Readers of Mansfield Park may well wonder what happened to Jane Austen. Irony and humor are hard to find. In contrast to the sparking Elizabeth Bennet of Pride and Prejudice, there’s heroine Fanny Price, who is shy, serious, passive, self-denying, and sickly. The character whose charming personality resembles Elizabeth’s, Mary Crawford, is a dangerous temptress; her vivacious exterior conceals a mind corrupted by London and an unprincipled upbringing.
From age 10 Fanny lives at Mansfield Park, the estate of Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram. Her poor parents relinquished her to the Bertrams and to Mrs. Norris, wife of a clergyman who owes his living to Bertram. The two woman are Fanny’s aunts. Fanny grows up treated as a lady’s maid and unvalued by all but her cousin Edmund. When the four Bertram cousins are of marriageable age, Mary and Henry Crawford, half-sister and half-brother of a neighbor, arrive from London and stir up staid Mansfield Park and Fanny’s four Bertram cousins. There are all sorts of transgressions—from inappropriate acting to seduction and adultery—before Sir Thomas realizes that he didn’t teach his children well, and Edmund realizes that Fanny, the only one who correctly judged the Crawfords from the start, is his true mate.
So, what did Jane Austen intend to communicate? Critics cover the
gamut from thinking she betrayed her own genius to considering Mansfield Park
her most profound novel. Some say that Austen wanted to counteract Pride and Prejudice's association of wit with principle. Some think that Austen was
making a stand for the old values of stability and endurance, embodied in Fanny, as England was changing from rural to industrial. Myriad other interpretations ensure that Mansfield Park continues to be the most controversial Austen novel.
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