Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

I read Nabokov’s chapter on Mansfield Park last night (from his Lectures on Literature) and it was interesting. If I hadn’t read the book I nearly would not have needed to as he goes into so much detail about the different sections and characters. But I am glad I did and I still intend to read each book he discusses – next up will be Bleak House, which, not having a huge background in Dickens, I am really looking forward to. 

Early in the chapter on Mansfield Park, Nabokov writes: 

Miss Austen’s is not a violently vivid masterpiece as some other novels in this series are. Novels like Madame Bovary or Anna Karenina are delightful explosions admirably controlled. Mansfield Park, on the other hand, is the work of a lady and the game of a child. But from that workbasket comes exquisite needlework art, and there is a streak of marvelous genius in that child. 

Two things: First, I love the idea of “delightful explosions admirably controlled”. What a wonderful way to describe those books and other examples of incredible literature. But second, his comment on Austen surprised me and in a way, disappointed me. I immediately wanted to stand up for her and say – back off Nobbie, and don’t be so patronizing!

But at the same time (sigh), I see his point. They are exquisitely crafted books with a touch of genius – her wit, her ability to render a character grotesque, her perfect timing. Reading Jane Austen is delightful and consistently so. I can read and re-read her novels again and again. Each visit brings me the same enjoyment. Nonetheless, they are comfortable stories and I know that happiness and an orderly finish await me in the final pages. So in that sense, he’s right, they aren’t explosions at all. 

Interestingly enough, halfway through my read of Mansfield Park, I started to get really anxious about who Fanny was going to end up with. And I felt for a while that Mansfield Park might turn out to be my favorite Austen because of all the suspense. But, well, the ending kind of changed all that. She ends up with Edward like expected and although Austen points out that this isn’t a second choice on his part, it did kind of feel like it. Also, I would have loved to get the ending in scene, instead of exposition. Nabokov points this out as well, and even critiques the epistolary structure that comes barging in toward the end as a bit of authorial laziness. Fair? A bit. But also quite normal for her time period. The story just seemed to lose a bit of momentum at the end – especially after Fanny goes back to Mansfield from Porstmouth. Pride and Prejudice will remain my favorite and I would love to read Nabokov’s views on that particular Austen – I wonder whether he would have had just a bit more praise for her. Hard to say.  

So, as I said, next up is Bleak House but I am awaiting a copy from Bookmooch so in the meantime I am finishing up Alice McDermott’s Child of My Heart and still working through the Rashomon tales as well as enjoying my lunches with Schopenhauer.    


18 Responses to “Nabokov and Mansfield Park”

  1. Ted

    I can’t wait to hear what you think about Bleak House. What a reading experience!!

  2. imani

    Yes, I would say that Austen’s novels are a bit more dangerous than that, considering that each heroine is more or less trying to maintain or get a more stable livelihood.

  3. litlove

    Pyrotechnics are all very well in literature and delightful in their way, but a bit of exquisite needlework can be just as significant and full of quality. I can’t imagine how a man who wrote Lolita would get on with Austen’s heroines. Although I put that and wonder really how much the younger Bennett sisters, for instance, differ from her?

  4. verbivore

    Ted – Hopefully, I will get to it some time next week. I am really looking forward to it!

    Imani – Oh, I definitely think there is a lot at stake in all of Austen’s novels. You are right about that.

    Litlove – What a wonderful comparison! Little Lolita’s indeed. 🙂

  5. LK

    Well, this is a brilliant post, Verbivore. I love how you have woven Nobbie’s (ha) observations with your own of Austen. Bravo. Gives me much to think about, with one of my favorite writers.

    Oh, I too am looking forward to your comments on Bleak House.

  6. Dorothy W.

    I’m not sure I like Nabokov’s tone of condescension either — perhaps his insight is right but the judgment isn’t necessarily so. I mean, maybe the novel is not an explosion, but what it does is valuable and worthy anyway. Perhaps he’s not getting what all is at stake for women at the time?

  7. Sylvia

    Nabokov is a bit harsh, I think. Fanny may not “explode” but she certainly has strong feelings and a moral dilemma to wrestle with. I suppose Austen lets her off easily, but Fanny is certainly tested.

  8. verbivore

    LK – thanks so much. Hopefully I will get to Bleak House before the end of December. I can’t wait!

    Dorothy – That’s a good way to put it. And in the introduction to the book, Updike tells us that Nabokov was against including Austen in the series until a friend told him to give her a second try. He was pleasantly surprised. But I think he still held some distinctive bias for more “important” literature – ie. Russian and French.

    Sylvia – Yes, harsh is the right word. Fanny wrestles with several moral dilemmas and her happiness relies on someone else (sounds quite like Anna Karenina to me). Austen does let her off, as you say, but the possibility of an unhappy ending is always lurking around the corner.

  9. Ann Darnton

    Nabokov’s comments on the letters are interesting. A visiting colleague of mine is doing research into the use of speech and thought acts in the novels of the nineteenth century and has had to add written acts as an extra category because of the number of instances of letter writing in the books of the period. However, the tagmemicist, Robert Longacre, cites the letter as one of the most frequently used ways of signalling a high point in a story, as for example Darcy’s letter to Elizabeth which turns the plot completely round on itself. I haven’t looked at his data, but he must have evidence of this as a narrative technique from other times and cultures as well, to make the claim.

  10. verbivore

    Ann – That is interesting. The letters in Mansfield Park most definitely signal a high point in the story as they introduce the event that will eventually lead to Fanny being able to marry Edmund. The plot does a complete 180. Nabokov took issue with them because they take us further out of the story than we might like. And for this I would agree with him, but I am reacting with my contemporary sensibility and I suspect a reader of Austen in her day wouldn’t have reacted the same way at all. The letters might have been the best part of the book!

  11. dew

    This book has been sitting on TBR Mountain way too long, and I should probably put it on my list for the TBR challenge. I love Nabakov’s writing, even if he does sometimes have horrifying characters!

  12. Stefanie

    Mansfield Park is my least favorite Austen but I think Nobbie (I’m going to have to refer to him as such from now on!) is a bit harsh as so many others have pointed out. I think it’s a marvelous idea to read all the books he talks about in his lectures. How fun!

  13. verbivore

    Dewey – I love how he writes as well. And the Lectures are really interesting, even when he lets his “absolute opinion” sound a bit too absolute.

    Stefanie – I was a bit disappointed with Mansfield Park, I have to say. Parts are good but there was something a bit tooooooo moral about Fanny. She kind of came out looking like a wimp.

  14. ullat

    Hi there, after your comment on my Jane Austen post I googled for Nabokov and Mansfield Park and this post was top of the list! The serendipity of the internet…

    I’m certainly interested in hunting down a copy of Nabokov’s Lectures now… I’ve only read Lolita, and while I found a lot in it to admire (yes, his writing is exquisite), there was something repellent about it, quite apart from the subject matter… I think I need to read more Nabokov before I rush to judgement, however. Any recommendations?

    I can’t say I enjoyed Mansfield Park, but it continues to occupy my mind… considering how Austen established Fanny’s personalilty at the beginning of the book, and the way she was treated by the other characters, I don’t see how she could have turned out any differently, though I think if she hadn’t been let off by Austen, as others have said, she probably would have ended up a spinster… I could ramble on a lot more about this, but my thoughts aren’t fully formed yet so I’ll ponder some more and probably post in my own blog.

    But all the comments here have been interesting, especially the stuff about the letters… lots of food for thought…

  15. verbivore

    Ullat – how fun that your google led you to me! I had Nabokov and Mansfield Park on the brain when I left my comment for you anyway, so I probably should have mentioned my own post. Just as well.

    I also have been wanting to read more Nabokov. I read Lolita this year and now his lectures. And I have read a few of his short stories but I’d like to try one of his other novels (he wrote in English) like Transparent Things or Pale Fire. Maybe I could pick him as my next author for the reading challenge…

  16. Amateur Reader

    How funny. I just posted on almost this exact subject an hour ago, and then found this by coincidence. As my post indirectly argues, Nabokov would find Pride and Prejudice very much inferior to Mansfield Park. His standards oon this sort of thing are quite clear.

    Nabokov is condescending towards women writers in general. I don’t see any way around that.

    For more Nabokov: Pale Fire, certainly, but also Pnin, The Gift, and Speak, Memory. Many new readers of Nabokov are tempted by Transparent Things, because of its length, I suppose, but I think most people would find it a poor place to start.

  17. verbivore

    Amateur Reader – that is a fun coincidence. I can’t wait to check out what you had to say. Its interesting that you think Nabokov would find Pride and Prejudice vastly inferior, I suppose you must be right. There is just something more fun about Pride and Prejudice to me.

    And thank you for the other Nabokov suggestions, I can’t wait to try them.

  18. Garner Woods

    Nice post!

    ‘Mansfield Park’ – funny enough, Jane Austen said herself (it was after ‘Sense and Sensibility’ and ‘Pride and Prejudice’ had come out) she thought it was a story that everyone would love, and no one was really into it. She was very upset by the reaction, so when she wrote ‘Emma,’ she said, ‘I’m going to write a heroine that no one will like but myself,’ and that’s the one that everyone loved.

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