Mansfield Park was the one I'd never read, had failed to get into several times, was put off by the slow start and the idea that this is Jane Austen's most 'difficult' and least sparkling novel. So I limbered up with Persuasion (a great read) and Emma (perfectly formed) in order to get my brain and imagination into Jane Austen mode, and gave it another go.
I'm so glad I did. It turns out to be a dense, rewarding read. I'm not saying I enjoyed it without reservation and I'd certainly join in a debate about Fanny Price as a heroine, her priggishness, her self-effacement, her 'creepmouse' behaviour, her silences, her debilitating shyness, her non-presence and shadowiness, her total lack of stamina, her ultra-close relationship with her brother and her brotherly love for Edmund, her puritanical distaste for her boozy, noisy family in Portsmouth (which sounds more fun that the strictly controlled civility of Mansfield Park) - but also her moral compass, her steadfastness, her 'nest of comforts' (books and plants in a room of her own), her adherence to her own truth, her willingness to learn, her rather soppy but genuine Romantic tendencies, her dignity when badly treated, her conscience and her loyalty.
It's Jane Austen at her most psychologically astute and the novel contains incredibly well-drawn characters whose behaviour is so well presented that it's hard to believe that it's just one person making it all up; their impulses, contradictions, hidden motives, egotism and vanities are marvellously imagined. There is the utterly awful Mrs Norris, the wonderfully idiotic Mr Rutherford, the dangerously attractive Crawfords (who would be great at parties), the spaced-out and languid Aunt Bertram, and Sir Thomas, the cat/lord of the manor whose absence causes the mice to plan a play while he's away. There are some wonderful set-pieces such as the visit to Sotherton and the theatricals, some very funny moments, and some extremely modern themes of 'improvement' (of women), the assignation and acceptance of gender roles, and the value placed on a woman's external appearance and demeanour.
So why, oh why, after constructing all these amazingly complex characters did Jane Austen pretty much bail out on them? The end of the book, the dénouement and the tying up of loose ends are perfunctory and disappointing. It's as though Austen is feeling her way out of something she has created that has taken on a life of its own and not gone exactly as planned, with too many characters who should have been black or white having become interestingly grey and ambiguous and thus very convincing. But no, cod psychology takes over, the bad 'uns must be punished and the good 'uns rewarded, and the stock endings go against all our carefully raised expectations and vested interests - as well as the remarkable novelistic fineness that has gone before.