It is a bold move from Jane Austen to introduce the first proper conflict by the two-thirds mark. I’m referring, of course, to the moment when Fanny Price commences her journey of becoming an individual with agency: her refusal to marry Mr. Crawford. Even if it displeases the mighty Sir Thomas, her uncle.
Prior to this event the name of the book, Mansfield Park really was accurate: Jane Austen was writing about the place, people that live there, and events that occur.
However, the heroine exists, and her name is Fanny Price, the poor niece/cousin, who is given a chance to live better life. She is mostly a silent, fragile occupant existing in the room corners, and so unlike the previous protagonists of Jane Austen: Elinor the Wise and Elizabeth the Eloquent and Empowered. (One can include Marianne the Rash.) Fanny’s mother married lowest of the three sisters; one of her aunts, the middle one in terms of affluence, suggests that one child the poorest sister be allowed to live with the Bertrams, in Mansfield Park, and so she is thrust upon a totally new environment.
Fanny Price is miserable and shy. She has one true friend in Mansfield Park, her cousin Edward, the second son of Sir Bertram – who will not inherit the estate and the title (that goes to the oldest son, Tom.) – who treats her tenderly. Edmund and Tom have sisters, Maria and Julia, who are slightly older than Fanny. Tom and sisters, mostly ignore Fanny. The head of the Bertrams, Sir Thomas is scary. His wife, Fanny’s aunt, Lady Bertram less so. The other aunt, Mrs. Norris, treats Fanny in a most condescending way: Fanny must know her place, be grateful for the opportunity (and it is indeed a lucky break), not be expected to be given equal education to sisters; in other words, wait for the rest of her life. I think Mrs. Norris behaves as she does because without Fanny she holds the lowest status.
It is the institution of marriage that is still the underlying theme. No surprise there.
In the sphere of Mansfield there are Dr. and Mrs. Grant, the former being the preacher of Mansfield Park’s parish following Mr. Norris’s death. The there are Mrs. Grant’s half-siblings, from London, Mr. and Ms. Crawford, and a Mr. Rushworth, perhaps even more simpleton than Mr. Collins in another book, yet having a singularly desirable attribute Mr. Collins was lacking: 12,000 pounds a year. Very desirable, indeed.
Enter Mr. and Ms. Crawford. Maria and Viola are both drawn to Mr. Crawford (he’s a flirt). Mr. Rushworth is not favoured. Edmund and Ms Crawford, Mary, are warming to each other. And here Jane Austen via Fanny critisizes Mary for not liking the idea that Edmund’s future vocation is going to a clergyman. When in fact she and Mr. Crawford (flirty or not) are actually characters that are modern in word and deed. Yet, Fanny/Jane does not like their ways.
Mr. Crawford is merely flirty and leaves Mansfield Park. Mary decides to marry Mr. Rushworth the dull, because she’s pissed (not Jane Austen’s words, merely my interpretation), and because she wants to move away from the suffocating Mansfield Park (and her parents). Wow, I can definitely relate to that.
A lot of drama is unfolding while Sir Thomas is away handling his business in Antigua. When he gets back, he gives his blessing to Maria and Mr. Rushworth’s marriage. They marry, move away and take Julia with them.
Sisters away, Fanny’s stock rises. Sir Thomas’s long stay at Antigua has mellowed him. He is not that scary anymore. Enter Mr. Crawford who wants to get Fanny to like him a bit. Eventually, he starts to love her and to talk of marriage. Fanny refuses. Sir Thomas mk 2 is not happy but much more reasonable.
Mr. Crawford continues to try her luck. It would be an advantageous marriage to Fanny, yet: no. Now Fanny goes back to her lower middle class home in Portsmouth. It’s a hell hole for the quite, civilized, still fragile Fanny: bad manners, shouting, dirt. The polar opposite to Mansfield Park, which is Fanny’s true home.
Mr. and Ms. Crawford are the baddies in this story (but not really in my book). Edmund and Mary will not become an item, Mary cannot get over her distaste of clergy. (No love of clergy in Jane Austen’s books so far; Edmund will be the first proper clergyman, unlike Mr. Collins or that wet rag, idiot Mr. Edward Ferrars.)
What will happen? Will Fanny find a suitable husband? (You do know the answer in your heart.)
Is Fanny Price Jane Austen’s ideal person? It seems so. The book, however, is superior to Sense and Sensibility or Pride and Prejudice when it somes to dialogue: there are some exceptionally well-written dialogue that Fanny (yes, the timid Fanny), Ms. Crawford and Edmund are priviledged to say. Strange pacing, old-fashioned ideas, but gripping as hell!