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Book review: Mansfield Park 
11th-Apr-2011 01:17 pm
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My re-reading of all Jane Austen's novels took a long break because after Pride and Prejudice and Zombies I wasn't sure I could read the originals without expecting the heroine to suddenly karate-chop someone. (I still can't believe a book that just about managed to stretch one joke to its full length ended up spawning an entire sub-genre.) Enough time's passed now though, and though I say re-reading, there were two Austens I'd never got round to the first time, and Mansfield Park is the first. Apparently it's the least popular of her novels and I can see why, to an extent. Fanny Price is a very different Austen heroine, not the usual smart talker but a mousy girl, raised in the family of her wealthy aunt and uncle, treated as inferior and convinced this is the case. On the one hand it's nice to have someone who's a bit more of an outsider at the centre of the story. On the other hand god, she's hard to like. An odd mix of completely wet and sniffily judgemental, only her beloved cousin Edmund (about to become a vicar) is acceptable to her standards of piety and pure behaviour. I know it was more acceptable at the time but the fact that her big love is for her own cousin doesn't help; especially as Austen herself makes reference to it being a bit dodgy for cousins to marry at the start of the book (and their relationship is so consistently portrayed as sibling-like that it's just all a bit ick.) Similarly, I like that the ending is rather bittersweet, but the sudden plot twist that enables Fanny to have been right about everything all along is irritating.

On the other hand I can't dislike Mansfield Park for the simple reason of Mrs Norris, Fanny's other aunt and even by Austen's standards a spectacularly vile character. With her constant interfering into people's business then washing her hands when her plans go awry, barefaced hatred of Fanny and anyone who isn't her spoilt cousin Maria, and tendency to steal anything that isn't nailed down, she's one of the best love-to-hate characters I've seen in ages. Within moments of her first appearance I could see why J.K. Rowling would name a cat that's always in other people's business after her, and she made me chuckle out loud several times. If I ever do another re-read I might not look forward to the central storyline but Mrs Norris would probably make it worth it on her own.
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