THE LEADING LADIES
Mansfield Park: The woman who should be the star of Mansfield Park is a mere support player. We're speaking of Mary Crawford: sharp, interesting and funny, she's all the things we want an Austen heroine to be. But instead we get Fanny Price, who is meek, prudish and often ignored by everyone else. She's definitely someone who grows on you, as you learn to look at the world through her eyes. And she's the main reason Mansfield Park still causes so much debate among Austen-ites today.
Pride and Prejudice: Elizabeth Bennet is the anti-Fanny. She's also the most adored and iconic Austen lady, and it's easy to see why. Just look at how she handles the unbelievable rudeness of Darcy at their first ball. The way she has absolutely no problem with trekking across muddy fields to see her ill sister Jane. And the way her integrity leads her to reject Darcy's first proposal, while most other women would jump at the chance. Elizabeth pulls off the trick of being a genuinely good person without being boring. She makes every scene sparkle - the perfect romantic comedy heroine.
THE LEADING MEN
Mansfield Park: Who's the real leading man of this story? Is it the man Fanny ends up with, or the man we want her to end up with? It's a real dilemma, because while Henry Crawford is certainly a rogue, he also falls in love with Fanny quite sincerely, and he's undeniably the more dashing catch. But she chooses her true love Edmund, who is morally upright, harshly judgmental, but generous and kind-hearted too. Not the most exciting match for Fanny, but the most proper one.
Price and Prejudice: By contrast to Mansfield Park, Pride and Prejudice ends with the union of an "opposites attract" couple. While Fanny and Edmund are very similar in temperament and opinions, Elizabeth and Darcy are chalk and cheese. But in a good way. Her bold, gutsy personality is balanced by his stoic, thoughtful reserve. And the course of their courtship brings out new sides to both of them, so they learn to become better people together. Aww.
Mansfield Park: One of the many fascinating things about Mansfield Park is that the romance between Fanny and Edmund... isn't a romance. Not in the traditional sense, anyway. He's kind to her when they're younger, but later on he becomes infatuated with the irresistible Mary Crawford, while Fanny is courted by her brother Henry. It's as if Austen is playing with all the conventions of romantic comedy, pulling the rug out from under us when, instead of being won over by Henry (in a Pride and Prejudice sort of way), she settles with Edmund. Shocking!
Pride and Prejudice: The romance here is, in a word, perfect. It evolves in a slow, delicious way. There's Lizzy and Darcy's first abrasive meeting, when he scoffs at the very idea of dancing with her. Then, just as he's won over by her sheer zest and energy, she turns against him thanks to Wickham. And so the merry dance of their courtship continues, setting the template for almost every rom-com trajectory to come ever since.
Mansfield Park: Jane Austen always has a lightness of touch, but the tone of Mansfield Park is certainly serious compared to frothier offerings like Pride and Prejudice. This is partly because of Fanny Price's background: we never forget that she's the poor relation who has been sidelined and bullied by everyone except Edmund. And that explains why she lacks confidence and a sense of direction. While there are romantic moments and funny moments, it has the moral complexity of a straight drama.
Pride and Prejudice: As light and delicious as a sorbet (which they apparently ate in Austen's day - just watch Persuasion), Pride and Prejudice is packed with laugh out loud dialogue and scenes worthy of Oscar Wilde. Think of Mr Collins's magnificently pompous proposal to Elizabeth, or Mr Bennet's bone-dry putdowns of everyone around him. Mrs Bennet is also a brilliantly bustling creature made entirely of gossip and ambition, while even characters we only see for a smidgen of time, like the indignant Mary Bennet, bring a big silly smile to the face.