Mansfield Park: revisited

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Mansfield Park, Jane Austen, revisited, contrast inhuman classical education and humble wisdom, reread

I am revisiting Mansfield Park by Jane Austen for the first time in perhaps a decade.  I’ve been a lover of Jane Austen since my early teens.  Throughout those earlier years, I was quick to espouse Mansfield Park as my favorite Austen, and bemoan the fact that there were no excellent film adaptations of this work.  (Still waiting for that, by the way.  Hollywood, please take note.)

For many years, I continued to respond automatically with “Mansfield Park” when the inevitable question, “What’s your favorite Austen,” would arise among fellow Jane-ites.  But at this great distance, it’s almost as if I’m asserting a childhood acquaintance is my current best friend.  I’m determined to reexamine the novel and read it again fresh.

The surprising delights of an Austen reread

My husband and I recently took #slowreading to a whole other level, reading Pride and Prejudice aloud together over the course of ~3 years. (Don’t judge. We have 5 kids and no time.)  While I had read that novel dozens of times before, it was a delight to approach it with fresh eyes.

It reinforced in me my current conviction: a book worth reading should be deliberately read again in each new decade of life, because it is almost as if a new person is reading it.  And when a new person reads a book, the book itself takes on a slightly different character.  Reading Pride and Prejudice in my 30s was nothing like reading it in my 20s, and certainly different from reading it as an awkward teen!

So, I wonder: how will Mansfield Park have changed in the intervening decade?

Surprising wisdom about education in Mansfield Park

I’m only a few chapters in, but already my life experience as a mother and educator is influencing the elements that jump out at me.  Would you like to walk along with me as we contrast the educations of the Miss Bertrams and their cousin, Fanny?

An impoverished Fanny has come to live with her well-to-do relatives at their estate in the country.  Her cousins are shocked by her lack of knowledge.  They exclaim in chapter 2:

“…she is really so very ignorant! …I cannot remember the time when I did not know a great deal that she has not the least notion of yet.  How long ago it is, aunt, since we used to repeat the chronological order of the kings of England, with the dates of their accession, and most of the principal events of their reigns! …and of the Roman emperors as low as Severus; besides a great deal of the Heathen Mythology, and all the Metals, Semi-Metals, Planets, and distinguished philosophers.”

Hmm.  Taken out of context, this almost sounds like some people’s version of an ideal classical education.  Copious lists of history and science facts fill the minds of these girls.  Their knowledge is certainly far superior to that of their lowly cousin!

Mrs. Norris, their aunt, showers them with approbation for their vast and “wonderful memories.”

The Miss Bertrams have certainly amassed great quantities of interesting and indeed even “classical” knowledge, but it has led to pride in their knowledge and scorn for those they consider less well informed.

Theirs is an impersonal, perhaps one might even dare say an inhuman, classical education.  With no understanding of the value of others and no concern for eternal realities, their education solely serves the purpose of being, quite literally, a Regency “parlor trick.”

An educational contrast

Let’s contrast their experience with Fanny’s education, described a little further on in the same chapter.  While her cousins’ governess teaches her French and hears her daily History reading, it is Fanny’s cousin Edmund who truly directs her education.  Her independent reading, guided by this wise and loving tutor, truly becomes the source of Fanny’s character formation:

“…he recommended the books which charmed her leisure hours, he encouraged her taste, and corrected her judgement; he made reading useful by talking to her of what she read, and heightened its attraction by judicious praise.”

The result is that Fanny grows to love that which is true and praiseworthy.  She is motivated to grow into a better person, not to merely memorize information.

What are the long-term consequences to these children of their disparate mentors (Mrs. Norris/Edmund) and their disparate educational experiences?

I don’t want to spoil the story for anyone who hasn’t yet read it…

But without revealing specific plot details…

Spoiler Alert:

Fanny matures into the wisest person in the whole novel!

It was such fun to read this chapter, and see in Austen’s witty and at times scathing descriptions an understanding of many of the essential parts of my own educational philosophy.

A literary-rich education, the pursuit of wisdom, a relationship-centered model, the dangers of acquiring knowledge without humility…aren’t these the very things we talk about here at Humility and Doxology?

Take the Mansfield Park summer reading challenge!

I can’t wait to see what other delightful tidbits I find as I re-read Mansfield Park!  Would you like to join me in the exploration?  Let me know if you’re reading Mansfield Park as well this summer (either for the first time or a revisit), and we can have a group book discussion before the school year resumes!

If you enjoy book discussions and are always on the lookout for new recommendations, follow Humility and Doxology on Instagram and Facebook, and sign up for our email list!  I’d be delighted if you’d share us with your friends, and join us in conversation about things from the profound to the silly!

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5 thoughts on “Mansfield Park: revisited”

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