Mansfield Park

Literary reception

Although Mansfield Park was initially ignored by reviewers, it was a great success with the public. The first printing in 1814 sold out within six months. The second in 1816 also sold out.[1] The first critical review in 1821 by Richard Whately was positive.[2]

Regency critics praised the novel's wholesome morality. The Victorian consensus treated Austen's novels as social comedy. In 1911, A. C. Bradley restored the moral perspective, praising Mansfield Park for being artistic while having "deeply at heart the importance of certain truths about conduct". The influential Lionel Trilling (1954), and later Thomas Tanner (1968), maintained emphasis on the novel's deep moral strength. Thomas Edwards (1965) argued that there were more shades of grey in Mansfield Park than in her other novels, and that those who craved a simple dualist worldview might find this off-putting.[3] In the 1970s, Alistair Duckworth (1971) and Marilyn Butler (1975) laid the foundation for a more comprehensive understanding of the novel's historical allusions and context.[1]

By the 1970s, Mansfield Park was considered Austen's most controversial novel. In 1974, the American literary critic, Joel Weinsheimer, described Mansfield Park as perhaps the most profound of her novels, certainly the most problematic.[4]

The American scholar, John Halperin (1975), was particularly negative, describing Mansfield Park as the "most eccentric" of Austen's novels and her greatest failure. He attacked the novel for its inane heroine, its pompous hero, a ponderous plot, and "viperish satire". He described the Bertram family as appalling characters, full of self-righteousness, debauchery and greed, personal financial advantage being their only interest.[5] He complained that the scenes set in Portsmouth were far more interesting than those in Mansfield Park, and that having consistently portrayed the Bertram family as greedy, selfish and materialistic, Austen, in the last chapters, presented life at Mansfield Park in idealised terms.[6]

The latter part of the twentieth century saw the development of diverse readings, including feminist and post-colonial criticism, the most influential of the latter being Edward Said's Jane Austen and Empire (1983). While some continued to attack, and others to praise the novel's conservative morality, yet others saw it as ultimately challenging formal conservative values in favour of compassion and a deeper morality, and having an ongoing challenge to subsequent generations. Isobel Armstrong (1988) argued for an open understanding of the text, that it should be seen as an exploration of problems rather than a statement of final conclusions.[7]

To Susan Morgan (1987), Mansfield Park was the most difficult of Austen's novels, featuring the weakest of all her heroines yet one who ends up the most beloved member of her family.[8]

Readings by the beginning of the 21st century commonly took for granted Mansfield Park as Austen's most historically searching novel. Most engaged with her highly sophisticated renderings of the character's psychological lives and with historical formations such as Evangelicalism and the consolidation of British imperial power.[9]

Colleen Sheehan (2004) said:

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Despite Austen's ultimate and clear condemnation of the Crawfords, much of contemporary scholarship bemoans their literary fates. It is a common cant of critics that they would delight in an evening with Henry and Mary Crawford and anticipate in horror having to spend one with Fanny Price and Edmund Bertram. ... Like the Crawfords, they have rejected the orientation and obscured the moral perspective that inspired Austen in her writing of Mansfield Park. This is the affliction of our times. We are too easily charmed by the subversive.[10]

In 2014, celebrating 200 years since the novel's publication, Paula Byrne wrote: "Ignore its uptight reputation, Mansfield Park ... seethes with sex and explores England's murkiest corners".[11] She called it pioneering for being about meritocracy.[12] In 2017, Corinne Fowler revisited Said's thesis, reviewing its significance in the light of more recent critical developments in imperial history.[13]

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