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Mansfield Park, famously featuring 'My Fanny', was, in 1814, the first of Jane Austen's mature novels to be published.
She referred to the book as having the ordination of clergymen as its central concern, a subject which may perhaps explain why so many modern readers find it difficult to enjoy. It is a serious novel, but also one in which the familiar Jane Austen irony has a particularly sharp bite.
Jane Austen is often criticised for a lack of interest in the world around her - the early 19th century was characterised by civil unrest, war in Europe and an accelerating Industrial Revolution. Her novels, on the other hand, are all about young women falling in love, walks through the shrubbery, incompetent fathers and silly mothers.
Mansfield Park is one novel used to defend her from this charge: Sir Thomas Bertram's extended stay at his Antigua plantation can be seen as an oblique comment on the slave economy. But, like the other novels, it is essentially a story in which reasonably wealthy people talk, walk and flirt. It is still a serious novel.
There are a number of ways to view Mansfield Park. It is a love story, Fanny and Edmund overcoming obstacles of family, other attachments and demonic temptations before finding love and marriage in a rectory; it is a satire on Regency England, holding the inconstancy and playfulness of London, as represented by the Crawfords, up to ridicule; it is a plea for peace, a deeply conservative attack on the vigour of the 'improvers'; it is a tale of a social climber, Fanny, who coats her own desires in the language of piety; or perhaps it is even a sustained attack on poor parenting.
Mansfield Park is the story of two families, the Bertrams and the Crawfords, and, whatever angle you choose to adopt towards the characters, it is also the story of how two determinedly moral, upright characters remain standing, long after the more brilliant and more sparkling have fallen.
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