Every single Janeite I know, regardless of the degree of their crush for Mr Darcy, agrees that Pride and Prejudice is an enjoyable novel. Mention Mansfield Park, however, and dissent soon appears. Fanny is too quiet, too passive, too boring, say her detractors. I used to be one of them, but over the years, the novel has grown on me.
An acquired taste
Mansfield Park is Jane Austen’s equivalent of Marmite. For those of you who are not familiar with this most British of concoctions, Marmite is a dark, salty spread with the power to drastically divide opinion, best exemplified by its famous slogan, “love it or hate it”. Any mention of Marmite reminds me of my friend Amanda, who moved to the UK in her twenties. I was with her when she tried Marmite for the first time, spread over toast. She found it revolting. But back to Mansfield Park.
Mansfield Park is a bit like a visit to the hall of mirrors in an old-fashioned fun fair. Jane Austen distorted and stretched some of the archetypes we find in her novels to the point that they are barely recognisable. Looking at it from this perspective, Mansfield Park is like the dark side of her other works, almost a cautionary “what ift” in some cases. I am sure that the parallels are many, but below are my favourites.
Maria Bertram is Emma Woodhouse on the loose
Both Mansfield Park’s Maria Bertram and Emma’s protagonist are pretty, clever and rich. They think they know better than anyone else around them, but still, fail to see what’s right in front of their eyes when it comes to their own love life. However, where Emma’s worst instincts are reigned in on time, Maria’s are encouraged. Maria’s fate is like Emma’s ghost of Christmas’ Yet to Come, a show of what might have happened to Miss Woodhouse had she not learned from her mistakes and rectified her behaviour.
Mrs Norris is a poorer, older version of Fanny Dashwood
Fanny Dashwood’s name always appears in Janeite’s lists of their favourite baddies. She is the scheming and selfish wife of Mr Dashwood, Elinor and Marianne’s brother in Sense and Sensibility. Artfully, she convinces her weak husband to limit the financial assistance to his late father’s widow and her three daughters to little more than “presents of fish and game” during the hunting season. Fanny is a wealthy woman, but she is far from generous, even with her nearest. Quite the opposite: she is every bit as mean and tight as Mrs Norris, and equally disagreeable.
Mr Rushworth is a financially independent Mr Collins
At first sight, these two gentlemen only have in common the fact that they are not particularly bright, nor gifted in the art of conversation. But dig deeper, and you will see some interesting patterns emerge. Mansfield Park‘s Mr Rushworth and Pride and Prejudice‘s Mr Collins only pay attention to what interests them. They are utterly oblivious to the subtle female signals around them, even those that are obvious to everyone else. They also share the same deep respect towards an older woman, Mrs Rushworth in one case, Lady Catherine de Bourgh in the other. The only difference, and what fires up Mr Collin’s unsufferable obsequiousness, is their fortune.
Lady Bertram is the female equivalent of Mr Woodhouse
Lazy, indolent and selfish, Mansfield Park‘s Lady Bertram and Emma‘s Mr Woodhouse see everything under the filter of self-interest and agree that change is the worst possible evil. They also care little about what lies beyond their little obsessions. That’s pug for Lady Bertram, and his and everyone else’s state of health in the case of Mr Woodhouse. Mr Woodhouse’s sex and disposition mean that he gets to be a lot more outspoken than Lady Bertram, but dig deeper, and you will see two kindred souls resting on equally comfortable sofas.
Henry Crawford is a rich Wickham
Pride and Prejudice’s George Wickham and Mansfield Park’s Henry Crawford could not look more different. Where Wickham is handsome, Crawford is slight and not particularly good-looking. Ignore their physical appearance, however, and the similarities between them are striking. Both men are irresistibly attractive to some women, enjoy flirting with anyone who is game and have a tendency to land ladies in trouble. The big difference is that Henry has money and can enjoy creating havoc and then moving on. Wickham, on the other hand, has the unfortunate combination of a modest income and a gambling problem, meaning that he has a price – and so he ends up married to Lydia.
Mary Crawford is a (seriously) insolent Elizabeth Bennet
Mansfield Park’s Mary Crawford and Pride and Prejudice’s Elizabeth Bennet are witty, pretty and fascinating young women with a sense of fun and some serious sparkle. They don’t mince their words, are not afraid to stand her ground and are experts in the art of teasing. Perhaps that’s why they are magnets for socially awkward and introverted men. However, Mary takes sassiness to a whole new level with her flippant comments and double entendres. Lady Catherine de Bourgh should count herself lucky: she may think Elizabeth Bennet an insolent girl, but she would have a heart attack if she ever met Mary Crawford.
Edmund Bertram is Henry Tilney without a sense of humour
As well as their profession, Mansfield Park’s Edmund Bertram and Northanger Abbey’s Henry Tinley share a similar moral compass, a kind heart and an eagerness to educate their respective protegées. But that is pretty much it. Edmund’s approach to life is solemn, serious, moralistic even, whereas Henry prefers irreverence, irony and laughter. Just think of Mr Tilney’s delightful conversation with Catherine – his opinions on muslin are a personal favourite of mine – then compare them to Edmund’s talk about sermons, house approaches and old horses. No wonder Edmund never makes it to the top of the favourite Austen leading men lists.
Fanny Price is an uninvolved Anne Elliot
Readers of Miss Darcy’s Beaux are well aware of my soft spot for Jane Austen’s introvert characters, of which Mansfield Park’s Fanny and Persuasion’s Anne are excellent examples. Both heroines are strong in their beliefs, but they have a quiet, unassuming manner, that many Janeites consider to border on sheer passivity (and, in the case of the former, was fatally ignored in one of the most catastrophic casting mistakes in an Austen adaptation). However, compared to Fanny Price, Anne is like Wonder Woman. She is the person everybody turns to when things go awry, and she delivers, coming to the rescue of injured children and keeping her cool when everyone is hysterical at Lyme. Perhaps it is no wonder that so many people love Anne, but accuse Fanny of single-handedly dragging Mansfield Park into the heart of the Mansfield Park rocks/sucks debate.
In any case, remember my friend Amanda and her dislike of Marmite? After a few years in the UK, she finally challenged her own assumptions and tried it with an open mind. I can’t say she has become a fan of Marmite, but she appreciates its sharp, strong taste and will even have it on toast every once in a while.
What are your thoughts regarding Mansfield Park? Can you think of any other similarities or distortions amongst Austen characters?