Mansfield Park – Jane Austen
“Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can, impatient to restore everybody, not greatly at fault themselves, to tolerable comfort, and to have done with all the rest.”
So after finishing One Summer: America 1927, I decided to try something in a more classic vein, and I started by reading a proper Jane Austen book for the first time (by proper, I mean not Pride and Prejudice and Zombies). And it didn’t take long to realise why Austen’s work has persisted as long as it has.
Mansfield Park is the story of Fanny Price, who at ten years old, comes to live with her aunt, Lady Bertram, at her fancy country estate (her mother didn’t marry quite so well and was struggling to manage). I knew that Fanny was supposed to be the protagonist, but after her initial introductions to Mansfield Park, it’s a bit difficult to tell, as Fanny almost fades into the background for a portion while the more extroverted characters – her family and their neighbours – take all the attention. This is a reflection of Fanny’s character: after years of being constantly reminded how inferior she is to her cousins, particularly by her Aunt Norris, she is rendered extremely meek and passive. Fanny definitely takes centre stage later on, however, and while her passivity is occasionally frustrating, you do generally want to reach through the pages and give her a reassuring hug.
The story meanders sometimes, particularly in the first half, but after that it becomes more compelling, and I certainly wasn’t sure how everything was going to turn out. While the text sometimes requires close attention to understand properly, it’s still very readable, and I really like Austen’s unique voice, more than I liked some other classics I’ve read. The handling of the characters is particularly skilful – they all have great, clear complexities and understandable reasons for everything they do.
Side note: I’ve heard that Jane Austen is JK Rowling’s favourite author, and now I know where she got the name of Filch’s cat from – I imagine many people would like to give this book’s Mrs Norris a good kick as well. Then there’s the similarity of these two lines:
“Fanny would rather have been silent, but being obliged to speak, she could not forbear, in justice to the aunt she loved best, from saying something in which the words “my aunt Norris” were distinguishable.”
“Malfoy, whose pale eyes were still watering with pain and humiliation, looked malevolently up at Moody and muttered something in which the words “my father” were distinguishable.”
I very much enjoyed my first Austen novel, and will definitely read more in the future. Rating: 4/5.
Bleak House – Charles Dickens
I haven’t actually finished reading this book yet – I’m about 40% of the way through – and the reason I’m bringing it up now is because I’m not sure I am going to finish it. I have read and enjoyed Dickens in the past: The Signal Man is one of my all-time favourite short stories, and A Christmas Carol is really good. But I’m struggling with Bleak House.
One reason is the prose. Dickens paints pictures really well with his prose – just the opening of this book is great – but here, a lot of it is a real chore to get through. The story switches between a third-person perspective and the first-person narrative of Esther Summerson, and I’ve found myself looking forward to Esther’s parts simply because they’re clearer and easier to follow.
Besides that, the story just isn’t that interesting so far. There’s an absolutely massive cast of characters, and because I haven’t been able to really engage with the story, I occasionally find myself thinking, “Oh, what has he been doing, again?” A few of the characters – like Esther and Ada – are just rather plain and dull; however, a lot of them do have distinctive qualities – qualities which, unfortunately, serve to make them really irritating. I’m sure that Dickens meant them to be irritating, but it feels like there are more unlikeable characters than likeable ones. Mr Jarndyce and Mr Boythorn are the only ones I’d have over for dinner with any real enthusiasm.
I’m going to carry on a little bit more, but I don’t think this book is for me – so far, I’d give it a 2/5.