This has been my first reading of Mansfield Park, and, though I hate to say it, it is my least favorite Austen novel so far. It certainly had some redeeming moments, and I appreciate Austen’s sharp wit and keen social analysis as ever, but I found many of the characters infuriating, the story progression extremely slow, and the plot almost nonexistent.
I think that the character of Fanny Price is a highly accurate depiction of a young woman in her situation, but the tremendous anxiety that surrounds her from the necessity of walking on eggshells around the Bertrams and wasting away over the seemingly unobtainable Edmund had my stomach in knots with little resolution for satisfaction. Of course, the suffering of others, even fictional, need not be entertaining to be worth pondering, but the problem boils down to this: Fanny Price is boring, and most of the people who surround her are tedious.
Almost all of the major changes to the story were in regards to setting, and usually it was simply a matter of switching rooms and people. Everything ticked along for the first two-thirds of the novel from room to room, and then suddenly there was an avalanche of closure. Most of the loose ends were neatly tied up without ever being fully undone. I have loved Austen for so long that I find it difficult to insult her. Nonetheless, I much prefer the other novels of hers that I have read, (which are, for the sake of full disclosure, Pride and Prejudice, Emma, Sense and Sensibility, and a few pages of Northanger Abbey).
I think that it would be fair to describe Mansfield Park as the “Mumblecore” of Austen novels. If you are unfamiliar with this film genre, it has quite a slow progression and is highly conversational with less emphasis on structure and plot development. Much of the focus falls onto the characterization, resulting in a more lifelike depiction that is not overly dramatized like most traditional cinema. That sounds like Mansfield Park to a T, am I right?
Although I must admit that I prefer the film application of these techniques, I am sure that I am somewhat blinded by my presentism. Perhaps the subtleties of human interaction, which are largely subjective to the constructs and conventions of your era, are more difficult to connect with out of the context of personal experience. Instead, the huge, overarching themes that are so unique to humanity and yet universal–love, fear, hope, family and so on–we can relate to no matter the year because they have, in some way, touched all of our lives throughout history for better or for worse.
Even though it wasn’t the most thrilling experience, I am glad that I shared Fanny Price’s journey. It has helped me to better understand the social aspects of Austen’s world and her other novels.
But I probably won’t be going back for seconds.