John Wiltshire, one of the most original critics of Jane Austen, argues not only that Mansfield Park is one of the great 19th century novels but that it has been completely misunderstood by most critics.
Few novels have divided critics more than Mansfield Park. It has been fiercely argued over for more than 200 years, and with good reason: it is open to radically different interpretations. At its broadest, it is a novel about the condition of England, setting up an opposition, as the Austen biographer Claire Tomalin has put it, between someone with strongly held religious and moral principles who will not consider a marriage that is not based on true feeling, and is revolted by sexual immorality, and "a group of worldly, highly cultivated, entertaining and well-to-do young people who pursue pleasure without regard for religious or moral principles".
Many have dismissed the heroine, Fanny Price, as a mere picture of goodness, but the author of this guide, John Wiltshire, one of the most respected and original of modern Austen critics, dismisses this argument. 'The still, principled fulcrum of moral right, celebrated and excoriated by earlier critics,' he says, is now 'understood to be a trembling, unstable entity', an 'erotically driven and conflicted figure'. Indeed, in part at least, this is a novel about female desire - the plot revolves around the passionate feelings of two young women, Fanny and Maria.
The argument that it is a straightforward defence of the conservative way of life is hard to sustain; it is more plausibly seen as questioning the whole patriarchal basis of society, and in particular the extent to which women were trapped by a system over which they had no control. Far from being devoid of irony, it is now frequently, and perhaps rightly, thought of as the most ironic of all Austen's novels.
About the Authors
John Sutherland, described by Claire Tomalin as 'the sharpest and wittiest of literary commentators', is Lord Northcliffe Professor Emeritus, UCL, and has for many years been a visiting professor at the Californian Institute of Technology. He is the author of many books and more editions than he cares to count. He writes and reviews widely in the UK and the US. His most recent books are: The Boy who Loved Books (2007), Magic Moments (2008), Curiosities of Literature (2008), The Longman Companion to Victorian Fiction, 2nd Edition (2009), 50 Ideas in Literature You Really Need to Know (2010, with Stephen Fender). Hes currently working on Lives of the Novelists.
Jolyon Connell is the founder and editorial director of The Week and Money Week. A former Washington Correspondent of The Sunday Times, and deputy editor of The Sunday Telegraph, he has a first-class degree in English from the University of St Andrews and an honorary doctorate from the same university.