Mansfield Park, or the Dark Side of Jane Austen’s Characters

Mansfield Park, or the Dark Side of Jane Austen’s Characters

Every single Janeite I know, regardless of the degree of their crush for Mr Darcy, agrees that Pride and Prejudice is an enjoyable novel. Mention Mansfield Park, however, and dissent soon appears. Fanny is too quiet, too passive, too boring, say her detractors. I used to be one of them, but over the years, the novel has grown on me.

 

An acquired taste

Mansfield Park is Jane Austen’s equivalent of Marmite. For those of you who are not familiar with this most British of concoctions, Marmite is a dark, salty spread with the power to drastically divide opinion, best exemplified by its famous slogan, “love it or hate it”. Any mention of Marmite reminds me of my friend Amanda, who moved to the UK in her twenties. I was with her when she tried Marmite for the first time, spread over toast. She found it revolting. But back to Mansfield Park.

Mansfield Park is a bit like a visit to the hall of mirrors in an old-fashioned fun fair. Jane Austen distorted and stretched some of the archetypes we find in her novels to the point that they are barely recognisable. Looking at it from this perspective, Mansfield Park is like the dark side of her other works, almost a cautionary “what ift” in some cases. I am sure that the parallels are many, but below are my favourites.

 

Maria Bertram is Emma Woodhouse on the loose

Both Mansfield Park’s Maria Bertram and Emma’s protagonist are pretty, clever and rich. They think they know better than anyone else around them, but still, fail to see what’s right in front of their eyes when it comes to their own love life. However, where Emma’s worst instincts are reigned in on time, Maria’s are encouraged. Maria’s fate is like Emma’s ghost of Christmas’ Yet to Come, a show of what might have happened to Miss Woodhouse had she not learned from her mistakes and rectified her behaviour.

Mrs Norris is a poorer, older version of Fanny Dashwood

Fanny Dashwood’s name always appears in Janeite’s lists of their favourite baddies. She is the scheming and selfish wife of Mr Dashwood, Elinor and Marianne’s brother in Sense and Sensibility. Artfully, she convinces her weak husband to limit the financial assistance to his late father’s widow and her three daughters to little more than “presents of fish and game” during the hunting season. Fanny is a wealthy woman, but she is far from generous, even with her nearest. Quite the opposite: she is every bit as mean and tight as Mrs Norris, and equally disagreeable.

 

Mr Rushworth is a financially independent Mr Collins

At first sight, these two gentlemen only have in common the fact that they are not particularly bright, nor gifted in the art of conversation. But dig deeper, and you will see some interesting patterns emerge. Mansfield Park‘s Mr Rushworth and Pride and Prejudice‘s Mr Collins only pay attention to what interests them. They are utterly oblivious to the subtle female signals around them, even those that are obvious to everyone else. They also share the same deep respect towards an older woman, Mrs Rushworth in one case, Lady Catherine de Bourgh in the other. The only difference, and what fires up Mr Collin’s unsufferable obsequiousness, is their fortune.

Lady Bertram is the female equivalent of Mr Woodhouse

Lazy, indolent and selfish, Mansfield Park‘s Lady Bertram and Emma‘s Mr Woodhouse see everything under the filter of self-interest and agree that change is the worst possible evil. They also care little about what lies beyond their little obsessions. That’s pug for Lady Bertram, and his and everyone else’s state of health in the case of Mr Woodhouse. Mr Woodhouse’s sex and disposition mean that he gets to be a lot more outspoken than Lady Bertram, but dig deeper, and you will see two kindred souls resting on equally comfortable sofas.

Henry Crawford is a rich Wickham

Pride and Prejudice’s George Wickham and Mansfield Park’s Henry Crawford could not look more different. Where Wickham is handsome, Crawford is slight and not particularly good-looking. Ignore their physical appearance, however, and the similarities between them are striking. Both men are irresistibly attractive to some women, enjoy flirting with anyone who is game and have a tendency to land ladies in trouble. The big difference is that Henry has money and can enjoy creating havoc and then moving on. Wickham, on the other hand, has the unfortunate combination of a modest income and a gambling problem, meaning that he has a price – and so he ends up married to Lydia.

Mary Crawford is a (seriously) insolent Elizabeth Bennet

Mansfield Park’s Mary Crawford and Pride and Prejudice’s Elizabeth Bennet are witty, pretty and fascinating young women with a sense of fun and some serious sparkle. They don’t mince their words, are not afraid to stand her ground and are experts in the art of teasing. Perhaps that’s why they are magnets for socially awkward and introverted men. However, Mary takes sassiness to a whole new level with her flippant comments and double entendres. Lady Catherine de Bourgh should count herself lucky: she may think Elizabeth Bennet an insolent girl, but she would have a heart attack if she ever met Mary Crawford.

Edmund Bertram is Henry Tilney without a sense of humour

As well as their profession, Mansfield Park’s Edmund Bertram and Northanger Abbey’s Henry Tinley share a similar moral compass, a kind heart and an eagerness to educate their respective protegées. But that is pretty much it. Edmund’s approach to life is solemn, serious, moralistic even, whereas Henry prefers irreverence, irony and laughter. Just think of Mr Tilney’s delightful conversation with Catherine – his opinions on muslin are a personal favourite of mine – then compare them to Edmund’s talk about sermons, house approaches and old horses. No wonder Edmund never makes it to the top of the favourite Austen leading men lists.

Fanny Price is an uninvolved Anne Elliot

Readers of Miss Darcy’s Beaux are well aware of my soft spot for Jane Austen’s introvert characters, of which Mansfield Park’s Fanny and Persuasion’s Anne are excellent examples. Both heroines are strong in their beliefs, but they have a quiet, unassuming manner, that many Janeites consider to border on sheer passivity (and, in the case of the former, was fatally ignored in one of the most catastrophic casting mistakes in an Austen adaptation). However, compared to Fanny Price, Anne is like Wonder Woman. She is the person everybody turns to when things go awry, and she delivers, coming to the rescue of injured children and keeping her cool when everyone is hysterical at Lyme. Perhaps it is no wonder that so many people love Anne, but accuse Fanny of single-handedly dragging Mansfield Park into the heart of the Mansfield Park rocks/sucks debate.

In any case, remember my friend Amanda and her dislike of Marmite? After a few years in the UK, she finally challenged her own assumptions and tried it with an open mind. I can’t say she has become a fan of Marmite, but she appreciates its sharp, strong taste and will even have it on toast every once in a while.

 

What are your thoughts regarding Mansfield Park? Can you think of any other similarities or distortions amongst Austen characters?

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Nancy Mayer
Nancy Mayer
April 8, 2021 12:20 PM

I like Fanny. One has to remember that she became quiet and introspective when she was- to her mind as a ten year old– given away. Children often feel it was their fault that the parents gave them away. Her female cousins teased her and, not doubt, the governess, shook her head over her lack of education in many subjects. This treatment along with Mrs. Norris always telling her how inferior she was,would make most girls turn in on themselves. She was anxious to please. She feared being sent away again.
People criticize Fanny for not falling immediately into a position as daughter of the house when she goes to Portsmouth. She hadn’t been there for a decade. The children were grown. Any complaint or suggestion she made would have been considered as her being above herself after being at Mansfield Park. She doesn’t feel secure until she ahs a home of her own.
Edmund is a serious young man. He has been destined for the church from a young age because his father had the two livings. He was more sober and serious because his brother wasn’t. Tom had already cost Edmund a goodly portion of his future income. Edmund knew he couldn’t afford to imitate his brother. Henry Tilney grew up more with his sister than his brother. he, too, was destined for the church. His character was lighter and he mixed more in society. I think Edmund was more serious in his religion . Henry would do a good job but appears to look on it as a job an is no more religious than most of his congregation would be.

flywithme96
September 29, 2020 1:34 PM

I agree with your assessments. I have only read Persuasion, Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park, but not only their characters, but even their stories/plots remind me of one another. While reading Mansfield Park I could not help imagining that if this character would have made this choice, the story will go similar to that book (for the love of God I am not able to remember those instances, but there were few of the points that popped up in my head while I was reading).

Oh and one more, Lady Russel in Persuasion is Mrs. Gardener in P&J but one who simple did not give good advice.

cindie snyder
cindie snyder
May 28, 2019 7:58 PM

I really have to re-read Mansfield Park! This post was very interesting I liked the comparisons!

carylkane
carylkane
May 28, 2019 1:58 PM

Thank you for this thought provoking post!

J. W. Garrett
J. W. Garrett
May 28, 2019 9:36 AM

Oooh, some comparisons I had never considered. I loved this. I will say… I am Team Fanny all the way and do not understand how people could so dislike her character. I also agree with the casting of Piper as Fanny Price. Good-Gosh, what were they thinking?

When you were describing the weakness of John Dashwood, I couldn’t help but think of Bingley. He was like a female version of Anne Elliot as he was persuaded away from the object of his love. I suppose that makes Mr. Darcy the equivalent of Lady Russell in his officious interference.

Lady Bertram and Mr. Woodhouse on their sofas reminded me of Mary Musgrove and her taking her couch with feigned illness. Or perhaps I should compare her to Mrs. Bennet constantly calling for her salts and directing everyone will her palpitations and vapors.

In comparing Edmund Bertram with Henry Tilney… I immediately thought of the extreme with Mary Bennet and her Fordyce’s Sermons.

Perhaps Fanny Price is a softer Mary Bennet. At least she didn’t hit everyone over the head with her thoughts and preferences. I still shudder when I see Piper as Fanny Price. How could they… what were they thinking?

Julia Bertram is like a Kitty Bennet… jealous, overlooked, constantly compared to and in the shadow of an outgoing sister.

This post really made me think. I enjoyed it. Thank you.

susannebarrett
May 29, 2019 2:25 PM
Reply to  J. W. Garrett

Love your additional comparisons, Jeanne! Wonderful!!

I am with you on Fanny Price…she is the Austen heroine I most admire; she’s rather like Jane Eyre without the piquancy. (I could extend this comparison greatly, but I have a stack of essays to grade and an online high school Shakespeare class whose discussion of Much Ado I must catch up with.

Of course, given my admiration for Fanny Price and Jane Eyre, my favorite character in Little Women was Beth, so there you go. While I might admire an Elizabeth Bennet or a Marianne Dashwood from afar (and definitely avoid an Emma Woodhouse at all costs), I am most drawn to the quiet heroines with strong moral fiber and great love and compassion for others, yet will not admire a fool or go against her beliefs, no matter who is importuning her.

Gotta run–

~Susanne 🙂

virginiakohl
virginiakohl
May 28, 2019 12:27 AM

Thank you for this insightful comparison – I never thought of Mansfield Park in this way. 🙂

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