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· Most Wanted: Mansfield Park

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Most Wanted: Mansfield Park
by Dorothy

Mansfield Park is probably the least liked of Jane Austen's novels and the one most likely to disappoint fans of the "light and bright and sparkling" Pride and Prejudice. (Let us not speak of the film adaptations and flash-in-the-pan "chick lit" that posit Austen as a purveyor of Regency bodice-rippers. Ugh.) Fanny Price, its heroine, is fragile, sickly, diffident to a fault; as one writer on AUSTEN-L once put it, she "kisses the whip." Raised from childhood to remember that she is the poor relation, housed at Mansfield Park, her uncle's house, on sufferance alone, she tolerates all manner of slights. Her one overt act of rebellion against the patriarchal authority represented by Sir Thomas is to refuse Henry Crawford, the wealthy rake her uncle wishes her to marry. Modern readers may have trouble understanding what a radical act this would be for a teenage girl in Fanny's position in 1812, despite the harshness of her uncle's response, and despite the uncharacteristic sharpness of her objection: "I think it ought not to be set down as certain that a man must be acceptable to every woman he may happen to like himself." In the meantime, for nearly the full length of the novel, Edmund -- Fanny's first cousin and the secret object of her affections -- is uninterested in Fanny, and a bit of a tedious prig to boot.

In other words, as a love story, Mansfield Park is a disappointment. But most of Austen's novels are not truly or primarily love stories. Mansfield Park is a Cinderella story, in which idealism triumphs over cynicism, pure motives over mercenary ones, and the low are brought high. Austen skilfully renders the pain of low self-esteem, neglect, bullying, and unrequited love, but ultimately she raises Fanny to her rightful place in the family hierarchy, properly appreciated by her uncle, clear of her vicious Aunt Norris (perhaps the nastiest character Jane Austen ever wrote), and allowed, at last, to marry the man she loves.

The extremely high-waisted gowns women wore in Austen's era tended to puff out at both front and back, making their wearers look pregnant and hunchbacked to modern eyes. For simple white dresses (Fanny Price would not be highly ornamented), let us turn instead to this high-waisted summer dress from Comrags: girlish and sweet, but actually wearable.

Never mind the chunky sandals contrasted with the Comrags dress; there's precious little about Fanny Price that's playful or robust. These Maloles flats are all fragile femininity, almost too spun-sugar to be real, and I can only imagine how easy they would be to wreck. On the other hand, how absurdly pretty are they?

Like Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion, Mansfield Park includes glimpses of the military, in the person of Fanny's rather one-dimensional brother William. Above, nodding to both the peacoat and the spencer, a sober yet feminine cropped design from Smythe.

Jewellery figures in a minor subplot in Mansfield Park, although Freudian critics have had a field day with its image of two gold chains, one too thick, one "just right." Both rustic and delicate, Cathy Waterman's tree pendant brings to mind Fanny's (and Austen's) Romantic influences, her rare rhapsodies about nature, her identification with the country.

A while back, Now Smell This hosted a silly but entertaining discussion about what fragrances Austen's heroines would wear: Diorissimo for Elizabeth Bennet, Après l'Ondée for Anne Elliot. No one mentioned Fanny Price, but the moment I smelled En Passant, I knew this was Fanny's fragrance: lilac blossoms, heavy with rain.

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4/20/2009 [7]

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