Mansfield Park, or Jane Austen’s distorting mirror show

Those following me on social media may have noticed my sudden interest in everything Mansfield Park, from the excellent audiobook version read by Karen Savage to the articles I have been posting on the novel and its characters. The fact is that I’m re-reading Mansfield Park while writing the follow-up to Miss Darcy’s Beaux in my Austeniana series, where the Bertrams and the Prices have a much more central role.

Re-reading Austen is like hanging out with an old friend from secondary school. The text is comforting and familiar, just the same it was ten months or fifteen years ago, but every time you notice little things that you didn’t see the last time. It’s a bit like realising that your friend has started dyeing her hair a slightly different shade, although with a beloved piece of literature the change takes place inside of the reader.

This time around, in my re-reading of Mansfield Park I have been paying particular attention to the parallels between the novel and other Austen works. I have noticed that Mansfield Park can be interpreted as the dark side of other Jane Austen novels. It feels like a trip down the rabbit hole or a visit to one of those old-fashioned fun fairs where there is a hall of mirrors that magnify or distort what’s in front of them.

These are the parallels I could find:

Maria Bertram is like Emma Woodhouse on the loose

Both Maria and Emma are pretty, clever and rich. They think they know better than anyone else around them, but still, fail to see what’s right in front of their eyes when it comes to their own love life. However, where Emma’s worst instincts are reigned in on time, Maria’s are encouraged. I like to think that Maria’s fate is like Emma’s ghost of Christmas’ Yet to Come, showing what might have happened to Miss Woodhouse had she not rectified her behaviour.

Mr Rushworth is like a financially independent Mr Collins

Mr Rushworth doesn’t have a Lady Catherine de Bourgh to please (although he does care very much about his mother’s opinion), and as a result comes across as less obsequious. Nevertheless, just like Mr Collins, he is not particularly bright, nor gifted in the art of conversation. Mr Rushworth and Mr Collins only pay attention to what interests them and are unable to read subtle female signals that are obvious to everyone else.

Mrs Norris is like a poorer, older version of Fanny Dashwood

You know Fanny Dashwood: she’s the wife of Elinor and Marianne’s brother, the one who convinces her weak husband to minimise his financial assistance to his father’s widow Mrs Dashwood and her three daughters. She is every bit as mean and tight as Mrs Norris, and equally disagreeable, the kind of woman you don’t want to come across too often in life. I do not doubt that, if they ever met, they would get on like a house on fire.

Lady Bertram is the female version of Mr Woodhouse (minus the hypochondria)

Lazy, indolent and selfish, both characters’ lives revolve around their little obsessions (her pug for Lady Bertram, his health for Mr Woodhouse) and they care little about anything else. They see everything under the filter of self-interest and agree that change is the worst possible evil. Mr Woodhouse’s station in life, sex and disposition mean that he gets to be a lot more outspoken than Lady Bertram, but dig deeper, and you will see two kindred souls resting on equally comfortable sofas.

Henry Crawford is like a rich George Wickham

Wickham is handsome, Crawford is slight and not particularly good-looking, but ignore their physical appearance, and the similarities are striking. Both men are irresistibly attractive to some women, enjoy a good flirt and have a tendency to land ladies in trouble. Big difference: Henry has money and can enjoy creating havoc and then moving on. Wickham, on the other hand, is poor as a rat and has a gambling problem – and, therefore, a price.

Edmund Bertram is like Henry Tilney without a sense of humour

As well as their profession, Edmund and Henry always share a deep sense of honour, an inquisitive mind, a kind heart and an eagerness to educate their respective protegées. Nevertheless, Edmund’s approach is solemn, serious, even moralistic, whereas Henry prefers irreverence, irony and laughter. Just think of Mr Tilney’s delightful comments about muslin, then compare them to Edmund’s talk about sermons, house approaches and old horses. No comment..

Fanny Price is like an anxious Anne Elliot

Regular readers know that I have a soft spot for Austen’s introverts, of which Fanny and Anne are fine examples. Both heroines are quiet yet strong in their beliefs. However, compared to Fanny Price, Anne is like some kind of Wonder Woman, coming to the rescue of injured children and keeping her cool when everyone is hysterical at Lyme. No wonder that, although both are similarly passive characters, so many people love Anne but dislike Fanny.

Mary Crawford is like a (seriously) insolent Elizabeth Bennet

Both Mary and Elizabeth are witty, lovely and fascinating. They don’t mince their words and are a magnet for socially awkward/timid men. However, Mary takes sassiness to a whole new level with her flippant comments and double entendres. Lady Catherine de Bourgh should count herself lucky: she may think Elizabeth Bennet an insolent girl, but she would have a heart attack if she ever met Mary Crawford.

What are your thoughts? Can you think of any other similarities between Austen characters?


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