Mansfield Park is perhaps not the one of Austen’s novels which appeals the most to modern sensibilities; after all, reasonably faithful adaptations have been made recently of several of Austen’s other novels, while Mansfield Park was changed into something Austen lovers barely recognized. Mansfield Park is the home of Fanny Price, the poor relation of Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram (Fanny’s mother’s sister), who took her to live with them from her impoverished Portsmouth home. Fanny is largely overlooked and taken for granted by the Bertrams, her other aunt Mrs. Norris, and the Bertram children, but she finds solace in the friendship of her cousin Edmund Bertram. When the Crawford siblings, Henry and Mary, come to Mansfield parsonage to stay with their sister, the wife of the clergyman Dr. Grant, they unsettle Mansfield society with gay doings and flirtations which lead to more serious events.
Fanny is self-effacing to the point of passivity, in marked contrast to Austen’s more lively heroines, like Elizabeth Bennet of Pride and Prejudice or Emma Woodhouse of Emma, which I think is one reason Mansfield Park is somewhat difficult to like on first reading (and why it was changed so drastically for the film version). Yet her moral sense and voice pervade Mansfield Park, and gradually, one grows to realize that she is a woman of deep convictions. When the others decide to put on a play of dubious moral quality and even Edmund joins in, Fanny resists everyone’s blandishments to persuade her to take part; when Sir Thomas tries to convince her to marry a man she doesn’t love, she resists that as well. She’s no Lizzy, but she holds fast to her beliefs more than anyone else in this novel and emerges as a truly worthy heroine.
I wish that Austen had seen fit to match Fanny with a more interesting hero, but I guess you can’t have everything. Mansfield Park does have much else to savor: the brilliant episode of the play-acting and the scenes at Portsmouth, unlike anything else Austen depicted in their portrait of family life among the not-so-well-off, are particularly masterly. It may be slower than some of the other novels, but Mansfield Park is one of the deepest and most rewarding of Austen’s books.