At the tender age of ten, Fanny Price is 'adopted' by her rich relations and is removed from the poverty of her home in Portsmouth to the opulence of Mansfield Park. The transplantation is not a happy one. Dependent, helpless, neglected and forgotten, Fanny struggles to come to terms with her new life until, tested almost to the limits of endurance, she assumes her rightful role...
Mansfield Park was written in Chawton, Hampshire. It was begun in February 1811 and finished in June 1813. The main action of the book takes place in 1808. At this time Napoleon was at the height of his power in France and was at war with England, and the Industrial Revolution was soon to change the face of Britain. Although none of these events seems to impinge on the seclusion of Mansfield Park, the themes of stability and change are never far from the surface.
Superficially this is the story of two families, living in rural prosperity at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Sir Thomas Bertram of Mansfield Park is the bastion of old established values: stability, order, propriety. The Crawfords, who join this world, bring with them the gloss and sophistication of London. Fanny, however, is a bystander, belonging to neither world but, able to see and indeed to suffer from the selfishness and hypocrisy of both, she embodies virtue and constancy and above all moral strength in a world which becomes wracked by change and scandal. Although, therefore, there are no direct references to actual historical events, there is no doubt that Jane Austen was aware that the nation stood on the brink of cataclysmic change with all the threat to established values that the term implies.
By keeping the frame of Mansfield Park small and domestic, Jane Austen was able to give a universality to the events and emotional crises which she portrayed. Even though the social context is far removed from the world of today, the moral dilemmas are as relevant and recognisable as they were when she wrote them. But this is only one reason for Jane Austen's enduring popularity. Perhaps her greatest achievement was her style. Her faultless eye for detail in her characterisation, and her ear for dialogue are unparalleled. Vladimir Nabokov wrote of Mansfield Park:
"There is no such thing as real life for an author of genius: he must create it himself and then create the consequences. The charm of Mansfield Park can be fully enjoyed only when we adopt its conventions, its rules, its enchanting make-believe. "
It is a testament to Jane Austen that new generations of readers continue to enjoy this "enchanting make-believe".
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