Hitting the shelves in 1814, Mansfield Park was the third novel that Jane Austen published and the fourth that she completed. This novel was a pretty big departure from Austen's other works, and it was a bit of a shock coming after the much more light-hearted Pride and Prejudice, which was published just one year prior. The first of its relatively funny traits (for Austen) is that the heroine's main rival in Mansfield Park seems to a lot in common with the beloved heroine of Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennett. Mansfield Park's heroine isn't nearly as charming and spunky. In addition, Mansfield Park explores some serious issues (like religion, slavery, politics) much more directly than Austen's previous works.
So what's going on with this novel? It seems downright un-Austen at times. This is, of course, significant. It's good to try to read Mansfield Park without preconceptions or assumptions, which is actually one of the major themes of the book. Nearly everyone in Mansfield Park spends the book making faulty assumptions about other people. No one really seems to understand one another, and few people even make an effort to try and understand those around them. Yet, typical to Austen's writing, the characters in Mansfield Park are often very real: they're difficult and contradictory and confusing and unclassifiable. Antagonists act more like heroes, heroines are sometimes unsympathetic, and villains suddenly transform into protagonists.
Interestingly, this novel can also be seen as a precursor to Austen's later novels like Emma and Persuasion, both of which contain highly complex characters and deal with contemporary events and serious social issues.
The timid protagonist of Mansfield Park, Fanny Price, is a very passive, quiet character. She's totally unlike most of Jane Austen's other heroines, who are spunky, active, and outspoken. Fanny doesn't do a whole lot, though there is a good deal going on in her head. Why stick around for a whole book paying attention to her?
Well, for a lot of readers, Fanny is really relatable. Who hasn't had problems with feeling shy, unsure, or socially awkward at some point? Fanny battles with her shyness, her low self-esteem, her tendency towards depression, and her difficulties communicating with others.
Fanny's shyness often means that she is misunderstood by others, and misunderstandings and doubts are things that plague all the characters in the novel, shy or not. This is a novel that focuses on the ways in which difficult people try to deal with one another. Sounds a bit like life for all of us, doesn't it?