Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Mansfield Park- an Incestuous Tail of Impropriety, and What Sarah Learned from It.

We start with the sweet, humble, and good Fanny Price.  Her wealthy uncle, Sir Thomas, brings her to Mansfield Park at  a young age, in hopes of avoiding an unfortunate love match between Fanny and his own sons-- should they meet later on in their older, more attractive, and passionate years of the mid-twenties.  The idea is that they will grow up as brothers and sister and, therefore, never consider one another as a love match.  I'm sure you already know where this is going.

Sir Thomas is married to Lady Bertram, a rather lackadaisical woman with good intentions but very low motivation.  They have four children- Tom the playboy; Maria the diabolically flirtatious, easily bored trollop; Julia the immature, overly excited sidekick; and Edmund the righteous, moral, soon-to-be-clergyman.  As they grow together, Maria and Julia torment Fanny, Tom stresses her out with his unscrupulous behavior, and that leaves Edmund.  Fanny finds solace in their mirrored values and he takes her under his attendant wing from an early age.

Sir Thomas ends up having to leave the Park for an extended amount time to see to some business in Antigua.  Enter the Crawfords.  Henry and Mary Crawford are the siblings of the local clergyman's sister.  Earlier I described Maria as "diabolical" but, compared to these two, that's a bit unfair.  Perhaps I should just say she's bored and kind of bitchy.  Henry is rather short and really quite ugly.  All he has to rely on is his charming personality. And, to compensate for everything he's lacking, he makes women fall in love with him for sport.  Despite Maria's engagement to a rich oaf, Henry takes her on as any good sportsman takes on a challenging prey,  And all the while, he leads Julia on by both insulting and complimenting her enough to make her irreversibly devoted to him.  The beautiful Mary Crawford decides to sink her teeth into Edmund (because he's seemingly rich and handsome).  But when she hears of his plans for the cloth, she immediately begins to belittle him in hopes of guiding him in a more profitable direction.

Eventually they all make some bad choices- they put on a play (apparently an immoral thing to do back in the day), Edmund falls in love with Mary, Fanny gets jealous but she hardly ever speaks so he has no idea, Henry breaks Julia's heart, Maria gets married to said rich oaf, Henry falls in love with Fanny but has an affair with Maria leading to her divorce, Edmund is still in love with Mary, Tom falls and hits his head in a drunken stupor- this inexplicably leads to a fever and a near death experience, and Julia runs off with the guy who suggested the horrifying play 200 pages earlier.  Eventually Edmund realizes Mary is a waste of time and a horrible human being in general.  He finally decides that he's totally in love with Fanny because she's lovely and good and everything Mary is not.  And the two cousins who grew up together as brother and sister lived happily ever after.

Incestuous, right?

Okay, so now you're up to speed on what took me about 10 times as long to get through.  But what is Jane Austen's point in all this?  Is she really into "keeping it in the family?"  Does she have a thing against beautiful girls?  Or perhaps she was feeling especially dramatic and bitter at this point her life and wanted to write about rich people mucking up their boring, spoiled lives.

All of those things could very well be true.  However, without having to make rather large inferences about Jane's personal history, we know that virtue is a big theme in this book.  Good morals are rewarded, while those without seem to get their comeuppance.   Fanny is constantly attempting to find the correct reaction to situations.  She has to walk the fine line of knowing her place and standing by what she knows to be right.  When the idea of putting on a private play at Mansfield comes up, she is desperately against it.  But, knowing no one will listen to her opinion on the matter, she lets them do as they will.  However, when asked to participate, she staunchly refuses, despite seeing Edmund and Mary growing closer during every rehearsal.  Her internal dialogue is a constant debate of what she ought to do.

I've been feeling like this a lot lately.  An unwritten goal of mine has been to be more intentional in my relationships.  The further in I get, the more I find myself constantly searching for the "appropriate."  What should I say, what choice is best, and how can I impact this situation to the betterment of both people involved.  That kind of inner dialogue presents a constant dilemma- when does an intentional relationship become simply a checklist of do's and don'ts?  Always trying to do the "right thing" often leaves me feeling non-present and detached, clinical even.  And, in a frightening revelation, that's kind of comfortable to me.  If I always fly above the relationship/friendship/dating weather, I'm really not in danger of feeling any sort of disappointment, rejection, or [insert negative feeling here].

This is not to say I don't get attached to my relationships, or that I don't care about the people in my life.  Because I do- sometimes to a fault.  And it is because of that I always want to "do right by them."  It all comes back to my constant inner struggle to be real and open and vulnerable, but also mature, responsible and "virtuous" (if I may use an Austen term).

Honestly, I didn't like Mansfield Park much.  And if I handed in this "analysis" to an English professor, they'd hand it right back to me and say I'd missed the boat.  But it's not about that.  It's about these weird, unrelated-to-the-plot messages I get from Miss Austen as I read her stories.  I sat down to talk about the dangers of making bad choices out of boredom, and ended up with this recently unearthed truth: that I still really struggle with being intentional with people and what it means to truly invest and be present in relationships.

So cheers to Jane for keeping my eyes set on living a well-balanced life.  And here's to not flying above or below any sort of relationship, but right through the crux of it.  If you have any thoughts on how you live intentional lives with intentional relationships, I'd love to hear about them in the comments section!

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