Mansfield Park is the book which divides Jane Austen’s readers most. It is reputed to be the least popular of her novels, and some people dislike it quite strongly: Kingsley Amis, in a notorious attack, called it a corrupted book and pronounced its hero and heroine morally detestable (a little rich, one may think, from an author whose third novel— reputedly his favourite—advocates rape as a good way of overcoming a girlfriend’s modesty).1 Less intemperately, many readers have felt that Edmund and Fanny are too priggish, or perhaps that Jane Austen herself has turned prig. There seems to be almost universal agreement that Fanny is an unsatisfactory heroine. But it is also generally acknowledged that the novel is in most respects extraordinarily accomplished (Amis himself thought that there was much to be said for the view that it was Jane Austen’s best book, and he disliked it in part for going about its wicked work with such brilliance). Most of those who know Jane Austen best appear to regard Mansfield Park as a masterpiece,a deep book.

An ilustration of Ann Kronheimer for Mansfield Park

I share the view that Mansfield Park is a very great novel. But I want to go further. I think that it is not far from being a perfect novel. Most rashly, I shall suggest that the treatment of the heroine is masterly and profound: Fanny Price may stand comparison with Emma Woodhouse. Indeed the two are appropriately set side by side, for each is a study,in very different circumstances and upon very different personalities, of the effects of repression. But the Fanny problem (as it seems to so many readers to be) is best approached after considering the book’s form and rhythm,its distinctive colour and tone. What kind of book is it?Should we indeed class it as a comedy at all? A difficulty which very few artists have had to confront is how to follow perfection, and in particular comic perfection. Mozart faced it after The Marriage of Figaro. In this opera he had composed a virtually perfect comedy of manners, with at the same time a deep humanity. Its perfection, as with Pride and Prejudice, is not only a happy characteristic but part of its essence: at the heart of the aesthetic experience is the enjoyment, among other things, of a wonderful piece of machinery. Such a thing could not be repeated, and indeed Mozart never wrote another opera with that special quality of perfection. Where could he go next? The issue is complicated in the case of music drama by the fact that the composer is dependent on what the librettist can be persuaded to produce, but on this occasion Lorenzo da Ponte surely gave him what he needed. Don Giovanni is not a less great work than Figaro, and it is indeed fabulously accomplished, but it is essentially puzzling and strange. Yet its oddness does not mark a regression on the composer’s part: it was the necessary way forward. Shakespeare faced the same issue after Twelfth Night. He followed it not with comedies of an even more perfected mellowness, but with the problem plays. Mansfield Park is Jane Austen’s problem novel, and as with Don Giovanni and Measure for Measure we may perhaps reckon it to be a comedy, but only just. After the perfection of Pride and Prejudice she tries a new tone; Mansfield Park is essentially odd and uneasy, and fittingly so. It is an experimental novel in various respects, most strikingly in the intertextual relationship with the play Lovers’ Fows. No one would read this tripe now but for Mansfield Park, and even at the time Jane Austen can hardly have expected all her public to know the work, yet it undoubtedly enhances our appreciation of quite a large part of the novel to have read it—a curious kind of demand on the reader. She also experiments with touches of symbolism and develops a new sense of the significance of place; and she dares to invent a very unusual type of heroine. A surprising number of critics in effect take Emma as the type of the Austen novel, and judge the others by the extent to which they match or fail to match that pattern; but whether we judge her to have succeeded or not in Mansfield Park (and I myself think that she succeeds magnificently), we should at least recognize in it the ambition to strike out on a new and original path.

I share the view that Mansfield Park is a very great novel.
But I want to go further. I think that it is not far from being
a perfect novel. Most rashly, I shall suggest that the treatment
of the heroine is masterly and profound: Fanny Price
may stand comparison with Emma Woodhouse. Indeed the
two are appropriately set side by side, for each is a study,
in very different circumstances and upon very different
personalities, of the effects of repression. But the Fanny
problem (as it seems to so many readers to be) is best
approached after considering the book’s form and rhythm,
its distinctive colour and tone. What kind of book is it?
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