Mansfield Park – Jane Austen / Karen Savage

Mansfield Park (Audio) - Jane Austen

Some small spoilers lie below. As it turns out, I have never read (or listened to) Mansfield Park before, and somehow managed to know nothing about the characters or story – I don't know how I managed to remain completely unspoiled, but it was unexpected, and fun. The narration by Karen Savage lives up to the high standard she set with Persuasion: I like her work, very much. She creates a wide array of both male and female character voices which generally avoid being the least cartoonish but still manage to each be distinct and identifiable: the tone a little lighter and gentler than the narration is Fanny; Lady Bertram is breathy and indifferent; the slightly deeper, measured voice is Edmund; the pompous-sounding deeper voice is Tom.

Mansfield is a leisurely tale following the Bertram family and its Price transplant through marital negotiations and trips to the country and financial threats no one seems to grasp the true dangers of. If the Antigua estates really had failed or been lost, it seems there would have been drastic repercussions; also, an ocean voyage in the 1800's was never anything to take lightly, much less travel in the third world. There was a strong underlying tone of menace to the Messrs. Bertram while they were away, but the at-home family seemed to continue perfectly sanguine. Except for Fanny, who is as gifted at Worrying as my mother, and that's pretty extraordinarily gifted.

Fanny. Oh, Fanny. She's just so … nice. She's so nice I want to throw an expletival qualifier in there, and I can't; this is Jane Austen I'm talking about. She's timid and fragile and sweet, and obliging and not as delicate as she seems, and sweet. And meek, and … when I right-click on "meek", Word gives me synonyms: humble, submissive, gentle, docile, modest, compliant, and mild. And sweet. Far from a backbone, there isn't a vertebra in the girl's entire body. Her entire skeletal system seems to be made of cartilage. Jane Bennet is sweet and modest and docile too, but by golly she can stand up for herself or someone she loves if need be. I think in a confrontation Fanny might simply cry, and then faint. Not a character much admired in this day and age.

But she's so sweet.

I saw someone's Goodreads status update for P&P commenting on how much he appreciated the writing and the characters, but he was on such and such page and … nothing … was … happening. I have never found that with P&P. Mansfield Park, however … oh my. Fanny comes to Mansfield … nothing … Mr. Bertram and Tom go away … nothing … the Crawfords move in … nothing … Tom comes back … protracted space of nothing … Lovers' Vows and things happen for a few chapters and then Mr. Bertram comes home and everything comes to a screeching halt and … nothing … That, combined with the extreme meekness of Fanny, makes for a surprisingly leisurely and … well, dull story. For the most part we share no one's thoughts but Fanny's, and hers are so very athletically self-effacing and charitable – even to Mrs. Norris, one of the people least deserving of charity in this novel, if not ever – that events are not exactly moved along. It's a jolt when, briefly and rarely, we are made privy to conversations between Mary and Henry Crawford, laced with languorous malice.

Perhaps the purpose of this day-to-day gentle unfolding of story is to focus the reader on the small things that do happen. In a modern setting, the concerns which beset Fanny would be almost nothing. Certainly the drama surrounding the play would be non-existent; it would trouble no one that a group of upper class young folk would do an amateur play, even if it was a bit racy. But given the placid pond that rock dropped into, there is a very real tension and concern about the morality of it all.

And perhaps the intent in making Fanny so stunningly selfless was to make it so very ironic when Mr. Bertram berates her for selfishness. Her reasons for doing what she does are partly selfish, but only a very small part; she can't explain without telling him things he doesn't want to know, which she would consider a betrayal of others. From that moment on Fanny's life becomes a nightmare. The wrong interpretation is put on her actions, and every word she says to Edmund or her uncle is contradicted or ignored. Every. Single. Word.

"I don't believe I can love him." "Certainly you can."
"We are so very different." "No you're not."
"I don't want to talk to you." "You say that, but what exactly do you mean? Tell me!"
"I don't want to talk about it." "Well, we must, and I must tell your aunts. Oh, and your cousin. His sister and their entire staff already knows. We won't talk to you about it if you wish, not above two or three times. A day."
"I will never marry him!" "I wonder what we should give you as a wedding present …"
"No!" "You mean maybe!"

It's horrifying. And, again, I've been there. You can say anything, and you might as well be speaking Aramaic from the response. Poor Fanny.

My GR status update from Chapter 35: I'm 73% done with Mansfield Park: In the midst of Ch. 35; I don't know how this story ends. I've seen spoilers both ways: that she marries Edmund, and that she doesn't. And right now I can honestly say that if she marries him I ... shall be most provoked. I want to shoot him in this chapter. (Which makes a change from wanting to shake Fanny.)

Oh well.

A bit more is on my blog.