Monday, August 04, 2008

Mansfield Park

I’m hanging out, sipping lemonade, reading Mansfield Park, a brilliant novel but somehow dull to me, especially after Persuasion. Fanny, the (anti-)heroine, is not unlike Anne in some respects, good, kind, competent, but timid, immature. prim, and without humor. A ward of the Bertram family, Fanny has never felt herself the equal of her female cousins, who intimidate her by referring to her as "stupid," etc.. She is generally overlooked except by Edmund, the second son, meant to be a clergyman.

Fanny improves as time goes on, but her saintly temperament changes only as a result of jealousy. Mary Crawford, a lively young woman (with bad morals, of course), visits her sister at the parsonage, and Edmund delights in her vivacity. Mary and Henry Crawford, her brother, love to flirt, and within a few weeks Henry has broken the hearts of both Maria and Julia Bertram, and Mary has won Edmund’s heart (with more ambivalence about breaking it). The central scheme of the novel is a “racy” plan for amateur theatrics devised by Mr. Bertram, the hapless, licentious oldest brother (perhaps very like Henry). The play will bring the "lovers" together. Fanny from the start is scandalized, and Edmund, too, tries to discourage his swept-away siblings. But eventually Edmund’s admiration of Mary Crawford clouds his judgment: he cannot allow a stranger from the neighborhood to act as a lover with Mary. Fanny, who is in love with Edmund (who regards her as a younger sister), is very distressed not only by his acting, but by his acting with Mary.

The return of Sir Thomas stops the play. Henry’s seduction of Maria and Julia also stops: he hastily leaves Mansfield.

Is theater an evil? Because it allows amateurs to transcend emotional boundaries? Or is it ultimately hurtful because amateurs can't tell the difference between real and acted love?

Mary Crawford stays behind and Fanny is constantly overwhelmed by her kindness (jealously),

Not to give away more of the plot, I will instead quote from Vladimir Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature (given at Cornell):

“Mansfield Park is a fairy tale, but then all novels are, in a sense, fairy tales. At first sight Jane Austen’s manner and matter may seem to be old-fashioned, stilted, unreal. But this is a delusion to which the bad reader succumbs. The good reader is aware that the quest for real life, real people and so forth is a meaningless process when speaking of books. In a book, the reality of a person, or object, or a circumstance depends exclusively on the world of that particular book. ...The charm of Mansfield Park can be fully enjoyed only when we adopt its conventions, its rules, its enchanting make-believe. Mansfield Park never existed, and its people never lived.”

But in his next essay, on Bleak House, he begins.

“Personally I dislike porcelain and the minor arts, but I have often forced myself to see some bit of precious translucent china through the eyes of an expert and have discovered a vicarious bliss in the process. Let us not forget that there are people who have devoted to Jane all their lives, their ivy-clad lives....”

I hate it when they go on and on about Jane's miniatures, etc. Comparisons are odious: Austens' books cannot be compared with Dickens's; and I very much dislike this reference to "ivy-clad lives." Nabokov's chapter on Mansfield Park seems dispassionate, but that whole "women's angle" thing is out of place.


Ellen said...

Dearest Kathy,

It's my firm belief Nabokov hates Austen; that is, he's a Mark Twain in clever disguise. I have that essay by him on _MP_. I know I should not want to burn any book and after all he shows the loveliness and fun of the time at Sotherton and the play, but otherwise it's comes out of his _dislike_ of Austen.

just my two cents, as they say.

Miss Sylvia Drake

Mad Housewife said...

I never thought of Mark Twain in disguise, but I confess that I find Nabokov unreadable. His comments about _Mansfield Park_ really irritated me. By the way, I once read a really racist novel by Twain, Puddn'head Wilson. What a disgusting book. There's Huckleberry Finn, but I also think Jim is a racist portrait painted by Finn (most disagree and think Jim is a good Christian, not sappy). Huckleberry Finn is a classic.

Enough about Twain, though.


garnerwoods said...

Nice post!

‘Mansfield Park’ - funny enough, Jane Austen said herself (it was after ‘Sense and Sensibility’ and ‘Pride and Prejudice’ had come out) she thought it was a story that everyone would love, and no one was really into it. She was very upset by the reaction, so when she wrote ‘Emma,’ she said, ‘I’m going to write a heroine that no one will like but myself,’ and that’s the one that everyone loved.