I know that many, many people in the blogosphere are writing about Mansfield Park this year, mostly because it's the bicentenary of its publication. This is my second reading of the book, though technically, it's a listen, since I have the wonderful Naxos audiobook version narrated by the brilliant Juliet Stevenson (who played Mrs. Elton in the 1996 version of Emma).
If you don't know the set up, here's the short version: Fanny Price is the poor cousin of the wealthy Bertrams who live in Mansfield Park. She's the daughter of one of the three Ward sisters -- the one who made a crap marriage and is living in Portsmouth with a drunkard and a passel of kids. One of her aunts married a wealthy landowner, Sir Thomas Bertram, and the other married a clergyman who got the living at the local parish. This sister, known as Aunt Norris, gets the bright idea to take one of her sister's kids off her parents hands, though she actually pawns her off to her sister and wealthy brother in law -- brilliant!
So young Fanny comes to live in a strange house at the age of ten, and every one pretty much treats her like crap, except the second brother, Edmund, who's actually nice to her. Things get interesting when Fanny turns 18 and Aunt Norris' husband dies. The living is assigned to another clergyman, Dr. Grant, who brings his wife and is shortly followed by Mrs. Grant's half-sister and half-brother, Mary and Henry Crawford, who proceed to stir up all kinds of trouble with the Bertrams. Henry flirts with both the daughters, Julia and Maria (who is engaged to a wealthy but boring guy), and Mary sets her sights on Edmund, to the chagrin of Fanny, who's secretly in love with him. So, lots of love triangles in sight.
I hadn't actually read this in several years -- I actually tried listening to the audio last year, but I got so disgusted by the dishrag personality of Fanny Price I got bored and gave up halfway through. I only gave it another go because I'm gearing up for the upcoming Annual General Meeting of the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA), which I'm attending in October. This year the theme is Mansfield Park, so I though I'd better give Fanny and company another chance. And I was very glad I did, because I liked it so much better this time around.
Frances O'Connor as Fanny and Alessandro Nivola as Henry Crawford.
I was really inspired to try it again after reading this wonderful essay by Paula Byrne, author of Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things. Byrne points out that instead of an innocent girl going from the country to the big city and being corrupted, the Crawfords come to the country and corrupt everyone around them. It's also Austen's sexiest novel. Mary Crawford makes her infamous quip about "rears and vices;" also, there's a lot of symbolism when Henry is trying to corrupt cousin Maria. So, I gave it another try, and was very glad that I did. Yes, Fanny's a little wimpy, but she's really a product of her environment. Nobody except Edmund has paid much attention to her, other than to treat her as a de facto servant, like Aunt Bertram or Aunt Norris, or to constantly put her in her place, like Julia and Maria -- and Aunt Norris, who spends the entire book trying to beat her down.
The lovely Penguin clothbound classic. Those are the gold chains that Fanny wears to her first ball -- will she choose the one given to her by her cousin Edmund, or by Mary Crawford?
This time, I really enjoyed Austen's dry wit as she describes Aunt Norris' hypocrisy, the self-absorption of Aunt Bertram, and Edmund's starry-eyed adoration of Mary Crawford. All the faults and foibles of the Bertram clan are filtered through the eyes of Fanny, the novel's moral center. Sure, sometimes she's a bit too wimpy for my taste, but all the other characters are so well developed I can give her a pass. Lord Bertram is a lot nicer than I remembered, and Aunt Norris is by far one of the most delicious villains in English literature. Henry Crawford is kind of charming yet sleazy, and I kept wanting to shake some sense into both Fanny and Edmund. If I liked Fanny's character better, it would be one of my top novels by Austen.
And now I'm going to have to watch one or both of the Mansfield Park adaptations available on DVD. Years ago, I fell in love with the story after watching Patricia Rozema's 1999 film adaptation (before I'd actually read the book). After becoming a devout Janeite, I discovered that many people pooh-pooh this version though I can't see that the more recent 2007 version is any better. I still think the casting in the 1999 version is spot-on, though Frances O'Connor plays Fanny as a little spunkier than she is in the book. The casting of Billie Piper as Fanny in the 2007 BBC miniseries is just wrong, though Blake Ritson is pretty dishy as Edmund. There's also a 1983 version which I've heard is just awful, though it stars Anna Massey, which intrigues me. I actually own an entire box set of 1980s BBC adaptations of Jane Austen novels, but I've never gotten around to watching it.
So -- how does everyone else feel about Mansfield Park? Like me, can you put up with Fanny because the rest of the novel is just great? Do you love Mary Crawford and wish she was the heroine? And has anyone seen the 1983 BBC version of Mansfield Park?