I loved Mansfield Park. I went in expecting not to like it very much, and I’ll admit it dragged a bit in the first section. But by the end, I was completely sold on this “dark” Austen.
I loved the book, most of all, for its villains. Mrs. Norris, who will force the world to conform to what she thinks it should be. Mary Crawford and her indecision, unawareness, and selfishness. Henry Crawford and his vanity. Mrs. Bertram and her idleness. Moriah and her desire to be loved. Even Edmund and his obliviousness is sometimes a part of the villainy of the novel.
These characters are the darker angels of Austenian society. More than that, they feel somehow more real than real, in the way that Austen was so talented at. We have all heard people like Mrs. Norris complain, have watched Henry Crawfords demand love, have observed Mrs. Bertrams sit in selfish carelessness.
At the heart of this is Fanny Price and her discovery of her selfhood. Fanny was an agreeable child, and she was brought up constantly berated and bullied. Desires of her own were so utterly subordinated as to barely exist. But, as the novel progresses, beneath Fanny’s agreeable exterior is revealed something stronger than even she realizes. Her convictions will not be shifted, her love is not diluted. Even as she sits sobbing, she does not yield past a point. She has found herself.
Nothing about Fanny’s manners or emotions seems “strong.” But she is, somehow, strong nonetheless. It’s a fantastic feat of characterization, and if you’ll excuse me I’ll go try to re-read the book and figure out how on earth Jane did that.