Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Mansfield Park, Chapters 38-48 & Emma Kick-off

We finished up Mansfield Park yesterday, and here's what happened in the last chapters. Fanny and William went to see their family, and Fanny is surprised by what greets her: neither parent devotes much time to their long-absent daughter and the house is in shambles. William has to depart soon after he gets there, so Fanny is left with her sister Susan, who needs reining in but is generally a good person.

Things aren’t going well for Fanny — besides the mess of her family, Edmund hasn't been writing — and they get worse when Henry shows up for visit. He tells Fanny that Edmund is in London where he will visit Mary. Fanny is embarrassed that Henry will see the type of people she comes from, but her father holds it together and Henry can’t stay for dinner. He returns the next day and offers to take Fanny back to Mansfield with him, but she says no and he leaves.

Edmund finally writes, telling Fanny that he is back at Mansfield and upset at how Mary behaved - yet again. He also tells her to Sir Thomas can’t come back to get her until after Easter, which depresses her. Lady Bertram writes to tell Fanny that Tom is very ill, thanks to his drinking, and no one can come get Fanny in this time of need.

After Henry's visit Fanny has been thinking about his feelings for her, and you start to wonder if she'll admit that she feels something for him and marry him. But then Mary writes to say that if Tom dies it would benefit her(!) since Edmund would be the Bertram heir. She also says that Henry has been visiting Maria. In a second letter Mary writes that Fanny should absolutely not believe any rumors she hears about Henry and Maria. Fanny learns from the newspaper that "Mrs. R" ran off with "Mr. C."

Edmund writes (these people would be keeping the USPS in business today) to say that he is coming to get Fanny tomorrow, and that she can invite Susan to come along with her. Plus he has more news to share - Julia eloped with Yates. Plus Maria and Henry are still MIA.

When Fanny, Susan, and Edmund return to Mansfield, everyone is in a state of despair. Fanny learns from Edmund that Mary blames her for Henry running off with Maria - after all if she was engaged to him, he wouldn’t be able to think about other women. Then good things happen: Edmund finally tells Mary off, Julia apologizes to everyone and she and Yates marry, and Tom’s illness turns him into a better man. Edmund realizes that he loves Fanny and they marry - everyone is thrilled and the couple move into the parsonage, while Susan stays with the Bertrams. But things aren’t so good for Maria — she and Henry live together but ultimately break up. Rushworth has already divorced her, and Mrs. Norris takes Maria away.

Of the Austen novels we've read so far, this is definitely her most serious look at society. Mansfield Park is focused on morals — "good" people are rewarded, "bad" people are not — but it's also interesting to think about in terms of nature vs. nurture. Fanny is ripped from her underprivileged home and sent to live with her much wealthier relatives. She's supposed to learn from them how to behave in society, and supposed to use these connections to better herself. But these "better" relatives are actually quite awful — the neurotic mother, the missing father, the meddlesome aunt. Then there's her cousins: Maria and Julia each run off with a man, while Tom drinks too much. So is Fanny just innately good and that's why she's rewarded by getting to marry Edmund? Are the Crawford siblings just bad eggs? Interestingly, the Crawfords are in a similar situation as Fanny, in that they live with their sister and her husband and not their parents, but in either case it isn't clear how their characters are formed.

One thing that I continue to find notable about Austen's work is how quickly she wraps things up — Fanny lusts after Edmund for the entire book, only to finally end up with him in the last handful of pages; Austen doesn't give us enough on how and why Edmund's feelings change. It's something that's characteristic of her writing, as we also saw it in Sense and Sensibility when Marianne does a 180 and marries Col. Brandon at the very end. But Austen isn't the kind of writer who realizes "whoops! I'm almost at 500 pages, I have to wrap this up," and then tacks on an ending. Has anyone else noticed this? And does anyone else have any last thoughts on Mansfield Park before we move on to Emma?

Here's the reading schedule for Emma:

Monday, June 7 - Chapters 1-13
Monday, June 14 - Chapters 14-28
Monday, June 21 - Chapters 29-40
Monday, June 28 - Chapters 41-51
Wednesday, June 30 - Chapters 52-55

1 comment:

  1. Just read Jane's Fame. It's encouraging to see how her work went unrecognized for some time. Emma is the book I read during stressful times--moving into a new house, bouts of sickness, etc. Every page is a piece of candy--but nourishing candy!