Sunday, January 03, 2021

Fortnightly Book, January 3

 Looking over the Fortnightly Books, I've done Persuasion, Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Lady Susan, Sanditon, and The Watsons, but I haven't done my favorite Austen novel, and I have other reasons to re-read it, so the next fortnighly book will be Mansfield Park.

MP is Austen's third published novel, with its first edition published in 1814 and its second in 1816. The novel was a modest success with readers -- hence the two editions in Austen's lifetime -- and although critics were slower to take notice of it, they also tended to regard it favorably. Its reputation dipped when people started reading Austen more as comic society novels, surged again a bit during the decades of the World Wars, largely collapsed in the 1960s and 1970s, and then for the next several decades has maintained a status as Austen's most controversial novel. One reason for its complicated reputation is that its heroine, Fanny Price, is in several ways deliberately the opposite of what one would ordinarily expect a heroine to be, being a weak and sickly girl who cries many times throughout the work; she has also repeatedly been called a prig by readers who are unsympathetic to her. Another reason is its sophisticated consideration not just of moral questions but of differences in moralities. It also touches, even if subtly, on questions of empire and slavery.

But all of this is beside the way. MP suffers most when you try to read it as if it were a failure at being a very different sort of novel. For what it is, an exploration of constancy and how society and character affect it, it has few parallels. Most of the ups and downs of the novel's reputation, and most of the controversies tell us more about the critics than about the novel. And some of us just like Fanny Price, the girl who can be constant because she cannot merely act a part.

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