I’ve always found Mansfield Park to be the least enjoyable, most baffling Austen novel. I read it for the first time in my early twenties because it felt important to me to be an Austen completist. While I probably didn’t articulate it at the time, I don’t think I liked the book at all. Of course I always love Austen’s voice, but Mansfield Park doesn’t have much of what modern readers expect from Austen—there’s no fiery heroine, no swoon-worthy romance, and very little true drama.
After rereading MP for a class one summer, I did come to appreciate it more. This class required me to read all six published Austen novels in three weeks in the order she wrote them. Seeing the development of her style, themes, and writerly ambitions was fascinating and some contextual understanding helped me find more to like about MP. My professor called Mansfield Park a novel in “set-pieces.” This means that throughout the book there are key scenes (where a configuration of characters are put in a particular situations) that reveal essential elements of the text. These set-pieces can foreshadow plot elements, unlock something meaningful about the characters, or contribute to a thematic component of the book. Sometimes these scenes can be read symbolically—and occasionally that symbolism is a little risqué! This was a really fun insight for me, and I enjoyed the novel all the more once I understood this.
But in spite of that insight, one of my biggest struggles is I’ve always found it difficult to articulate what Mansfield Park is about—not in a plot sense, but in terms of a theme or question or project. All of Austen’s works are nuanced and complex, but it’s also pretty easy to locate a guiding idea in all but this one.
During a recent bout of illness, I decided to revisit some Austen novels rather than try to read anything new to me. I chose Sense and Sensibility because I find it particularly comforting and Mansfield Park because it’s my least reread (this was my fourth time through). And during this reading, I think I finally got something! I’m not sure I got it—meaning I have no idea if I would call this a central theme or guiding idea—but I through-line that felt relevant to me and pulled the story together in a way I hadn’t experienced before. On this read, this seemed to be a book all about influence—the importance of who we let influence us, and the limitations of our power to influence others.
In today’s edition of Reading in Public, I’m sharing more about my return to Mansfield Park—the aspects of the book I’ve always found inscrutable and what I got out of it on this most recent reread. This post will live behind the paywall both because I think it’s probably of interest to a smaller group of readers and because it took a lot of time to compose! I want to be upfront that I’m still figuring out what to continue to offer for free here and what to make exclusive to paid subscribers. I will continue to share high quality, reflective, educational, and (I hope!) valuable content in this space that’s free to all. At the same time, paying subscribers keep this newsletter running and occasional paid posts are a way to say thank you for the support.
All subscribers can continue to expect 6-8 free newsletters per month with an additional 3-4 monthly newsletters posted behind the paywall. If you have feedback for me about this, please feel free to reach out. And if you are an educator who finds my work valuable but is not in a place to upgrade, please email me [firstname.lastname@example.org] about a comped subscription.
If you want more Austen content, I encourage you to check out all of the Austen episodes Chelsey and I have released on the Novel Pairings feed! These are fantastic conversations between two Austen superfans complete with further reading for other devoted Janeites.
Novel Pairings Austen episodes:
Persuasion by Jane Austen and romantic novels with plenty of pining
Love and Freindship (sic) by Jane Austen and adding pure FUN to your TBR list
5 tips for reading Pride and Prejudice (or any Austen novel)
Emma by Jane Austen and our favorite modern romantic heroines
Now, let’s visit Mansfield Park…