Jane Austen: Mansfield Park

August 1, 2014

51iDr+F7s-L._AA160_So, what’s with all the cradle-snatching in Jane Austen’s novels? Prompted by an interesting article in the Daily Telegraph about the 200th anniversary of the novel’s publication, I had one of my periodic re-reads of what is still my favourite Jane Austen novel.

The scope of Mansfield Park is far wider than that of her other novels: she writes about the failings of a whole social class, the landed gentry, when faced with the fashionable, less moral city folk: they are too smug and self-satisfied and do not understand the threat from new ways and looser morality. The conflict is viewed through the interactions of the two families, the Bertrams and the Crawfords, and whilst it seems that the Bertrams survive, the family is much weakened and chastened and only with a serious transfusion of new blood from outside the immediate family does it regain some equilibrium.

Austen does not oversimplify the issues: the subtle drawing of her characters allows her to explore the minutiae. Thus the Crawfords are influencd, and somewhat changed by their contact with conservative, country values: maybe Henry has a clearer understanding of love, and his sister, too, and there is some  (small) sympathy at the end, whereas there is none for the fallen Maria Rushworth. Fanny Price is the prig many critics have felt her to be, but not pushed too far; in the end I always find myself liking her, in spite of her flaws.

The structure of the novel is masterly, centred around three key episodes, one in each of the three parts: the Sotherton visit, the ball and Portsmouth. Jane Austen sees that society is moving on; she does not seem to like where is is going – conservative with that small ‘c’ – the influence of the pernicious, modern, urbanites is to be resisted if what is worth saving of the old world is to survive.

And the cradle-snatching? Well, it came to me, as Austen drifted superbly into the resolution in her final chapter, where Fanny gets her Edmund at last, that he has been her friend and confidant since she was ten years old; in Emma, Mr Knightley actually cuddled Emma as a baby, and in Sense and Sensibility the consolation prize for the reformed Marianne is the ageing Colonel Brandon… I’m still thinking about the implications of all that, and reviewing the pairings in the other novels.

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