Just to review, I reread all of Jane Austen’s novels last spring as a means of coping with a breakup (feel free to check out my posts on Pride and Prejudice and Emma!).
Mansfield Park is not Austen’s most popular novel, but it’s one of my favorites. I researched and analyzed this book for my major AP Literature paper all the way back in 2006!
I think people turn to Mansfield Park less frequently than Austen’s other books because it is more severe in tone, but Austen still managed to make me laugh out loud as I reread it.
Indeed, Mansfield Park centers more around morality than any other Austen novel. I think it’s one of the things I like about it, though!
The heroine of this particular novel is Fanny Price. Fanny’s mother, Mrs. Price, the youngest of three sisters, married for love — a novel idea in Regency England. Her older sisters — Lady Bertram and Mrs. Norris — married more for status. Mrs. Norris marries into the middle class to a clergyman. Lady Bertram marries into a title, Sir Thomas Bertram of Mansfield Park. Because Mrs. Price marries a sailor for love, the Price family is poor but inundated with children. To lighten the financial burden, the Prices send young Fanny to live with her family at Mansfield Park.
Austen gives insight into each stratum of this Regency caste system and highlights the burdens, privileges, and responsibilities that come with each. Austen is known for her social commentary, which readers get a full blast of right off the bat.
Upon Fanny’s arrival to Mansfield, neither the Bertrams nor the Norrises want to take her, despite inviting her. The Bertrams end up taking her in, thanks to Mrs. Norris’s stubbornness and antagonistic personality (Mr. Filch’s cat in Harry Potter is named after this character if that gives you an idea!).
“The division of gratifying sensations ought not, in strict justice, to have been equal; for Sir Thomas was fully resolved to be the real and consistent patron of the selected child, and Mrs. Norris had not the least intention of being at any expense whatever in her maintenance.”Austen 8
Fanny grows up alongside her cousins Tom, Edmund, Maria, and Julia but does not receive the same love and care as the ward at Mansfield Park.
“Nobody meant to be unkind, but nobody put themselves out of their way to secure her comfort.”Austen 12
No one really seems to pay much attention to her except for Edmund.
“Without any display of doing more than the rest, or any fear of doing too much, he was always true to her interests, and considerate of her feelings, trying to make her good qualities understood, and to conquer the diffidence which prevented their being more apparent; giving her advice, consolation, and encouragement.”Austen 18
Edmund befriends Fanny and even secures a horse for her to ride to improve her health. By the time they are young adults, Fanny develops a deep love for Edmund.
“She regarded her cousin as an example of every thing good and great, as possessing worth, which no one but herself could ever appreciate, and as entitled to such gratitude from her, as no feelings could be strong enough to pay. Her sentiments towards him were compounded of all that was respectful, grateful, confiding, and tender.”Austen 28
I know, I know. She’s in love with her first cousin. That’s not widely accepted now, but it certainly would not have terribly shocked Austen’s contemporary readers. Often, wealthy families arranged marriages between first cousins to keep the family estates and titles from going to outsiders. People did not understand the dangers of procreation between first cousins at the time, so they felt like it was an acceptable way to keep wealth in one family.
However, a relationship between Fanny and Edmund is in no way encouraged. Sir Thomas worries about a budding romance between Fanny and the boys when she’s invited to live with them. Still, Mrs. Norris assures him that since they would be like brother and sister, there is no chance of poor Fanny marrying into the wealthy Bertram family. Ironically, since neither the Bertrams nor Norrises treat Fanny like a daughter (excepting Edmund), it’s no wonder there is palpable energy between them that Fanny hopes will turn into more.
Everything turns upside down with the arrival of Henry and Mary Crawford, relatives of the new curate, to Mansfield. Stylish, glamorous, and urban, the Crawfords excite everyone at the Park. Despite being engaged to an extremely wealthy man named Mr. Rushworth, Maria finds herself attracted to Henry.
“He is the most horrible flirt that can be imagined. If your Miss Bertrams do not like to have their hearts broke, let them avoid Henry.”Austen 32
Mrs. Norris wants to set him up with Julia, but Mr. Crawford cannot help but chase after the unattainable Maria . . . much to her delight.
“An engaged woman is always more agreeable than a disengaged. She is satisfied with herself. Her cares are over, and she feels that she may exert all her powers of pleasing without suspicion. All is safe with a lady engaged; no harm can be done.”Austen 33-4
Edmund finds himself bewitched by Mary Crawford despite her condescension towards pursuing theology and becoming a clergyman.
“Selfishness must always be forgiven you know, because there is no hope of a cure.”Austen 49
She continuously tries to persuade him to take up some other profession that she deems more fashionable.
“For what is to be done in the church? Men love to distinguish themselves, and in either of the other lines, distinction may be gained, but not in the church. A clergyman is nothing.”Austen 66
Happily, Edmund sticks to his guns. He recognizes the pushiness and caviler attitude Mary gives off, but he’s deeply attracted to her nonetheless.
Of course, Fanny is crushed. But, because she is so isolated from most of her family, she keeps her feelings to herself.
“there began now to be some danger of dissimilarity, for he was in line of admiration of Miss Crawford, which might lead him where Fanny could not follow.”Austen 47
The Crawfords and Tom’s friend Mr. Yates prove to be a bad influence on the young Bertrams. They persuade everyone to participate in the staging of a scandalous play popular in Covent Garden, Lover’s Vows. Only Fanny and Edmund seem much concerned about the impropriety of the family performing this play for the neighborhood.
“In a general light, private theatricals are open to some objections, but as we are circumstanced, I must think it be highly injudicious, and more than injudicious, to attempt anything of the kind. It would show great want of feeling on my father’s account, absent as he is, and in some degree of constant danger; and it would be imprudent, I think, with regard to Mari, whose situation is a very delicate one, considering everything, extremely delicate.”Austen 86
Sir Thomas would undoubtedly find the play improper for his cherished children to enact, but, conveniently, he is away in the West Indies, overseeing his plantation properties there.
Mansfield Park is such an exciting novel in that it touches on the evils of slavery. Readers never see the horrors of slavery in its pages, but they do see the wealth and privilege that people lived on without regard for or awareness of how they ultimately came into such luxury. Maybe it was unintentional, but Austen certainly lends a critical eye to the slave trade. People often write Austen novels off as silly romances, but if you look closely, they are anything but!
Sir Thomas returns from the West Indies to find Maria neglecting her fiance to improperly flirt with Henry and see his children in a state of disarray as they work to put on Lover’s Vows. The show is promptly canceled, and the young Bertrams are adequately chastised.
Henry, tiring of Maria, turns his eye to Fanny, making the latter so uncomfortable she often runs away from him. Maria, feeling jilted, goes through with her marriage to Rushworth, despite her apparent disdain for his stupidity.
“Mr. Rushworth was an inferior young man, as ignorant and business as in books, with opinions in general unfixed, and without seeming much aware of it himself.”Austen 137
She takes Julia with her on her honeymoon. Edmund leaves to become ordained. Tom retrenches back into a debaucherous life in London, which leaves Fanny alone with the aunts and the Crawfords.
Unable to escape the gaze of rakish Mr. Crawford, Fanny earns a proposal from him. At first, Crawford even admits that he’s trifling with Fanny’s feelings. But, soon, her purity lures him to a proposal.
“my plan is to make Fanny Price in love with me . . . . I cannot be satisfied without Fanny Price, without making a small hole in Fanny Price’s heart.”Austen 157
“I never was so long in company with a girl in my life — trying to entertain her — and succeed so ill! Never met with a girl who looked so grave on me! I must try to get the better of this. . . . And so this is her attraction after all!.”Austen 158
And she’ll have none of it. Fanny, seeing Crawford for what he is, refuses to accept and holds to her feelings for Edmund.
“As far as she could judge, Mr. Crawford was considerably the best actor of all.”Austen 115
The novel’s climax comes when Sir Thomas berates Fanny for turning down an opportunity that he believes will help her move up in society. But, what the aristocracy sees as righteous does not mesh with Fanny’s personal beliefs.
“‘I am half inclined to think, Fanny, that you do not quite know your own feelings.’
‘Oh! yes, Sir, indeed I do.’”Austen 214
They send her back to her family in Portsmouth to repent her sin of turning down a proposal from a wealthy man. There, Fanny must grapple with her choices and the pressures of society.
“She was at home. But alas! It was not such a home, she had not such a welcome, as — she checked herself; she was unreasonable. What right had she to be of importance to her family? She could have non, so long lost sight of!”Austen 26
People give Fanny a hard time for being meek and less effervescent than Elizabeth Bennett or Emma Woodhouse. But I think Fanny deserves more credit. She has a strong spine and refuses to give in to ideas she knows to be wrong, despite what society thinks. Fanny knows that whatever the British aristocracy says is right is not necessarily the best guide for genuinely moral or immoral.
“I think the man who could often quarrel with Fanny . . . must be beyond the reach of any sermons.”Austen 80
Austen shows real genius with the setting as symbolism in this book. In AP Literature, I wrote about how Austen uses the different locations of the novel — Mansfield Park, Portsmouth, and London — to symbolize heaven, purgatory, and hell respectively. When in the country at Mansfield Park, characters make choices that often help them achieve what’s really “right”; when characters like the Crawfords and Yates come to Mansfield from London, they bring its corrupting influence with them.
“You are as bad as your brother, Mary; but we will cure you both. Mansfield shall cure you both.”Austen 35
When Edmund visits Mary in London, he finds her much changed — arrogant, rude, and indulgent. London is also where some of the Bertram children experience downfalls of their own.
“We do not look in great cities for our best morality. It is not there, that respectable people of any denomination can do most good; and it certainly is not there, that the influence of the clergy can be most felt.”Austen 66
In Portsmouth, Fanny must wait to hear if she will be allowed to return to Mansfield or not.
Ultimately, her convictions and moral beliefs earn her a privileged place at Mansfield, making it heaven indeed.
Another motif throughout the novel (and Emma, when I think about it) is improvements. Mr. Rushworth and the aristocracy constantly discuss the improvements they plan to make to their large estates and wealthy lifestyles. Meanwhile, Fanny concentrates on internal improvements she must make to transform into the person she wants to become. Austen is saying a lot here about her morality in the different class strata of her time.
I think this idea pertains just as much to today.
“Every generation has its improvements.”Austen 62
How much are we really focusing on making improvements that matter? Are we more focused on the superficial and cosmetic improvements Instagram and YouTube influencers want us to so they can rake in dollars? Are we focusing on improving ourselves and the systems in which we operate to achieve a more heavenly society?
Trigger Warnings: child neglect