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Mansfield Park

Mansfield Park - Claudia L. Johnson, Jane Austen Mansfield Park is probably Austen's least liked novel. Northanger Abbey may be flawed, but it's a romp and a quick read; Persuasion may be dark, but it's tender and passionate, and contains quite possibly Austen's greatest proposal ever.

But what does Mansfield Park have to offer? A heroine who possesses every 18th-century feminine virtue? Hardly a recommendation to a 21st-century reader. A main character so physically delicate one can hardly imagine her surviving her wedding night, let alone childbirth? Again -- no thanks. A girl who spends the novel being miserable when those around her are happy and vice versa? Problematic at best.

None of which explains why I've read this book so often, and why I prefer it to Persuasion.

This edition is superb. The accompanying essays are well chosen and illuminating. I found Joseph Lew's "Mansfield Park And The Dynamics of Slavery" especially valuable.

UPDATE: Why the heck does Deborah like this unlikable book so much?

Fanny Price is in many ways a difficult heroine for most of us to love or relate to. She is ridiculously timid and fragile. She meekly accepts whatever's handed to her, and then apologizes for having taken too much. She's sometimes preachy. And, worst of all, she reads a lot, but never novels. (shudder)

The guy she falls for is equally unattractive. I'm willing to bet actual physical money that no Austen fan has ever had a crush on Edmund Bertram. He's often pompous, occasionally hypocritical, and breathtakingly oblivious of the GINORMOUS crush Fanny's had on him since she was transplanted from her parents' home to his at an early age. Also, he's her first cousin, and while it was perfectly acceptable for such relations to marry at the time, it's a little skeevy for many modern readers.

Other Austen heroines have some adventures, or at least some fun: they travel, have picnics, go dancing, ride with cute guys in carriages, and attend parties. Fanny Price rarely does anything at all, and when she does it's generally a disaster. Her happiest days are the ones where she's left entirely alone and unharassed to read or sew in the cold, isolated room she's allowed to call her own (because it's too uncomfortable for anyone else to want).

And then, to top it all off, when a rich amoral rake gets a crush on her, everyone else approves of his relentless pursuit of Fanny and she's condemned for protesting that she simply can't give herself to such a man.

So why the heck do I reread this book so often?

I think because in many ways, this is a very rich novel -- the closest Austen ever comes to an epic family saga. It begins before Fanny is even born, and so we're given the only glimpse ever seen of an Austen heroine as a child.

There's also a great deal of very convincing conversation, a lot of it about privilege and power. I enjoy that kind of thing.

And Mary Crawford, a sort of anti-heroine, is a terrifyingly attractive character. How on earth can Fanny Price stand a chance against her?

Fanny Price is physically weak, but she's the only character who has a functioning moral compass, and is ultimately incorruptible. She is genuinely virtuous. But she's also human. She struggles. She isn't effortlessly perfect. She is sometimes angry with those around her for not seeing the harm they're doing.

She suffers more than any Austen heroine, and at one point is in real danger. But her sorrows and struggles are convincing, rather than 18th-century melodrama. Some of them are all too easy to relate to.

Also, the characterization is fantastic. Fanny's father is brilliantly unlike any other Austen character. Mary Crawford is chillingly like Austen's Lady Susan. And her brother -- well, his pursuit of Fanny Price is, I must admit, kind of creepy and sexy at the same time. The intensity of his desire not just to marry but to conquer her is darkly sexual. I'm sure there are about 7 million naughty fan-fiction stories out there based on the premise of his winning this erotic struggle.

So, yes, this book is hard to love. But I think it's worth the work. I adored Fanny Price the first time I read it; despised her the second time through; and now have a reasonable affection for her -- and an unreasonable admiration for this novel.