Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Mansfield Park, Chapters 6-16

Apologies for the delay, Janeites. I headed to Chicago yesterday for a two-week trip, and in the flurry of packing didn't have time to finish up this post. So here, goes, about 30 hours too late.

Things take an interesting turn in this section of Mansfield Park, as the play-acting that’s going on becomes literal acting when everyone decides to stage a play. But first, there’s the beginning of an attraction between Mary and Edmund, as Mary realizes that she likes him more than his brother. Edmund at first outlines her lesser qualities to Fanny, but later he becomes more enchanted by her.

The group plans a visit to Mr. Rushworth’s estate, Sotherton, after he discusses all the work he wants to do on it. Since not everyone can fit in the carriages and someone needs to stay behind with Lady Bertram, Fanny is told she can’t go, but Edmund volunteers to stay home so Fanny can go. Mrs. Grant then offers to stay home so Edmund can go. Julia snags the seat next to Henry in the carriage, which outrages Maria, who, despite her engagement to Mr. Rushworth, is pretty clearly lusting after Henry.

They tour the house, Mary makes a snide comment about clergymen since she doesn’t realize that it is Edmund’s future path and Fanny doesn’t bother to correct her, and Julia makes a snide comment about Maria’s engagement. Then they embark on a tour of the grounds in groups of three: Maria, Henry, and Mr. Rushworth; Fanny, Edmund, and Mary; and Julia, Mrs. Norris, and Rushworth's mother. These threesomes are interesting, as Austen sets them up to pit romantic rivals against each other. Fanny and Mary are with Edmund and they debate the church, but Fanny becomes the third wheel when she gets tired and sits down. Mary convinces Edmund to go off with her, and Maria and Henry take off together while Mr. Rushworth goes to get a key to open a gate.

After visiting Sotherton, they learn that Sir Thomas will be returning in several months, and everyone starts to panic: Maria will have to get married, and Edmund will no longer be the de facto head of the family. Tom returns to Mansfield Park and brings his friend John Yates with him. Yates is into theater, and convinces the others to put on a play. Everyone minus Edmund and Fanny are excited, and they debate endlessly about what play to put on. They finally decide on Lover’s Vows, which is a pretty poor decision — it’s a scandalous play for a group that’s already got some scandalous activity brewing. Edmund refuses to participate, but the group is short a male character, and Mary is vehemently against performing with a stranger, so he takes the role to assuage her. Fanny sits out too, and Mrs. Grant takes the role that she was to be given. Julia is also out, as Henry pushes for Maria to take a role over her.

So that’s where we leave our characters — preparing for a play even though Sir Thomas, whose return is imminent, will likely seriously disapprove. This section drives home the fact that, like in Pride and Prejudice, absent or delinquent parents cause problems for their children. With Sir Thomas out of the picture, and Lady Bertram dealing with whatever health problems she has, busybody Mrs. Norris is the main adult supervisor of the group. It’s no wonder that some of the kids sneak off with each other while at Sotherton, and that they plan to engage in inappropriate activity.

On Twitter, Jane Austen Challenge participant Margaret commented that “the book is fascinating, in large part because of its unevenness. Austen is pushing herself into new, somewhat bleak territory.” We have a very different situation in Mansfield Park than we saw in either Sense and Sensibility or Pride and Prejudice. We don’t have a main character we’re truly rooting for in love (or even at all) — Fanny is a drip and no male character we’ve met thus far is a truly good man. We’re given, instead, a collection of mostly unlikeable characters who are in the process of forming some intriguing relationships with each other. It seems like Austen wants to focus mostly on society and social mobility to a greater extent than she has so far, instead of exploring romantic love. Anyone have thoughts on this?

Finally, I would be remiss not to mention what I found most amusing about this section — the five mentions of a ha-ha wall. Several weeks ago, I was on the veranda at Mount Vernon with my mother, another Austen challenge participant, and we overheard someone ask a question about a ha-ha wall, and the tour guide answered it. As neither of us had ever heard of a ha-ha wall, and wondered how everyone else seemed to know what it was, we asked about it — it makes up a physical barrier but doesn’t ruin the view of the land. In Mount Vernon’s case, it kept sheep from wandering onto the lawn. Since things happen in threes, I’m waiting for a third mention of ha-ha wall to pop up somewhere.

Next week, we’ll read chapters 17-26.

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