Ben Rector has this song about how hard it is to stand still when “the whole world’s moving backwards.” Makes me wonder if he’s read Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park.
I can’t remember the last time I read a good book in which the main character stayed exactly, precisely the same from beginning to end. I even tell my comp II kids that you can find the hero if you can find the character whose change is central to the action of the story. But that’s not how it happens in Mansfield Park. Fanny Price is, in all her boring glory, the same then, now and forever.
That’s one of the main reasons people dislike Mansfield Park so much, and people do dislike it very much. It is almost unanimously the least favorite (even most detested) of Austen’s novels.
I read it this past week, and, honestly, liked it. But I didn’t like it in the sweep-you-away, romantic sort of way I’d hoped to like it. I liked it because it spoke so pointedly into my life. This novel argues for the difficulty and arch value of steadfastness, of holding true to what you most prize even in the face of great temptation.
Right now I have many friends dealing with adultery, divorce, pornography, you name it. And with every one of them I think, “Is it really so hard to be faithful, to be committed, to be honest?” And even as I’m thinking it I know. It is.
To be Fanny Price we have to be willing to be boring, to be a stick in the mud sometimes, to choose what’s wise over what’s fun or cool or even normal. We have to make every decision purposefully, intentionally, with our future in mind, with our children’s futures in mind.
And doesn’t that sound terribly exhausting? Ridiculously careful? Anal-retentive even?
It does. But it’s how you keep from moving backward in a world that’s moving backward. Standing still seems the most boring of jobs, but when standing still means staying married or staying faithful, who cares if it’s boring sometimes?
Our heroes aren’t the people who’ve been married for 50 years, the minister who’s been at the same church for twenty years, or the woman who cleans the highchair three times a day every day for three years. But they should be. Because what they’re doing is hard. Repetition, consistency, that’s hard. Even if it isn’t glamorous.