BOOK REVIEWS     Sue Parrill, Editor

Reading Jane Austen’s Mind

Mansfield Park

The Cambridge Edition of the
Works of Jane Austen

Edited by John Wiltshire.
Cambridge University Press, 2006.
lxxxvi +738 pages.
Hardcover. $100.00.

Reviewed by Elsa Solender.

Creating Fanny Price as the dramatic and moral center of Mansfield Park — timid Fanny, frightened, rigorously moral, perhaps even priggish—Jane Austen set herself, and us, a formidable challenge. Fanny does not sparkle like Elizabeth Bennet, fascinate like Emma, or win hearts with her good nature, good sense and graceful resiliency, like Anne Elliot. She possesses little of that valued twenty-first century trait, self esteem (though her self possession is steely). Few contemporary readers readily “identify” with Fanny. Conventional terms like “protagonist” or “heroine” hardly suit her. Some readers confess more affection for her rival, Mary Crawford, who is pretty, witty, charming, energetic, and, yes, morally “flexible.”

I never expect to accomplish a “final” reading of MP. When I re-read it, I usually tuck into my purse the Pan Classic paperback I bought for 30 p. in London in 1972. Its notes by W. A. Craik are decent and I like Monica Dickens’ assertion in her introduction that “to read Mansfield Park is to read Jane Austen’s mind.”

Writing or lecturing on MP, I have cited the standard 1923 Oxford University Press edition of R. W. Chapman—until now. The new Cambridge edition of Jane Austen’s novels was launched last year with MP, Emma, and a book of new essays, Jane Austen in Context. My review copy of MP ($100 retail) was a welcome perk! I bought the “context” volume for a discounted but still dear $80.00.

A tempest quickly erupted in the Times Literary Supplement “teapot” when Professor Kathryn Sutherland (a contributor to the context volume) published a piece, “On Looking into Chapman’s Emma” (TLS January 13, 2006, p. 12), suggesting that Jane Austen was “elevated into the canon of great literature… because she is safe rather than or before she is great.” Janet Todd, general editor of the Cambridge edition, duly replied— regarding Jane Austen as “safe”—that “Chapman’s Jane Austen might have been, but the collective Austen of twenty-first-century scholars and readers is far from ‘safe’: she is an author who not only delights, but also provokes and challenges our deepest assumptions” (TLS, January 27, 2006, p. 14).

The hefty, handsome Cambridge MP is based principally on the second (1816) edition by John Murray, as was Chapman’s. Errors in the first, by Egerton in 1814, sorely vexed Austen, who annotated corrections for Murray. Chapman, skeptical of some changes, “occasionally preferred” the 1814 version. Brackets in the Cambridge edition discreetly indicate all variant readings. For a first or fiftieth MP reading, I can think of no better guide than the Cambridge editor, John Wiltshire, Associate Professor of English at La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia. Wiltshire writes knowledgeably, lucidly and engagingly—with no trace of Australian accent!—on virtually everything to do with MP, even alternative placements of commas. His 84-page introductory account of the composition, publishing history and critical reception of MP gracefully and judiciously summarizes decades of controversial literary, political, religious and psychological interpretations to which this “problematic” novel has been subjected. His appreciation of Austen’s complex achievement speaks for itself:

Mansfield Park departs from the mode of all preceding novels in its deliberately shifting, serial, roving representation of consciousness . . . The reader, both inside and outside the guiding consciousness of Fanny Price, participates in and is amused by the various forms of that selfishness which more or less governs them all.

Mansfield Park is premised upon a domesticity the more firmly understood for having in its background not only the sophistication of Regency ‘Society,’ but the position of England in the world.

Mansfield Park is a tragedy set (uncomfortably in the end) within the form of a romantic novel. The driving forces of its action are the sexual passions of two women: Maria Bertram’s unappeased desire for Henry Crawford, and the unyielding tenacity of Fanny Price’s need for Edmund Bertram. Sexuality is implied everywhere . . .

. . .what Austen does with the Romance genre in this novel is to withstand romance. At almost every turn, her writing deflects the reader’s desires for a simply satisfying, or fantasy resolution.

Our foremost living authority on Everything Austen, Deirdre Le Faye, contributed the chronology of Jane Austen’s life, works and publishing history within ample historical context. At his publisher’s request, Wiltshire included, unfortunately in the same size type as the novel, the 1805 version of Elizabeth Inchbald’s Lovers’ Vows, the first published under the playwright’s supervision (Chapman reprinted the 1798 fifth edition, which he praised as identical to the first of the same year.). Inchbald wrote neither the Prologue nor Epilogue (offered in Chapman and omitted by Wiltshire). Her 1805 “Remarks” defending the play, absent in Chapman, appear here.

Both its updating and editorial delights make this MP a very desirable, indeed essential addition to the library of the serious Austen scholar or reader. I received my Oxford Austen as a premium for joining a book club. Perhaps another will kindly offer the Cambridge Austen to readers who have no access to a university library—or its purse.

Elsa Solender, president of JASNA 1996-2000, is an independent scholar in New York.

JASNA News v.22, no. 3, Winter 2006, p. 24

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