Today is the last day of Austen in August, the annual reading (and watching) celebration of all things Jane Austen, hosted by Adam of Roof Beam Reader.
This month I read Mansfield Park for probably the first time. For those of you who listen to my podcast, you know that I was surprised to realize, while listening to The Mookse and the Gripes‘ podcast discussion of Jane Austen’s novels, that perhaps I had not read Mansfield Park. When Paul and Trevor talked about Mansfield Park, nothing rang a bell.
If you read a lot and live long enough . . .
Now, it could be that I have read the novel in the past and simply do not remember. This first happened to me back in the ’90s when I was in grad school reading for comp exams. After reading Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel Fanshawe, I turned to my journal to record my reaction and discovered I had already read it! Such a weird experience. It made me question my own sanity (I was also reading Poe).
But then I recalled a conversation that I had had decades ago with Grandma Wolak. I was just a kid, maybe still in the single digits. She couldn’t remember if she’d read a certain novel when her daughter, my Auntie Sandy, asked her about it. I was astounded. How can you not remember reading a novel??? My grandmother and aunt kindly explained that if you read a lot and live long enough, you just can’t remember everything you’ve read.
I no longer doubt my sanity.
Austen’s second longest novel
So, I decided to read Mansfield Park for Austen in August. It happens to be long enough to also qualify for Sue’s Big Book Summer Reading Challenge (reading books of 400 or more pages). The 2014 Penguin Classics edition that I read is 488 pages. This includes the introduction and notes. The novel itself is over 400 pages, longer than most of Austen’s novels.
At 160, 460 words, Mansfield Park is Austen’s second longest novel. The longest, by 536 more words, is Emma (aka, my least favorite Austen).
In short: I enjoyed Mansfield Park and had the good fortune of knowing several friends who were also reading or re-reading the novel this month. Laurie at Relevant Obscurity re-read it with the intention of reassessing her reaction to the main character, Fanny Price. Knowing that Laurie initially found Fanny’s “moralizing tone and timidity quite tedious,” helped set up my own reading of the novel. Check out Laurie’s post to see if her opinion changed.
Edmund Bertram, Fanny’s cousin and love interest, was the more tedious character for me. His lack of annoyance with his elder brother Tom for pissing away their inheritance and his inability to see Mary Crawford’s character made me roll my eyes in more than one scene. I doubt his ability to eventually become an effective (i.e., helpful) spiritual leader to his future flock. In the end, Fanny will no doubt “make” him a good clergyman.
The way Austen portrays some character’s inability to see what is so plainly clear to the main protagonist, in this case Fanny, is one of the things I enjoy about Austen novels. It’s how we all stumble though life, to a greater or lesser degree. Sometimes we’re Fanny and sometimes we’re Edmund.
Film by Patricia Rozeman
I also watched the 1999 movie written and directed by Patricia Rozeman. This is less a faithful adaptation of the novel and more a film inspired by the novel as well as Austen’s life and England’s history of wealth making through slavery.
In the novel, it is clear that Edmund’s father has gained his wealth from slave labor in Antigua. In the film, Rozeman brings the issue of slavery to the forefront. Viewers looking for a faithful adaptation will perhaps not appreciate some of the added elements and changes to the novel’s storyline. In interviews, Rozeman has been clear that as an artist, she has created a new work of art inspired by Austen’s novel.
I enjoyed the film. Drunken, irresponsible Tom is made a more compassionate character through the introduction of a sketchbook he keeps that details the horrors he’s seen acted upon enslaved people, particularly women, in Antiqua. The reasons for his rebellion against his father are clear. Uncle Bertram is a slave owning rapist.
Film version Fanny is much more confident and outgoing than her character in the novel. She is made more relatable and hip by her contemporary attitudes toward class, race, and gender. She is perhaps more a fantasy version of Jane Austen than Fanny.
However, she gets the same rude awakening as novel Fanny when Uncle Bertram sends her home to her parents for a few months. Dad is a lecherous drunk who doesn’t bring in enough money, mom is overwhelmed by children and is no housekeeper. Their home is chaotic and all its inhabitants, save one, are dirty, loud, and rude. A close-up of maggots squirming on the dining table drives home the point of how radically different Fanny’s origins are from her uncle’s luxurious estate.
Writing about what you read
As I’ve been writing this post, I’ve gotten more excited about Mansfield Park. Sometimes writing about a novel or film can make me appreciate it more. There has also been times when the opposite has happened — I begin to wonder what I actually enjoyed about a book. It’s one reason I think every reader should write a book blog or keep a reading journal.
Thanks to Adam for hosting Austen in August again this year! If you’re an Austen enthusiast or Austen-curious, be sure to check out all the posts, guest posts, and wonderful giveaways on Adam’s blog. I’ll link to the guest post I wrote for Austen In August about Jane Austen’s Fiction Manuscripts Archive to help get you to his site.
What do you think of Mansfield Park, the novel or any of the adaptations?