Saturday, February 6, 2010

On Mansfield Park

I first read Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park on the recommendation of Vladimir Nabokov, who, in his Lectures on Literature said, “Mansfield Park is the work of a lady and the game of a child. But from that workbasket comes exquisite needlework art, and there is a streak of marvelous genius in that child.”

He also wrote:

At first Jane Austen’s manner and matter may seem to be old-fashioned, stilted, unreal. But this is a delusion to which the bad reader succumbs. The good reader is aware that the quest for real life, real people, and so forth is a meaningless process when speaking of books. In a book, the reality of a person, or object, or a circumstance depends exclusively on the world of that particular book. An original author always invents an original world, then we experience the pleasurable shock of artistic truth, no matter how unlikely the person or thing may seem if transferred into what book reviewers, poor hacks, call “real life”.

To put it in another way, a great novel is one that creates a wholly convincing world, one in which all of the parts are completely integrated and are, preferably, not all that similar to the world in which we live. Sometimes that world is totally the writer’s creation, as with the Oz books. Sometimes, as with Austen, that world is at least not unlike one that was once real and commonplace, but is no more.

In Austen’s world of the early 19th century British gentry (she wrote all of her major works between 1810 and her death in 1817), the day is spent visiting the neighbors, making charitable visits to the poor, horseback riding, or preparing for the Ball. Women should draw, dance, sing, and play the piano, and men, or, rather, gentlemen, should be able to tell the difference between talent and mere effort in these matters.

Money is something that’s been around in such abundance for so long that no one thinks about it much unless marriage is involved. Then, eligible bachelors are “worth five thousand a year” or “alas, only five hundred a year.” Sex is for marriage exclusively. Single men who indulge in it are naughty; single women who indulge in it are ruined forever. In such a world, morality is not only a matter of crime and punishment. One can cross over into the reprehensible simply by putting on a theatrical performance in the absence of parental approval.

And that is what much of Mansfield Park is about. The central character is Fanny Price, born poor and being raised by her aunt and uncle in a mansion along with her four cousins, all of them treating her as an inferior with the exception of Edmund who becomes her protector almost from her arrival. Here (pardon the length of this charming passage), we learn that Edmund will take pains for his young cousin’s health by providing her with a horse for her daily exercise.

Though Edmund was much more displeased with his aunt than with his mother, as evincing least regard for her niece, he . . . at length determined on a method of proceeding which would obviate the risk of his father’s thinking he had done too much, and at the same time procure for Fanny the immediate means of exercise, which he could not bear she should be without. He had three horses of his own, but not one that would carry a woman. Two of them were hunters; the third, a useful road-horse: this third he resolved to exchange for one that his cousin might ride; he knew where such a one was to be met with; and having once made up his mind, the whole business was soon completed. The new mare proved a treasure; with a very little trouble she became exactly calculated for the purpose, and Fanny was then put in almost full possession of her. She had not supposed before that anything could ever suit her like the old grey pony (of which she had been deprived); but her delight in Edmund’s mare was far beyond any former pleasure of the sort; and the addition it was ever receiving in the consideration of that kindness from which her pleasure sprung, was beyond all her words to express. She regarded her cousin as an example of everything good and great, as possessing worth which no one but herself could ever appreciate, and as entitled to such gratitude from her as no feelings could be strong enough to pay. Her sentiments towards him were compounded of all that was respectful, grateful, confiding, and tender.

We can imagine where this might lead in Austen’s world of perpetual romantic entanglements.

Later, when the children are young adults, Harry Crawford and his sister Mary arrive in the neighborhood, at a time when the stern and principled uncle is away managing business interests. While concerned about the depth of Mary’s principles, the somewhat priggish Edmund cannot completely ignore her charms. Harry will toy with Fanny’s cousins’ affections (and later with her own).

All this leads up to a plan to put on a play called Lovers’ Vows, in spite of Edmund and Fanny’s concern that the family patriarch will disapprove. Eventually Edmund is drawn into the fun, leaving Fanny to appear the scold. Of course, the father returns and is mightily displeased.

Eventually, there will be further romantic interactions and, of course, a happy ending, none of which will be revealed here. I should simply list some of the novel’s many charms: Fanny may be a bit of a stick, but she’s so carefully and lovingly drawn that her principles become her most winning feature; the book makes us actually believe that once upon a time putting on a theatrical in one’s parents’ living room was a sin worth censure; and, its depiction of a sheltered, privileged life presents a convincing demonstration that with privilege comes moral responsibility, and that meeting that responsibility — particularly in one’s interactions with the opposite sex — is the only thing that justifies that privilege.

To conclude with Nabokov: “The charm of Mansfield Park can be fully enjoyed only when we adopt its conventions, its rules, its enchanting make-believe. Mansfield Park never existed, and its people never lived.” Except, I would add, in the minds of those who read it.

Other recommended works: Pride and Prejudice, Emma, Persusion, Northanger Abbey, and Sense and Sensibility. They’re all great.

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