Mansfield Park is very much the Marmite of Jane Austen’s works. Although actually I’m the only person I’ve ever come across who thinks it has any merit at all so it’s more the dry toast of Jane Austen’s works (I love dry toast but everyone else looks at me like I’m crazy).
The thing is I think a lot of people misread Mansfield Park. It’s not the story of Fanny Price in the same way that Pride and Prejudice is the story of Elizabeth Bennett or Persuasion is the story of Anne Eliot. Mansfield Park is the story of the Bertram family told through the eyes of Fanny Price. It’s about Sir Thomas’s relationship with his children, the hedonism of Tom, the repercussions of Maria and Julia’s overindulged childhoods and the pure evil that is Mrs Norris. Seriously, the most detestable character in literature, even more so because she’s believably evil.
It is also, as far as I know (which isn’t very far, I stopped studying history as soon as I could and the majority of my knowledge now comes from historical fiction) a greater reflection of what life would have been like during the early 1800s. I think it was PD James who talked about how novels should be used to represent modern life, rather than the author’s fictionalised version of the past. I imagine that Elizabeth Bennett, Marianne Dashwood and Emma Woodhouse were very rare characters to find in that age of manners and etiquette (not that this is a bad thing – I’ve talked here about how amazing they are as characters and how much of an influence they had on me). But Jane Austen would have been surrounded by Anne Eliots, Elinor Dashwoods and Fanny Prices. So whereas Pride and Prejudice is a great read as a fiction book, Mansfield Park gives an insight in to Jane Austen’s situation. And as Jane Austen is a person I hugely admire and want to understand as well as possible this greatly appeals.
And it contains one of my favourite quotes from all books ever, which is also, as far as I’m aware, the only example of Jane Austen speaking directly to the reader –
“Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious as soon as I can, impatient to restore everybody not greatly in fault themselves to tolerable comfort, and to have done with all the rest.”
I love this quote. It completely sums up Jane Austen’s novels – by the conclusion all the ends will be tied up satisfactorily for the reader and everyone who deserves it will get their happily ever after.
I really could not recommend Mansfield Park highly enough. It has the perfect balance of wit, engaging characters and a detailed plot and I cannot understand what everyone else is missing.