I read Mansfield Park for the category of a Classic Which Includes the Name of a Place in the Title for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2016.
Confession: I have never read a Jane Austen book before. There I said it. I have tried to start one several times, but I was immediately halted each time by my lack of understanding for satire. However, this time, I got my Jane Austen aficionado sister to read Jane Austen with me! We started with Mansfield Park because she thought that would be the easiest one for me to grasp, and Surprise, Surprise! I really enjoyed it!!!!
I am not a big fan of romance novels. Too often it seems more like female porn than actual literature. However, Mansfield Park was less about romance and more about relationships and social commentary so I found that to be highly enjoyable! The overall plot is as follows: There are 3 sisters. One marries well by marrying Sir Thomas Bertram. One (Mrs. Norris) marries a minister and is supported by her brother-in-law, and the third (Mrs. Price) marries a drunken sailor and has more children than she can take of. The Bertram’s invite Mrs. Price’s daughter, Fanny, to come live with them and their four children at the goading of Mrs. Norris. They all feel like they will be doing a good deed but either tend to degrade her (like Mrs. Norris) or make no notice of her (most of the Bertram family). Edmund (the second of the Bertram’s children) does take notice of Fanny and continues to be a kind, compassionate, and encouraging friend.
Later in the book Sir Thomas must leave his family for what ends up being several years to address some business concerns in Antigua, likely concerning the slave trade. Unfortunately, while he is away, Mrs. Norris is not the guiding, moral influence he had hoped she would be. Of his four children, Tom (the oldest child) went to Antigua with his father because he had been squandering his father’s fortune. However, this did not fix the problem, and it took Tom coming down with a serious illness that almost killed him to settle him down. Edmund (the second child) managed things quite well at home until a Miss Crawford came to live at the parsonage and he became smitten with her. Moria (the third child) immediately got herself engaged to Mr. Rushworth, a wealthy but very stupid man, and then fell hard for Mr. Crawford who had also moved into the parsonage with his sister. Julia (the fourth child) also fell hard for Mr. Crawford, but Mr. Crawford only had eyes for women who were already engaged. Just before Sir Thomas’ return home, the whole group has gotten caught up in performing a play called Lovers’ Vows, which Sir Thomas would not have deemed appropriate behavior for his children, but Mrs. Norris encouraged them none the less. With the arrival of Sir Thomas and the quick departure of Mr. Crawford, Moria marries Mr. Rushworth only to see Henry again and run off with him after Henry had already started courting Fanny. Julia then elopes with a friend of Tom’s, Mr. Yates, because she doesn’t know what else to do. He is not the brightest fellow but is willing to let Mr. Bertram help him with his career and financial decisions. Fanny is fetched home from a visit to her family to help console the Bertrams of their griefs. When Mr. Rushworth divorces Moria and Henry Crawford refuses to marry her, the family banishes her, and Mrs. Norris travels with her to another country. In the end Edmund and Fanny get married, and Sir Thomas ends up being very pleased because while he had previously been concerned with societal expectations, he had come to realize that there was nothing more important than moral character which Fanny had in abundance.
The experiences of the characters in the book and the lessons that could be drawn from those experiences was what I liked the best about the book. I also particularly loved a conversation between Edmund and Mary Crawford in Chapter 9 which I will include below because it gave me a great deal to think about.
“It is a pity,” cried Fanny, “that the custom should have been discontinued. It was a valuable part of former times. There is something in a chapel and chaplain so much in character with a great house, with one’s ideas of what such a household should be! A whole family assembling regularly for the purpose of prayer is fine!”
“Very fine indeed,” said Miss Crawford, laughing. “It must do the heads of the family a great deal of good to force all the poor housemaids and footmen to leave business and pleasure, and say their prayers here twice a day, while they are inventing excuses themselves for staying away.”
“That is hardly Fanny’s idea of a family assembling,” said Edmund. “If the master and mistress do not attend themselves, there must be more harm than good in the custom.”
“At any rate, it is safer to leave people to their own devices on such subjects. Everybody likes to go their own way—to chuse their own time and manner of devotion. The obligation of attendance, the formality, the restraint, the length of time—altogether it is a formidable thing, and what nobody likes; and if the good people who used to kneel and gape in that gallery could have foreseen that the time would ever come when men and women might lie another ten minutes in bed, when they woke with a headache, without danger of reprobation, because chapel was missed, they would have jumped with joy and envy. Cannot you imagine with what unwilling feelings the former belles of the house of Rushworth did many a time repair to this chapel? The young Mrs. Eleanors and Mrs. Bridgets—starched up into seeming piety, but with heads full of something very different—especially if the poor chaplain were not worth looking at—and, in those days, I fancy parsons were very inferior even to what they are now.”
For a few moments she was unanswered. Fanny coloured and looked at Edmund, but felt too angry for speech; and he needed a little recollection before he could say, “Your lively mind can hardly be serious even on serious subjects. You have given us an amusing sketch, and human nature cannot say it was not so. We must all feel attimes the difficulty of fixing our thoughts as we could wish; but if you are supposing it a frequent thing, that is to say, a weakness grown into a habit from neglect, what could be expected from the private devotions of such persons? Do you think the minds which are suffered, which are indulged in wanderings in a chapel, would be more collected in a closet?”
“Yes, very likely. They would have two chances at least in their favour. There would be less to distract the attention from without, and it would not be tried so long.”
“The mind which does not struggle against itself under one circumstance, would find objects to distract it in the other, I believe; and the influence of the place and of example may often rouse better feelings than are begun with. The greater length of the service, however, I admit to be sometimes too hard a stretch upon the mind. One wishes it were not so; but I have not yet left Oxford long enough to forget what chapel prayers are.”
And from later in that same chapter…
“But why are you to be a clergyman? I thought that was always the lot of the youngest, where there were many to chuse before him.”
“Do you think the church itself never chosen, then?”
“Never is a black word. But yes, in the never of conversation, which means notveryoften, I do think it. For what is to be done in the church? Men love to distinguish themselves, and in either of the other lines distinction may be gained, but not in the church. A clergyman is nothing.”
“The nothing of conversation has its gradations, I hope, as well as the never. A clergyman cannot be high in state or fashion. He must not head mobs, or set the ton in dress. But I cannot call that situation nothing which has the charge of all that is of the first importance to mankind, individually or collectively considered, temporally and eternally, which has the guardianship of religion and morals, and consequently of the manners which result from their influence. No one here can call the officenothing. If the man who holds it is so, it is by the neglect of his duty, by foregoing its just importance, and stepping out of his place to appear what he ought not to appear.”
“You assign greater consequence to the clergyman than one has been used to hear given, or than I can quite comprehend. One does not see much of this influence and importance in society, and how can it be acquired where they are so seldom seen themselves? How can two sermons a week, even supposing them worth hearing, supposing the preacher to have the sense to prefer Blair’s to his own, do all that you speak of? govern the conduct and fashion the manners of a large congregation for the rest of the week? One scarcely sees a clergyman out of his pulpit.”
“You are speaking of London, I am speaking of the nation at large.”
“The metropolis, I imagine, is a pretty fair sample of the rest.”
“Not, I should hope, of the proportion of virtue to vice throughout the kingdom. We do not look in great cities for our best morality. It is not there that respectable people of any denomination can do most good; and it certainly is not there that the influence of the clergy can be most felt. A fine preacher is followed and admired; but it is not in fine preaching only that a good clergyman will be useful in his parish and his neighbourhood, where the parish and neighbourhood are of a size capable of knowing his private character, and observing his general conduct, which in London can rarely be the case. The clergy are lost there in the crowds of their parishioners. They are known to the largest part only as preachers. And with regard to their influencing public manners, Miss Crawford must not misunderstand me, or suppose I mean to call them the arbiters of good-breeding, the regulators of refinement and courtesy, the masters of the ceremonies of life. The manners I speak of might rather be called conduct, perhaps, the result of good principles; the effect, in short, of those doctrines which it is their duty to teach and recommend; and it will, I believe, be everywhere found, that as the clergy are, or are not what they ought to be, so are the rest of the nation.”