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Outlook
News and views from St. Mary's Woodbridge
Issue 9 Summer 2009
book cover

Mansfield Park
by Jane Austen

Elegant prose with a lesson for life

You dont have to read a Jane Austen novel to know whats going to happen theres always a big country house, lots of young women in elegant dresses and smartly dressed tall young men. Theres a ball, one or more difficult parents, aunts, uncles, very little action and, finally, at least one couple gets married. It might be seen as light, fluffy eighteenth century romance, only good as fodder for Sunday night costume dramas on TV.

Mansfield Park certainly ticks all these boxes and it isnt the most widely read of her novels so why bother? Well, to start with the prose is as elegant as the best eighteenth century architecture; there are some beautiful character descriptions, and underlying these but written so lightly that you can easily skate over it there is a profound practical wisdom.

The heroine Fanny is a physically weak, shy, retiring girl from a poor family who is taken to live at her uncles great home when she is ten. She finds the change difficult, but is befriended by her cousin Edmund, a serious young man, who educates her in true taste and she grows up with a love of service, constancy, the natural world and poetry and incidentally (very quietly as is her wont) falls in love with Edmund. Their lives are turned upside down when they meet Mary and Henry Crawford, a young brother and sister who are very much the opposite of Fanny and Edmund: good-looking, happy, lively, talented, but brought up without any sense of what Jane calls "fine principles".

The difference between the character of the Crawfords and that of the cousins, the difference between a life lived on the surface and a life lived on a subtler level with discipline of mind, is beautifully described and makes this book worth reading more than once. One lesson of the book is that real happiness comes not so much from the outward circumstances of life as through turning away from a preoccupation with ones own life in order to be open to the world around and receptive to the needs of others.

If you want something light and elegant but with real depth you could do far worse than pick up Mansfield Park.