This year marks the 200th anniversary of Mansfield Park, Jane Austen’s third published novel and her first to be conceived and written when she was an adult and living in Chawton. An advertisement in The Star on May 9, 1814, announced the release of a new novel from the author of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice. The first edition sold out within six months.
According to her sister Cassandra, Jane Austen wrote Mansfield Park “somewhere about February 1811—Finished soon after June 1813,” when she was in her late 30s. It illustrates the complex issues and themes that interested her as she matured.
Unlike Jane Austen’s first two novels, Mansfield Park was not reviewed by the critics of her day. However, she was very interested to know how her work was being received and collected the comments of family members and friends in a list titled “Opinions of Mansfield Park.”
- Mr. Egerton, the publisher of the first edition, “praised it for its Morality, & for being so equal a Composition.—No weak parts.”
- Cassandra Austen “thought it quite as clever, tho’ not so brilliant, as P. & P—Fond of Fanny.—Delighted much in Mr. Rushworth’s stupidity.”
- Others, like her niece Anna Lefroy, “liked it better than P. & P.—but not so well as S. & S.—could not bear Fanny.—Delighted with Mrs. Norris.”
- And still others, such as Mrs. Carrick, felt that “All who think deeply & feel much will give the Preference to Mansfield Park.”
As one can see, Jane Austen’s contemporaries were just as divided in their views of the novel and Fanny Price as modern readers are. Jane Austen herself admitted that Mansfield Park was “not half so entertaining” as Pride and Prejudice.
Why the divergent opinions? Some readers are disappointed that Mansfield Park lacks the humor and sparkle of Pride and Prejudice—especially those who first read the novels in the order they were published. Others think Mansfield Park is one of the most satisfying of Austen’s novels, offering complex, realistic characters and tackling a variety of themes: family relationships, education, passions and principles, virtue and vice, power and vulnerability, illusion and reality, and more. Controversy also arises from the different perceptions readers have of the main characters—particularly Fanny Price. Just as in real life, Austen’s characters have positive traits as well as flaws, and we don’t always agree on what they “deserve” by the end of the story.
Mansfield Park has sparked debate for 200 years, and we expect it to do so for at least 200 more!
For Further Reading
Mansfield Park in JASNA Publications, a sampling of essays published in Persuasions and Persuasions On-Line
An Invitation to Mansfield Park, a series of blog posts on Mansfield Park beginning May 9, 2014 (Many of the scheduled contributors are JASNA members.)
For Book Discussions
Other Mansfield Park Links
Sermon Scrap in Austen’s Handwriting Linked to Mansfield Park? (Video clip discussing preservation of the scrap and speculating on its potential link to the novel)
2014 JASNA AGM, “Mansfield Park in Montréal: Contexts, Conventions and Controversies”
“Opinions of Mansfield Park” (Jane Austen’s digitized manuscript, with transcription)
Photos of first edition of Mansfield Park used with permission of the University of Arizona Libraries, Special Collections.