Rex By Paula Byrne 9: I was 14 years old, brought up in a working-class family in a tiny house in Birkenhead, full of love and life but noisy and chaotic. I should hardly like to live with her ladies and gentlemen in their elegant but confined houses. I set out to prove him wrong. At night school, I discovered Mansfield Park — a story about a girl born in a small house and an urban community, not the Austen I was expecting. I fell in love. And it changed my life. Passion, eroticism, danger, illicit love and incest simmer below the surface in Mansfield Park.
This gives us an important clue. Jane Austen does nothing accidentally and every small thing counts. It is a newly built property, a house erected on the proceeds of the British slave trade. His landmark ruling in the infamous Somerset case signalled that on English soil, at least, no man was a slave. It was also widely known in polite society that Lord Mansfield had adopted his mixed-race great-niece, Dido Belle. Mansfield was devoted to Dido, left her a substantial legacy and confirmed her freedom in his will.
She is the subject of a new film by Amma Asante based on my biography. She was beautiful, well educated and accomplished, brought up at Kenwood House in Hampstead alongside her cousin, Elizabeth Murray, who knew Austen and her family.
A young girl is brought up by wealthy relations at a large country house. Her status is ambiguous: How should she be raised?
His absenteeism causes damage not only in his plantations but on his estate in England. When he returns to Antigua, taking his wild, wayward son with him, he leaves the house under the guardianship of a vicious bully, Mrs Norris.
One of the ironies of the novel is that Sir Thomas goes to Antigua to sort out his problems, only for his own house to be thrown into moral chaos by his absence. Jane Austen was being mischievous in using the name Norris for her villain.
If the name Mansfield was synonymous with abolition, then that of Norris was known for its opposite. Robert Norris was an infamous slave trader and a byword for pro-slavery sympathies. The novel shifts gear with the arrival of the sexy, sparkling Crawfords, Mary and Henry. Londoners through and through, they burst into the country house like exotic birds of prey: Austen loved to subvert conventions, so rather than using the traditional motif of the country girl coming to town and being corrupted, she brings the Crawfords to the country, where they corrupt everyone around them.
They bring the poison of the city to the heart of England. But one person resists their charm: Mansfield Park was written immediately after Pride and Prejudice, and it seems to me that Austen set herself the challenge of creating a very different kind of heroine from Lizzy Bennet.
What if a character like Lizzy were the anti-heroine — the witty, pretty Mary Crawford — and the heroine demure? Why not write a novel undoing the heroine-centred courtship romance? Mansfield Park is perhaps the first novel in history to depict the life of a little girl from within. Fanny is 10 years old when she is uprooted from her loving but noisy home in Portsmouth, and finds herself in a mansion where nobody pays her the slightest attention. She is delicate in health and nervous; she shudders when she hears the footsteps of her stern uncle, Sir Thomas Bertram.
She lives in the attic, which is cold and gloomy; her aunt bullies her unremittingly; her female cousins ignore her. Only her cousin Edmund takes an interest and she pays him back by loving him. Some readers are disappointed by Fanny.
She is not witty and not pretty. But Fanny is clever, kind and watchful. She is spiritual, romantic and in touch with nature. Readers who miss the point of Fanny Price miss the point of the novel. She is the filter through which we view the mesmerising Crawfords.
Edmund, destined for the church, falls in love with Mary Crawford, and takes part in an inflammatory scene in which a pious, uptight clergyman is seduced by a coquette. All the time, Fanny is watching and despairing.
Maria and Henry, both flirting, want to climb over. Fanny cries out to Maria: Fanny begs them to wait for the key, but they refuse to listen, and off they go, across the ha-ha into the wilderness, leaving poor old Rushworth behind — just as they will later elope, again leaving Rushworth behind.
Fanny observes it all. Fanny is herself consumed with sexual jealousy. She has to watch while Edmund, the man she loves, becomes hopelessly in thrall to Mary Crawford. Like a siren, Mary lures men by playing her harp, seducing them with her liveliness. Of Rears and Vices, I saw enough.
Now, do not be suspecting me of a pun, I entreat. Then, unexpectedly, Henry does fall truly in love. This is a terrific section of the novel. Portsmouth comes alive as a bustling seaport.
Inside the Price family home, Jane Austen wanders into previously uncharted territory in her depiction of the lower-middle-class family. She is horrified by the filth: The descriptions are superb: Her mother is a slattern who cannot control her numerous unruly children.
But it is the Price children who ultimately succeed, because unlike the Bertram children they know the meaning of hardship and hard work emerging from the squalor and alcohol fumes of their terraced house in Portsmouth. Mansfield Park is pioneering because it is a novel about meritocracy. Austen repeatedly emphasises the claims of innate merit and talent over social position and inherited wealth. It reflects on the importance of home, the nature of a good education, the alienation of sons from their fathers.
At the centre of the book is a displaced child with an unshakeable conscience.
Rex By Paula Byrne 9:
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