Have you read Mansfield Park? My best friend rolled her eyes as I asked the question. “I couldn’t even finish watching it. It’s so annoying. And slow!”
Maybe a lot of people think the same thing. Even William Deresiewicz found this novel frustrating, as he struggled to include all of Jane Austen’s work in his dissertation. Why is Mansfield Park so difficult?
Mansfield Park begins decidedly different than all of Jane Austen’s novels. First, the title distinguishes this book. Sense and Sensibility, Persuasion, Pride and Prejudice. Character qualities, verbs, ideas. But Mansfield Park is a place, the entire story and characters revolve around Mansfield Park.
Even Northanger Abbey, also a place, doesn’t receive the same level of attention. Most of the estates in Austen’s novels are superfluous, little add-ons to personality. Pemberley to Darcy, Norland Park for the Dashwood sisters, Hatfield for Emma Woodhouse.
But Fanny Price is also a very different sort of Austenite heroine. Penniless, shy, an orphan. She lives at Mansfield Park, but seems excluded from the very place she names home. Fanny seems to expend no energy even attempting to become part of the ‘in crowd’. As a reader, Fanny’s life is frustratingly lonely.
The other characters, though obviously flawed, are much more diverting. The Crawford’s are entertaining, breathing fresh life into the stale company of Mansfield Park. Fanny sits on the outskirts, critiquing plans to put on a flirtatious play, slightly jealous as her cousin, Edmund, shows an interest in Miss Mary Crawford.
Fanny’s jealousy is aggravating. She’s done nothing to attract her cousin’s care. She hasn’t even tried.
Mary, on the other hand, was making every effort to be charming. She admits as much to her brother, confiding that Fanny is refusing to be charmed. Can’t Fanny just stop being a snob?
I understand Mary, because isn’t that what I’ve done as long as I can remember? Step into company, enter the charm zone. Charming today is different than regency England, but we still expect company to entertain us. As the author Mr D comments, “I realized that I always felt as though I had to be on -had to be forever ready with a witty remark or funny story.”
I stopped after that sentence, briefly wondering, “How do you stop being on?”
Is it possible to have friends, who value you outside of your entertaining personality? My brain knows the answer is yes, because I do have friends who exist beyond entertainment. Yes, I enjoy sharing a joke with this small circle of people. But it is even more refreshing to unburden grief, to bemoan life’s losses, and be raw without fretting over judgement.
But this circle is small. I think I can name all these friends on a single hand. As I think about this, I come to a stark realization. I collect stories. I collect funny gossip. I rehearse how I will be entertaining. Does this mean I’m acting in company?
I can’t answer that question, or perhaps I don’t want to. I think I’m allowed to raise and then ignore a question on my own blog. 😉
But I do know, I dread being on the outside. I fight hard to get in that “inner circle”. Right now, that circle is practically laughable. My college seems the world to me right now, but even I know, it’s not as important as I imagine it to be. I realize that my strange obsession with history, my nerdy dreams of competing on Jeopardy, and even blogging, can all exclude me from the cool crowd. Sometime after the first semester, I decided to not fight that hard.
Instead, I’ve put off that fight till I arrive in my dream job. But as I read this chapter on Mansfield Park, I wondered if that fight was worth it. What would I loose to gain that elusive popularity?
Mary Crawford, despite all her charms, spurns her chance at a simple gift. Mary Crawford turned down Edmund’s marriage proposal, because he wanted to be a clergyman. He couldn’t offer her the popularity and wealth she craved.
While I would love to judge Mary, it’s painful. I have created grand ideas, sub-consciously shutting out people, jobs, anything I think may get in the way of those dreams.
Mr D retells stories of women he knows who have turned down men who loved them, because those men didn’t make enough money. The antidotes remind me of when I asked my Dad to go skiing, “No, I won’t pay for it.” His answer was disappointing, his explanation maddening to an 11-year-old. “I can’t pay for everything, because I don’t want to raise you with expectations for a lifestyle your husband can’t afford.”
My dad was wise, it’s taken me years to appreciate that. Doesn’t mean I still don’t want to go skiing. (And I still can’t pay for it)
Fanny Price is annoyingly plain. She doesn’t put on airs. She accepts her poverty. She serves everyone around her unselfishly.
Austen deliberately compares simple Fanny to sparkling personality, money, and selfishness.
In the very beginning of the story, Edmund asks Fanny to share about her family. Fanny shares a simple story, no embellishments, no intentional humor. And Edmund was the only one who listened to Fanny’s family story. And all the years Fanny was at Mansfield Park, Edmund continued to be the only one who cared enough to listen.
I love how Mr D talks about listening to each other stories, “Stories are what makes us human. Listening to someone else’s stories – entering into their feelings, validating their experiences – is the highest way of acknowledging their humanity.”
And now this is the time I’m supposed to commit to not living for charm. To share honest stories and listen to the humanity of those I run into. But charm is hard to step away from, humor is an easy fallback mode. The hardest part of this thought, is to realize my charm does nothing. It doesn’t help people, or make any real lasting impact.
But the truest gift I can give anyone, is to listen. To give others the chance to speak from the heart. To be themselves, and if they choose, let me be a small part of their life story.