First American edition: Mansfield Park

Text by Janine Barchas, Professor in English Literature at the University of Texas at Austin

Begun in 1811 and published in 1814, Mansfield Park was the first Jane Austen novel to be written in its entirety at Chawton.  Modern novelist Vladimir Nabokov coined the story of poor Fanny Price, growing up in the attic room of Mansfield among her richer cousins the Bertrams, ‘a Cinderella story’.

This lackluster copy of Mansfield Park may not look like much (it survives in original drab boards, was printed on thin, poor-quality paper, and is stained and weathered by nearly two centuries of wear), but it is nonetheless a very important and valuable copy.  This particular edition, printed by the firm of Carey & Lea in Philadelphia in 1832, is not only noteworthy for being the first-ever American reprinting of Mansfield Park, it also predates the reprinting of Austen in her own country.  Austen’s slumbering reputation after her death in 1817 was thought to be single-handedly revived by publisher Richard Bentley, when he included her works in his Standard Novels series in 1833.  This rare survivor of an earlier American edition challenges the dominant narrative of Austen’s early climb to fame.

Austen’s own mother was initially disappointed with Mansfield Park: ‘My Mother—not liked it so well as P.&P.—Thought Fanny insipid—Enjoyed Mrs. Norris—’.  In 1955, American critic Lionel Trilling sighed ‘Nobody, I believe, has ever found it possible to like the heroine of Mansfield Park’.  While Fanny Price has had her modest share of champions since then, her staunch quiet – combined with a meek goodness and obedience – has disappointed many readers hoping for more of the entertaining pertness of an Elizabeth Bennet.  However, what unsettles readers about this story may be precisely what makes it worth reading.  This novel, Austen’s darkest, reflects an awareness of England’s economic prosperity as rooted in oppression and dares to engage with contemporary anti-slavery debates.