Books my mother left me: 'Mansfield Park'
After I was born, my mother bought me timeless editions of her favorite books for me to read. A book lover and librarian, she hoped that I would be a reader like her and love the books she cherished throughout her life. On the inside cover of each book, she inscribed my name on Winnie the Pooh book plates, and waited for the day when I would read the books my mother left me. I promised myself when I read them I would read them all at once, and the opportune moment arrived when quarantine began.
Jane Austen’s “Mansfield Park” is one of the last books remaining from the selection my mother left me. Without having read an Austen novel prior to “Mansfield Park,” Austen has already held an influential role in my life. When I was little, I remember curling up to my mother on rainy days as we watched the BBC “Pride and Prejudice” series. I was too young to comprehend the intricacies of the story, yet I was able to find comfort in the quiet ambiance the episodes would bring about as well as the calm sense of safety I felt in my mother’s arms.
Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility” and “Emma” were also familiar stories in my household; I still have short, but vivid, recollections of specific moments in each of those film adaptations after peeking into my mother’s room on serene summer or still winter days. More recently, my mother and I bonded over Austen’s stories as we attended the University of Michigan Department of Theatre & Drama’s beautiful production of “Sense and Sensibility” this past fall, and again as we critiqued the 2020 remake of “Emma” during the early springtime.
The reason I share these anecdotes is not to describe my pre-established relationship with Jane Austen, but rather to emphasize the fact that I was not aware of Austen’s “Mansfield Park” until I started reading it two weeks ago. I knew I had an Austen novel in my mother’s passed down collection, but I had assumed that it was “Pride and Prejudice” due to my mother’s particular fondness for the story. When I asked her why she left “Mansfield” instead, she promptly denied it. After I showed her proof of my copy, she then remembered why she chose it: “I thought it was prettier than the “Pride and Prejudice” copy I found.” She also revealed that “Mansfield” was her least favorite Jane Austen book. While that didn’t exactly encourage me to start reading, I had to read “Mansfield” as I don’t own a copy of “Pride and Prejudice,” and my mother would not let me borrow hers.
“Mansfield Park” is about a young girl, Fanny Price, who leaves her family in Portsmouth to live at Mansfield Park with her wealthy uncle and aunt, Sir Thomas Bertram and Lady Bertram, and their family: the Bertram daughters, Maria and Julia, who are both shallow and unpleasant, and the Bertram sons, Tom and Edmund, the former who is a lavish drunk and the latter who is Fanny’s only friend. Fanny’s other aunt, Aunt Norris, also often resides at Mansfield Park. Apart from Edmund, the Bertrams make an effort to highlight their indifference to Fanny, for she is not a true member of the family: “ ... and how, without depressing her spirits too far, to make her remember that she is not a Miss Bertram.” Instead of being rightfully aggrieved over the numerous insults Fanny receives from the Bertrams (specifically her Aunt Norris), she accepts the insults as what she deserves. She believes there is fault within her instead of in the treatment she faces.
I couldn’t help but despise all the characters apart from Fanny. The inconsiderate characterizations made reading the book a difficult task, and for the first third of the book I was unenthusiastic about picking it up. The language was another factor that influenced my indifference; however, as I read the language and familiarized myself with the style, it became easy to understand.
As I grew more comfortable with the language, I saw my original apathy toward the book transform into disdain for specific characters rather than the book as a whole. The introduction of new characters affirmed this shift: Henry and Mary Crawford, the brother and sister of the local minister’s wife. Like Fanny, I quickly did not like them. Henry flirts with both the Bertram daughters, despite the eldest being engaged, and Mary, while growing fond of Edmund, is increasingly cruel toward him. Nonetheless, it is only Fanny who can see the Crawford's misconduct, even Edmund falling short to their misdemeanors. Still, the Crawfords gave the Mansfield Park home life and added interest to the novel’s plot. Both of them brought drama into the book, which prospered under the absence of Sir Thomas Bertram who had left to Antigua for business purposes.
Sir Bertram’s late return from Antigua tempers the increasingly chaotic situation at Mansfield Park, driven by the heightened emotions and intensifying relationships. While his presence brings more stability in the environment, the relationship between the Bertrams and Crawfords escalates. Maria Bertram marries Mr. Rushworth while still keenly drawn to Henry Crawford, and Edmund nearly proposes to Mary Crawford on several occasions. Matters only get worse when Henry Crawford switches his intentions to Fanny, who refuses him. Sir Bertram’s disappointment in Fanny leads him to send her away to her parents. While in isolation, the Bertram’s family matters explode: Henry Crawford has run off with the married Maria Bertram, Julia Bertram has quickly eloped, Tom Bertram falls ill and Mary Crawford, in hopes of Edmund becoming the heir, wishes the sick brother dead. Edmund is heartbroken at Mary Crawford’s true disposition, but when he leaves to bring Fanny back home, she consoles him.
All of these changes briskly occur in the last part of the book, before it ends with the Crawfords, along with Maria Bertram, cast out of the family and, at last, the more anticipated marriage of Fanny and Edmund. In such a quick surge in drama and emotion, my earlier disdain for “Mansfield” transformed into enchantment; I finally had an inkling of understanding of my mother’s unwavering praise for Jane Austen, even if it had resulted from her least favorite Austen novel. I was shocked at Austen’s ability to captivate me, and later recognized that reading “Mansfield Park” was a treat as opposed to a punishment. Despite my change in opinion, I must admit that while I enjoyed the novel, I did not fully take the time to comprehend every detail Austen offers — as the story sped up, so did my reading. The issue, though, with not taking one’s time reading Austen is that much more can be missed in a page than it can in a modern YA novel. I only realized the significance of what I missed after discussing the book with my mother.
Earlier I mentioned that Sir Bertram left Mansfield Park for Antigua on business. The brief, yet important, detail I missed concerned this subject. My mother had asked me what I thought of Sir Bertram’s business ordeals when I realized I must have missed something. The business in Antigua Sir Bertram had to attend to was in regard to his plantations. My mother remembered that the film adaptation had centered on this detail more than the book did; however, unable to find the movie anywhere, I was still at a loss for more specifics on the matter. Then, the day after I finished the book, a piece in the New Yorker was published titled “Living Through Turbulent Times With Jane Austen.”
Writer and author Rachel Cohen, whose most recent book “Austen Years: A Memoir in Five Novels” debuted on July 21, writes about how “six unexpectedly far-ranging novels carried me through eight years, two births, one death, and a changing world.” To my luck, “Mansfield Park” happens to be one of the most-referred to Austen novels in this piece. As Cohen reread “Mansfield Park,” she began to discover the “more radical, difficult Austen.” “Mansfield” is one of the two Austen novels (along with “Emma”) that has glancing references to historic events that can be easily overlooked by the reader. In a quote I missed from Fanny, she directly refers to the matter: “Did not you hear me ask (Sir Bertram) about the slave-trade last night?” The conversation Fanny is referring to is not included in the book; Fanny’s question is the only direct reference to historical matters.
In an honest confession, Cohen admits that when she was reading “Mansfield,” “I wasn’t thinking about … forced labor, I wasn’t even listening to Fanny—not entirely. But the book sustained me because it had a complicated geography that connects different families and a various history.” I shared a similar sentiment; I read “Mansfield” with my mother in mind. I overlooked one of the most revelatory details of the novel due to my approach. Like Cohen, I did not hear Fanny that night.
Reading Cohen’s piece made reinterpreting Austen’s work inevitable. By unveiling the subtle details Austen had included, I had no choice but to reconsider the characters and the historical context Cohen lends light on; for instance, I no longer pitied Fanny for the fear she held for her uncle. Instead, I focused on Sir Bertram’s formidable characterization, and I began to understand the subtle complexities Austen included in her attempt to shift the reader from enjoying her eccentric characters to critiquing the model that was uplifting them. Cohen’s piece inspired other new understandings of the fixed power dynamics of “Mansfield Park,” and of Jane Austen herself: “Austen’s own sympathies were firmly with the abolitionists.”
Cohen’s exposure to the underlying context made me reflect on all my past interpretations of the books my mother left me. What did I miss in those stories as I sought revelations of my mother and our relationship? But Cohen’s piece also revealed another significant truth: Wherever we are in our lives when we read a novel permits us to derive a certain understanding. Seeking comfort in times of grief, or knowledge when we cannot comprehend our own world will lead to distinct interpretations. Missing this detail didn’t translate to missing Austen’s purpose; it meant that I had one of several experiences with the novel that inspired reflections of my mother first, and historical context shortly after. “A fondness for reading, properly directed, must be an education in itself,” says Austen. I am thankful my mother directed me to “Mansfield,” even if by accident. It taught me more about books and their multifaceted gravity than she could ever know.