“Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to our tape-delayed evening coverage of the Ladies’ Terrible Sisters, or ‘Bitchiness,’ competition. I hope Twitter hasn’t told you the outcome! Here we are in the third rotation of the individual all-around, and the rivalries are fierce! Let’s check in with a few of the top contenders.”
“Miss Caroline Bingley is the heavy favorite coming into this evening’s rotation, and she’s worked hard for the title of frontrunner. Her bold style and her role in Austen’s most-read novel certainly places her at the head of the pack, but for Miss Bingley, it’s not just a label. We’ve seen that she is especially strong in the ‘direct insult’ and ‘letter of malicious intent’ events.”
“I have seen Miss Bingley stumble occasionally; her periodic lack of subtlety has been known to reveal her true character to the observant viewer, including that famous interaction regarding Elizabeth Bennet’s dirty hem and fine eyes. She would do well to proceed carefully this evening if she wants to keep it under wraps and get the guy. Remember, being terrible without being obviously terrible is key to this sport.”
“Mrs. John Dashwood might be a surprise contender, what with the ‘well, they don’t really need MONEY to LIVE ON’ maneuver—we haven’t seen much of her, but her skilled manipulation of her husband shows skills that might easily take on this field. What Mrs. Dashwood lacks in name recognition, she makes up for in subtlety—just look at the way she talked John Dashwood out of providing for his half-sisters and their mother.”
“She’s so effortless. Just look at that—a picture of grace. And by grace I mean incredible selfishness.”
“You’re so right about that. Now, what you do think about Mary Crawford’s standing in the competition?”
“Mary is something of a dark horse here tonight. Her performance during Tom Bertram”s illness last year really put her on the map—viewers will remember the way she implied that perhaps Tom’s death and the distribution of his fortune might actually be a boon to his family and ‘friends’—but with the tough competition this year, I don’t think she’ll end up on the podium. She might be prettier and more socially adept than Miss Bingley, but I just don’t think she has the killer instinct.”
“So right. And here we have the underdogs of the group, the sister-pair Julia and Maria Bertram. What’s your take on their act tonight?”
“Ooh, Julia and Maria have really been struggling this week—they obviously passed the Trials stage, but I just don’t think they have the consistency to excel in this event. Athletes like Miss Bingley and Mrs. Dashwood make clear that this field isn’t just about mild cluelessness; it really has to be pointed and intentional, and oh, look at that display of compassion. That’s not going to help them at ALL.”
“They have got to be wondering what they’re doing here. I mean, rumor has it they’ve been laughed mirthlessly out of the athletes’ locker room and have resorted to sitting in the corner, eating their own hair.”
“Ooh, that’s not good. For them, I mean. It’s pretty good for everybody else.”
“Well, we’re only twenty seconds from the conclusion of this rotation, so let’s break for commercial. Stay tuned for further coverage of the Shrill Mothers competition later tonight; we guarantee you’ll need your earplugs. We’ll be back in just a minute; don’t touch that remote.”
I know Mother’s Day was three whole days ago. My mom and I spent the day together—in Idaho, in fact—until I got on a plane and she and my dad hopped in the car and started driving to California. But it seems that 2012 is the Year of Mom and Jane Austen, and so here we are. It’s Wednesday, but hey, I can still talk about my mom.
I mentioned it briefly during the read-along, but my mother read Mansfield Park along with the rest of the Austen Nation. (She even commented semi-anonymously, like the ninja she is, on one of our read-along posts! Can you spot the rogue parent?) It was her first time—not just her first time reading The Chronicles of Fanny and her Ha-Ha, but her first time reading Austen, period. Shortly afterwards, she joined my Beloved Sisters and me for the second half of Pride and Prejudice and immediately absconded with Miss Osborne’s DVDs, which were apparently better than the identical set that lived on her daughter’s bookshelf from late 2009 through the middle of 2011.
People, I think we have a new member of the cult. I mean, family.
According to mom, that Henry Crawford wasn’t such a bad guy until the whole wife-stealing thing. That was unexpected, but anyway, Maria and Julia weren’t very nice anyway. But before that, why was she so set against him? HE WAS NICE. And why do they call this a romance, again?
Also, Mrs. Bennet is hilarious and having to choose between never speaking to her mother again and never speaking to her father again is great. But is Jane supposed to be prettier than Lizzy? Because that woman looks like a man. And wait, what actor is that? Oh, right, Colin Firth. I liked him in The King’s Speech.
Rumor has it she might pick up Sense and Sensibility or Pride and Prejudice (the novel) (though I keep trying to press the Keira Knightley movie on her, for Colin Firth/Matthew McFadyen comparison purposes) next. I promise to stand supportively by, books in hand. Happy reading, Mom!
…and they all lived judgmentally ever after.
We’re done! We finished! We read a very long Jane Austen book, and all we got was this satisfyingly growing Mansfield Park tag! (This is the kind of thing that thrills your average Austen blogger.) And, you know, a string of posts and thoughtful discussion. Which brings me to another thing: You guys are the BEST. Thank you so much for reading along, and chatting it up in the comments, and being hilarious and heartfelt and wonderful. The Austen Nation is the best nation, I think, and I’ve been to Austria, where they have cheese inside sausage inside bread! So.
Having now read every word, I think what makes Mansfield Park hard to swallow isn’t just Fanny’s insistence on being a total doormat (unless, and this is to her credit, somebody’s trying to force her down the aisle); it’s that nothing about her changes. Every other Austen protagonist–and protagonists generally, because this is fiction and there has to be an arc somewhere–learns something. Grows up. Sees the error of her ways. Stops chasing the handsome rogue and falls for the old dude. SOMETHING. Fanny does none of those things. Personal change doesn’t seem to be the point for her, somehow, which begs the question: What IS the point? Mrs. Fitzpatrick suggested that perhaps everybody ELSE is changed because of Fanny’s golden presence, but upon further reflection, I don’t see it; the only character redeemed at the end is Tom Bertram, and that’s thanks to the power of the almighty virus more than anything else. Readers?
That said, I enjoyed it, in a pleasant and immediate kind of way. Fanny and Edmund’s “romance” aside—I’m not sure what “a classic romance” means to the good people at Oxford University Press—Jane’s ear for terrible people being terrible kept me entertained and ready for scandal to strike at any moment. Personal journeys of growth aside…that’s good enough for me, sometimes.
Various and sundry final thoughts:
For all the crap Fanny takes nowadays about her shrinking-violet ways, her dear Edmund is, I think, way worse. He’s controlling; he (I think) knows he’s wrong about Mary, but refuses to pull the plug; he says he loves Fanny, but constantly abandons her; “I could never marry anybody but Mary Crawford,” he moons, twenty pages from the end, and I want him to go to Thornton Lacey AND STAY THERE.
You guys. Maria lives happily ever after (or something)…with Mrs. Norris! I subsequently die of joy.
Sue me; I still like Mary Crawford, “maybe it would be okay if Tom died, because then Edmund could have his money!” comment and all. She’s shallow, but she’s (usually) neither malicious nor clueless—the two great sins of Austenian women. She’s neither rewarded nor truly punished in the end, which seems fair, and I hope she lives to liven up many a party. By which I mean “novel.”
And now, let’s all have snacks (BYO) and read something trashy!
Eight whole chapters this week, people! We’re basically the Usain Bolts of group Regency read-alongs.
First of all:
- OH NO YOU DID NOT, HENRY CRAWFORD!
Fanny may not be the Austen Nation’s favorite heroine, but going after a lady for sport—especially a lady as prey-like as Fanny, which of course only magnifies her appeal for the huntsman—is not to be tolerated. If there was ever an Austenian “gentleman” who deserved a swift kick in the goolies, I suspect it might be our Mr. Crawford. If only Fanny could get her foot up that high without fainting.
I wonder whether Henry’s fixation on “improving” houses is meant to be a comment on how he views Fanny—so far he’s only into her as a prize, but I wait patiently for the day that he wants to tear out her barnyard (heh) and make her face east, so as to improve her “approach.” Maybe I’m making this up, but my hunt for the mighty metaphor continues. Thoughts, readers?
- Jane carefully points out that Mary puts about five seconds of effort into calling her brother off. I’m still not sure whether this makes her despicable in my mind. Maybe it should, but I’m still not convinced that Mary is bad, per se—I’m more inclined, especially after Mrs. Fitzpatrick’s most recent post, to see her as Personality rather than Character. Maybe she should have used her influence differently, maybe she’s not really ripe for the Sisterhood of the Traveling Minister, but I don’t necessarily think failing to corral her douchey brother is her great moral failing. Jane, I suspect, may have disagreed.
- So, how about that Sir Thomas? Talk about wait until your father gets home! Is “sorry we put on a play in your study and moved the bookshelf” the Regency version of “no, those red Solo cups in the recycling aren’t mine, honest”? Not gonna lie: the fatherly smackdown on the whole Lovers’ Vows situation was a relief. Even Lady Bertram put aside her pug for a moment (a whole moment!) to welcome him home! Aww, ROMANCE.
- And in case I forget, readers, don’t ever let me go on my honeymoon without my emo sister.
- Psych! I don’t HAVE an emo sister, and it doesn’t say anything about weirdo brothers, so. Home free all the way to Brighton!
- (On the other hand, who is the less lucky one here? Is it the disappointed bride who married the rich moron, or the single tag-along sister who gets to laugh at her?)
Talk to me, readers.
Mariella Frostrup over at The Guardian recently wrote this in an advice column:
Despite achieving a position in the modern world where we are not only self-supporting but also increasingly outshining the men, we act like a gaggle of competitive girls whose most important goal is how blokes view us. Female-to-female behaviour hasn’t evolved much since Jane Austen’s day and the sad result is we continue to fail to provide sisterhood.
The rest of the column is similarly depressing. Mariella does suggest that the 40-something woman who feels life is slipping out of her grasp should age gracefully while at the same time make a noise, and “Rage, rage, rage when they attempt to turn out the light.” Sounds like a plan to me.
What about this talk of lack of sisterhood, now and in Jane Austen? Surely Jane and Cassandra Austen themselves are in the Sisterhood Hall of Fame? And Jane wrote about all sorts of sisters. Here’s Lizzie and Jane Bennet: “. . . do you think that any consideration would tempt me to accept the man, who has been the means of ruining, perhaps for ever, the happiness of a most beloved sister?” Not the words of someone who’s putting a bloke above a sister. Elinor and Marianne are another loving pair of sisters, though it’s true that Marianne does put her romantic notions above Elinor’s feelings sometimes. But isn’t that her great failing, what Jane Austen is warning us against? It’s also true that there’s some unpleasant sisters in the books. Maria and Julia Bertram certainly get into a catfight over Henry Crawford in Mansfield Park, and, more chillingly, Lady Bertram, Mrs. Norris, and Mrs. Price take their separation from each other with perfect calm. As with the Elliot sisters in Persuasion, Austen seems to assume that there’s no reason that sisters would hang together, if circumstances or temperament didn’t allow it. And it’s true that we see very little genuine womanly friendship in Austen: Lizzie and Charlotte Lucas and Catherine Morland and Eleanor Tilney are the only examples I can think of. I guess it would make sense when getting a husband was like getting a job that you mightn’t be very nice to the competition, especially in a limited pool. So, I concede, Austen was pretty cynical about the whole sisterhood thing.
But what about now? Miss Osborne, Miss Ball, and I don’t have any sisters. We came together as Beloved Sisters through a shared love of Jane Austen, eating, and talking smack. So we can’t comment on the modern state of sisterhood between actual sisters. But between women in general? I think it’s a pretty mixed bag. I personally haven’t seen much catfight action, have you? And also, isn’t it a bit sexist to assume that women should get along all the time? As if men do!
OK, obviously it’d be nice if we all got along. As it says in our header, Jane will keep us together. This may be terribly ironic, considering the above, but I suggest we try it. Send loving thoughts to all those of your acquaintance, even if there are few people you really love, and still fewer of whom you think well. It’s either that or back to the meat market, apparently.
Photo credit: ©David Stephensen. Used under Creative Commons licensing.
You all remember that Fanny Price and Edmund walked happily off into the sunset or vicarage (admiring the verdure). Julia had run off with Mr. Yates, Maria was disgraced and living with Aunt Norris, and Fanny’s sister Susan came to live at Mansfield Park. The End.
. . .
Ten years later, Sir Thomas Bertram decided to visit his estates in Bermuda once more. And what happened then? In a most unusual burst of energy, Lady Bertram decided the entire family should go with him. Except Maria and Aunt Norris, of course. Edmund and Fanny packed up their two children, Tom and his wife packed up their four, and Susan simply had to come too, even though by this time she was running the village newspaper. Julia and Mr. Yates managed to get out of it, though, by “renewing their vows” in Gretna Green.
And off they went. . .
Did I mention that Sir Thomas, as a cost-saving measure, bunked Susan in with two of her nephews? Also, that the “staterooms” were more like cabins? Here’s one of Tom Bertram’s wee sons, Mustaschio Man, strutting his stuff before forcing Miss Osborne, er, Susan, to watch Beverly Hills Ninja and Cats and Dogs on TV.
Whoever said “you can’t feel a thing when you’re on a big cruise ship” lied lied lied. While Susan turned green and whimpered as the boat rocked to and fro, the boys got pizza and ice cream. Not gingerbread cakes. No one really eats those, you know. They’re for tourists.
At long last, the Bertrams arrived in Bermuda. While Tom and Edmund tried to convince their father that slavery had been outlawed 200 years earlier, and Bermuda was independent, and he had no more estates, the ladies lounged on the beach. That’s Fanny on the left in the pink bikini. Marriage has really lightened that girl up.
Alas, at dinner things turned ugly. The Bertrams, if you can believe it, got into a huge family row about whose estates they didn’t have, exactly, and whether Fanny and Edmund should build a vicarage on the beach. Fanny’s own sweet little daughter broke her Aunt Susan’s arm. With a fork. Maybe she’s in the . . . oh, first rule.
For the rest of the trip, Susan sported an arm sling made with muslin that she had intended to embroider. It made her look rather like the Nutcracker Prince, but that couldn’t be helped.
Susan did allow Edmund (alias Mr. David Osborne) to escort her up on some rocks to take in the beauty of the sun and surf. After he’d apologized for his daughter’s behavior, of course.
The Bertrams, happy and united once more, visited the City Hall and Art Centre in Bermuda’s capital city, Hamilton. All those pictures of men reminded Lady Bertram that her dear niece Susan really ought to find a rich husband.
As a matter of fact, Susan had her eye on a man mysteriously appearing in her magic mirror.
Then one night, Cary Grant traveled back in time, and they had An Affair to Remember. Susan decided that despite the indignities of mass family transit, Bermuda was a very beautiful place to visit. “The beaches are spectacular, the sand is soft, clean and lovely, and the water is delightful!” she wrote in the village paper.
Miss Osborne, on the other hand, has been known to sigh and say, “Winter must be cold for those with no warm memories . . . we’ve already missed the spring.”
We’re glad they’re both back home, safe and sound, if devoid of rich husbands and Cary Grant.
Photo credita: All images ©2010 by Christine Osborne. All rights reserved.
Lauren Miller, posting over at nameberry, a baby names site, sounds like someone we’d like to know: she’s a true Austen enthusiast, and we appreciate her thorough knowledge of and appreciation for the names in Austen’s books. And I appreciate her suggestion of naming your child after the hero or heroine of your favorite book—a friend of mine named her daughter Serenity, and I think there’s nothing wrong with that (though I would not name my child Enterprise.) Yes, your Elizabeths, Janes, Emmas, Annes, bring ‘em on!
However, I do think Ms. Miller is a trifle naive in some of her name suggestions. To wit:
Kitty: Ms. Miller realizes you probably don’t want to name your kid Fanny. But naming her anything that can be twisted into the name of another female body part is really not a good idea. Alas, I speak from experience here.
Lydia or Maria: There’s nothing wrong with either of these as names. But do you want to name your progeny in honor of Lydia Bennet or Maria Bertram? Why not call her Scandal and be done with it?
Benwick: “It’s ‘Ben-ick,’ not ‘Ben-wick.’ On second thought, just call me Ben. Ha ha, Icky Ben! Like I haven’t heard that one before.”
Bertram: What ho?
Bingley: Is it my own dirty mind, or is this potential phallic territory? Rhymes with Dingaling, doesn’t it?
Dashwood: Similarly . . . Though we may have to face the possibility that NO name is safe from that sort of thing. But this one really does sound like a porn name. Sorry.
Wickham or Willoughby: See above re Lydia and Maria, plus, I think I’d kill my parents if they named me Wickham. At least Willoughby could be Will.
Darcy: As a girl’s name there’s nothing wrong with it except that it’s so . . . 80s. Isn’t it?
Grey: I know people can get used to virtually anything being someone’s name, and can forget its original meaning. But Grey, especially for a girl? Why not name her Dreary or Grim and be done with it? Also, small point, but Miss Grey in Sense and Sensibility was not exactly a nice person.
Price: LOL, think of the emotional scarring! Poor girl, branded as a prostitute from birth. “The Price is right!” The jokes are really endless.
Tilney: More random than anything else, I guess. But, Tilney? Really?
For the record, Ms. Miller, I love your other suggestions. Isabella: a nickname of mine, actually; Emma: a name I’ve considered for my own (strictly potential) daughter; Georgiana: just plain awesome! And considering some of the actual names people have actually named their actual children, I know it could be worse. But, please, think of the ramifications before you suggest these things! And, we’d love to hang out sometime and talk Jane Austen with you. You can even call me Isabella.
In Thoughts on Mansfield Park, Part 1: Fanny and Mary, I started to talk about this book: Why does it seem so different from Austen’s other books? Why is Fanny so serious? Last week(ish) was about Fanny as a person, and about Mary as a quasi-parallel to Elizabeth Bennet. But now I’m thinking about the novel in general—why does Jane seem so much more serious, and why does it all seem rather forced?
Scholars (such as Marvin Mudrick) seem to see the novel as a penitent rewriting of Pride and Prejudice—the clergyman’s daughter being serious. Mansfield Park was Jane’s first novel after a 10-year hiatus, and while she was writing it, she was seeing Pride and Prejudice through the press, and commented on its “rather too light, and bright, and sparkling” manner, its “playfulness and epigrammatism.” This is more than a little depressing, though published authors will understand Austen’s dislike of re-reading her own work in proofs.
But, rather than think that Austen was now a humorless person, I think that, after 10 years, she was taking herself more seriously as a novelist, and had a deeper sense of observation and storytelling. Mudrick argues that, for the most part, in Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility, and Pride and Prejudice, Austen doesn’t delve into her characters much. She is content to equate manners with morals: witty people are good, dull or obnoxious people are bad. (Shades of Oscar Wilde: “It is absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious.”) Even in her early novels, personality and character aren’t the same thing. Just think of Willoughby, Wickham, Isabella Thorpe, even the respectable but self-absorbed Lady Middleton—all these people aren’t what they first seem.
There’s no doubt that Mansfield Park is a turning point, though, and Jane Austen is thinking about all sorts of new things. In Pride and Prejudice, some first impressions are wrong, but it seems like in Mansfield Park, they all are. We’re in the author’s confidence, but the characters (except for Fanny) misjudge each other constantly, and there’s far fewer truly good people. Jane’s gotten much more cynical since we last saw her. Austen told her sister Mansfield Park was to be about “ordination,” that is, one assumes, Edmund’s ordination as a clergyman. This seems to make it revolve around Edmund’s struggles, and the different views about morality and the role of the clergy than anything else. And these views were much in upheaval in Austen’s time. They illuminate the characters, and provide a backdrop. We are meant to judge the characters by their attitude towards serious things (something that changes in Henry Crawford’s transformation) and expect that we will like them accordingly.
Yet in fits and starts there’s something more real about these characters than we’ve seen before. Austen goes into their motives, their psychology even (think of Julia Bertram sulking at Sotherton, a prey to good breeding, but lacking fortitude). In Mansfield Park Austen has also broadened her vision to take in a nature vs. nurture argument that was popular in her day: the beauties of nature and the evils of town, and their opposite effect on people. She tries to explain why Maria Bertram, Sir Thomas, Mary Crawford, and everyone else, are the way they are, based on their upbringing and these outside effects. Really, a startlingly modern idea, but she doesn’t let the real feelings of her characters take her where it might. She still wants to push them around, have the good end happily and the bad unhappily. (“That is what fiction means.” —Wilde again ) Sometimes the characters feel real to us, and sometimes they don’t. And that’s the tension of the novel, the weirdness that readers react to.
To me Mansfield Park is an experiment that Austen is trying out before she explores her ideas of good and evil in normal society, opposing forces in normal people, in a more natural, complex, interwoven way in Emma and Persuasion. Both these books have deep themes of people not being what they seem, even to themselves, but the characters and plots seem to evolve quite naturally. I think of Fanny Price as more a precursor for Anne Elliot than anything else. Like Fanny, Anne is a quiet, ignored observer, a serious and feeling character, but Anne has her touches of humor, of worldly knowledge, that Fanny, in her innocence, finds it hard to come by.
But for all that, there’s something raw, something out of control, in Mansfield Park, that I find compelling. And that’s why I come back to it.