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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

Acquired taste

Mansfield Park’s status as the most polarizing of Jane Austen’s novels is by now well-established. It’s the black-olives-and-anchovy pizza of Austen’s works--an acquired taste, hated by many but adored by a (discerning? Or deluded?) few.

 

People who dislike the book find its heroine, Fanny Price, priggish and insipid; its hero, Edmund Bertram, an insufferable hypocrite; its apparent condemnation of amateur theatricals incomprehensible; and its moral tone hectoring. For those who love the book, by contrast, Fanny is brave and principled, the business with the theatricals is nuanced, and the novel’s morality is subversive and challenging. (MP fans mostly don’t like Edmund either, but they argue that Austen intended it that way.)

 

To mark the novel’s 210th publication anniversary this year, Jane Austen’s House has created an exhibition that leads with the controversy, featuring displays that include varied illustrations of Fanny, Austen letters referencing the slave trade, and a first edition of Lovers’ Vows, the risqué play that the young people of Mansfield rehearse while Sir Thomas is away in Antigua.

 

The physical version of the exhibition—“Mansfield Park: Courting Controversy”--is on display through September 29, but for those of us who won’t make it to Chawton by then, an online edition is available.

 

Meanwhile, if you need proof that the novel’s themes still resonate, look no further than “Jane Austen versus virtue signalling,” an article that ran earlier this month in the British magazine The Critic. In the piece, philosopher Stephen Wigmore offers Fanny Price as an exemplar of the kind of genuinely principled behavior that, he claims, is sadly lacking in contemporary politics and culture.

 

“There’s nothing wrong with a bit of wit and sparkle, but if we’re stupid enough to prioritise that over honesty and moral courage, we will get the leaders we deserve,” Wigmore argues. “We’d be better off with Fanny Price.”

 

I’m not one of Fanny’s mega-fans, but given the state of American politics right now, I have to agree that we’d be better off with Fanny. Or maybe even with Edmund.

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