Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Mansfield ParkMansfield Park by Jane Austen
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I am NOT sure how I feel about this book, primarily because I buzzed through the last 100 pages.
Fanny Price is transferred to her wealthy aunt's family at a young age and immediately isolated. Miserable and lonely, she is unquestionably considered inferior to her well-educated sisters. Then companionship emerges in the form of Edmund, her well-meaning and empathetic cousin. It's clear from the onset of the novel that Edmund and Fanny's relationship will go somewhere - but unfortunately their coupling is not confirmed until the last pages of the novel. In fact, Edmund spends most of the novel hankering after the deceptive Miss Crawford and only regards Fanny under a 'sisterly' light. Thus I can't say that I'm convinced by the ending of the novel, or happy with their eventual marriage. Admittedly, Edmund seemed to be 'the man' for her at the beginning, but his ignorance and indecisiveness as the novel progressed weren't impressive. By the end of the novel, they are hardly a match made in heaven. More like a math made out of necessity.

Fanny, ever defenceless and subversive, is merely' needed' by the other characters in the novel and conveniently 'there.' That's perhaps what I most pity about her. Unappreciated as a child, and then an object of interest the moment she turns becoming. The worst part is that she never seems to have a final 'say.' She retreats back to her family towards the end of the novel, and her cousin's family's problems make her 'needed' once again. Where is her freedom?

I also think that Austen's world no longer (has it ever?) appeals to me. Reading her novels is a great exercise in language training - heaps of inverted syntax and run on sentences to digest. But her characters' problems, most of which revolve solely around MARRIAGE AND MEN are almost unbearable. Mansfield Park would NOT pass the Bechdel test.

At this point in my review I must say, however, that her characters ARE fascinating. There's Henry Crawford, who's an 18th century ladies' man until he meets Fanny. The irony is, of course, that he tries to get Fanny to fall in love with him (out of egotism and his idea of taking on a 'challenge') until he himself falls for HER. There's also the dislikable, self-centered Mrs. Norris who comes to life so vividly on the page that one cannot help but marvel at Austen's ability to flesh out her characters.

But ultimately my expectations for my "return to Austen" weren't so satisfying. Maybe I just wasn't patient enough to digest the novel properly. Maybe I'm already too used to 20th century literature. Perhaps I should reread the other Austen novels and give them second tries. Or perhaps I should wait a couple of years and see whether her characters' problems - marriage problems - will suddenly be mine, too.

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