Monday, January 14, 2013

Monday Classic: Mansfield Park

Author: Jane Austen
Genre: General Fiction
Original Pub. Date: 1814

In one of the more twee passages (and that's saying a lot) from one of the many Anne of Green Gables books, I recall Anne maundering on about how different books made her want to eat foods that seemed to match the content. Since this stuck with me, I guess I have to admit I agree; bread and cheese with Robert Louis Stevenson books, wine and cake with The Hobbit, maybe sushi with Moby-Dick?

Since whatever food goes with Saturday's Kushiel's Dart would probably taste like the back room of an adult bookstore smells, I'm going to get those images out of my head and cleanse my literary palate with a piece of chocolate, a nice fresh cup of hot tea, and some bitching about my least favorite Jane Austen novel: Mansfield Park.

For whatever reason, Sense and Sensibility (my second least favorite*) gets read quite a bit in universities. I think it's because S & S is possibly the drabbest of Austen's books, and academics don't feel like they're doing their jobs if they write criticism of books it's possible they, or anyone else, might enjoy.** Hence, we have extensive criticism of The Great Gatsby, but not so much of, say, P.G. Wodehouse's Carry On, Jeevesboth of which were published in 1925 and feature upper-class characters who drink too much involved in awkward romantic entanglements.

Mansfield Park, on the other hand, inhabits a miserable literary no man's land: it's both slightly too lively for most English professors to want to teach and far too dull for most people to want to read. I have no proof of this, but I'm betting it's the least-known of any of Austen's six major works as a result.

For any readers who have not read this book and are actually going to read my rant about it anyway, here's a quick summary from Wikipedia, because I see no reason to write it all over again myself.

And now we can summarize the summary. Henry Crawford, a rich, handsome, charming, funny, intelligent young man, is in love with Fanny, our dull heroine, and wants to marry her. She refuses him. Why? She doubts his morality, because he flirted with both of her girl cousins, one of whom was engaged. How very shocking! Let us all take a moment to imagine what an unattached young man who thinks himself too good to flirt with a pretty girl would be like. Hopefully, anyone with some slight grasp of normal human nature has pictured an unbearably self-righteous bore who probably hero-worships Fanny Burney's douchey Edgar Mandlebert.

That bore? Personified by the hero of Mansfield Park, Fanny's cousin Edmund, who's in love with Henry's sister Mary throughout most of the book. I realize attraction isn't, by its nature, logical. But really, by the middle of Mansfield Park, I lost all patience with Fanny. What could be less appealing than a guy who's always going on and on about some other woman's beauty? A guy who moans all the time about how that beautiful woman isn't good enough for him, that's what. And yet Fanny continues to mope around, longing for Edmund, despite his sullen, entitled Madonna/whore obsession with another girl.

In the end, Fanny finally convinces Henry to leave her alone, much to the disgust of her relatives, who think she's completely insane. (At this point, I was right there with them.) Henry, in a fit of pique, toddles off to London and runs away with Fanny's now-married cousin Maria. Any hopes I had that Fanny would come around and marry him were now dashed; even I, whose morality would make Fanny faint dead away, wouldn't want a novel's heroine to marry her bitchy cousin's ex-lover. For a moment, the reader is left to think that perhaps Fanny will end her days a sad spinster.

But no! What luck! Mary fails to utterly condemn her brother as a useless, worthless, demonic sub-human who deserves to die. Edmund, sent into hysterics by her semi-realistic view of the world, flees home to whine, yet again, to poor long-suffering Fanny (that idiot) about how miserable he is, now that the beautiful girl he loves is proven to be even less worthy of his perfect, perfect self.

I know what Austen was trying to do with the end of Mansfield Park. The idea, of course, is that Edmund realizes that the perfect girl was right there all along; he sees that his love for Fanny is pure and true; his parents finally understand that virtue in a cottage is so much more valuable than a worldly marriage for money, passion, excitement, good conversation, and other horridly vulgar things; and everyone lives happily ever after.

Here's what I saw happen at the end of Mansfield Park: Edmund realizes that he's too boring and uptight to attract a really desirable woman. He sees that Fanny's love for him is pure and true, and that if he marries her, he'll have someone fussing over his meals and selflessly mending his shirts until she goes blind for the rest of his life. His parents understand that if they want to have two people with nothing better to do than run their errands for the rest of their lives, sticking their sanctimonious son and his goody two-shoes wife in a vicarage down the road will work out really well. Everyone lives happily ever after.

This book just makes me so spitting mad every time I read it. It still gets three and a half stars, because it's a good novel in many ways, but the better Austens would each get five.

* Pride and Prejudice, Northanger Abbey (yes, Mom, I know Emma is technically better than both of my first picks), Emma, Persuasion, Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park.

** This also applies to high school reading lists, as I've discussed previously.

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