July 10th, 2010

Mr. Knightley

Rereading Mansfield Park

I believe that I'll take a short nap in a few moments. It's that or go to the store to buy soap. But when I get back (from dreamland or Target), I'm going to start re-reading Mansfield Park. You see, I kinda need to write a poem about it. And I kinda can't wrap (first typed "warp" - that too!) my head around it in such a way as to select a form or a theme or what, really, I want to say about it. So while Mr. Knightley might not have been reading Austen in that icon, I will be. And I may do it with roughly the same dissatisfied look on my face.

Mansfield Park was the first novel that Austen wrote start to finish as a grown-up woman. She started writing it in 1812, and it was first published in 1814. It went into a second edition during her lifetime (reprinted when Emma came out late in 1815), and she engaged in a few minor corrections. In fact, the most major change she made was the addition and correction of Naval jargon in the Portsmouth scenes where Fanny Price's father talks about the ships in the harbor. But I digress.

Austen was extraordinarily proud of Mansfield Park, and she let her family know that Edmund Bertram was one of her favorite heroes (the other being Mr. Knightley). That's right - not the charming Henry Tilney or daring Captain Wentworth or the stoic, detached (yet delicious) Mr. Darcy: Edmund Bertram. Who is, I am sorry to say, a bit of a namby-pamby character in many ways. Austen's mother called her heroine, Fanny Price, "insipid", which is the more proper term for "namby-pamby". And on some levels, I have to agree with Mrs. Austen: Fanny Price is the hardest of Austen's heroines to love, I think, unless you have a soft spot for milquetoast moralizers.

That said, there are things I like about Mansfield Park. Like how it borrows from family history in the three-sister set up (Lady Bertram, Mrs. Norris and Mrs. Price being sisters), or how it can be seen as a sort of allegory involving the seven deadly sins (one of my favorite takes on MP, really, where one assigns deadly sins to various characters), or how it can be seen as a (subtle) condemnation of the slave trade - especially when one understands the relevance of character names and other references that are all too easy for a modern reader to miss. I like how this novel exposes Austen as a bit of a romantic (a term which here means "one who rejects neoclassicism in favor of a more idealized view of things, including the exhaltation of the common man and notions of freedom as well as a celebration of the natural world"), and shows a young woman coming into her own.

I do not, however, like those characteristics of Fanny Price that presage the Victorian notion of "the angel in the house", including her headaches and sobbing fits (in reality, there's only one or two, but it's enough to give you the impression that she's melodramatically melancholy) or some of the moralistic tones in the novel - though really, Austen's "bad" characters don't perish in fire, nor do her "good" characters end up completely blissed out.

So as I approach my Mansfield Park poem - one of the final five poems in the Jane Project - I find myself so conflicted about what to say and how to say it that I find myself unwilling to make a start. But start I must, and so I shall first re-read MP to see which threads I want to pull out of the novel and into the tapestry that is the Jane Project. And I believe that once I know that, I'll start to see the "how" of it.

Meanwhile, tell me how your writing is going. I'd really like to know what you're working on, and what your latest triumph or trial might be.

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