher, called What Matters in Jane Austen? by John Mullan.

And the book opened by referencing Mansfield Park, which was a novel I’d never read.

It turned out that Persuasion was also a novel I’d never read, because I’d confused it with Sandition, which is the novel Austen left unfinished at her death, and that other people keep trying to complete.

I’d been avoiding that one for years, except I’d gotten the titles mixed up.  So now I will, when I’m finished with the What Matters book, read that one.

But in the meantime, I have finished Mansfield Park, and I have a few notes.

SPOILER ALERT–there are LOTS of spoilers here. 

1) First is the simple fact that this is the only novel I’ve ever read by Jane Austen that is bad as a novel.

It’s not bad in the way, say, The Da Vinci Code is bad.  This is Jane Austen.  She writes well.

But structurally, this novel is a mess. 

Not only is there far too much tell rather than show, but there are long stretches when she just narrates what’s supposed to have happened without dramatizing it at all.

And in the last chapter, she just lays out everything else that’s supposed to happen over the course of years in one long expository sweep.

There’s nothing wrong with that if the writer is just giving you the postscript to the action of the novel.  In fact, that kind of thing can be fun.

What happens here, however, is a sort of rapid-fire tell-and-get-it-over-with of what should be main actions in the novel as it has been set up to that point. 

It’s almost as if she just lost interest in what she was writing. 

Except not, exactly, because–

2) This is a book by a woman who has absolutely lost all patience.

Austen never did have a rosy view of human nature, but in Mansfield Park, she seems to have consigned the vast majority of the human race to a writhing mass of selfishness and malevolence. 

And I do mean malevolence.

This book contains a character who is by far the single most evil human being in any Jane Austen  novel I’ve read so far, and one of the top five evil characters in all of fiction in English.

The extent of Mrs. Norris’s envy, spite and corruption is truly breathtaking, and it’s all the more effective because what’s actually going on creeps up on you only gradually.

I’ve always said that real evil is always expressed in the small things–that what we have to watch out for is not Hitler, but the Nurse Ratcheds and Delores Umbrages on the domestic front, and here you’ve got her in spades. 

Before this, I would have said that Austen wasn’t capable of writing a character this spiritually ugly, but here she is.

3) And, to go along with that, there are the sharpest of all of Austen’s commentary on social class. 

And she’s not a sentimentalist.  Harriet, Emma’s protege and improvement project in Emma, is a decent and wholesome person on her own terms.  The Prices are not that at all, and the life they lead and the feelings they express are pretty much just dumped on the table and declared unacceptable for any human being.

This is not the usual thing in Austen.  She critiques the well-off and objectionable, but she usually accepts the impoverished on their own terms.

This is something else, and it’s difficult to see where it’s coming from if you know anything about Austen’s usually take on this kind of thing.

4) But Austen’s usual take isn’t much visible anywhere.

Take our erstwhile heroine, Fanny Price.

Austen’s heroines tend to be young and spirited–wrongheaded, a lot of the time, and foolish, but with good strong backbones. 

Fanny Price is a doormat.

She is, in fact, a Patient Griselda–when she’s abused, ignored, neglected and oppressed, she doesn’t rail back, even internally.

She just tells herself that this is what she deserves.

The only sign we have that there may be more to her than a whimpering little ball of nerves, depression, and pathologically low self esteem comes when she refuses to marry a man her relations try to push on her and whom she does not love.

This would be a larger consideration if it wasn’t for the fact that, by the end, she is almost persuaded anyway, and only escapes because the man is just as much of a moral cesspool as she thinks he is, and in the middle of wooing Fanny runs off with her married cousin.

It is very difficult to sympathize with a character who cannot stand up for herself, and who spends her time telling herself that she is not only m iserable, but that she deserves to be miserable.

It is even more annoying to get the impression from the narrative that it is this very dishrag quality that we are supposed to admire her for, that constitutes her greatest virtue.

Austen usually knew better than that. 

The contrast between this character and Austen’s usual heroines is made all the stronger by the appearance at the end of the book of Fanny’s younger sister Susan, who looks as if she could hold her own with Eleanor Dashwood or Elizabeth Bennet or Emma.

Fanny most certainly cannot.

I don’t want to leave the impression that I didn’t “like” this book, because I did.

It may not be what I’d call an actual novel is structure or form, but it was interesting as hell, precisely because in it Austen seemed to have lost all patience (see above).

It’s possible to see, in that, something of Austen’s wider moral understanding that is present in all the other novels, but not nearly so clear.

It also leaves me wondering what was going on in Austen’s life, and mind, that could bring her to this.

Written by janeh

October 25th, 2012 at 9:42 am

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response to 'Mansfield Park'

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  1. In fairness, telling what should be shown isn’t just Mansfield Park. In P&P, we’re told that Darcy is very civil to Elizabeth Benet’s relatives at Pemberly–but we’re not givea a word he said. Scott does the same thing in the Waverly novels–telling us his character gave a great speech without giving us the speech. I tend to think of the early 19th Century as being before they quite knew how to write novels. (They had it right by Jubilee Year, though, and haven’t improved since.)

    But I agree. For me, Austen lost the beat on Mansfield Park. It’s the only time I’ve read an Austen novel and not afterward known what it was about, or been able to remember the plot clearly. It could be me, but I’d say at the least the confusion among the critics speaks for some lack of clarity.

    As for the time of life and the circumstances of her writing–well, I dearly wish we had First Impressions, Elinor and Marianne and Susan. But this does seem to be the first time she wrote a novel in less than a decade with two or three successive longhand drafts, and the first novel she wrote after she was past all reasonable hope of a romance of her own. If that’s the case, she got over it. Emma and Persuasion look tightly organized by comparison, and she never loses her theme in them. But there are some aspects of Persuasion which–I will not spoil for you.

    Enjoy.

    robert_piepenbrink

    25 Oct 12 at 7:04 pm

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