The Price is right Returning to Mansfield Park | Daily News


 

The Price is right Returning to Mansfield Park

Frances O’Connor as Fanny Price and Alessandro Nivola as Henry Crawford in Mansfield Park,
Frances O’Connor as Fanny Price and Alessandro Nivola as Henry Crawford in Mansfield Park,

Mansfield Park is full of edgy comedy. Take the episode at Sotherton, the seat of Maria’s fiancé. Already irritated by the foolishness of her future husband, Maria yet swells at the sight of his huge estate – a sly dig perhaps at Elizabeth Bennet’s teasing remark that she fell in love with Darcy when she saw his fine property of Pemberley. The scene seems controlled by a tricksy Puck as narrator: the various couples wander in a maze, losing sense of time, place and propriety.

One of my earliest memories of literary embarrassment is being asked by a bookish neighbour if I’d read Jane Austen. I was eleven. “Yes”, I replied. But I was mistaken. I had in mind the fantastic Classic Comics version of Jane Eyre with its alluring panel of Mr Rochester.

By nineteen, at Cambridge in the 1960s, I’d uncoupled Jane Austen from Jane Eyre. I read the six novels which F. R. Leavis, the then guru, instructed us to find “great”. I couldn’t oblige. I was startled, then offended, by Fanny Price of Mansfield Park. Why would an author who’d made the robust, witty and self-assured Elizabeth Bennet then create so limp and teary a heroine as Fanny, a creeping killjoy who suffers sunstroke from cutting roses in temperate England and fears the “wilderness” of a tame country estate? Until the ending, I assumed her rival Mary Crawford would get the hero – if, bizarrely, she really wanted him.

Chosen heroines

Over the decades I became acutely aware that Elizabeth Bennet (in the later chapters) and Fanny Price were more appropriate, self-controlling, guides to life for a young girl than my chosen heroines from Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, the Grushenkas, and Natashas, under whose influence I made some astonishingly foolish life-choices. It wasn’t all the fault of the Russians, of course. It was also the exciting period of Second Wave Feminism, when the stress was on self-fulfilment and self-expression, on being authentic and free from constraining standards of “patriarchy”.

Present-day Feminism – I’ve lost touch with what Wave we are now riding – has had half a century to grow more nuanced and diverse, but its emphasis on the individual self and authentic experience remains. So we still try to adjust Jane Austen to our way of thinking – unless we are in the cinema watching her novels as romance and costume drama.

Mansfield Park is her most daring book. Knowing she had a great popular triumph in Pride and Prejudice, Austen deliberately created a heroine without the endearing qualities that made Elizabeth Bennet universally loved. Jane Austen liked pewter – we have it from her letters – yet not enough to repeat the winning romantic formula when she knew she had a supreme talent for fictional experiment. She wrote of Emma, that she’d created a heroine no one but herself would much like. The opinion better suits Fanny Price, through whom she provokes the reader to address the difficult truth of stubborn integrity.

Frightened and homesick

This is the only Austen novel to treat childhood extensively. Little Fanny Price is translated – some critics even say “trafficked” – to the great house as an act of charity to her lower middle-class family. Frightened and homesick, she is lightly befriended by Edmund, the younger son in Mansfield, who wins her affection with small kindly acts – finding pen and paper, helping her to a horse – so that in quick time youthful neediness becomes adolescent infatuation, then adult love.

It consumes most of her being, while not denting her loneliness. In her uncle’s Northamptonshire mansion, Fanny learns to value manners and elegance, while always remaining aware that she is an outsider, an intruder who must feed her inner life through nature and the culture of books and images collected in her cold attic. When she refuses a wealthy suitor, her uncle dispatches her, like a parcel, to her Portsmouth birthplace, to learn appreciation of the gentility she can preserve only through upwardly mobile marriage.

There is nothing like this episode elsewhere in Austen: we see Fanny reversing her ideas of “home”, judging harshly what was once loved. Weighed down by children and relative poverty, her mother is dismissed as feckless, presiding over a slatternly house of dirt, dust, grease and stains. Fanny can’t stomach the food and winces at the table manners. Thinking back to chilly, genteel Mansfield, where she had been treated with contempt and indifference, Fanny rearranges memory to make her adoptive home a heavenly place of rest and refinement.

Huge estate

Mansfield Park is full of edgy comedy. Take the episode at Sotherton, the seat of Maria’s fiancé. Already irritated by the foolishness of her future husband, Maria yet swells at the sight of his huge estate – a sly dig perhaps at Elizabeth Bennet’s teasing remark that she fell in love with Darcy when she saw his fine property of Pemberley. The scene seems controlled by a tricksy Puck as narrator: the various couples wander in a maze, losing sense of time, place and propriety.

Thinking back to my teenaged reading of this scene, I realize how little I was attuned to comedy, how woodenly I (and I think my fellow students) responded to the heavy symbolism and literary allusions that Maria employs. Feeling restrained by an iron gate, she quotes the caged starling from Sterne’s Sentimental Journey, who repeats the words, “I cannot get out” (which Sterne’s hero hears as a cry for liberty).

This goads Maria into nimbly passing round the iron gate with the man she loves, stranding her despised betrothed on the other side with the key. The knowingness of these privileged and articulate young people who transgress with comic and literary awareness makes this and the whole ominous day deliciously absurd. Each player is finely drawn: even Julia, a modest spear-carrier in the plot, comes vividly alive as she rushes from the “horrible” hostess by whom she’s been trapped – through her Mansfield training in good manners.

All the while, Fanny sits on a bench, a lone observer of the drama unravelling before her. Restless Elizabeth Bennet and Emma Woodhouse revel in good health; these robust heroines could never have stayed immobile like Fanny, or thereby seen and understood as much. Nor, perhaps, appeared so silly.

- Times Literary Supplement


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