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Twentieth in a series of posts celebrating 200 years of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. For more details, open Your Invitation to Mansfield Park.

One of the things I like best about hosting this party for Mansfield Park is that I can bring together so many of Jane Austen’s readers. Among the contributors to the series are writers of Austen-inspired fiction, bloggers, booksellers, journalists, librarians, and academics. There’s even one priest, one doctor, and one lawyer – let’s see what happens if the three of them walk into a bar at the JASNA AGM in Montreal next month. I like that there’s diversity even among those of us trained as academics – several study Austen and her contemporaries, of course, but there are also scholars of Early Modern literature and of Modernist literature. All of us share an interest in this complex and endlessly fascinating novel, and all of us are grateful to you for reading and participating in the conversations. It wouldn’t be much of a party without you!

Jane Austen Made Me Do ItIt’s a pleasure today to introduce a guest post on Mary Crawford by Laurel Ann Nattress, who hosts the well-known blog Austenprose.com. I’ve followed Laurel Ann’s blog for a long time, and have also enjoyed writing reviews for Austenprose. Laurel Ann calls herself “a life-long acolyte of Jane Austen,” and says her blog is “devoted to the oeuvre of my favorite author and the many books and movies that she has inspired.” A Life Member of the Jane Austen Society of North America and a regular contributor to the Jane Austen Centre Online Magazine, Laurel Ann is also the editor of the very entertaining short story collection Jane Austen Made Me Do It (2011), which includes stories by Stephanie Barron, Carrie Bebris, Laurie Viera Rigler, and many others, including three writers who are also contributors to “An Invitation to Mansfield Park” – Diana Birchall, Syrie James, and Margaret C. Sullivan.

Classically trained as a landscape designer at California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo, Laurel Ann has also worked in marketing for a Grand Opera company, and at present, she says, she “delights in introducing neophytes to the charms of Miss Austen’s prose as a bookseller at Barnes & Noble.” An expatriate of southern California, Laurel Ann lives in a country cottage near Snohomish, Washington where, she tells me, “it rains a lot.” (Sounds like Nova Scotia to me.) Visit Laurel Ann at her blog Austenprose – A Jane Austen Blog, on Twitter as @Austenprose, and on Facebook as Laurel Ann Nattress.

I was amazed and humbled when Sarah Emsley asked me to contribute a blog post for “An Invitation to Mansfield Park.” Not being a scholar of her caliber, or her readers, what could I possibly offer to this collection of essays? So, I take up this assignment, hat in hand, from the perspective of a Janeite, offering a reader’s opinion on my favorite line and chapter from Jane Austen’s most complex and thought-provoking novel.

I remember my first encounter with Mansfield Park. It was the third Austen novel I read after Pride and Prejudice and Emma. I had no idea what to expect, since this was 1986, long before I even knew there was a Jane Austen Society of North America and ten years before the creation of the Internet website The Republic of Pemberley to enlighten me on what was ahead. Looking back now, those were indeed the wilderness years when Jane Austen enthusiasts read and worshiped in silence.

Mansfield Park Barnes and Noble coverMy first impression of Mansfield Park was not what I expected. It was dark and brooding. The characters seemed to be at continual odds with each other. It was unsettling. Contemplative. Puzzling. It was not anything like the sparkling, witty and romantic Pride and Prejudice that she was so famous for. I was miserable, and totally engrossed at the same time — a Jane Austen bus accident that defied explanation. With no one to talk it over with, I read it again. Still puzzled, I put it aside. Ten years later, and then twenty, I read it again. It became my holy grail of literature. After years of Austen study, and with the benefit of discussing characters and plot points with other Janeites I had met on the Internet, Mansfield Park had evolved, for me, into the hardest-won literary battle of my life — the struggle had made the victory all the sweeter.

During this thirty-year sojourn with Austen’s dark horse I connected with a particular chapter that was my ah-ha moment — that epiphany of illumination when I finally got it — or at least I thought so. Chapter 22 was my magic key. It revealed so much and answered many of my questions. Our heroine Fanny Price has been sent on an errand to the village by Mrs. Norris and been caught in a downpour without an umbrella. Huddled under a sparse oak tree outside of Mansfield parsonage, one of its residents Mary Crawford spies her shivering in the rain and sees an opportunity for her own entertainment, sending Dr. Grant out with an umbrella to fetch her inside. At this point, the sophisticated Miss Crawford is bored without the female companionship of the Bertram sisters and has cast her net for Fanny as her new friend. Mary and Mrs. Grant mollify Fanny’s objections to staying with dry clothes and attention. Mary plays the harp, entreating Fanny to stay longer than she wants:

“Another quarter of an hour,” said Miss Crawford, “and we shall see how [the weather] will be. Do not run away the first moment of its holding up. Those clouds look alarming.”

“But they are passed over,” said Fanny. — “I have been watching them. — This weather is all from the south.”

“South or north, I know a black cloud when I see it; and you must not set forward while it is so threatening. And besides, I want to play something more to you — a very pretty piece — and your cousin Edmund’s prime favourite. You must stay and hear your cousin’s favourite.”

– From Mansfield Park, Chapter 22 (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1988)

Chapter 22 H.M. Brock illustration

“Dr Grant himself went out with an umbrella.” Illustration by H.M. Brock.

This short passage is so telling for me. Mary Crawford is bending Fanny’s will, as she does to so many in the novel. She speaks authoratively, decisively and officiously to Fanny, dismissing her observation of the rain having let up.

South or north, I know a black cloud when I see it; and you must not set forward while it is so threatening.”

Like a spider to the fly, Mary has drawn poor Fanny into her web and made her stay longer than she wants to. When Fanny, the keen observer of nature, and the moral compass of the novel, expresses her opinion of the weather clearing as an exit cue to her hostess, she is dismissed by Miss Crawford, a character who reveals her controlling, selfish, and arrogant nature by stating that she knows a black cloud when she sees one, yet has not looked out the window. Screeching halt! Giant red flag! Austen has cleverly revealed that manipulative Mary and gentle Fanny are as opposite as black and white in their view of the world. Mary knows a black cloud when she sees one, because she is one. Her presence and opposing opinions will continue to dampen her encounters throughout the novel, and Fanny, who sees only the truth before her, will remain true to her own principles and our hearts.

To read more about all the posts in this series, visit An Invitation to Mansfield Park. Coming soon: guest posts by Maggie Arnold, Hugh Kindred, Natasha Duquette, and Margaret Horwitz.

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