Book: Jane Austen: An Illustrated Treasury by Rebecca Dickson
Interspersed with my loop of Jane Austen novels, I like to read either about her or her work. From my never-ending list of possibilities, I chose this book, and was quite happy that I did.
Miss Dickson starts off with an introduction into Miss Austen’s life, and then devotes individual chapters to summaries and analyses of Miss Austen’s novels. It is a handsome, coffee-table type book, complete with replicas of interesting artifacts, including facsimiles of letters, family sketches, and illustrations of the books through the years. A true Janeite, I am always happy to read what someone else deems the important parts of Miss Austen’s works and I truly love getting yet another perspective on the works with thoughtful criticism and analysis.
The odd thing about this book, however, is that analysis that struck me the most was in regard to my least favorite novel, Mansfield Park.
Like many who read Park, I was annoyed with its heroine, Fanny Price. After the richness of Elizabeth Bennett, the intricacies of Emma Woodhouse, and the nobleness of Anne Elliot, for me, Fanny just fell flat. She docilely accepts her place as a second-class citizen in her uncle’s house, silently suffers as she watches the man she loves fall in love with someone else, and patiently waits for her happy ending. She accepts, suffers, and waits—all very passive verbs. A passive protagonist makes for rather dull reading.
But in reading Treasury’s take on Mansfield Park, Fanny, and in particular Fanny’s rival Mary Crawford, I came away with a much better understanding of Fanny’s quiet strength and an increased respect for her character. Miss Dickson makes a strong case for Fanny’s inner fortitude when she points out that Fanny stays true to herself from start to finish. When the young people of Mansfield get up a play, Fanny objects for three reasons: she is sure her absent uncle would disapprove, the play in question is offensive to her morals, and she considers herself a poor actress. Others try to persuade her to change her mind and when her beloved Edmund agrees to take a part, she is sorely tempted to yield. Ultimately, she knows she must follow what she believes to be right and does not join in. In doing this, she is every bit as strong as Elizabeth Bennet.
Fanny is true to herself again when she declines Henry Crawford. She sees him as a cad for how he treated her female cousins. She is unaware that he started courting her simply to amuse himself, but she is suspicious of him and does not trust his motives, even when he helps to advance her brother’s naval career. However, concerning Fanny’s refusal of Henry’s proposal and his sister Mary’s general character, Miss Dickson and I disagree. Miss Dickson calls Henry “almost entirely good.” I think Miss Dickson’s own admiration of bad boys (something she confesses to) color her judgement. Henry openly flirts with an engaged woman, makes her fall in love with him, yet he does not propose to her himself. He later embarks on an affair with her after she marries a man she does not love. He tries to seduce Fanny for his own amusement and will go to great lengths to do so. He seems to truly love her at one point, but I question this. Henry loves only himself, and all that he does is done to please himself. I believe he sincerely thinks he loves Fanny, but I doubt his ability to love others at all. Henry is a blackguard from start to finish and Fanny sees him for what he is. Instead of calling Fanny priggish, Miss Dickson might do better to see her as someone with rather amazing clarity of vision.
The last point on which Miss Dickson and I disagree relates to Mary Crawford. We do agree that Mary is sophisticated and worldly, having lived in London her whole life. Miss Dickson seems to think, however, that sophistication is an excuse for poor taste and bad manners. Mary makes ribald jokes, cannot value a lifestyle dissimilar to her own, and relies on disparaging remarks to pass for wit. These things in and of themselves may not be impertinent, but that they come at the expense of others—the family of the man she purports to love, no less—is, in my opinion, evidence of the smallness of her soul. Miss Dickson claims that at times Mary simply verbalizes what others are thinking. While this may be true, that hardly counts as a virtue with me. Expressing a cautiously worded wish for the death of a wayward son in order to advance her own cause is not blunt or honest or brave. It evinces a mercenary spirit that is most unbecoming in a man or woman. Miss Dickson and I further disagree when it comes to Mary’s stance on Maria Rushworth’s adulterous affair with Mary’s brother Henry. Mary treats the whole circumstance rather casually, and Miss Dickson brings up today’s “entirely different social code” to agree with Mary’s opinion on the matter and concludes that the Crawfords are “difficult to dislike…as bad people.” While sexual morals are indeed different today, breaking a vow is still breaking a vow. Enticing one to break that vow is still despicable. I suppose Miss Dickson would call me priggish as well, but I can so live with that.
So why does this book merit a 4-book rating since I was obviously so at odds with the author? Actually, it is for precisely that reason. I had dismissed Mansfield Park ‘s value. Now I can see it as more of a diamond in the rough—a buried treasure, if you will. In reading Miss Dickson’s take on Mansfield Park, I was able to see the novel in a new light. I was able to have a greater respect for a character. Disagreeing with Miss Dickson’s opinions only sharpened my own. It challenged my mind and opened it up to new thoughts. And that’s what reading is all about.