1814 - 2014
Falling in Love with Mansfield Park
by Susannah Fullerton
It was certainly not ‘love at first read’ for me! I think Mansfield Park was my 4th Austen novel. My mother had read me Pride and Prejudice which was definitely a case of ‘love at first read’, and I went on to read Emma (which I enjoyed, but didn’t adore – that would come later!) and Persuasion which I also loved. Then my mother took her little red-bound copy of Mansfield Park off the shelf and suggested I try it. I wonder now if she was disappointed by my reaction and lack of passion for the book? Around that time (I was about 15 or 16) I was reading Trollope’s Palliser series and was more enthusiastic about the wonderful TV adaptation and my reading of those 6 excellent novels. However, my mother (wise woman that she was) did not complain – she knew that love for Mansfield Park was something that needed to grow gradually (I think it is the rare young reader who is immediately besotted with the novel). I enjoyed the story, felt sorry for Fanny but was somewhat irritated by her, and I was charmed by Henry Crawford and thought an outing into the wilderness with him could be a very good idea. However, I did not re-read the novel until I had to.
That first re-reading came at university. I had never been lucky enough at school to be required to read an Austen novel, but at university Mansfield Park was on the syllabus in my 2nd year. I still have my old notes, some of which were taken from a critical work by a woman named Yasmine Gooneratne. Little did I dream, as I conscientiously copied out her insights into the novel, that one day I would know Yasmine as Patron of JASA, and that one day I would be the JASA President! Studying the novel hugely enriched my appreciation of its characters and themes. I wrote an essay which got an A, and felt that Mansfield Park had gone up greatly in my esteem. I was sure I’d never love it as much as my adored Pride and Prejudice, but I admired it far more than I had before. However, I still wished someone had given Fanny some iron pills, and I was definitely not in love with Edmund Bertram.
I had no Jane Austen in my course at the University of Edinburgh, but I was tutored by one of her descendents. I was in awe that this man had real Austen blood in his veins – did he know how lucky he was!!!!! But my course was on Victorian literature, and so I never got to hear his words of wisdom about his great – great – great (I’ve forgotten how many greats there were?) aunt.
After university I was married and lived in London. In 1983 the BBC screened their 5-part adaptation of the novel, with Sylvestra le Touzel as Fanny Price. It was screened one week night and then again on Sunday night, so I watched each episode twice in the same week. I loved it and still think it is the best adaptation of Mansfield Park. The Crawfords were so well portrayed, and Mr Rushworth was very funny, while Anna Massey made a wonderful Mrs Norris. Fanny Price is a hard part to play, but Sylvestra did an excellent job in the role. Today the adaptation seems rather dated when it comes to hairstyles and costumes, but I still enjoy watching it.
And then, on one fabulous and never-to-be-forgotten day I joined JASA. I was a young mother with 3 very energetic children, and no family anywhere near to help. Reading Jane Austen helped get me through that difficult time, and I was so delighted to find that there was a society in Australia where I could meet others who shared my passion. I went to my first meeting and have rarely missed a meeting since. Joining JASA encouraged me to really start learning about Jane Austen’s writings so I read biographies, critical works and history books about the era. The more I read and learned, the more I came to appreciate her novels. I re-read the books more and more frequently. The JASA library had the Cover-to-Cover cassettes of the novels, so I borrowed the audio reading of Mansfield Park, read by Maureen O’Brien, and began an intense love affair with audio books that has hugely enriched my life. Maureen O’Brien read beautifully and I found how much more you gain from the text when an emphasis is changed, or a particular accent adopted for a character.
JASA has of course offered conferences, study days and talks about Mansfield Park in the 19 years I have been President, and all of those events have added to my love of this novel. Now I love it so much that when recently I listened to Juliet Stevenson read it on unabridged CDs, and reached the end, I sat down and wept – wept for sadness that the reading was over, and wept for joy that something so utterly wonderful as Mansfield Park exists in this world!
And so from that first reading which left me lukewarm about the book, I have grown to worship this novel. Unlike some readers, I have never disliked Fanny Price. I will never love her the way I love Emma or Elizabeth, but I am extremely fond of her. I think she is Jane Austen’s strongest heroine - the way she stands up to Sir Thomas when he tries to bully her into marrying Henry Crawford shows enormous integrity and courage. I have greatly warmed to Fanny over the years and love to be in her company. I think that Mrs Norris is one of Jane Austen’s greatest character creations. We all know stingy people like her; we have met those who put down those beneath them while sucking up to those above – Mrs Norris is alive and well in our world today. I am endlessly fascinated by the Crawfords – Jane Austen was being so experimental when she created them. In Pride and Prejudice she gave all the charm to her heroine and hero, but in this, her next novel, she takes away the charm from the central characters and gives it to the morally bad Crawfords. I still want to go into the wilderness with Henry, who I think would be a fabulous lover, but I do not want him “for a constancy”. I both condemn and pity Maria Bertram, and I continue to hope that one day I will emulate her mother by taking to the sofa with my pug! But I will never be in love with Edmund Bertram. As an atheist I find his profession of clergyman off-putting, and although I think I’d like talking about literature with him, I don’t think he’d ever be much fun to be with (Henry Tilney, who I adore, is also a clergyman, but his profession never intrudes into the novel or his character).
Mansfield Park is the most brilliant study of selfishness in literature. It is a probing and insightful analysis of education and the effects of good and bad parenting. It is a study of greed, of vanity, of corruption and of idleness. It is funny and tragic, rich, perceptive on every page, memorable and enriching. It is a novel that simply demands frequent re-readings in order to be loved and truly appreciated as one of the greatest novels the world has ever known (in my view, the 2nd greatest, after Emma). Mansfield Park is, quite simply, a work of genius and an incredible masterpiece and for 200 years the world has been a better place because it exists.
President, Jane Austen Society of Australia
All rights reserved by Susannah Fullerton
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