The best way for me to describe this book is to say if you’ve never read anything by Jane Austen, this is not the book to start with. She expends nearly 500 pages on an anemic story that barely deserves half as many words.
To say it’s boring is probably missing the point, but nothing much happens and there’s very little humor to buoy you along. The characters populating Mansfield Park are so shallow and self-centered and the heroine Fanny Price is so blank and retiring that once you get the set-up—poor Fanny is ignored, overlooked and taken advantage of by her relations—there’s not much else to go on. Every fourth chapter Fanny is left behind, forgotten or passed over by her cousins, until about midway through the book I was so sick of the repetitiveness I wanted to dump her myself.
Fanny Price is a poor relation sent to live with her Aunt and Uncle Bertram at the lavish manor house of Mansfield Park. Ten years old at the time, Fanny is frightened, alone and continually made to feel inferior to her four cousins by her family’s selfish behavior. The story fast-forwards eight years. Fanny is firmly established as her aunt’s constant companion, while her cousins Maria, Julia and the eldest boy Tom indulge themselves in social engagements. Only younger brother Edmond pays any kindness to Fanny, so naturally she grows to love him. Of course, Edmond is smitten with another—a shallow minx named Mary who’s determined to snare Edmond and turn him from his chosen profession, the clergy. To do this, she ingratiates herself with Fanny, hoping to make Edmond’s confident her dearest companion.
Fifty pages in, you know where this is going—especially if you’ve read any Jane Austen before—and yet, it takes another 400 pages to get there. The first half of the book is dominated by the production of an amateur theatrical, which is tedious and uninteresting. Fanny is predominantly an observer, as she is throughout most of the book. In the second half, she finally takes a central role in the story but by then she’s been sent for a two-month visit with her birth family and subsequently learns about the juicy developments back among the Mansfield Park clan through letters. Talk about being an observer. And talk about boring storytelling.
To describe Fanny as a wallflower gives her character more personality than she deserves. Edmond is almost as dull. He spends the entire book romantically attached to a woman he doesn’t really like, all the while praising Fanny with the utmost brotherly devotion. Ugh. As a contemporary reader, even if you wanted to get past the love story between cousins, it’s hard to get invested in any sort of relationship between two characters so lacking in chemistry.
There isn’t much to recommend this book. The humor is middling, the characters are forgettable and above all, the plot is repetitive to the point of being irksome. I’m convinced if it weren’t for the fame of the author, this middling piece of 19th-century literature would be long forgotten.
Note: For related comments, including a few in defense of “Mansfield Park,” you can hop over to an earlier related post on this site.