Discuss Mansfield Park in your book club, and your friends, like most readers, will tend to differ over a variety of points. The most typical one is this: Is the heroine, Fanny Price, a model of moral integrity, or a self-righteous prude? Is the marriage that ends the story (and Austen's stories always end with a marriage) between the right two people? And what's up with that part about the play?
The story begins when nine-year-old Fanny Price is taken from the home of her impoverished parents and moved to the estate of Mansfield Park to be brought up by rich relatives. This is no clear-cut Cinderella story, however. Although there are a couple of mildly wicked stepsisters (Fanny's cousins Maria and Julia) and a stand-in for a wicked stepmother in the form of her Aunt Norris, teenaged Fanny's central nemesis-and rival in love--is the saucy, sassy anti-heroine Mary Crawford.
The object of both Fanny's and Mary's affections is Fanny's cousin Edmund (I know, I know, but in Jane Austen's day one could marry one's cousin without anyone batting an eyelid). Edmund loves Fanny like a cousin, but he is in love with Mary.
Did you ever feel jealous of someone, and at the same time also felt you didn't have the right to be jealous? Fanny, being in an inferior position in the Mansfield Park family and unloved by her birth parents, has deeply rooted self-esteem issues. Mary, on the other hand, walks through life with a serious sense of entitlement. Shouldn't that be enough to put us squarely in the pro-Fanny camp?
Perhaps, but Fanny challenges us at every turn. For example, there is the famous section of the book in which Fanny disapproves of and refuses to participate in a play that her cousins and neighbors are putting on at home for their own amusement. For this part of the story to make the least bit of sense to a modern reader, one needs to understand that this particular choice of home theatricals would be the modern equivalent of a group of teenagers voting to have a wild, high-risk party in their strict parent's house while said parent was out of town.
Despite Fanny's balking at participating in said wild party, we cannot quite dismiss her as a buzz-killing Miss Perfect. After all, she is eaten up with jealousy for a great deal of the book, and as we all know, jealousy is not a pretty emotion. She is also not one to obey those in authority at all costs. In fact, she stands up to the biggest authority figure in her life by refusing to do what she knows in her heart would be wrong, and I'm not talking about acting in a play. (I'll say no more, lest I spoil the book for those who've yet to read it.)
If you've ever had an opinion that your friends considered uncool, and you stuck to it despite ridicule and pressure, you'll find a kindred spirit in Fanny Price, and you'll want her reward to be the man she loves. However, if you're still doing shots with your inner bad girl, you'll be rooting for Mary Crawford to win the object of her, and Fanny's, affections. (By the way, Austen scholar Emily Auerbach pointed out at one of the Jane Austen Society of North America's annual meetings, that several of Mary Crawford's lines of dialogue are astonishingly similar to lines from Jane Austen's own letters.)
To make things more interesting, some readers will want Fanny to be won by Mary's rakish, heartbreaker brother, Henry Crawford, who finds himself unaccountably in love for the first time in his life. Henry doesn't seem to stand a chance with Fanny, who is not only in love with another man, but also has watched in contempt and pity while Henry toyed with Fanny's cousins, the above-mentioned Maria and Julia. It's one big love triangle. Or square. Or heptagon.
Could there possibly be a better Austen novel for book clubs to chew on? And I haven't even touched on the theories about Mansfield Park's antislavery subtext.
In Mansfield Park, Jane Austen is clearly at the height of her storytelling mastery, deftly playing with reader loyalties and expectations while serving up the delicious social satire and suspenseful plotting that keep us coming back for more.
Nevertheless, Mansfield Park presents clear challenges to filmmakers who wish to adapt it, which is perhaps why director Patricia Rozema turned the heroine of her 1999 adaptation into a synthesis of Fanny Price, Mary Crawford, and Jane Austen herself. As for the latest adaptation of Mansfield Park, which airs on PBS's Masterpiece Classic on Sunday, January 27, I am all anticipation. Let's see what the filmmakers have got up their sleeves this time.