Monday, May 25, 2015

Mansfield Park Revisited

Over five years ago, I posted a reflection on my re-reading (and love of) Austen's Northanger Abbey. At that time, I dubbed myself "fully 5/6 an authentic Janeite," because I hadn't yet fallen head over heels in love with Mansfield Park. At the time of writing that post, I full expected to be re-visiting Mansfield for another read within a few months. Alas, it took me over five years to get back to the book, but re-visit it I finally did.

I think it's been re-reading Pride & Prejudice with my husband and daughter (my umpteenth time to read it, but the first time I've ever read it aloud, and their first time to encounter it) that made me realize I was up for a fresh look at the only Austen novel I've never felt completely at home with. I was a tad bit worried that I might not be able to lose myself completely in its pages. This mirrored the worry I felt back in 2009 when I did my second re-reading of Northanger. As I said then:

I confess I felt nervous as I took the book off my shelf. It felt too smooth, the binding too uncreased, the pages too new to be one of my beloved Austen books. And what if...perish the reading experience remained the same as the first time and I still didn't "fall into it completely"?

Silly me. If Jane is an acquired taste, then I have so long ago acquired it that reading her now feels like second nature. I should have realized that I've spent so much time with Jane in the intervening years that I would recognize her voice as soon as I began reading. I should have known that one can never really have the same reading experience twice, because wherever one is today is not where one was ten years ago (or five, or one, or possibly even last month).

I could have essentially written those words again this time out! 

I was definitely "ready" for Mansfield Park in a way that I wasn't when I first read it many years ago, still new to Austen's music and her way of looking at the world. Gone was any sense of stiffness or unfamiliarity. This was simply Jane again, Jane whom I love to spend time with, and I thoroughly enjoyed my reading of the novel this time out.

That said, may I confess -- and still consider myself fully a Janeite -- that I'm still not sure I fully "get" Mansfield Park? I don't mean I don't understand the plot, but there's something about the characters and the underlying tone that still doesn't quite work for me on some level. My memory of Fanny Price, from my one long-ago read, was that she lacked the sparkle and vivacity of some of Austen's other characters, and while that's true, I didn't feel the loss of that so much this time, maybe because I've now come to know and love the complexities of some of Austen's other heroines (Anne Elliot doesn't precisely "sparkle" either, but I love her dearly -- and really, how many of us sparkle in real life?).

In fact, this time out I found myself impressed with just how authentic Fanny Price's character feels. Yes, she's insecure and naive and perhaps a trifle rigid and judgmental, but what else can we expect her to be, given her life situation? She also shows a marked amount of determination not to give into social pressures and romantic intensity, even when she's being wooed with seeming sincerity by Henry Crawford.

It's the men I don't fully understand this time out, both Henry Crawford and cousin Edmund. Mary Crawford I understand more -- she's a schemer and a social climber but underneath it all, not an awful human being. She's easily swayed and led into error by others and there's a part of her who would like to be a lot more noble and real than she is, but she just doesn't have much backbone. Fanny's got the backbone and a much deeper heart, which is one reason why I wondered about Edmund's inability to see that (can he really be as smart as he's supposed to be if he's that dense about women)? Even though he claims, in the end, to realize Fanny's worth, I've got an uneasy feeling that somehow there's a part of him that might feel like he's "settling."

Henry's truly the one I don't understand. I'm not sure how Austen wants us to feel about him. She gives us far more time with him than she gives with with Wickham or Willoughby, scoundrels in other novels. Like them, he is the immature schemer who trifles with women's emotions -- at least at first. But at some point in the novel, he actually appears to grow. He sees Fanny's real worth, falling for her in spite of the fact that he'd initially looked upon her as just a conquest to pass the time. It feels as though Austen wants us to take him on the level at this point. At least I can't help feeling that she does. He is trying to change, he wants to be a better man, he wants to be the kind of man who perseveres and actually deserves a woman like Fanny. In the end, he fails, but -- and here's the problem with the way my emotions felt engaged -- I felt sad that he failed. There was a part of me rooting for Henry to actually become what he claimed he wanted to become. The fact that we see his spectacular fall from grace off-scene (just through letters and hearsay) made it all seem sadder. Fanny was proved right not to trust him, and while I was glad she'd been wise enough to not succumb, there was a part of me that wondered if her inability to forgive his past wrongs didn't have something to do with the fact that he ended up failing. I'm not putting the responsibility for changing him on Fanny. Getting into a relationship with the intent of trying to change someone doesn't seem healthy. But what if she'd at least taken him at his word when he was telling her how much he loved her? What if she'd found it in her heart to speak the truth: "I don't love you that way because I love someone else. But I recognize that your feelings for me are respectful, tender, and good, and I hope that you will find someone else to love that way some day."

Meanwhile, I knew I was supposed to be rooting for Edmund (and I know if I get around to watching the film adaptation with Johnny Lee Miller in the role, I no doubt will!) and I did find him endearing on many levels, not least of which was the fact that he was the only person at Mansfield who was truly kind to Fanny from day one. But he felt so incredibly big brotherly in his role of older cousin that it was harder for me to root for the romance. Added to which, as I already mentioned, he drove me a bit batty with his inability to realize the depths of Fanny's feelings. He looked right past her and latched onto the pretty but shallow Mary Crawford, although he knew at almost every turn that the two of them weren't right for each other. Unlike Fanny, he falls into the trap of thinking that he can love someone so much they will change their essential nature. Austen seems to be telling us, in both love stories, that such change doesn't come easy.

And that makes me a little uneasy. Granted, I think on one level she's right. We are who we are, often for better or for worse, and it takes a lot to truly change us. Austen may be saying something deeper here (without actually saying it) about the limited powers of even the best romantic love. It can be a wonderful thing to love another person, but ultimately, it's the grace and love of God that can change us from the inside-out. What I'm stumbling over is the fact that often that love is mediated to us through other human beings. It's through being forgiven and embraced, even in our messy brokenness, that we often find ourselves most changed.

I've been coming to realize that's one of the things I love about Darcy's character in P&P. It feels stronger to me this time much his love for Elizabeth changes him. It's true that Darcy's failings are not the kind indulged in by Wickham or Crawford. He's not a flirtatious trifler with emotions. But he is unbending in his opinions and highly condescending. He has a hard time looking past appearances and confessing his own weaknesses and shortcomings. His love for Lizzy changes him in good ways, partly because he has to learn to bend, to become more fully human. Interestingly, it's really his love for her (before she ever understands how to return it; she's changing too!) that begins the changing work in Darcy. Because both characters change and grow, there is something about their union that is highly satisfying. Edmund and Fanny, likable as they are, don't seem to change much. Their temperaments are also more alike than not (they both have trouble with the whole notion of play acting and its potential impropriety, when no one else in their circle can see that at all). You could say that Edmund grows wiser, I guess, but somehow there just doesn't feel like there's as much movement in their characters. They don't move toward each other so much as they both stand still and finally manage to see past what they need to in order to come together in the end.

All this is merely my "second impression" (to slightly mangle an Austen reference) of a novel I'm sure I will turn to again. Perhaps on a third reading, I will come to an even better understanding of the characters and its overall tone. There's a lot here to enjoy and love, including the wonderfully sketched background characters like Fanny's Uncle Bertram and her conniving Aunt Norris. And as always, some truly artful scenes.

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