January is for Jane, Part One: Mansfield Park

mansfieldMansfield Park

Jane Austen

Once again, I read a free download from Amazon.  As an aside, electronic access to these public domain works is a real boon to my reading Challenge.  Otherwise, I would be bankrupt and have my shelves overflowing with books!

1814.

According to my newly-discovered bible on all things Austen, the Republic of Pemberley website, Mansfield Park was published between Pride and Prejudice and Emma, and described as solemn and moralistic when compared to the other two works.  This is my penultimate Austen on the Challenge list.  I have already read  Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion, Sense and Sensibility and Northanger Abbey.  Only Emma to go.  Yay, I am loving this Austen part of the Challenge!  Or as Jane put it more elegantly:

I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading! How much sooner one tires of anything than of a book!  — Pride and Prejudice

Guardian 1000 Challenge.  Love Titles.

Mansfield Park, where have you been all my life?  I loved this book.  I got up at about 7:00 am this morning, and had about a quarter of the book left to read.  I could not put it down until I finished it around 11 am.

The rich family at Mansfield Park, the Bertrams, decide to invite their poor niece Fanny Price to live with them.  Fanny’s mother, Lady Bertram’s sister, had disgraced herself by marrying a low-ranked naval officer.  The Bertrams extend the hand of charity to this poor little girl and Fanny is to be raised with the wealthy Bertram children.  As a poor relation, she is treated as a sort of Cinderella character.  The kindest of the cousins, Edmund Bertram, becomes Fanny’s protector and champion.   She grows up to be a shy and self-deprecating girl, albeit with a steadfast and upright character.

When the cousins grow up,  Henry and Mary Crawford, a wealthy and dashing brother and sister,  move into the neighborhood.  Love complications develop quickly for the young people.  Much of the plot is about living within, without or falling from the strict code of conduct of Austen’s day — and what that means for the happiness of the various characters.  For example, brothers Tom and Edmund Bertram serve as counterpoints, one a wastrel and the other a good-natured young man anxious to do his duty.  You don’t need to guess who has the happier end in the story.  Making a good marriage, one that benefits other members of the family, is a priority.  Several selfish characters take it upon themselves to flout the rules to the heartbreak of others and their own eventual downfall.

Along with this “code of conduct” theme there is a wonderful flavor of understated humor in this book.  Several characters, including the lazy Lady Bertram and her busybody sister Mrs. Norris, are really funny.

“It is a very anxious period for her.”  As he said this, each looked towards their mother.  Lady Bertram, sunk back in one corner of the sofa, the picture of health, wealth, ease, and tranquility, was just falling into a gentle doze…

I also found the theme of home — or finding one’s true home or place — to be a interesting one.  One’s true home may not necessarily be the place where you were born, but may be the place where you are most needed or most useful to others.  Several of the more dissolute characters wander from fancy house to fancy estate – but are never at peace or in harmony with others.  Brilliant gardens and grounds may hide empty hearts or minds.

“Varnish and gilding hide many stains.” — Mary Crawford in Mansfield Park.

For those whose hearts are true, who long to love and serve those around them, the instinct to be at home is strong — and I believe this is the final lesson of Fanny Price in Mansfield Park.  Poor, humble and once despised, Fanny is the character who is most central and most useful to all the other characters.  The story of Fanny finding her true home and true love is the story of Mansfield Park.

“I trust and hope, and sincerely wish you may never be absent from home so long again.”