At BYU Education Week, Adjunct Faculty Jane G. Hinckley helped her audience rediscover Jane Austen’s “Mansfield Park” by looking into some of the factors that influenced the novel.
What happens when you take the romance out of the spotlight in Jane Austen’s novels? You see a lot more of what Austen intended her readers to discover in her novels.
Jane G. Hinckley (Adjunct Faculty, Comparative Arts & Letters) gave a four-part lecture series at BYU Education Week 2021 titled Appreciating Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. Hinckley’s goal for her lecture was to help readers revisit Austen, read her work more perceptively, and see Austen as more than a romance writer.
At the beginning of her lecture on Tuesday, August 17, Hinckley invited her attendees to enter the conversation about the social and political influences in Britain in the early 1800s. Those influences, Hinckley mentioned, played a significant role in shaping Mansfield Park.
Hinckley quoted a couplet Austen wrote: “I do not write for such dull elves as have not a great deal of ingenuity themselves.” This couplet was meant to encourage readers to look more closely at Austen’s work. Austen wanted readers to look beyond the romance and see the subtler dynamics between the characters and setting in the story.
Far from being a simple romance novel, Mansfield Park has sparked a lot of controversy among scholars. In fact, the novel has invited “polite hostility among scholars,” Hinckley said. For years, scholars have struggled with Austen’s position on political and social issues. Austen’s book is filled with references to the British slave trade, abolition, and class struggles.
In Hinckley’s view, Austen was an advocate for the marginalized, and she tried to open a discussion about the presence of slavery in Britain with her references to the slave trade, abolition, and class struggles. “Austen would have liked her sharp and ingenious elves to discuss abolition at the tea table,” Hinckley remarked.
Another way Austen invited her readers to read beyond the romance was through her inclusion of the theater in Mansfield Park. Many of Austen’s references to the theater in her novel included homages to Shakespeare, her own participation in script writing and acting, and popular actors during her time. Austen even brought the theater to the Mansfield Park estate as her characters performed Elizabeth Inchbald’s Lover’s Vows. Hinckley said, “Austen has cleverly reminded us that even on a country estate, every place on the estate is a stage.”
Perceptive readers will find complex characters who are filled with wit, passion, and courage. Austen’s characters act out multiple layers of the story beyond the romance. Hinckley said these layers are “serious, [comedic], and religious, but none are in your face.”
In her final lecture, Hinckley reviewed adaptations of Mansfield Park. Though many types of adaptations of the novel exist—from radio shows to board games—none truly capture the entirety of Austen’s message in Mansfield Park. However, Hinckley said that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Paraphrasing another scholar, Hinckley said, “Instead of being upset [the adaptation] isn’t like the book, [the adaptation] gets you in a dialogue with the book.” Adaptations provide readers with a way to engage in 19th century British society like Austen would have wanted.
Hinckley’s lecture encouraged attendees to think of Austen as much more than a romance writer. Mansfield Park provides an opportunity to look beyond the romantic aspects of Austen’s novels into the underlying social, political, and cultural aspects of Austen’s everyday life.