As with all of Jane Austen's novels, readers of Mansfield Park cannot help being pulled into the romantic attachment which is central to the plot. Fanny Price is not as feisty and independent a heroine as Elizabeth Bennet or Emma Woodhouse, nor is Edmund Bertram quite as dashing as Mr. Darcy, but most readers will probably experience a quiet sense of satisfaction at the conclusion of their story.
However Mansfield Park, more than Jane Austen's other novels, draws us away from the enclosed world of the central love affair into other, broader areas. The reader is, for example, made aware of the intense maritime activity associated with the Napoleonic wars, and Sir Thomas Bertram's business interests in the West Indies remind us of Britain's colonising activities and the abuses (including slavery) which these involved. In particular, the discussion of dramatic and wide-ranging masculine activities drives home how limited the role of women was, and how deeply-rooted was their subservience to, and dependence on, men during the period of the novel. Unusually too for Jane Austen, we are taken beyond the elegant and impeccably-organised world of the landed gentry into the much poorer and less privileged environment of Portsmouth, where we gain some sense of how 'the other half' live. All this means that Mansfield Park becomes interesting to the reader not just as a narrative but as a revealing social and historical document.
Jane Austen is as adept as ever at portraying the foibles and idiosyncracies of her characters, and there is no shortage of humour in her depiction of figures like Mrs. Norris, Mr. Rushworth and Mr. Yates. The attention to domestic and social detail (from Dr. Grant's 'green goose' to Fanny's 'glass of madeira') is also very much in evidence, and these all contribute to the reader's sense of being present in the situations described. It is difficult (perhaps because the allure of the central romantic theme is not as powerful as usual) not to be aware of the language of Austen's descriptive passages and the speech of her characters. What comes across is the complexity and elegance of a particular way of writing and speaking in a particular social class at a particular point in time, and once again the reader is offered an insight into another world, intriguingly close to, yet intriguingly distant from, our own. Indeed, it is probably this sense of being guided through another world by someone especially adept at interpreting its nuances that explains Mansfield Park's enduring appeal.
Comments from friends and family noted by Jane Austen during her lifetime*:
Lady Gordon wrote: In most novels you are amused for the time with a set of Ideal People whom you never think of afterwards or whom you the least expect to meet in common life, whereas in Miss A-'s works, and especially in M.P. you actually live with them, you fancy yourself one of the family; & the scenes are so exactly descriptive, so perfectly natural that there is scarcely an Incident or conversation, or a person that you are not inclined to imagine you have at one time or other in your Life been a witness to, born a part in, & been acquainted with.
Mr. Egerton, the Publisher - praised it for its Morality, & for being so equal a Composition - No weak parts.
Fanny Cage - did not much like it - not to be compared to P. & P. - nothing interesting in the Characters - Language poor - characters natural and well supported - Improved as it went on.
* Taken from Minor Works (Vol. VI of The Works of Jane Austen, Ed. R.W. Chapman, Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 431-35).
Reviews from the Internet:
MereChristian, Amazon: It is a beautifully-written tale of love, kindness and strength of character, rising above adversity and winning the day for the heroine
Nerin, Amazon: I have read this novel five times, and each time I have discovered something new. If you like reading books with some depth and complexity this is the one for you.
A Customer, Amazon: It surpasses all of her other novels because of its depth, and attention given to the psychology of the characters.