But, unlike some critics (including Claire Tomalin, who wrote the Jane Austen biography that sent me down this rabbit hole in the first place), I found Mansfield Park a very satisfying and intriguing book. Claire Tomalin describes it as a flawed work, because the supposed villains of the piece, the Crawford siblings, are so much more attractive than the supposed heroine, meek Fanny Price.
Well, let me declare it now: I like Fanny Price. And I've found support for my position online from other introverted, quiet, anxious, but inwardly strong readers who identify strongly with shy but staunch Fanny. Mary Crawford is much closer to the conventional Austen heroine, like Lizzy Bennet or Emma Woodhouse. She is lively, witty, sparkling -- okay, I admit it, she does sound superficially more attractive than Fanny. But in this novel, she is not the heroine; she is the rival who comes dancing onto the stage crying, look at me! while Fanny fades into the shadows. (This is why Mansfield Park doesn't work for the cinema -- they have to turn Fanny into a more 'typical' sparkly Austen heroine, and the whole point of the novel is lost.)
But in the end, it's Fanny who sticks to her principles, despite the mockery and outright anger of her rich relatives, and it's quiet Fanny who wins the day (and the best husband). Hooray! Joan Klingel Ray makes a persuasive argument that Fanny is actually a victim of child abuse, so her survival and her thriving is even more satisfying.
Mansfield Park is Austen's most socially nuanced novel. It explicitly examines class and privilege. The fact is that poor relation Fanny can't afford to act with the cavalier flirtatiousness of her rich cousins; without money, she lacks protection from society's harsh judgement, and faces the very real threat of crushing poverty and extinguishment. Her physical weakness reflects her social vulnerability. She has to be a 'prig' -- her principles are her armour.
I think this might be another reason why Mansfield Park is difficult for a modern reader. The sins of the Crawfords and Bertrams seem so inconsequential to us -- putting on a play? Totally harmless. Flirting? Who cares! Leaving your husband? You go, girl, be your best you. But all these actions in Austen's time had very real and serious moral consequences, consequences which only Fanny, because of her disadvantage, can see clearly.
Fanny is a quiet heroine, like Anne Elliot in Persuasion, and like Anne, it's her loyalty and faith which ultimately prove her strength. Funnily enough, Persuasion is my favourite Austen -- maybe time for a re-read?