The interesting thing about Mansfield Park is that the protagonist is not--interesting, that is. Fanny Price, a poor girl sent to live with wealthier relatives, is excessively shy, cautious, decorous, moral, and unassuming. The most exciting thing she has happen to her in the book is a marriage proposal from a relatively rich man whom she refuses on the belief that his character is unworthy. She then ends up marrying her cousin, a man who is just as boring and upright as she is. Thus, the interesting characters in the book are the ones that are supposed to be models of how not to behave: bold, witty, reckless, etc. I was happy to see in some of the introductory essays that this reading of the book was shared by contemporary critics soon after the book was originally published, making Mansfield Park one of the less successful Jane Austen novels. The problem is not that the characterization is poor--Austen draws vivid and believable portraits of each of the characters (my favorite is busybody Mrs. Norris, the aunt of Fanny, who cannot help remind the girl of her inferior status at every possible moment), but she centers the book around the characters who are simply the least interesting.
The Worth Press edition has four essays. Modern Interpretations by John Wiltshire is the most interesting, and covers literary criticism as well as recent movie adaptations; of particular interest is the role of overseas slavery as the basis of the wealth for the family that Fanny lives with. Regency Life by Maggie Lane talks about the role of the church (an occupation mainly chosen by sons unlikely to inherit family wealth) and the idea of improving houses and their surroundings by landscaping, a major obsession of landowners at the time. Caroline Sanderson writes Geographical Settings, an essay that does not do much for me because I have no conception of the places she refers to. Finally, Josephine Ross offers A Modern Perspective and tries to defend Mansfield Park against its many critics (unsuccessfully, in my opinion).
Next: Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll.