This one’s always a trial, no matter how often I read it. The first time was for some class in college, I don’t remember what, and I remember being surprised to find it such a struggle because I’d enjoyed every Austen book I’d read yet. This one proved to be a struggle. It wasn’t just because of the characters; I found the plot, too, was rather slow. But I was determined to give it a try. Still, it has not improved on reacquaintance, I am sorry to say.
My main problem with Mansfield Park are the characters. Part of Austen’s charm is her heroines, even when they are slightly ridiculous, they have a certain wit, or verve, that can make them appreciable. Fanny has none of that. She is a bit of an ideal, in some ways, or at least the late 18th/early 19th ideal: patient, quiet, forebearing, religious, constant. It’s hard to relate to these qualities now, in addition, it’s harder because not only does Fanny have all of these “good” qualities, but she’s also delicate, which is not in itself a problem necessarily, but combined with her ill health, depressive moods, and inability to stand up for herself, as well as her slightly sanctimonious judgments on other characters’ actions (which, while socially correct, don’t make her particularly sympathetic), it’s very hard to feel any sympathy for Fanny, or to root for her “happy ending,” despite the fact that you’re obviously supposed to. Every time I read the book, I end up silently cheering for Mary Crawford, even though she’s supposed to be the villain. She’s just so much more interesting.
It’s also hard to really feel pleased about the “happy ending” because, throughout the novel, it was such a one-sided love affair. Sure, you could argue that Edmund was in love with her the whole time and just didn’t know it, but it goes beyond that to an almost complete obliviousness. He spends half of the novel pursuing another girl, a much more interesting and lively girl than Fanny Price, even if she is mercenary. Up to the end, he’s pursuing Mary, up until she leaves and he suddenly realizes that the consolation prize is more suited to his personality. There’s the added creepiness of the close familial relationship between Fanny and Edmund (actually, in the first chapter, Edmund’s father and aunt discuss the possibility of the two cousins falling in love and their aunt says ‘no, they will think of each other as brother and sister’–and they do, at first). Edmund is a hard hero to admire: he’s religious, but slightly hypocritical; although he doesn’t think The Play is a good idea, but caves anyway because it’s an excuse to make Mary Crawford happy. He’s willfully blind, obtuse, etc.
The plot is slow, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. With more sympathetic characters, perhaps, it might even be enjoyable; such a closed world offers a lot of opportunity for reflective character development… but unfortunately, you end up not caring. In fact, you end up bashing your head against the metaphorical wall. I should probably just stop trying to make myself like this book and give up… she’s got four others that I relatively enjoy, anyway…