Book Review: Mansfield Park
By Jane Austen
Ed. Eleanor Bourg Donlon
Ignatius Critical Editions, 2010
566 pp., $14.95
In this new edition of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park from the Ignatius Press series of critical editions, editor Eleanor Bourg Donlon fulfills the Ignatius promise of a traditional approach to the study of literature. There’s no way to understand the value of such an approach without contrasting it to others, and the single most dominant publisher of critical editions is Norton. Those of us who are veterans of English undergraduate studies were taught to regard Norton anthologies and critical editions as well-nigh biblical in authoritativeness, the point of reference in a zillion term papers or a zillion-plus classroom “discussions.”
Norton’s authority remains, although the modern approach to studying literature has changed—and so has Norton. Now, if students might sometimes think that the concerns of modern critics (on such topics as gender awareness, perhaps some kind of class consciousness, or socio-political-economic-racial considerations, etc.) have little to do with the text under study, they learn to keep those thoughts to themselves. If students actually want to talk about Austen’s exquisite prose style, her characterization (which surpasses careful observation to become an insight almost uncanny); if they want to discuss the delicacy of description that allows the reader to feel the air of a misty morning on an English country estate—well, in the vernacular nowadays, they just “suck it up.” We don’t talk about those things now. Instead, we must talk about “contexts,” as Norton calls its criticism, but however interesting such contexts may be, they are not literary criticism.
In any case, it’s not necessary to disregard these concerns in a traditional approach to study. Donlon provides ample historical context in her introduction to Mansfield Park, as well as biographical information on its author. Indeed, the introduction to a critical edition is the appropriate place for this information—not the critical essays themselves. Of particular interest are her excerpts from Austen’s correspondence in which the author herself discusses her characterization of her heroine Fanny Price, as well as her theme on the virtue of constancy. Donlon’s introduction combines thoroughness with jargon-free readability in the fluent style that we have come to expect from her, a feature that could cause some rejoicing among students who have been subjected to obtuse diction and syntax in discussions of literature. Also, in keeping with the philosophical approach that fastens attention on the work itself (and not on observations of multitudinous contexts), the introduction is not excessively long, just thorough enough to provide the foundation for reading that should be an introduction’s primary purpose. Footnotes follow suit: brief, concise, and used only when they are really helpful.
The selection of seven critical essays following the text is varied. It may seem to some readers that there is too much critical attention given to the characterization of Fanny Price, the novel’s heroine, but this shouldn’t be surprising since that character is an embodiment of the novel’s major theme on the virtue of constancy. The first four essays explore the character from differing perspectives, but of these, the first (“The Greatest of Nuisances? Fanny Price as Work in Progress in Mansfield Park”, by Katy Carl) deserves special consideration. We often find ourselves agreeing or disagreeing with critics on some point, but once in a while, a critic actually changes our minds. Carl’s essay falls in that category. I admit to being in that majority of readers of Mansfield Park who find Fanny Price less likeable than Austen’s other heroines. Several critics—and Donlon herself in the Introduction—mention readers’ general dislike of Fanny. I always thought her given to moral “prissiness”. I also thought Jane Austen had erred in creating such a static main character. After all, all her other heroines undergo change; i.e., they grow or mature in some way, become somehow better persons, and so does the reader by vicarious participation. In Mansfield Park, however, readers must endure a seeming flatness of character in Fanny in this lack of change—even though we acknowledge lack of change as a definition of the constancy Austen wants to show us. Carl’s deeper analysis reveals that Fanny is decidedly not static; her growth is in strength, rather than in change. She arrives as a timid child, humble and modest, and grows to become the grown woman whose moral strength provides the compass all other characters desperately need. In Fanny, we do not see the overt change, or growth, that we see in other Austen heroines; we see instead that this heroine provides the measure needed for the growth of others. One’s entire view of the novel, its author’s purpose and theme, is transformed.
In the second essay, Paul J. Contino explores biblical contexts for Fanny’s character; then Mitchell Kalpakgian discusses the economic, social, romantic and moral aspects of marriage—always the classical epithalamion in Austen’s novels, but here, as those aspects apply to the character’s unique circumstances. Theresa Kenney provides an interesting psychological insight in “Mansfield Park and the Conscience Outside the Self”, an examination of subtle character formation not seen before.
In the remaining three essays, not focused so much on Austen’s characterization of Fanny, Alasdair MacIntyre provides a general consideration of virtue and attempts to identify its historical placement as Austen may have perceived it. It is difficult to avoid lengthy quotes from the following essay (“On the Uses of Irony and the Limits of Moralism” by Regis Martin), primarily, no doubt, because it is my favorite—and that, no doubt, because I share his opinions on Austen’s literary genius. But how lovely to discover that those opinions are also shared by such persons as Sir Walter Scott, E.M. Forster, C.S. Lewis—even John Henry Cardinal Newman. Finally, In “Liberty, Restraint, and Social Order”, Jack Trotter provides an interesting discussion of the political conservatism he sees in the novel.
If I had any complaint, it would be that none of the critics focuses on Austen’s beautiful prose style, or on that unique voice, which manages to be both understanding and affectionate at once, always exquisitely unobtrusive, yet without ever abandoning her characters. But these are Austen traits found in all her novels, making the complaint invalid, since it would not apply to this novel in particular.
This edition of Mansfield Park would be excellent for instruction, but it’s also a fine introduction for those who are not (yet) among Jane Austen’s countless fans.
Dena Hunt is a retired English teacher who lives in Georgia, where she reads, writes, and tends her garden and her beloved Celeste, a Yorkshire Terrier who is also retired.