Saturday, May 21, 2005

Let Other Pens Dwell On Guilt and Misery

I'm re-reading Jane Austen's Mansfield Park, and even though it deserves its reputation as a problematic book, I always find it something of a relief to come back to it. Why a relief? Because this is the one Austen novel that is resistent to the attempt to view Austen as a writer of cutesy romantic comedies. As this page points out, a lot of Austen cultists don't like the book. Its romantic plot is almost an afterthought. It is almost impossible to turn into a movie (the most recent version didn't even try to adapt the book; instead it adapted dumbass post-colonial interpretations of the book). It's morally judgmental and condemns anyone who doesn't share the author's values. It takes some of the themes that were peripheral in Pride and Prejudice -- like the bad influence that the degraded values of the metropolis are having on the country -- and moves them to the forefront. It gives us a finger-wagging, angry Jane Austen who cannot be mistaken for a good-natured chronicler of the ins and outs of courtship.

She never was very good-natured, of course. Pride and Prejudice has elements that would recur in Mansfield Park: it features a father who is condemned by Austen for not spending enough time on the moral education of his children, a flighty mother, a heroine who sees the danger of young women being exposed to bad influences, and a climactic elopement and disgrace that proves that young women shouldn't be allowed to hang around Regency Rakes (tm). But that's all a subplot within a romantic comedy. And Pride and Prejudice features a hero and heroine who are kind of fantasy figures: Elizabeth is the perfect version of ourselves (with just a few faults that prevent the story from ending in Volume 1), and Darcy is the dream-man who just needs a good woman to help him be less pompous. Fanny and Edmund in Mansfield Park are dull, priggish people, and the theme of the novel is that it's better to be dull, priggish and uprightly moral than to be sophisticated and filled with bad, bad city values.

What one thinks of Austen's moral judgments is a question for a longer analysis; it seems to me that in her own way she's guilty of over-idealizing "old-fashioned values" and of undue suspicion of anyone from outside her own narrow circle. But whatever one thinks of it, it's certainly a bitter pill to swallow for any reader who comes to Mansfield Park thinking of Austen as basically nice, pleasant and non-judgmental. Even her portrayal of play-acting, as an excuse to act out their improper fantasies without being scolded for it, is kind of a rebuke to anyone who has ever fantasized about a romance with literary characters -- including hers.

But, as I said, all that makes Mansfield Park kind of a relief to read, because it's the Jane Austen novel that doesn't have all that rom-com baggage associated with it. It's very serious. And it makes me feel like a creep for living in the city. But at least Gwyneth Paltrow will never appear in a movie version.

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