I have been away but I have been reading. I finished The Austen Book Club and read Mansfield Park; it is the one Austen book I had never read! This was a good time to make up this deficiency. It is perhaps the most moralistic of Austen's creations, but also the most profound, especially in its writing, I think.
The main theme as always is courtship. How different types "choose" their partners. In MP there are a number of possible partnerships in the pot which Austen stirs vigorously.
But in addition, Mansfield Park is about temptation and about change. The place of the title is in a sense the main character; it is everything that is good and right ( like heaven) and the characters who will inherit the kingdom ( the Park) are the righteous. Fanny Price has been described as the most unlikeable of all heroines in English literature. She isn't bright or witty, she seems passive and inactive. She is a goody two shoes. She is humble and diffident, worried and unsure of herself, fearful for the soul of others. She has a very strong sense of the correct thing, the kind thing, of decorous behaviour, moral behavior. She is a lover of peace and order. But as the book opens the influences around her attempt to divert her inner compass. This is symbolised in great part by the theatrics where her cousins and their guests try to get her to act in the play when she doesn't wish to. The play, titled Lovers Vows, we are led to believe, is very unsuitable, and she worries not only about her own reputation but about those of the other participants.
The other characters in the book are much more interesting ( as are things that are not good for us). Her cousins and their friends are well bred, well educated, well heeled, and they are witty, bright, sophisticated, fashionable, active. But they are also unkind, unthinking, self indulgent, irresponsible, and guilty enough in the end to let the kingdom slip through their fingers. Well, except for Edmund (about to be ordained) who is almost as dull as Fanny and who marries her in the end, but not before he is sorely tempted by the more fascinating Miss Mary Crawford.
What most impresses me about this book is the discipline of the author. It must have been extremely hard for Austen to make her main character so uninteresting. But that is the whole point. It is often dull to do the right thing, it is often unexciting and unappreciated, and painful indeed to do the right thing. Fanny seemed passive externally but internally she is on the boil-always grappling with her conscience.
So that's the temptation part. The other main theme is about change. Change is also exciting, novel, what people crave. But Austen, writing on the verge of the industrial revoluation which she saw would destroy the country life she saw as a sensitive social ecosystem which deserved to endure, emphasizes the emptiness of modernists love of change for change sake, of tossing out the baby with the bathwater. Mansfield Park stands for tradititon, for manners, for order and peace, for a rural community where personal connections and mutual responsiblities ruled. The urban infiltrators into this society (the Crawfords) brought with them an citified insensitivity, a contempt for the unsophisticated, an authority based on wealth and power, which compared poorly ( in Austen's view) to country society where conflicts were tempered by personal interchange and affections.
But the unrighteous are cast out and the meek inherit the earth - the poor mousey Fanny Price inherits Mansfield Park.