All you need to know about the books you meant to read; This week: Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

Plot: An austerely ideological novel that details the persecution and eventual triumph of the watchful, withdrawn Cinderella, Fanny Price.

Fanny is a dependent relative supported by Sir Thomas Bertram, owner of Mansfield Park. Her gentle virtues are contrasted with the boisterous fatuity of Bertram's slackly educated daughters, Maria and Julia. Fanny glides into love with Bertram's son, Edmund, an honest innocent who hopes to take holy orders.

Into this fragile paradise burst the Crawfords, Henry and Mary. Regency bobby-dazzlers both urban and urbane, they over-stimulate the Bertram sisters and seduce the reader with their cheeky humour. Fanny notes glumly that Edmund fancies Mary.

When Sir Thomas takes a trip to his West Indian plantations, the Crawfords let rip. Propriety collapses as they bully everyone (except Fanny) into putting on amateur theatricals whereby the young people can flirt outrageously with one another while pretending to be acting. Sir Thomas returns and is disabled with fury.

Gradually, evil begins to self-destruct. Henry Crawford attempts to work his seductive wiles on Fanny but is rejected by her, and casually elopes with Maria who has previously married the chinless twit, Mr Rushworth. Mary Crawford fails to condemn her brother's adultery but is disgraced, left dissatisfied, and faces an empty future.

Sir Thomas and his son finally understand Fanny's value. She marries Edmund and will reign over Mansfield Park, the domain that has always been spiritually hers.

Theme: Traditional Christian values are besieged by a "modern" shifty amorality. Fanny's passivity is not a symptom of weakness but exemplifies the Christian life of humility, patience and piety. Her self-critical poise is rooted in the soil of the civilised Christian community of Mansfield Park. It is fitting that she should marry Edmund, whose decision to be ordained illuminates the importance of a world tethered to religious feeling. In opposition, the wayward and frivolous Crawfords are viewed initially as seductively witty and energetic but become, in due course, both evil and destructive.

Style: The comic glitter of Pride and Prejudice is replaced by the bleak elegance of moral discrimination. It reads like Samuel Johnson after rigorous exercise and diet, the vocabulary - "liberality", "condescension", "agreeable" - ensnaring the unwary with its concealed ironies.

Chief strengths: The novel is both political and domestic, dramatising a series of conservative beliefs in such a way as to make them appear necessary, if uncomfortable. Austen shows the importance of an adherence to the past and rescues the idea of "tradition" from the hands of English Heritage and the National Trust.

Chief weaknesses: Fanny's self-control leaks into smugness, especially in the second half where she takes centre stage; Austen's punitive treatment of the villains suggests an absence of charity and forgiveness.

What they thought of it then: The first edition was sold out in six weeks but it was classified as merely another diverting tale by the charming Miss Austen.

What we think of it now: Popular with the critics because it engages with ideas: recently, Bertram's West Indian property has suffered close scrutiny, the novel seen as a Tory critique of colonialism and Empire. The "common reader" probably wants more fun.

Responsible for: Austen's moral earnestness fuelled George Eliot; her Regency bucks Georgette Heyer.

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