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Sunday, 21 December 2014

Reading, misreading Mansfield Park

This year, to celebrate the bicentenary of Mansfield Park, Sarah Emsley has been organising a Mansfield Park party on her own site. The links to all the posts in the series can be found here: 
http://sarahemsley.com/an-invitation-to-mansfield-park/
I don't have the habit of telling people that they misread some favourite book of mine, and don't always have that confidence in my own understanding, but Mansfield Park is an exception. Call me vain, arrogant, conceited, whatever you want. Mansfield Park is the least popular among Jane Austen's novels simply because it's constantly misunderstood and misinterpreted, and lately I've been thinking of it as a test, a measure of a reader's understanding of Jane Austen. You don't have to regard Mansfield Park as a favourite, you don't have to like Fanny Price personally and you may find Fanny dull, but if you a) think that Fanny should choose "the fabulous" Henry Crawford and Edmund should end up with Mary, b) compare Henry to Mr Darcy and Edmund to Mr Collins, c) criticise Jane Austen for what you see as deus ex machina and an unconvincing ending, d) ask why she punishes a character similar to Elizabeth Bennet, e) think that Fanny and Edmund are hypocrites, and the like, I'm afraid that you don't quite get Jane Austen. 
Here is an example of the kind of nonsense listed above, which I saw a few days ago: 
http://sarahemsley.com/2014/12/17/the-ghost-of-another-novel-entirely/
(Yes, I wrote a comment there). 
That kind of interpretation is like saying that Wuthering Heights is a beautiful love story or Lolita is a romanticised depiction of paedophilia or the red cap of Holden Caulfield symbolises communism or Nick Carraway is a closeted homosexual in love with Gatsby or Tolstoy punishes Anna Karenina because she's not content with what she has and wants something out there, etc. Books can be read and perceived differently, but that doesn't mean that all readings are equal. I don't have enough confidence to say that I understand correctly all the books and authors I read, but because in vanity I don't use the word "stupid" for myself, I don't use it for people who in my opinion fail to understand Jane Austen either. It's simply that we readers are less "attuned" to some writers than others, and some are just blind spots. 
Now the question is: Why do I elevate the misreading of Mansfield Park to a lack of understanding of Jane Austen altogether? 
Because her 6 novels are closely linked together. Because while ironic and very funny, she's a very serious writer. Not only does she take literature seriously and know exactly what she's doing (going her own way, abandoning and satirising all the conventions and convenient devices in literature inher time, perfecting her craft, etc.) but she also, throughout all of her 6 novels, deals with the different virtues and values in life, stressing above all self-reflection, self-understanding and balance or the middle way. 
In Persuasion, she writes: 
"Anne wondered whether it ever occurred to him now, to question the justness of his own previous opinion as to the universal felicity and advantage of firmness of character; and whether it might not strike him, that, like all other qualities of mind, it should have its proportions and limits. She thought it could scarcely escape him to feel, that a persuadable temper might sometimes be as much in favour of happiness, as a very resolute character."
This is more than the thought of 1 character, Anne. 
I've written (very briefly) about Jane Austen's emphasis on the importance of balance here: 
http://thelittlewhiteattic.blogspot.com/2013/12/reading-persuasion-jane-austens-sense.html
And a bit more here: 
http://thelittlewhiteattic.blogspot.com/2014/04/some-thoughts-on-jane-austen.html
This is about my revised view on Elinor Dashwood, with some comparison to Jane Fairfax, and the balance between emotional display and restraint: 
http://thelittlewhiteattic.blogspot.com/2014/01/re-evaluation-of-emma-woodhouse-george.html
The lack of an open temper, already negative in the case of Jane Fairfax, is more negative in the case of William Elliot, and it's discussed here: 
http://thelittlewhiteattic.blogspot.com/2014/01/william-walter-elliott-another-type-of.html
This is a comparison between Elizabeth Bennet and Louisa Musgrove, whose determination goes to excess and becomes recklessness, and Mary Crawford, whose quickness of mind and vivacity are so excessive that there's no introspection or self-reflection: 
http://thelittlewhiteattic.blogspot.com/2014/01/mary-crawford-and-louisa-musgrove-as.html
I believe that if readers read the 6 novels and see the significance of balance or moderation, as well as Jane Austen's views on men and relationships, they would be extremely unlikely to think that Fanny should go with Henry, Edmund with Mary, or that Henry and Mary are lovely characters, or some such bollocks. 

Instead of repeating my arguments, I put here the links to some of the posts I've written about Mansfield Park
http://thelittlewhiteattic.blogspot.com/2013/12/mansfield-park-and-tenant-of-wildfell.html
http://thelittlewhiteattic.blogspot.com/2013/12/fanny-price-letranger.html
http://thelittlewhiteattic.blogspot.com/2013/12/in-defence-of-fanny-price.html
http://thelittlewhiteattic.blogspot.com/2014/01/fanny-price-and-jane-austens-philosophy.html
http://thelittlewhiteattic.blogspot.com/2014/01/vladimir-nabokovs-lecture-on-mansfield.html
http://thelittlewhiteattic.blogspot.com/2014/09/fanny-and-anne.html
http://thelittlewhiteattic.blogspot.com/2014/09/adapting-jane-austen.html
This post is about gender in her works: 
http://thelittlewhiteattic.blogspot.com/2014/01/was-jane-austen-feminist.html

Luckily, while the majority of readers, many of whom self-proclaimed Janeites, read the novel wrongly and end up hating it, there are still many people who see what Jane Austen wants to say, and appreciate the greatness of this novel. 

Happy belated birthday, Jane Austen (16/12/1775- 16/12/2014) and happy Mansfield Park bicentenary! 

4 comments:

  1. Di,

    No argument here. I've had my share of "Fanny wars," so I no longer respond (or at least try not to) whenever I hear such nonsense that Henry should get Fanny, etc.

    One thought has occurred to me. I wonder if anyone has ever looked at Fanny as a Taoist sage.

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    1. Probably not. I've only seen people compare Fanny to Dorothy Wordsworth.
      Why do you see her as a Taoist sage?

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  2. Well said! Complete agreement with everything, except maybe the part about Gatsby, an idea that has been growing on me, although I will likely abandon it whenever I next reread the novel itself, and anyway that is hardly the point here. So: well said!

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    1. Whoops you've found me. Hi.
      Anyway, thank you.

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