Cynical, facetious and glib, the charming Crawford siblings are a very modern pair. Witty, light, intelligent, and in her case markedly physically attractive – not only does she have dark sparkling eyes, but she can master a hunting horse – they are metropolitan elite, , that layer above celebrity, smarter, more set. They are, in other words, formidable. Set against them are two modest, trusting and serious minded country folk. In order for Fanny to resist she has to be the rather dull saint that so many readers are infuriated by. Edmund, equally colourlessly virtuous, has Mary’s beauty to contend with (she, it is clear, finds in Edmund’s physical attractiveness the primary source of her ardour), not to mention those Crawford wiles. Blame and credit are shared out between the sexes. Fanny alone emerges spotless. She, indeed, is a kind of saviour.
It is a book that constantly asks the reader to examine his or her own motives and character, and sometimes this is an uncomfortable business. I'm fairly sure I'd have fallen head over heels for Mary Crawford. It is some 40 years since I last read Mansfield Park and now it makes me appraise my abilities as a parent, and question my own 'dispositions' and principles. It is an intensely moral exercise, though Jane Austen is too much the genius to be merely moralising. It is funny, wise, sharp, and realistic. The vices and weaknesses of her characters are throughly recognisable. Jane Austen remains emphatically contemporary.