2014 is the bicentennial of Mansfield Park, originally published in 1814. If you have time hanging heavy on your hands during the Christmas holiday season, then you could probably manage to read this before the year is up. I just read it the last couple of weeks, and was reminded afresh why this is my favorite Austen novel.
Fanny Price is the eldest girl in a large family of eight children, soon to be nine. Her father is a no-good lieutenant, and her mother's relatives, out of pity for their straitened condition, invite Fanny to live with them at Mansfield Park. She will not be brought up as privileged as her cousins, but she will be given a safe home and a good education. Under the eyes of her socially correct uncle, Sir Thomas, and her officious, worrying Aunt Norris, Fanny will be in no danger of raising herself above her place.
But the year Fanny turns eighteen, newcomers arrive at Mansfield--the dashing Crawfords, brother and sister, who are devoted to pleasant society, a good match, and lots of money. The Crawfords, though pleasant enough at first, wreak havoc with all Christian ideas of love, constancy, and earthly dominion. And both of them in their selfish way threaten to destroy the Bertram family's status in society, as well as Fanny's happiness.
Was Jane Austen a Christian? Well, obviously I can't prove that, and only God knows for sure. But Mansfield Park seems quite clear proof that she was. While the other novels are tales of love and good character, Mansfield Park is much more forthright in condemning 'good works' with no heart change undergirding them. You won't find words like 'Jesus Christ' and 'salvation'. But if you read between the 19th century terms, she's clear as to what it takes to live a really good life:
He feared that principle, active principle, had been wanting, that they had never been properly taught to govern their inclinations and tempers, by that sense of duty which can alone suffice. They had been instructed theoretically in their religion, but never required to bring it into daily practice. To be distinguished for elegance and accomplishments--the authorised object of their youth--could have had no useful influence that way, no moral affect on the mind. He had meant them to be good, but his cares had been directed to the understanding and manners, not the disposition; and of the necessity of self-denial and humility, he feared they had never heard from any lips that could profit them.
~Mansfield Park, chapter 48 (emphasis mine)Jane Austen uses terms like duty, religion, disposition--to mean conscience, character, and (one would think) Christianity. Thus, I think it fair to call her a Christian author.
Fanny was always my favorite Austen heroine, more so than Lizzy Bennett or Emma Dashwood. While I love all Austen's heroines, Fanny's sweetness and servant's heart, as well as her gentle self-denial, endeared her to me from the first. Whenever I heard people who thought Fanny an unrealistic mouse of a girl, I would (and still do) get upset. Fanny always gave up personal rights, but never gave up personal principles. And that is where the rub comes. So many of us insist on rights as our due: time, quietness, rest, exercise, convenience, civility--but Fanny gave up all these things. She was civil, returned a soft answer, and surrendered her own wishes for the wishes of others. But when conflicts with principle came in, she stood iron-hard and graciously refused to bend. Even in her refusals she did not give up her respectful attitude towards her superiors. And she is a role-model that I would be pleased to have any daughter of mine look up to.
The gradations of character from Fanny to Maria Bertram to Mary Crawford are fascinating to consider. While Fanny is the angel of goodness, Maria Bertram is the 'trapped good girl'. She puts on the appearance of conformity to satisfy her father and never embraces it as her own. Mary Crawford, on the other hand, is not trapped; more like the 'polished bad girl' phenomenon. At first, Austen doesn't deal with shocking sins to illustrate this. She shows each of the three women in their smaller choices of character: climbing a gate, riding a horse, and accepting the gift of a necklace chain--showing that it is not so much the actions, but the heart motivation that sets a person down the wrong road. The way to hell is often paved with polite nothings and gilded deceits, and Mansfield Park is abundant evidence of that.
Edmund Bertram, in spite of his faults, has always been a favorite of mine for the way he cared for Fanny, shaping her mind and acting as her male protector. I loved their talks of Cooper, their stargazing, and the rich confidences they shared in one another. They were iron sharpening iron, willing to correct and encourage and comfort each other as occasion required.
Mansfield Park contains almost no language, except for 3 or 4 instances of profanity from Fanny's father, which Austen included with a little dash to finish off the word.
There are so many other good points in this book, but the story speaks for itself, and I will leave it to do so. If you read Mansfield Park and need help deciphering the themes, Suzannah Rowntree has an excellent study of it in her book War Games: Classic Fiction for the Christian Life, which will be available for FREE from December 28th through January 1st. Be sure to check out some other free books that she's offering here.
I highly recommend adding Mansfield Park to your 2015 to-read list! It's a fantastic tale of genuine duty versus false gilding.
We have seen two of the three Mansfield Park adaptations: 2007 and 1986. The 2007 version is a cute love story that strips it of all its richer meaning, and the 1999 version is scandalous. But the 1986 movie, while not flashy, has the best actors and stays faithful to the spirit of the text. I highly recommend this as a good Mansfield Park adaptation, though please be aware that there is some misuse of the Lord's name in episodes 5 and 6 on the part of Fanny's father.
Come back Tuesday for a delightful reminisce and the best of 2014 in books and articles! :)