Posts Tagged ‘Janet Todd’

Jane Austen: Is “Mansfield Park” her most daring book?

Saturday, April 18th, 2020
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Henry Crawford leads Fanny Price to the dance.

Is  Mansfield Park  Jane Austen’s “most daring book”? Janet Todd thinks so, and argues in The Times Literary Supplement that the 1814 book “provokes the reader to address the difficult truth of stubborn integrity.” I, too, balked at the priggishness of Fanny Price. I, too, was repelled by her moralizing. On the other hand, I kind of wish I had listened. As for making “astonishingly foolish life-choices” under the influence of some those other great writers of the nineteenth century – oh, ’tis true, tis true. 

One of my earliest memories of literary embarrassment is being asked by a bookish neighbour if I’d read Jane Austen. I was eleven. “Yes”, I replied. But I was mistaken. I had in mind the fantastic Classic Comics version of Jane Eyre with its alluring panel of Mr Rochester.

By nineteen, at Cambridge in the 1960s, I’d uncoupled Jane Austen from Jane Eyre. I read the six novels which F. R. Leavis, the then guru, instructed us to find “great”. I couldn’t oblige. I was startled, then offended, by Fanny Price of Mansfield Park. Why would an author who’d made the robust, witty and self-assured Elizabeth Bennet then create so limp and teary a heroine as Fanny, a creeping killjoy who suffers sunstroke from cutting roses in temperate England and fears the “wilderness” of a tame country estate? Until the ending, I assumed her rival Mary Crawford would get the hero – if, bizarrely, she really wanted him.

Over the decades I became acutely aware that Elizabeth Bennet (in the later chapters) and Fanny Price were more appropriate, self-controlling, guides to life for a young girl than my chosen heroines from Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, the Grushenkas, and Natashas, under whose influence I made some astonishingly foolish life-choices. It wasn’t all the fault of the Russians, of course. It was also the exciting period of Second Wave Feminism, when the stress was on self-fulfilment and self-expression, on being authentic and free from constraining standards of “patriarchy”. Present-day Feminism – I’ve lost touch with what Wave we are now riding – has had half a century to grow more nuanced and diverse, but its emphasis on the individual self and authentic experience remains. So we still try to adjust Jane Austen to our way of thinking – unless we are in the cinema watching her novels as romance and costume drama.

Read the rest at the TLS here.