Monday, January 14

Mansfield Park

This is the thread where I'll be posting notes as I read Mansfield Park. Here's the permanent address of this post:

As before, you can either bookmark it or subscribe to the post's RSS feed.

If you would like to read along, you'll find the reading schedule I'll be following in the first comment of this thread.


Johnny said...

The movie airs January 27th, and to get there we'll have to read four chapters a day. This sounds daunting, but the chapters are short. I read four a day for Northanger Abbey, and it only took me about forty minutes a day. I start tomorrow:

January 15: Chapters 1-4
January 16: 5-8
January 17: 9-12
January 18: 13-16
January 19: 17-20
January 20: 21-24
January 21: 25-28
January 22: 29-32
January 23: 33-36
January 24: 37-40
January 25: 41-44
January 26: 45-48

You can find a text at Project Gutenberg and at Wikisource:

Johnny said...

Oh shit. I knew going into this that some parts of the Austen books would be hard to read...they're not exactly complex, but they *are* two hundred years old. So far, though, I haven't really had any trouble.

The beginning of Mansfield Park, however, is a BEAST. The opening paragraph features three Miss Wards, two unexplained first names, and three husbands that change the Miss Wards into Mrs. Whatever. In one paragraph!

More for my sake than yours. Let's see if I can figure this out here:

MISS MARIA WARD: marries Sir Thomas Bertram, becomes Lady Bertram

MISS WARD: Maria's sister, marries Rev. Mr. Norris and becomes Mrs. Norris.

MISS FRANCES: Maria's sister, marries a lieutenant of the marines, and becomes Mrs. Price. Also called Fanny.

I know, when it's written out like this, it doesn't seem that confusing, but I swear it's so condensed and unexplained and full of needless detail--do we really need to know that Miss Maria Ward's uncle was a lawyer, or that Mr. Norris was a friend of Miss Ward's brother-in-law?--that the thing starts to resemble a logic puzzle...

Here, you try:

Worst of all, I know this is all backstory and has nothing to do with the actual plot.


"Mansfield Park is perhaps Austen's least popular novel."



I'm too busy to look this up now, but I wonder when the further/farther distinction became a part of English grammar? I've noticed that Austen consistently uses 'farther' when in 2008 we would use 'further.'


The writing so far is SO convoluted, full of needless asides and unexplained pronouns. It was written 14 years after Northanger Abbey, but it reads like it's from 150 years before.

And it's not just the writing...something about the plot--taking a poor relative's child to raise--seems so primitive and removed from our time. Not the practice, which I'm sure still happens, so much as the way it's discussed in the book. I don't know about this one.

Fanny Price has a daughter named Fanny. Maria Betram has a daughter named Maria. This book is gonna be AWESOME.

Mary and Henry Crawford were just introduced into the book in a way that was as confusing as the first paragraph, but I don't even have the strength to quote it.


I've written before at exhaustive length about how "modern" I've found the Austen books, taking place in a social world very much like ours, only with better manners. This book is the exception.

Lots of people, I'm guessing Henry James being one of them, have said that the past is a different world, and in that respect this book so far almost qualifies as science fiction.

In fact, I'm gonna say right now that I might not finish this one. I'm not giving up yet, but the first four chapters have been extremely unpromising. The writing is confusing in a way that Austen usually isn't, but worse is that the book displays a distaste for its own characters that can be such a drag to read. Everyone is rude and vain and self-centered, and the only two admirable characters in the book are dull prigs. (Austen's own mother described Fanny, the main character, as "insipid.")

Also, it appears that I'm about to be treated to 48 chapters in the eventual courtship of two first cousins who were raised as siblings. How delightful!

Johnny said...

Nancy Franklin, the New Yorker's television critic, writes about Masterpiece Theater's Austen festival:

Billie Piper as Fanny! Oh man.

(Note that Franklin also quotes the "insipid" line...guess we both use Wikipedia for our research, then feel super-guilty about it.)

Johnny said...

Wikipedia claims that Metropolitan, the 1990 film by Whit Stillman (RIP), is a remake of Mansfield Park. Uh, really? I find that incredibly hard to believe.

Regardless, enjoy their page of Metropolitan quotes:

"Certainly, my home at my uncle's brought me acquainted with a circle of admirals. Of Rears and Vices I saw enough." [Johnny snickers. 'Butts.'] "Now do not be suspecting me of a pun, I entreat." [Johnny: 'Oh, snap!']

"Selfishness must always be forgiven, you know, because there is no hope of a cure."

I know this sort of thing gets laughed over a lot, but part of the plot of this book is that plays are immoral. What's especially weird about this is that Austen so eloquently defended the novel in Northanger'd think she would have seen the similarities between the two genres.

We like to imagine that Austen is One Of Us, that if we brought her to 2008 it would only take her a couple of weeks before she was posting on Gawker about Candace Bushnell's anal bleaching. But the fact is she's probably be horrified that poor people are allowed to talk to us, or that children are taken to plays. Let a black guy come into the room and she'd try to climb out the window.

Johnny said...

I don't think it's a very good sign that I just accidentally read chapters 13 and 14 WITHOUT REALIZING ANYTHING WAS WRONG.

The bulk of this chapter was a long discussion about the advantages and disadvantages of joining the clergy. Oh my god you guys, it was so awesome.

Johnny said...

An IMMINENTLY skippable chapter comprised entirely of a squabble over who gets what roles in a home-produced play. Oh, so that means that in addition to an already-stuffed cast (eight major characters!) we also have to remember the names of their characters in the play.

Also, this book is apparently going to be Reefer Madness, with "the theater" replacing "marijuana."

Johnny said...

"The first minutes of exquisite feeling had no interruption and no witnesses, unless the servants chiefly intent upon opening the proper doors could be called such."

Halfway, and thank god. This book simply has no plot at all. I have no idea where the book is going; presumably Edmund and Fanny end up together, which is icky, but there's nothing at stake, no momentum to the plot. If the book ended here (or, hell, BEGAN here) there wouldn't be any loose ends. Nothing has happened, nothing IS happening.

I'm starting to think that this book is some sort of cruel revenge on my criticisms of Persuasion. "Oh, you thought Persuasion didn't have a plot? You thought Anne Elliot was a bland and useless heroine? Just you wait...!"

So why am I still reading? Well, because I'm halfway done, duh. Also because it seems weird to read all the others and not finish this one. "I've read all of Austen's work except for the juvenalia and, of course, the second half of Mansfield Park." Besides, I have only six more days of reading it left...I'll be done by Saturday.


I just realized that I'm also halfway done with my Austen regimen: I've read two and a half novels, and I have two and a half left to go. So that's something.

Johnny said...

Some more information about Speculation, the card game they're playing in this chapter:

Lionel Trilling: "Nobody, I believe, has ever found it possible to like the heroine of Mansfield Park."

I can not BELIEVE I have to spend twenty more chapters in the simpering little mind of Fanny Price. This fucking book.

Johnny said...

I'm sorry I haven't had too much to say...I just hate this book so fucking much. I'm too far into it to give up now, but I certainly don't want to spend extra time talking about it. And I don't think comment after comment of me complaining about Fanny Price would do either of us any good.

Austen overwrites Fanny's timidity so goddamn much I'm seriously beginning to wonder if we're supposed to conclude that she's autistic or something.


Also, I seriously have to wonder at whoever thought Billie Piper would be good for this role. She's a British tabloid fixture--I guess Lindsey Lohan would be the best fit--and she just looks hyper-sexualized in that lad mag way that I can't imagine any amount of corsets and bonnets would tamp down.

So not only will Fanny sputter and mumble every time someone even dares to look at her, she'll do it through voluptuous bee-stung lips. I actually think Piper's a good actress--she was great as Rose on, again, Doctor Who--so maybe she can pull this off.

(That makes at least three Doctor Who alums in the casts of these it too much to hope that, at the end of the last movie, this will all have been revealed to be an elaborate season four tie-in!? God, I hope so.)

Johnny said...

Fanny has refused Mr. Crawford for some goofy fucking reason, and Austen tells us that Fanny hopes that he will eventually get over his love for her:

"She could not, though only eighteen, suppose Mr. Crawford's attachment would hold out for ever; she could not but imagine that steady, unceasing discouragement from herself would put an end to it in time. How much time she might, in her own fancy, allot for its dominion, is another concern. It would not be fair to inquire into a young lady's exact estimate of her own perfections." Heh.

Johnny said...

Austen is just now getting around to telling us about the death, six years before, of an estranged sister of Fanny's that we didn't even know existed. Why she didn't mention the sister or the death when she actually died is beyond me.

But guess what the sister's name is? Mary, the same as one of the four major characters in the book. Jesus!

Eight chapters to go and no sign of a plot.

Johnny said...

Only four chapters left and I still have no idea where this book is going. Even now, there's no inertia, no momentum, no building action. Even by the diminished standards of an early 19th-century novel, this plot is static to the point of non-existence.

And then, something happens. Actually, everything happens, all at once. Of course, it's of no use to the reader, who's stuck with a trembling do-nothing Fanny in the Portsmouth ghetto. But, hey, at least something is happening.

"Never had Fanny more wanted a cordial."

Done. For the last twenty or so chapters, I'd been planning to finish this commentary with just one word--"Insipid."--and move on the Emma, but the last three chapters were actually interesting enough to talk about.

It's so weird that the book is essentially plot-less to the point of not even being a novel for 44 chapters, only to cram an entire novel's worth of action in the last three. In fact, for the first time, Austen herself seems to be interested in the book again, actually making jokes again: Time has a way of reversing "the plans and decisions of mortals, for their own instruction, and their neighbours' entertainment."

As predicted way up at the top of this thread, Edmund and Fanny get married. Which is gross, of course, and even Austen seems a bit cautious in describing the marriage, stressing how long it took the two to move towards the altar.

In spite of myself, I have to admit that the book becomes pretty interestoing here at the end. It doesn't come CLOSE to redeeming the 44 chapters that proceed it, of course, but the plot ramps up in a diverting way. Unfortunately, because it all happens in about twenty pages, it's cramped and rushed.

As a service to the producers of tonight's PBS adaptation, here's how you film Mansfield Park: get rid of the first 44 chapters. It's really all just prologue, anyway...the real story is what happens in chapter 45. Either lose it or summarize quickly, perhaps in a Guy Ritchie-style cheeky montage. Then, give the actual plot time to unwind, and give Fanny something to do instead of worry.

Ta-da! We just saved Mansfield Park!