If asked for their least favorite of Jane Austen's six novels, my guess is that 9 out of 10 people would identify Mansfield Park without hesitation. I am not one of those 9. I love Mansfield Park, although I do understand that Fanny Price is not the most loveable of Jane Austen's heroines.
As a young girl, Fanny Price leaves her impecunious family to go live with her rich cousins at Mansfield Park. The cousins, the Bertrams, and her Aunt Norris treat Fanny variously as a poor relation, an unpaid servant, an object of ridicule, and a friend. It is Fanny's cousin Edmund Bertram who takes the time to befriend her and to teach her what she needs to know to get along in the foreign territory of Mansfield Park.
Inevitably, as Fanny grows up, she falls in love with Edmund. Yes, I know he's her cousin, but this is 1813 England, where this sort of thing was not only unexceptional, but frequently approved. So, in the best of all possible worlds, Edmund would love Fanny back, they would marry, and they would live happily ever after. After all, it's Jane Austen, right?
Enter the Crawfords, brother and sister to the rector's wife. I'll save Henry Crawford for another day. Today, let's talk about Mary Crawford: pretty, vivacious, ambitious. Mary looks around Mansfield Park and settles on the older son, heir to the Park and the Baronetcy that goes along with it as her future mate. Unfortunately, Tom is pretty much a loser and Mary has to rethink her plan. That leaves Edmund, who, as a future vicar, is not nearly as materially attractive as Tom. But, he's good raw material and Mary is pretty sure she can mould him into someone who would suit her.
Meanwhile, poor Fanny is languishing in the white attic (which is where she's been stashed by the family), pining for her cousin. Does Edmund reciprocate her feelings? Does he even notice? Oh no. Indeed not. Edmund is—how shall I say this?—a guy. Yes, an early 19th century guy, but a guy, nevertheless. So what does he do? He lets Mary ride Fanny's pony, leaving Fanny with her nose pressed up against the window wondering what's keeping him. I can feel my palm beginning to itch. He leaves poor Fanny sitting alone on a bench while he gallivants around his future brother-in-law's estate with Mary Crawford. My shoulder is twitching as I try to keep from raising my hand. He takes a part in an appallingly risqué home theatrical opposite Mary, although he initially disapproves of the endeavor altogether. Whack!
He is captivated by a pretty face, a flirtatious air, and an engaging way on the harp. Does he care that she thinks his chosen profession is not good enough for her? Does he realize that she's hoping his older brother will kick off and leave him with the family estate? Does he notice that she's slightly indecorous in mixed company? He does not. Or not right away and not until he's nearly broken Fanny's heart.
In 2001, at The Republic of Pemberley's Annual Meeting, the attendees screened the latest film adaptation of Mansfield Park.
In preparation, the group inflated head-shaped balloons and drew facsimiles of Edmund Bertram on each one in preparation for slapping said facsimile upside the head at the appropriate moment. It was, at once, cathartic and the definitive answer to the age-old question, “Does Edmund Bertram need a slap upside the head?”
Myretta Robens, The Republic of Pemberley.com