Mansfield Park, by Jane Austen, read by Frances Barber
In listening to Jane Austen audiobooks  one notices a particular pattern of words and expressions that one does not notice when reading it quickly. For example, the narrator uses the word “thither” a lot, one of those words that we have substituted with the more generic “there,” at least in my own personal parlance. Additionally, one gets a sense of the pacing of a novel when one is having it read at a consistent manner, rather than reading quicker over some parts than others. Among Jane Austen novels, this one is among the more polarizing of them. I happen to think very highly of it, and consider it in the general neighborhood of Sense & Sensibility and Northanger Abbey as novels I like just a little less than Pride & Prejudice and Persuasion. For some particularly literary people, this is their favorite Jane Austen novel, one that the author rather coyly said was about the subject of “ordination.” As someone who reads and thinks a bit too much about Jane Austen novels , I think it would be worthwhile to examine this novel a bit and see what makes it a worthwhile novel and also a rather dark one, and why it plays with the expectations of so many readers. Let us also explore why I consider Fanny Price among the most Nathanish of heroines, perhaps a somewhat dubious honor.
The structure of this particular audiobook is simple, in that it has twelve cds, most of them over an hour in length, with tracks of about 3 minutes or so apiece. There are a lot of pauses between chapters and even between tracks, which makes this book linger on the mind a bit. That is probably a good thing, as this book rewards thought and reflection. Fanny Price is among the more stationary of Jane Austen’s novels, she is placed among much wealthier relatives and is an extremely timid and nervous young woman whose remarkable passivity despite having a high standard of morality and a certain degree of intellect are remarkable. In this novel she is asked to suffer nobly, and she does that a great deal, suffering nobly thanks to the teasing of her somewhat shallow and superficial cousins, to being abused by her dear Aunt Norris, to the attraction of her cousin (and, spoiler alert, future husband) Edmund to the superficial and vibrant Mary Crawford, to the unwanted interests of the rakish Henry Crawford, to living without a fire in her room even in winter, to being sent to live with her horrific birth family, to being valued mainly as a comforter in difficult times and as a decent and well-thinking person despite being extremely diffident. Fanny Price is the heroine of this novel, to be sure, but she is largely a heroine of renunciation, who falls into a happy ending because of the tragedy going on all around her. Even more than Anne Eliot, Fanny Price is definitely a passive heroine, and not everyone is going to like that.
This novel presents a lot of worthwhile and deeply troubling issues. Let us at least briefly go through them. For one, we have the hidden dysfunctions of even seemingly ideal families–namely the Bertrams. We have the way that scandal affects even the elites, as in Maria’s elopement with Henry Crawford, who was simultaneously courting Fanny most unsuccessfully. This is a somewhat heavy-handed novel, filled with social issues, like the wealth of the generous Bertrams depending on the strength of the navy, represented well by the dashing William Price, Fanny’s beloved elder brother, and also on the profits from a plantation owned by the Bertrams in Antigua. The stern and upright justice laid down by the MP who heads that family depends on monstrous injustice in the ownership of others, and of the characters only Fanny seems remotely aware of it in one of the book’s offhand comments about the slave trade. Additionally, the book comments on the way that people are used up as military figures and then tossed aside to drown their sorrows and pain in alcohol like Mr. Price, who would be sympathetic except for the fact that he also leers at his grown-up daughter in a highly uncomfortable fashion. I hope she locks her door at night. With all of this going on, it is easy to see why people would either really appreciate this novel for being the darkest of Jane Austen’s full-length novels or would be frustrated by having a heroine handed a happy ending despite not being a particularly interesting figure in her own right for those who look to her lack of vivacity and prefer Mary Crawford, even with her moral failings.
 See, for example:
 See, for example: