Fanny Price, the eldest of nine siblings, is rescued from a life of relative poverty and drudgery when she is taken in by her wealthy relatives, Sir and Lady Bertram. At first she is terrified in the huge house with her well-meaning, but rather selfish and careless cousins, but her cousin Edmund (the younger of the two Bertram brothers) takes pity on her and shows her kindness and friendship. Thus starts the love Fanny feels for Edmund throughout the book.
Fanny is small and sickly, and even as she grows older, seems to tire and wear out faster than her livelier cousins. While she has the benefits of a good home and an education, she is always a bit outside the Bertram family, and her other aunt, Mrs Norris, never stops making her aware that she is lucky to be there on their sufferance. She becomes the helper and companion of the air-headed Lady Bertram, and puts up with a lot of fairly ill treatment with grace and forbearance.
While Sir Thomas Bertram and his eldest son are away in the West Indies, the young and handsome Crawford siblings arrive in the area, and shake things up considerably. The siblings are orphaned, good-looking and wealthy, and Henry Crawford, while a gentleman, is clearly a bit of a rake. Mary Crawford, his charming sister, has a fortune of nearly 20, 000 pounds and feels drawn to Edmund, even though he is the younger son, and planning to become a clergyman. She makes an effort to befriend Fanny, and seems amused by her brother's flirtation with both the Bertram sisters, even though Maria Bertram, the older, is engaged to another man.
Once Maria Bertram marries her rich, but ridiculous and silly suitor, and her younger sister Julia is hurt by Henry Crawford's attentions to her sister, he sets out to make Fanny Price fall in love with him instead. This backfires, and he falls in love with her instead, finally offering for her. Fanny is appalled, having quietly watched as he toyed with her cousins, and as she's in love with Edmund, refuses him, multiple times. Edmund, however, only has eyes for the lively Miss Crawford.
Mansfield Park is probably the least popular of Jane Austen's novels, and it is the only one I had never read before. I can see why it is known as "the dull one" and why many readers would have been a bit disappointed when this came out the year after Pride and Prejudice, as the novels really are extremely different. Pride and Prejudice was of course written many years before it was published, in a time when Austen was younger and more optimistic. But compared with the wit and sparkle and strong emotions of Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park fails to satisfy. Fanny Price is kind, and self-sacrificing and a genuinely good person, but she's also a bit of a drip. She seems to burst in to tears at the drop of a hat, and she would never dream of doing the wrong thing or saying something mean, even though her relatives, especially Mrs. Morris, often treat her badly. She just suffers on and loves Edmund from a distance.
Edmund Bertram is again a very good person, but not exactly a Mr. Darcy calibre hero. He spends most of the book in love with someone else, only to realize towards the end that she does not hold the high moral character he looks for in a wife, and noticing his saintly and ever-present cousin in a different light for the first time.
Mary and Henry Crawford may not be upstanding moral characters, but they were generally a lot more fun than Fanny and Edmund. In some ways, I ended the book thinking that they'd both made lucky escapes, free to marry other people (although Austen in her last chapter makes it clear that they don't). Henry Crawford may have caused a scandal, but in a more modern romance, he would totally be the hero, the rake that gets reformed, and I would probably be cheering him on.
So now I've finally read all of Jane Austen's novels. I must admit, I can't see myself rereading Mansfield Park, like I do the others. I didn't have to actually put it down because it bored me to tears, but I did read two other books in between finishing it, and it does not amuse and entertain at all as much as her other novels, for all that it's a good work full of sharp observations and pithy commentary on Regency society and the social differences of the time.