I’m not sure if I’ve ever met someone whose favorite Austen novel is Mansfield Park. Fanny Price lacks some degree of joy that is requisite for a proper Austen heroine. Even Emma, who is entirely self-centered, is fun, and you can feel yourself rooting for her and Mr. Knightly to get their acts together and marry. Anne Elliott wants to be happy, so you want it, too, for her. Fanny is what happens when you make Mary Bennett the protagonist – even Edmund, who has taken orders, isn’t as saintly as Fanny. He admires her more than he loves her, and accepts her as his loyal spaniel in a way that St. John Rivers never had dominion over Jane Eyre.
Nonetheless, this novel is entirely worth reading, and worth reading over. The chapters are long, and feel so episodic in the way that Dickens made his own work addictive. And what is most interesting is how this book provides a great puppeting of the opinions of an upper-middle class – about the perceived and actual function of the clergy; marriages of convenience; the ins- and outs- of debutantehood; and, of course, ridiculous gardening practices and ha-has.
Mansfield Park is best read when you’re in a dull, uncharitable mood, unwilling to have your heart broken with a true Austenian heroine, but wanting to feel superior to that cow Mrs. Norris. I’m definitely going to buy Deidre Lynch’s Harvard University Press super-annotated edition when it comes out, because the beauty of Austen is that there’s a perfect novel for every mood … and what’s an Austen collection without a full set?