s0… Austen isn’t really what I was expecting. I read (or was supposed to read) one of her novels in high school, but either didn’t or can’t remember much about it. When I started Mansfield Park, I knew that Austen is famous for her social commentary, but I wasn’t ready the dose of stark realism (in all characters except Fanny) and her wicked irony. I find myself loving her more than I expected. Even though I am a romantic at heart (believing in love ever after and such), I cannot help but to fall in love with this story of people who have no hope whatsoever of working themselves into happy endings.
I was expecting love to be a force that was beset by the forces of evil only to triumph over the obstacles placed in its path, but the more I read, the more I discover that love (in the conjugal sense) has no place in this Austen novel. If we look at the characters and their personalities, attachments, and quirks, we see a group of people who are so blind or so blinding that they cannot hope to find happiness (except for Fanny, of course – eye roll).
Love begins its downward spiral almost immediately as the novel begins. It is the tale of three sisters – one of whom marries for money and position, another marries for security under the first sister’s money and position, and the third sister marries for love and is tied irrevocable to a life of poverty and suffering. Austen begins almost immediately discouraging this idea that people should marry for love as Mrs. Price is beleaguered and all but forgotten as the story moves forward. However, just as I thought I had Austen pegged and knew that she was telling me that marrying for love was a bad deal, she surprises me with some marked differences in the relationships among the siblings of the Price family as opposed to the Bertram and Crawford siblings. When Austen is describing the William’s visit to Mansfield Park, she tells us all we need to know about her , “Fraternal love, sometimes almost everything, is at others worse than nothing.”
The Price siblings had little, if anything, in the way of worldly possessions, but the relationship that Fanny shares with her William is so powerful that I am jealous of such a thing. They are able to share with each other their trials and challenges as well as their joys and accomplishments. Fanny revels in William’s adventures at sea and William is able to commiserate (noisily so) with Fanny’s plight against their decidedly awful aunt Norris. The fraternal love between Fanny and William is undeniable and clearly the most powerful connection between characters thus far. This devotion and love (only strengthened through their separation) stands in glaring contrast to the relationship between the Bertram girls.
The jealousy and bitterness of the Bertram girls appears over and over in the novel. They have a falling out over the parts offered to them in Yates’ play, and then further divide themselves over the attentions of Henry Crawford. Crawford’s attentions to the two girls really work to highlight the superficiality of their relationship. Neither one really cares for him, no more so than they care about the play; however, both Henry and the play offer them the opportunity to see “who is top dog” and they eagerly take the challenge. The idea of sacrificing their own happiness for the happiness of their sister never crosses either woman’s mind. It is only when all competition is removed does their relationship realign itself to what sisters should be. Julia is eager t to travel with Maria (who is now safely married) to see places and do things outside of Mansfield Park.
The Crawfords continue Austen’s theme of fraternal love; however, I can’t really put my finger on the relationship between Henry and Mary. Their relationship isn’t of the adversarial nature relationship that the Bertram girls’ is, nor does it reflect the devotion and love of the Price siblings’. I think there is love between the two, but each of the Crawford siblings is too self-centered to find true happiness in the other sibling’s joy. For example, when Mary discovers that Henry intends to ask Fanny to be his wife, she isn’t overcome with sisterly joy for her brother’s finding love. Instead, she immediately begins to calculate how this might help her situation.
Even though it seems that Austen is giving us Mrs. Price as an example of what can happen to someone who marries for the foolish notion of love, the children of that union (born in poverty) are far happier, more content, and worthier than their counterparts born to the luxury provided by Mrs. Bertram’s advantageous marriage or the Crawford’s wealth. So, I must ask the question – what’s love got to do with it?