The first time I read Mansfield Park, I was 19 and a freshman in college who commuted into the city via train. Taking the train daily was a new experience and afforded me extra reading time so I started to sift through my long self-imposed reading list. Like many, I fell in love with Austen’s writing with Pride and Prejudice and was making my way through her other novels. Mansfield was my third.
Naturally, fresh out of high school my life experience was limited. My views of the world were rapidly changing and while I could dig into some of Austen’s commentary, there was a lot I missed. I found Edmund and Fanny’s story to be simply romantic. I was annoyed by Henry and Mary. I took a lot about the characters at face value without realizing it. My impression of the book was also informed by the miniseries with Billie Piper (which I still love). As many movies and television shows based on Austen, the romantic aspects are emphasized. This isn’t “wrong,” but a very specific interpretation of what Austen wrote. While I don’t think my interpretation of the book at 19 was necessarily wrong either, I was focused a lot on what I thought was the central romance. Those characters had to be the heroes, right?
Over a year ago, I joined a Jane Austen book club I found on Meetup. I was a little anxious and afraid I’d be meeting a group of snobs or a group too tight-knit to feel comfortable returning to the next gathering. Instead I met members who were welcoming and full of insight. The book chosen at the time was All Roads Lead to Austen by Amy Elizabeth Smith, about discussing Austen’s works in Spanish speaking countries. More recently we read Jane Austen, the Secret Radical which offers a deep dive into Austen’s works which pointed out potential messages in each novel that I likely never would have noticed.
Perhaps it was those readings, and not just growing up, that colored my perspective on Mansfield Park. I was eager to reread it along with others to find new meanings, as you always find when revisiting a book. However, I wasn’t prepared for how new and different my opinions would be.
I loved the book even more than the first time I read it, and I disliked the characters more deeply.
Edmund and Fanny transformed into different characters to me. Instead of sweet, I found them self-righteous and a little boring. Mary Crawford appeared less evil in intent, just brash and careless. Henry more closely resembled men I encountered in real life and as I no longer brush things off as “boys being boys,” I was more repulsed by his actions. Sir Bertram’s character and his attitude towards Fanny were suddenly more interesting me. I had more sympathy for Maria and Julia, while somehow also liking them less.
“Unlikable characters” gets thrown around a lot more now, but as a teen it seemed compulsory to like at least the main character to be able to enjoy a book. I don’t know if I forced myself to love Edmund or Fanny or my view on humanity was too different then, or both. But at 28 I feel free to dislike characters and still love a book. I don’t need to relate to anyone anymore. That doesn’t mean an annoying character won’t still turn me off to a story, but I now appreciate flaws of a hero more than I did when I was a teenager. Fanny and Edmund are in no way anti-heroes either. They are simply flawed human beings that are a little bit annoying with their holier-than-thou attitudes.
Jane Austen was ahead of her time in many ways. I appreciated that when I first discovered her, and I appreciate even more with age. Mansfield Park has become more of a favorite with the discovery of commentary on human interaction I missed the first time around.