Mansfield Park – Jane Austen / Karen Savage

Some small spoilers lie below. As it turns out, I have never read (or listened to) Mansfield Park before, and somehow managed to know nothing about the characters or story – I don’t know how I managed to remain completely unspoiled, but it was unexpected, and fun. The narration by Karen Savage lives up to the high standard she set with Persuasion: I like her work, very much. She creates a wide array of both male and female character voices which generally avoid being the least cartoonish but still manage to each be distinct and identifiable: the tone a little lighter and gentler than the narration is Fanny; Lady Bertram is breathy and indifferent; the slightly deeper, measured voice is Edmund; the pompous-sounding deeper voice is Tom.

Mansfield is a leisurely tale following the Bertram family and its Price transplant through marital negotiations and trips to the country and financial threats no one seems to grasp the true dangers of. If the Antigua estates really had failed or been lost, it seems there would have been drastic repercussions; also, an ocean voyage in the 1800’s was never anything to take lightly, much less travel in the third world. There was a strong underlying tone of menace to the Messrs. Bertram while they were away, but the at-home family seemed to continue perfectly sanguine. Except for Fanny, who is as gifted at Worrying as my mother, and that’s pretty extraordinarily gifted.

Fanny. Oh, Fanny. She’s just so … nice. She’s so nice I want to throw an expletival qualifier in there, and I can’t; this is Jane Austen I’m talking about. She’s timid and fragile and sweet, and obliging and not as delicate as she seems, and sweet. And meek, and … when I right-click on “meek”, Word gives me synonyms: humble, submissive, gentle, docile, modest, compliant, and mild. And sweet. Far from a backbone, there isn’t a vertebra in the girl’s entire body. Her entire skeletal system seems to be made of cartilage. Jane Bennet is sweet and modest and docile too, but by golly she can stand up for herself or someone she loves if need be. I think in a confrontation Fanny might simply cry, and then faint. Not a character much admired in this day and age.

But she’s so sweet.

I am very much not a bra-burning feminist, but even so the expectation of women’s rights is ingrained enough that normally a character like Fanny makes me want to shake her. But Fanny’s not shake-able. She’s selfless and upright and good. It’s frustrating.

Although … there is one moment where, had I been standing with her and Edmund in the window looking out at the stars, I could easily have shaken her – both of them – till teeth rattled: I’m sorry, but to solemnly declare that the ills of the world would be remedied if only everyone shared their appreciation for a beautiful sky is maddening. Yes, of course, the children slowly starving to death in the next village, their mother permanently disabled from too many births and children who died before they learned to walk, their father (if still in their lives) broken down from slaving away every sunlit hour to try – and fail – to feed his family – if only they would look up at and appreciate the stars, their lives would be so much better. Of course.

That’s one source of frustration: her utter selflessness is spent looking after her aunts, two women who a) have servants at their beck (particularly Mrs. Bertram), and b) are damn well capable of winding their own damn wool and fetching their own damn tea. (Oops. The language slipped.) They at Mansfield live in a lovely oasis, untouched by and unaware of any suffering anywhere. To the modern eye, Fanny’s extreme unselfishness could be put to so much better use in helping people who actually need help, rather than the indolent and self-absorbed upper-upper middle class.

On the other hand, I identified with her to an uncomfortable degree. The almost pathological tendency to assume the worst when oneself is involved: a compliment is merely someone being polite, and difficult to accept because the experience is so rare; a lack of communication or contact is assumed (usually rightly) to mean that the other has not time or thought for one; one’s presence is taken for granted and one’s absence hardly missed. I get it. Except in Fanny Price such a lack of self-confidence and assertiveness is presented as a charming (and feminine) humility. Here and now people just find it annoying.

Coincidentally, as I was listening to the chapter in which Mary Crawford so-charmingly takes over the mare Fanny has been riding while Fanny waits forlornly in her riding habit, I was going through something that felt very similar. I understood feeling forgotten and overlooked, but not how anyone could be quite that sweet about it; she was hurt but forgiving, where I was hurt and bitter. Of course, she was placed in a position where even had she the impulse she could not have responded other than she did; Mary left her no other option. Anything other than the yielding and … sweet response would have sounded even more strident and rude than otherwise. Which, of course, would have just made me angrier – how dare you? – but, despite certain points of resemblance, I’m certainly not Fanny.

Everybody around her was gay and busy, prosperous and important; each had their object of interest, their part, their dress, their favourite scene, their friends and confederates: all were finding employment in consultations and comparisons, or diversion in the playful conceits they suggested. She alone was sad and insignificant: she had no share in anything; she might go or stay; she might be in the midst of their noise, or retreat from it to the solitude of the East room, without being seen or missed. She could almost think anything would have been preferable to this.

To commit two social solecisms (profanity and familiarity): Damn, Jane. Timely. Either she was an acute observer with a rare combination of empathy and imagination – which she is popularly believed to have been – or she had experience sitting along and disregarded. I hope it was all the former. Within reason, it’s completely accurate: extremes excepted, there is nothing worse.

I saw someone’s Goodreads status update for P&P commenting on how much he appreciated the writing and the characters, but he was on such and such page and … nothing … was … happening. I have never found that with P&P. Mansfield Park, however … oh my. Fanny comes to Mansfield … nothing … Mr. Bertram and Tom go away … nothing … the Crawfords move in … nothing … Tom comes back … protracted space of nothing … Lovers’ Vows and things happen for a few chapters and then Mr. Bertram comes home and everything comes to a screeching halt and … nothing … That, combined with the extreme meekness of Fanny, makes for a surprisingly leisurely and … well, dull story. For the most part we share no one’s thoughts but Fanny’s, and hers are so very athletically self-effacing and charitable – even to Mrs. Norris, one of the people least deserving of charity in this novel, if not ever – that events are not exactly moved along. It’s a jolt when, briefly and rarely, we are made privy to conversations between Mary and Henry Crawford, laced with languorous malice.

Perhaps the purpose of this day-to-day gentle unfolding of story is to focus the reader on the small things that do happen. In a modern setting, the concerns which beset Fanny would be almost nothing. Certainly the drama surrounding the play would be non-existent; it would trouble no one that a group of upper class young folk would do an amateur play, even if it was a bit racy. But given the placid pond that rock dropped into, there is a very real tension and concern about the morality of it all.

And perhaps the intent in making Fanny so stunningly selfless was to make it so very ironic when Mr. Bertram berates her for selfishness. Her reasons for doing what she does are partly selfish, but only a very small part; she can’t explain without telling him things he doesn’t want to know, which she would consider a betrayal of others. From that moment on Fanny’s life becomes a nightmare. The wrong interpretation is put on her actions, and every word she says to Edmund or her uncle is contradicted or ignored. Every. Single. Word.

“I don’t believe I can love him.” “Certainly you can.”
“We are so very different.” “No you’re not.”
“I don’t want to talk to you.” “You say that, but what exactly do you mean? Tell me!”
“I don’t want to talk about it.” “Well, we must, and I must tell your aunts. Oh, and your cousin. His sister and their entire staff already knows. We won’t talk to you about it if you wish, not above two or three times. A day.”
“I will never marry him!” “I wonder what we should give you as a wedding present …”
“No!” “You mean maybe!”

It’s horrifying. And, again, I’ve been there. You can say anything, and you might as well be speaking Aramaic from the response. Poor Fanny.

My GR status update from Chapter 35: I’m 73% done with Mansfield Park: In the midst of Ch. 35; I don’t know how this story ends. I’ve seen spoilers both ways: that she marries Edmund, and that she doesn’t. And right now I can honestly say that if she marries him I … shall be most provoked. I want to shoot him in this chapter. (Which makes a change from wanting to shake Fanny.)

Oh well.

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2 Responses to Mansfield Park – Jane Austen / Karen Savage

  1. Very well written! This is one of Austen’s books I have yet to read. Thanks for an excellent intro.

  2. stewartry says:

    Thank you! Hope I didn’t spoil anything for you.

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