Mansfield Park is in many ways an odd book. I should preface what I am about say by noting that I enjoyed every page during my recent re-reading. I didn't love it with a passion, or find myself racing to the end which I still do with both Persuasion and Pride and Prejudice (though Anne and Elizabeth always get their men so I don't know what I am so worried about). I did just quite simply, enjoy it.
I first read Mansfield Park in my teens, probably when I was 18 or 19. I had read four of Austen's mature works by then, and I found Mansfield P. a bit of a chore in comparison. My age and being bogged down in exams may well have coloured what I thought, hence the re-read. I should also add that I am not going to go on about the slave trade; the arguments on that are well rehearsed by Edward Said and others. Let's face it Austen just doesn't do the big picture.
So, how did I find it this time round? Well, and I am going to assume that you've read the book here so Spoiler Alert, I was less irritated by Fanny Price herself and much more irritated by Fanny's invidious position. Georgette Heyer has a novel called Charity Girl which illustrates with rather less subtlety (and much more humour) the horrors for the poor child cousin living with her thoughtless family. The notion of 'distinction' appears so cruel to modern eyes: the differences in life expectation of the cousins with expectations, like the Bertrams, and the poor cousin (who has similar genes and the same education and manners but not the dosh or the country pile), is truly distasteful, especially when enforced with such glee by Mrs Norris. As an adult I found some sympathy and admiration for Fanny's self-contained nature, and her ability to by-and-large keep her spirits up in the most lowering circumstances. Whilst the teenage me wanted her to rail and rebel, the adult can see the pointlessness of that, as poor Fanny is trapped in ways more thorough and more frightening that anything we can understand now.
Edmund I found did not wear so well, in the transition from teen-reader to adult reader. Although his kindness and his ability to empathise with the young Fanny when he was just a teenager himself are both endearing features his stupidity in his assessment of Mary Crawford (when he does see right through her on first meeting before losing his marbles) is so crass as to almost be a failure in consistent characterisation.
Mary though I admired, not as a person but in the drawing of her character. I think in many ways she is Austen's most skillfully written, and it was sheer admiration I think, at Austen's light-touch building of personailty that made the book so enjoyable. Mary is so neatly done. She is not cruel, nor in any way awful like Mrs Norris (or Caroline Bingley): she is complex, and self-focused rather than merely selfish. She just does not seem to possess the mental furniture that would let her truly perceive anyone else. Despite all her scheming she plays both Edmund and Fanny wrongly on all counts, quite simply because she does not see them properly. The wonderful final scene between Mary and Edmund, and the necklace scene between Mary and Fanny, are masterpieces of misunderstanding. When E. M. Forster wrote 'only connect' he could have had Mary in mind (and indeed he has some neat things to say about characterisation in Mansfiled Park in Aspects of the Novel). It is this moral greyness that is so hard to realise on the page. Mary reminds me of Mrs Gaskell at her best: no sense of pantomime baddie. Cynthia and Roger in Wives and Daughters have much in common with Mary and Edmund.
In the end, it seems to me, that Mansfield Park is about active kindness. Both Fanny and Edmund, depsite their faults, are actively kind. They seek to understand others and forgive their failings (which is why the criticism of priggishness is often aimed at them), and then to actively do them good, in the sense of seeking their greater happiness, rather than merely moralising (an argument against them being priggish).
Sir Thomas is also kind but his is a detached laconic kindness, lacking in full understanding because he doesn't take the trouble to see people for what they really are. He does not deliberately wash his hands of his family like Mr Bennet, indeed he seeks their general good, but his detachment of personality means that he never truly understands his daughters, nor Mrs Norris nor Fanny, and in trying not to be cruel he fails in any real or active kindness. He fails to stop Maria's marriage because he is not confident enough in his knowledge of his daughter to properly see through her protestations, he has failed to transmit any of his natural understanding of right and wrong to three of his four children, he is cruel to Fanny when she turns down Henry Crawford more out of bewilderment than malice. As a portrait of a failed parent he is far more subtly drawn than Mr Bennet and unlike Mr Bennet (who declares Wickham to be his favourite son-in-law, as though it is still ok to be merely witty after all his family have gone through; not that I don't laugh at that line every time, but it is rather scary) he is redeemed somewhat at the end: the narrative gives him a second chance with Julia and her husband, and in taking pleasure in Fanny and Edmund's happiness, and young Tom's newly steady character, but we're left with the bad taste of Maria as victim condemned to life in a cottage with the awful Mrs Norris, while we note that he is the kind of man who won't inflict an erring daughter on the neighbours, whatever the consequences for her.
As well as the 'only connect' lets give them the imperative 'be kind'. And it is the nature of Mansfield Park's success that you are left with a strong feeling of wishing the characters well, so real is their projected afterlife .
Mansfield Park is one of Austen's less well loved books, how did you enjoy it and have you, or would you give it a re-read?
A few quick thoughts on books I have not had time to write longer reviews for...
The Moving Toyshop by Edmund Crispin was one I have been wanting to read since coming across Geranium Cat's review of Edmund Crispin and his style. I notice Harriet Devine has been reading Crispin too. I loved the witty writing and all the literary allusions. I loved the aside about Larkin, the famous joke about taking the left fork as they were published by Gollancz and the less famous one about the lorry driver who has exhausted the volumes at his circulating library as getting too big for his "Boots". I cared rather less about who did it, and parts of the plot were preposterous. I like the detective Gervase Fen enough to want to read another but do regret the lovely writing is at the expense of the plot and characterisation that you get with the leading Golden Age women writers like Sayers or Allingham.
Michael Innes was another classic crime writer I had not tried and, intrigued by a review on Cornflower, I asked for, and got, Death at the President's Lodging for Christmas. Again, I loved the writing though it is rather dense for a crime work. I like Appleby and the portrayal of the relationships of the dons, but again, I felt the work was all writing and the plot and characters were not quite on the button.
The female crime writers of the early to mid-twentieth century seem to be adept at creating not only a novel with a crisp plot but also a world of believable and subtle motive, shades of moral greyness and a real fear of the shadow of the hangman's noose, especially in Sayer's work. In contrast there is something a bit too cold and knowing about both Innes and Crispin coupled with something of a moral detachment. I however will read Crispin again as his writing was such fun. Googling for articles on Crispin I came across several comparisons with the writing of Doctor Who. I could indeed see Crispin's style working there and see him enjoying the Brenda and Effie series too. Despite his deficiencies I was so taken with Crispin that I already have Buried for Pleasure and Love Lies Bleeding out of the library. Innes I will try again but he better win me over a little more.
Questions for you, oh knowledgable readers:
1. If I give Michael Innes another go, it will be his last chance - which of his works do you recommend to win me over?
2. Which male early to mid-twentieth century crime writer gives us the rounded world and fuller and less daft plots of Allingham and Sayers? Who else shall I try from this era?
Dragging Juxtabook into the twenty-first century with current writer R N Morris we promptly go back to the nineteenth century where he sets his books. I loved both the St Petersburg mysteries which I read recently, A Gentle Axe and A Vengeful Longing. They feature Fyodor Dostoevsky's detective from Crime and Punishment, Porfiry Petrovich and cleverly blend atmospheric historical fiction with gripping crime plots. Of the two I preferred the second, the character of Porfiry Petrovich seemed more cogent and I like the interplay with a new sidekick that he acquires. For the non-Russian-novel reader I would say that although quite short, there is something Dickensian in scope, in the range of characters, of classes, of subjects in these novels. If you like Bleak House then you'll like the St Petersburg novels. The only draw back is the same as with any Russian style work: the baffling names! The fourth St Petersburg novel is published this week: The Cleansing Flames is out on 19th May in paperback.
The lovely Barbara Fisher of March House Books now has a blog which is you are at all interested in children's books, book selling or book collecting I am sure you will love.
Barbara's main website is well worth a look too. It is beautifully illustrated with images from children's literature. Barbara also has some wonderful articles on children's writers on her articles page.
The Tenth Man by Graham Greene is little more than a novella. Greene hardly remembered the manuscript (which was rediscovered in the early 1980s) and had thought it little more than a couple of pages long. He was somewhat surprised by discovering it was actually 'a complete short novel of thirty thousand words'. It had been written as a scenario for a film when he was under contract to MGM in the 1940s and had subsequently been forgotten by everyone including its author.
Despite being intended as a suggested film, the writing of it is as professional and polished as anything else by Greene; he said he prefered it to his much better known short work The Third Man which was of course filmed. It begins with an appalling proposition and follows the equally appalling emotional aftershocks through to their conclusion.
Towards the end of the war a wealthy lawyer called Chavel and an poor man Janvier are incarcerated by the Nazis in occupied France. The French resistance have killed a military governor and a German sergeant. As punishment the Germans intended to decimate the prisoners: to literally kill one in ten. To make it worse the prisoners themselves must decide who among them is to die. After much arguing they draw straws. Chavel is one of those selected to die and he can't bear it:
I'll give you everything I've got,' Chavel said, his voice breaking with despair, 'money, land, everything ...
And so Janvier steps forward and offers to take his place. Chavel signs all his worldly good over to Janvier and gets to keep his life. Janvier makes a will leaving all his worldly goods, once Chavel's, to his sister and mother.
The second section of the book opens after the war. Chavel, alive but poor, is drawn back to his family home. He can't keep away. There are many vagrants looking for work after the war. Why shouldn't he seek work with Janvier's family. Under an assumed name he finds himself in the midst of the misery he has helped cause, with bereaved mother and sister who would rather have remained poor and have Janvier return to them. Chavel finds himself becoming attached not just to the house but also to the sister but she hates the very name Chavel. She is eaten up with anger for the man who bought his life at the expense of her brother.
The remainder is played out with several unexpected twists and with all the looking at the heart of the matter than you might expect from Greene. It would have made for a very interesting film had it been made in the 1940s as its concerns are very fixed in that time.
I love Greene's novels. Their emotional introspection are like no others, and they make wonderful films of psychological depth. My favourite is probably The Fallen Idol (Ralph Richardson), a wonderful thriller about a boy who thinks he observes a murder*. It is sad that The Tenth Man did not capture someone's attention at MGM. It is presented in this edition with an explanatory introduction by Greene as well as two other brief outlines of films he wrote for MGM: Jim Braddon and the War Criminal and Nobody to Blame. Altogether this is a fascinating tome.
A little meme from Stuck-in-a-Book and also spotted at Cornflower and Harriet Devine. I am not a great meme fiend but I rather like this one as it gives a quick snap shot of reading and book buying and maybe gives some titles the light of day when they would otherwise be buried in the I-might-review-that-one-day heap. Simon has five questions and I've added a sixth. A good proportion of my reading life is spent reading aloud either to, or with, our daughter. It seems a shame to miss that side out.
1.) The book I'm currently reading:
Mansfield Park by Jane Austen. This is a re-read. Unlike some of Austen's other books I have read Mansfield Park only once and then when I was about 19. Twenty years ago so I am anticipating finding this a different book than on my previous read. This re-read is a prelude to reading The Youngest Miss Ward by Joan Aiken. See question three!
6.) The book you are currently reading with your child/grandchild:
The Secret Mountain by Enid Blyton. Daughter is very into Enid Blyton as I was at her age. However The Secret Series is not one that I read as a child. The main characters are Mike, Nora, Peggy, Jack and a prince, Prince Paul. My favourite Enid Blyton as a child were the Adventure Series with Philip, Jack, Dinah, and Lucy-Ann, along with Jack's pet cockatoo, Kiki. We have yet to get onto those yet.
I would be particularly be interested in hearing what you read to the children in your life.
Faber & Faber are running a lovely competition to win an exclusive tour ending with a Jo Shapcott reading:
Archivist Robert Brown will take five lucky winners on a journey through 80 years of treasures held in the publishing giant's London office at Bloomsbury House, which is not normally open to the public.
Faber and Faber's unique publishing archive ranges from its famous early twentieth century poetry collection including manuscripts of TS Eliot and WH Auden to books on farming, gardening, art and architecture.
The evening will conclude with an intimate poetry reading by one of Faber's most acclaimed poets, Jo Shapcott.
To read more about Faber & Faber's Museums at Night 2011 competition click here, and to enter click here - before midnight on Sunday May 8 2011.
Whilst driving to The Red House at Gomersall I saw the word Bronte on a plaque (not unusual round here but this looked authentic) and fortunately Mr J was able to pull in. We ran back and found another lovely house:
This is Clough House, Halifax Road, Hightown, Liversedge and the plaque reads:
The plaque is above the tall doorcase. Fortuantely Mr J is tall enough to have got us a reasonable picture. On a cramped pavement next to a busy road, with no chance of standing back, my 5'6" vantage point had no chance of a decent shot.
I mentioned a while ago that I received a copy of Miss Miles: A Tale of Yorkshire Life 60 Years Ago by Mary Taylor, friend of Charlotte Bronte, for Christmas. Inspired by the introduction (which is as far as I have got yet) I pestered Mr J for a day out in Gomersal where Mary Taylor's lovely family home is open to the public.
Mary, together with Ellen Nussey was a life long friend of Charlotte's from her school days in Mirfield. Whilst Ellen nursed Charlotte's posthumous reputation the feistier Mary had no time for the Bronte industry. The museum is a testament to a striking friendship between Mary and Charlotte, two piercingly intelligent women, as well as tribute to Mary's long life, lived unconventionally, and her remarkable feminist writing.
The Red House is a charming little museum. A pretty house in a pretty garden with a nice balance between rooms recreated as they would have been when the family was there, and extensive exhibition space both in upstairs rooms of the house and in an adjacent barn. There are some lovely exhibits and a great game with magnetic counters showing the choices in a middle class girl's life and how fate could raise you up or leave you destitute at a stroke.
Unbelievably, there is no charge to enter the house, garden, or any of the exhibitions, and there is a free car park. If you are interested in Charlotte Bronte rather than Mary then the house is notable for being the original of 'Briarmains' in 'Shirley'. Whether your interest is in the Brontes, women's history and early feminism, Mary Taylor, or the Luddites and mills of the West Riding then The Red House at Gomersal is well worth a visit.
The local church is not open to visitors but we did find Mary Taylor's grave in the church yard.
The additional plaque at the bottom commemorates Mary's sister Martha Taylor whose death in Brussels so affected Charlotte.
If you are interested Mary Taylor then her main works are: