Most helpful critical review
Good wins in the end
on June 19, 2015
This is a surprisingly frivolous book, given that it's a major work by an acclaimed author. I was surprised at its repetitiveness, its mostly stale humor and its hurried ending that wraps up everything too neatly. It's certainly not a bad book, but I found myself trudging through sections of it, feeling that I was reading the same things over and over again: a drawing room scene, a walk on the grounds; an unrequited lover bemoaning his or her fate. I'm guessing that it was popular fiction in its day, and like popular fiction in any era, it has limitations.
The story line revolves around Fanny, a poor relation taken in by her ultra-wealthy aunt, Lady Bertram. Lady Bertram lives on the estate Mansfield Park with her husband, a member of Parliament who is a distant and utterly proper gentleman. The family has two daughters (beautiful and spoiled) and two sons (one a playboy, one planning to become a minister). Fanny arrives at age 10, and she spends the next 7 years being intimidated by all in the family except minister-to-be Edmund, who befriends her out of pity and then learns to respect and love her stable, thoughtful character.
By the time Fanny reaches 18, she's become a beauty like her older step-sisters. She's still terribly shy and intimidated, but nonetheless attracts the attention of Henry, another playboy who is living with relatives at the nearby luxurious parsonage. Fanny does not return Henry's affections, as she has fallen in love with her cousin Edmund. There are twists and turns, as one of Fanny's stepsisters marries a stupid but very wealthy man with whom Henry has been flirting shamelessly both before and after her engagement. Also, Fanny becomes friendly with Henry's sister Mary, though fully aware that Mary can't be trusted. Edmund, meanwhile, falls in love with Mary, even while recognizing her faults, as he thinks he can cure them with his goodness.
All this spins out in the very sleepy British countryside, where the same half-dozen people meet for dinner each night and then sit around playing cards and trying to be charming and polite. Jane Austen does a good job of conveying the mood in those parlours and drawing rooms, and there's some witty dialogue and repartee. But the scenes are repeated over and over, and you wonder how anyone could stand the dullness. Frankly, you recognize why Fanny's stepsisters, as well as Mary and Henry, long for more :society" and activity in London. It's hard to feel that Fanny is really the person to identify with.
If the book is read as a sly satire about Fanny, who is smug in her own thoughts, then it does have added meaning. And I think that is part of the lesson, especially when Fanny goes back to her birth family for a three-week visit at age 18 and chafes at the noise, dirt and lousy food. But Fanny is too virtuous to be angry; she's just uncomfortable and embarrassed.
In the end, things wrap up neatly. Sir Thomas of Mansfield Park shows that he has a heart after all. Those who flout society's conventions get their comeuppance. The prodigal son matures. The incredibly annoying Aunt Norris finally moves to another country instead of infesting Mansfield Park with her jealousy. And Fanny and Edmund live happily ever after.