After reading Kindred
, which is about slavery in the USA a short time after Jane Austen was writing, I decided to re-read the one Jane Austen novel which explicitly mentions slavery, Mansfield Park
I actually first read Mansfield Park
recently enough that my thoughts are on LJ
, and my opinion hasn't really changed; I know a lot of people dislike Fanny Price, but I still find her sympathetic and relatable, and her quiet determination in the face of pressure to accept Henry Crawford's proposal (and, indeed, the careful observation which allows her to understand Henry's character in a way that no-one else, except perhaps Mary Crawford, does) is all the more impressive for coming from a character whose life has shaped her into a person who always puts other people's wants and needs before her own. Yes, a shy, anxious, insecure heroine isn't as fun as a sparkling, witty Lizzy Bennet, but Fanny feels very real and I found it easy to care about her predicament. I do wonder if some of the dislike for Mansfield Park
comes from people expecting a fluffy romance and not getting that, because while none of Jane Austen's novels are actually fluffy romances (honestly, I can't think of one that isn't really an anti-romance when you look at it closely) Mansfield Park
is one of the hardest to see that way; although Fanny does end up with the man she is in love with, he isn't in love with her and they have a marriage of best friends rather than a grand romance.
I also really enjoy the glimpses of the wider world we get in this novel; Sir Thomas's business interests (and yes, the slavery that his wealth is founded on), the Navy in the Portsmouth scenes (which feel as though a Patrick O'Brien novel could be taking place only a few yards away). Like all Austen's novels, it also has interesting things to say about the position of women in English society in the early nineteenth century; the experiences of Maria and Julia Bertram, Mary Crawford's catalogue of the woes of her friends' marriages, and the pressure exerted on Fanny herself to marry Henry, despite her conviction that he is fickle and insincere (and while I think she is probably too hard on Henry, because she is so much in love with Edmund, his attachment to her clearly isn't all he would have her believe it to be), all show how constrained women's lives were, how the crucial question of marriage, answered on the basis of very little real information or knowledge, would make or break the rest of life.
I'm not sure I can have a favourite Jane Austen novel; there were moments during this re-read when I thought maybe Mansfield Park
was my new favourite, but then I remembered Persuasion
and Northanger Abbey
; Pride and Prejudice
is justly acclaimed a classic, and I really like Emma
too, so I think all I can actually say for it is that it's definitely in my top five, though they are all so close, and the only one I think I actually like less than the others is Sense and Sensibility