Monday, May 3, 2010

Mansfield Park, Chapters 1-5

Mansfield Park starts off differently than Austen’s other novels; she gives us extensive back-story to better explain the coming events, and it's like we’re reading about the after-effects of an Austen novel, about the way life goes on after an advantageous marriage has been secured. About 30 years before the narrative, Maria Ward married the rich Sir Thomas Bertram of Mansfield Park, but her sisters weren’t so lucky. One married a friend of Bertram, Rev. Norris, and the other sister married Mr. Price, a man "without education, fortune, or connections." Mrs. Price fell out of touch from her sisters but one day writes a letter that she is having yet another child and needs help with her older children. Her sisters and their husbands decide to take in Fanny Price, age nine, and Fanny goes to live with the Bertrams.

At Mansfield Park Fanny lives with her cousins Tom, 17, Edmund, 16, Maria, 13, and Julia, 12. Fanny missed her family, especially her brother William, and her cousins aren’t very welcoming — except for Edmund, who becomes her sole friend. Five years after Fanny comes to live at Mansfield Park, Rev. Norris dies, and while his job as parish minister would normally have gone to Edmund, he isn’t old enough to take the job yet, and his brother Tom, heir to Mansfield Park, is too extravagant. The living goes to Dr. Grant. The Bertrams want Mrs. Norris to take in Fanny now that she has an empty house, but she declines.

A year after Mr. Norris’ death, Sir Thomas heads to Antigua to deal with his plantation there and takes Tom with him — Tom’s excessive debts are hurting the family, and his father goes himself to try and help the family’s investments. Also this plot point is interesting, as it's the first reference to colonialism that occurs in Austen’s novels. With their father gone, Edmund is head of the family and Maria gets herself engaged to Mr. Rushworth, who is rich but kind of an idiot.  Her father tells her that he consents, but wants her to wait until he returns from abroad.

Two new arrivals to Mansfield Park promise to shake up the social scene there. Mary and Henry Crawford, Mrs. Grant's half-sister and half-brother, come stay with the Grants. Mary is very pretty and Henry is agreeable and everyone likes him. Mary decides she wants to marry Tom, even though she isn’t really impressed with him — “she had felt an early presentiment that she should like the eldest best. She knew it was her way.” Mrs. Grant also decides to set Henry up with Julia Bertram, but Henry is more impressed by Maria, despite her engagement. This section ends with the Grants debating whether Fanny is “out” (debuted in society) and they determine that she is not.

I like Mansfield Park so far, especially for the colonialism aspect. Maybe this early reference is all we’ll get, but the two Austen novels we’ve read so far don’t really explore anything that’s happening outside the context of the novel. We don't find out a ton about what Fanny is really like yet, but I think that will change as the novel progresses. For next Monday, the reading is chapters 6-16.

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