Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1123
The three Ward sisters have each fared differently in marriage. One married a wealthy baronet, one married a poor lieutenant of the marines, and the last married a clergyman. The wealthiest of the sisters, Lady Bertram, agrees at the instigation of her clerical sister, Mrs. Norris, to care for one of the unfortunate sister’s nine children. Accordingly, a shy, sensitive, ten-year-old Fanny Price comes to make her home at Mansfield Park. Among her four Bertram cousins Tom, Edmund, Maria, and Julia—Fanny finds a real friend only in Edmund. The others usually ignore her except when she can be of use to them, but Edmund comforts and advises her. He alone seems to recognize that she possesses cleverness, grace, and a pleasant disposition. Besides Edmund’s attentions, Fanny receives some of a very different kind from her selfish and hypocritical Aunt Norris, who constantly calls unnecessary attention to Fanny’s dependent position.
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When Fanny is fifteen years old, Sir Thomas Bertram goes to Antigua to look after some business affairs. His oldest son, who is inclined to extravagance and dissipation, goes with him, and the family is left to Edmund’s and Lady Bertram’s care. During Sir Thomas’s absence, his older daughter, Maria, becomes engaged to Mr. Rushworth, a young man who is rich and well-connected but extremely stupid.
Another event of importance is the arrival in the village of Mary and Henry Crawford, the sister and brother of Mrs. Grant, whose husband has become the rector after the death of Mr. Norris. Both the Bertram girls like Henry immensely; since Maria is engaged, however, he rightfully “belongs” to Julia. They also become close friends with Mary Crawford, who in turn attracts both Tom, now returned from abroad, and Edmund.
Fanny regrets the Crawfords’ arrival, for she sees that Edmund, whom she herself loves, was falling in love with the shallow, worldly Mary, and that her cousin, Maria, is carrying on a most unseemly flirtation with Henry. The less observant, like Mrs. Norris, see only what they wish to see and insist that Henry is paying particular attention to Julia.
At the suggestion of Mr. Yates, a pleasure-loving friend of Tom, the young people decide to put on some private theatricals; they choose for their entertainment the sentimental play Lovers’ Vows (1798) by Elizabeth Inchbald. Fanny opposes the scheme from the start, for she knows Sir Thomas would have disapproved. Edmund tries to dissuade the others but finally lets himself be talked into taking a part because there are not enough men for all the roles. Rehearsals and preparations go forward, and the plan grows more elaborate as it progresses. The unexpected return of Sir Thomas, however, puts an end to the rehearsals. The house is soon cleared of all signs of theatrical activity, and of Mr. Yates, whose trifling, affected ways Sir Thomas dislikes immediately.
Maria, who is willing to break her engagement to Mr. Rushworth, had hoped her father’s return would bring a declaration from Henry. Instead of declaring himself, however, he announces his departure for a stay in Bath. Maria’s pride is hurt, but she resolves that Henry Crawford should never know she had taken their flirtation seriously. She is duly married to Mr. Rushworth.
Julia goes to Brighton with the Rushworths. With both the Bertram sisters gone, Henry begins an idle flirtation with Fanny, which ends with his falling in love with her. Her beloved brother, William, has just visited her at Mansfield Park. One of Henry’s plans for winning Fanny’s favor is a scheme for getting a promotion for William in the navy. Although Fanny is grateful for this favor, she promptly refuses him when he proposes. In doing so, she incurs the serious displeasure of her uncle, Sir Thomas, who regards the sentiments that made her turn down such an advantageous match as sheer perversity. Even Edmund encourages her to change her mind, for he is too preoccupied with his attachment to Mary Crawford to guess that Fanny has more than a cousinly regard for him. Edmund has just been ordained as a clergyman, a step that Mary Crawford ridicules, and he is not sure she will accept him as a husband. He persists in believing, however, that her frivolous dislike of the clergy is only a trait she acquired from her worldly friends; he believes that he can bring about a change in Mary’s opinion.
About this time, Fanny is sent to Portsmouth to visit her family and to be reminded of what poverty is like. The stay is a depressing one, for she finds her family, with the exception of William, disorderly and ill-bred by the standards of Mansfield Park. In addition, several catastrophes occur at Mansfield Park to make her wish she could be of help there. Tom, the oldest son, has such a serious illness that his recovery is uncertain; Maria, now Mrs. Rushworth, has run away with Henry, who forgot his love for Fanny long enough to commit this irrevocable mistake; and Julia elopes with Mr. Yates. Only now, crushed under this series of blows, does the Bertram family at last realize Fanny’s value and dearness to them. She is welcomed back to Mansfield Park with a tenderness that touches her deeply.
Mrs. Norris, as spiteful as ever, says that if Fanny had accepted Henry Crawford as she should have, he would never have run away with Maria. Sir Thomas, however, gives Fanny credit for seeing Henry’s character more clearly than he had, and he forgives her for having refused Henry. He blames himself for Maria’s downfall, for he realizes he had never taken the trouble to know his children well.
Nevertheless, good comes from all this evil. Tom’s illness sobers him, and he proves a better son thereafter. Although not a great match for Julia, Mr. Yates has more income and fewer debts than Sir Thomas had anticipated, and he seems inclined to settle down to quiet domesticity. Henry and Maria separate after spending a few unhappy months together. Sir Thomas refuses to receive her at Mansfield Park but provides a home for her in another part of the country. Mrs. Norris lives with her favorite niece, to the great relief of everyone at Mansfield Park.
Edmund finally realizes Mary Crawford’s frivolous and worldly nature when he sees how lightly she treats the affair of his sister and her brother. Her levity shocks him and makes it easier for him to give up thoughts of such an unsuitable marriage. Eventually, he falls in love with the cousin who had loved him for so long a time. Fanny and he are married and move to the parsonage near Mansfield Park.