By Jennifer Abella
To some, “Mansfield Park” is Jane Austen’s most thought-provoking novel. To others, it’s …. not their cup to tea. Either way, the novel is sure to spark debate at next June’s Jane Austen Summer Program: “ ‘Mansfield Park’ and Its Afterlives.”
The book, published in 1814, follows young Fanny Price, a poor relation who since age 10 has lived with her wealthy aunt and uncle and their four children. When two intriguing newcomers enter the scene, Fanny’s world is shaken in more ways than one.
We spoke to Professor James Thompson about the novel:
Why did you select “Mansfield Park” for the 2016 program?
We chose “Mansfield Park” for next year because we wanted to focus on the more popular Austen novels first, and establish our Jane Austen program first with “Pride and Prejudice,” which is an easier lift than “Mansfield Park.”
What should we be thinking about or looking for as we read the novel?
I think that the first thing to look for in reading “Mansfield Park” is our sense of Fanny Price: Is she essentially perfect like Elinor Dashwood or Anne Elliot, or is she imperfect like Emma—inclined to jealousy, self-pity and the like. Why would Austen experiment with such a humorless protagonist after “Pride and Prejudice’s” Elizabeth? I also think that readers should look for signs of “Mansfield Park” as a political novel, one concerned with the capacity of the aristocracy to rule effectively. Critics often point out that MP has all the earmarks of the “State of the Nation” novel that flourishes much later, like Gaskell’s “North and South” or Dickens’ “Hard Times.”
Can you tell us more about the “Afterlives” part of the program theme?
There are many fewer adaptations of Mansfield Park than there are of P&P; just two BBC and the 1999 film by Patricia Rozema. The later is a particularly interesting film, because it responds to the attack on Austen by the late postcolonial critic, Edward Said in his Culture and Imperialism. There has been a great deal of work in recent years on Mansfield Park and slavery, noting the fact that it was composed while Parliament was debating the Abolition act.
The book can be so divisive among Jane Austen fans. Why do you think that is?
I think that many readers today can find Fanny too passive and submissive. We tend to like our heroines feisty, like Elizabeth. But it is important to consider what Austen thought that she was doing, in making a wallflower her protagonist. If nothing else we should appreciate the fact that Austen perfected her technique of Free Indirect Discourse by working though Fanny Price, and so we have her masterpiece, “Emma,” only because she had to write “Mansfield Park” first.
Jennifer Abella is a TV/movie/pop culture/knitting/sewing/Jane Austen geek. Oh, and a total Anglophile. Follow @nextjen on Twitter. And remember to like Jane Austen Summer Program on Facebook and follow @JASPhotline on Twitter.