Before taking the course “Austen and Her Contemporaries” at UTM, Mansfield Park by Jane Austen was not a book I had ever heard awe-inspiring reviews over. Sense and Sensibility, which has countless film adaptations, was bound to be on my list of noteworthy English classics. Pride and Prejudice? Probably second-best to Sense and Sensibility. But Mansfield Park? I struggled to fully push myself into its less-than-satisfactory plotline, especially compared to the Austen plotlines it was competing with. The old English estates that decked the pages of Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion could excite any fan of British literature.
Mansfield Park’s lack of allure might be owing to the fact that it’s often considered Austen’s “problem” novel. The heroine, Fanny Price, is portrayed differently than the headstrong female characters so typical of Austen’s novels. These heroines allow readers to anticipate Austen’s novels for both their contexts and the powerful characters that embellish them.
The story follows Fanny’s life after her parents send her to live with her wealthy uncle and aunt, Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram, at their estate, Mansfield Park. It’s true that Fanny is not the “belle of the ball” at Mansfield. This is true especially when the Crawfords, distant friends of Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram, sparkle with their charisma and banter whenever they walk into a room. Fans of Fanny, like myself, feel compelled to dislike characters on Fanny’s behalf, only because she will never garner the courage to admit how she secretly feels. Her indifference drives many readers to step in and take ownership of these misplaced feelings.
It’s evident that Fanny is Jane Austen’s least loveable heroine. She makes her way through a world that is foreign to her, a world where she is inferior to the dashing, charismatic characters that push her into a corner. The idea of space as a literary concept is manifested through her superiors and the ways they leave her little room to express her anxiety.
Compared to the well-loved Elizabeth Bennet of Pride and Prejudice and Anne Elliot of Persuasion, Fanny is ordinary. She is not described as pretty, and she is reminded of her homeliness by many characters throughout the novel. But perhaps her ordinariness is what ignites the spark in her character. Ordinary people, in this sense of literary realism, deserve a chance at attention as well.