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intrepidheroine

Our Intrepid Heroine

I'm a multitasking, knitting, cooking, voraciously-reading library worker who wants to spread her bibliomania as far as possible.

Currently reading

Ash and Silver: A Sanctuary Novel
Carol Berg
The Sleeping Partner
Madeleine E. Robins
Kraken
China Mieville

Mansfield Park (Penguin Classics)

Mansfield Park - Jane Austen Mansfield Park makes me think of French fries, Cliffside views, and elderly lesbians.

See, Fanny Price bores me, and I get fed up with her for never standing up for herself. Anne Elliot had limits. Fanny Price is a doormat. However, my main associations with Mansfield Park have less to do with the words on the page than the places at which I read them.

The first time I tried to read Mansfield Park, I had just embarked on my first (and only) Library Adventure in the town where I started my undergrad. I’d finished Pride and Prejudice for the third time, having discovered it maybe six months before, and I was determined to get another Jane Austen book. Unfortunately, I had decided to attend a school with a truly wretched library (why? why? what was I thinking?). It had plenty of computers, but very few books. Also, there were plenty of surly library aides who made me very uncomfortable if I bothered them for something as ludicrous as directions. As a result, I decided to go to the downtown library. It was (theoretically) only ten minutes away by bus.

The bus system was even worse than the library system, so the ten minute ride ended up being a 45-minute debacle, between the delays and the actual ride time. I got to the library and didn’t qualify for a card. I must have looked crestfallen, because the librarian gave me a temporary card and let me check out the first Jane Austen book that I saw, which was Mansfield Park. By the time I got back to my apartment, I realized that I had no groceries, had missed lunch, and that there was no way I’d be able to read in peace if I went home. So, I sat in the McDonalds by my apartment and ate fries very slowly while reading about Regency England. I got about 45 pages in before I finally had to leave (it was getting dark, I didn’t have anyone with me, and the guy across the room kept trying to catch my eye). As anticipated, so the book was returned unfinished a few weeks later for assorted reasons.

Less than a year after, I moved back to Chicagoland, where we have decent libraries and book vendors larger than the CVS across the way. Some Saturday in late June a few years ago, I was wandering around downtown when I found a bookstore with a bunch of old, cheap books (also, three cats. I have no idea what the bookstore was, but I really would like to go back). I picked up a copy of Mansfield Park, vaguely remembering that I’d intended to read it at some point. I hopped on the Red Line and opened the book.

After disembarking, I promptly turned the wrong way and found myself walking along a gravel trail overlooking cliffs I never knew existed. I sat on a bench and listened to the waves for a while before once again opening my book. What could be better, I thought, than a peaceful Saturday with Jane Austen and an excellent view? So I sat for an hour or so, reading, listening to the water, occasionally glancing up at the elderly women walking hand in hand. I’m certain some of them were couples just from the way they smiled at each other, and I’m one of those who tends to think that couples who are still in love after howevermany years are cute and admirable. So I smiled back at them, read a while, and finally, sadly, had to depart.

I’ve never been back to that spot. I’m not often that far north, and I’m so busy running around the suburbs on the weekends that it’s basically out of the question. Still, I’ll go back one day, and I’ll be sure to bring Lady Jane with me.

***

I got into a serious literary bent at some point this spring, mainly influenced by rereading A. S. Byatt novels and working right next to the English department. Until very recently, I commuted downtown to work with a schedule that caused me to miss all express trains. I spent 3 1/2 hours every day in transit and arrived home just in time to go to bed, which of course, never happened. So, I did what I always do when faced with large chunks of time and an overly-active mind: I began to read like it was going out of style.

I've always been a prolific reader, but I occasionally go through phases of severe bibliomania in which I read a book or two a day, then spend the time between wakefulness and sleep pouring over what it all means. Having obtained a degree in pondering the power of the written word, my brain occasionally crystallizes on the nature of books. What makes them last, who makes them last, the meaning of a classic, etc. Reading books about people wondering about books in an academic setting only fed into the cesspool of information streamlining my subconscious, and I started to drive my mother crazy talking about books.

Literally every conversation we had in the morning started with me gesturing madly with a cup of tea, announcing, "So I'm reading this book." I'd update her on what happened to our dashing heroes and plucky heroines since the day before. She’d listen to me rant about how the ending was a fraud, the characters vapid, the message so clear, I just don’t understand why nobody else likes this book, all while calmly nodding her head and working on her crochet. Occasionally she’d throw in a few comments, but I look back on those months as one long conversation in which I worked myself into a froth over literature while my mother humored me.

At some point, the monologue shifted to Mansfield Park and how much disdain I had for Fanny Price. As I spoke, though, I realized that I couldn’t remember much of the plot of the book. So I told my mother the stories listed above, how they were the memories I associated with Mansfield rather than the actual plot. But see, it bothered me that I couldn’t remember what happened. It bothered me even more that, thinking back to the book, all I could remember was the 1999 movie. I was a lit major. I should remember books, dammit.

That afternoon, I started jonesing for a Jane Austen fix. I walked upstairs to the school library, considering checking out Persuasion again because it’s not at all pathetic to want to reread it twice in three months. Instead, my eye fell on the rebound edition of Mansfield Park, and I thought, well, I can’t really make a well-informed argument if I can’t even remember what happened. Maybe it will be better the second time around.

I liked Fanny a bit better, and Edmund annoyed me excessively. I wanted to reach through the book and smack him upside the head for being a prat. Rushworth cracked me up with his two and forty speeches, and I’m fond of Lady Bertram, laconically embroidering cushions of little use and no beauty. What struck me, though, were parallels to Pride and Prejudice that I had completely missed the first time around.

WARNING: HERE THERE BE SPOILERS

(don’t say I didn’t warn you)

Henry Crawford is a rather disturbing mix of Darcy, Wickham, and Mr. Collins. And dear lord, I know this guy.

At some point, Crawford falls obsessively in love with Fanny, who does not want his attention. He attempts to court her, and she shies away, convincing him of her feminine dignity. Clearly, she is a bashful prize and more worth the having for it – but will clearly see reason, once she understands that he finds her beautiful and worthy (Mr. Collins). He’s charming throughout, occasionally improper and fairly rakish, with a taste for married and engaged women. What really caught my attention, though, was the proposal scene.

Crawford decides that the best way to win Fanny over is to help her little brother, William, to obtain a Navy commission. This actually displays a degree of intelligence: other than Edmund, William is the dearest person in the world to Fanny, and she spends portions of the book lamenting William’s inability to make the proper connections to purchase a promotion. By taking William to dinner with the Admiral, Crawford’s uncle, he manages to secure the necessary connections to set William up as a lieutenant. Brilliant move, but not so great with the follow-through. Instead of allowing Fanny to learn on her own that he had a hand in William’s livelihood, a la Darcy, Crawford corners her and cheerfully tells her in order to engender a sense of gratitude. In doing so, he demonstrates a degree of vested self-interest so intolerable to Fanny as to upset her exceedingly. Rather than allow her to process the information, Crawford’s immediate insistence on marriage pushes Fanny so far away from him that she could not possibly accept such a proposal, or such a man.

And really, who could blame her?

HERE ENDETH THE SPOILERS

The last time I read this book, it was right before I began to study literature. It’s a curious thing, to read a book both before and after you’ve grown accustomed to making connections between pieces of writing. I often find that, although I enjoyed the story before, I never really noticed so many things immediately apparent upon a reread. Possession was the same way: I can never recapture the sense of urgency from the first time I read the book, my first winter as a lit major, desperately pouring through to satiate my need to know what happens next. I know the ending. I know the twists. Reading a book over again can never deliver the need to know how A+B=C. However, rereading can tell you more about why the book was so worth reading in the first place.

Mansfield was worth reading for that one scene, and I’d completely missed its significance the first time I went through the book. That said, I will probably still remember the book for the original associations I made because they still made more of an impression than the text itself.