There are several points that set Mansfield Park apart from the rest of Austen’s work. Chief among them is Austen’s depiction of her heroine, Fanny Price, a frail, quiet young woman who has none of the high spirits or wit of Elizabeth Bennet or Marianne Dashwood. Reared from the age of ten among wealthy relatives, Fanny is an unobtrusive presence in the household at Mansfield Park, useful and agreeable to everyone and steadfast in her secret affection for her cousin, Edmund Bertram.
Fanny’s manner contrasts sharply with the livelier, sometimes careless behavior of her cousins and their friends. Only Edmund spends time with the gentle Fanny, although his own affections have been captivated by the sophisticated Mary Crawford. With Fanny’s uncle, Sir Thomas Bertram, away on an extended stay in the West Indies, the cousins and their friends decide to put on an amateur theatrical production of a scandalous French play. Only Fanny refuses to participate, out of natural modesty and a certainty that her absent uncle would not approve. Sir Thomas returns unexpectedly and does not approve, much to his children’s chagrin, but Fanny quickly falls from his favor when she refuses the proposal of Mary Crawford’s brother, Henry, who had begun an unwelcome flirtation with her after Fanny’s cousin Maria married another man.
Distressed by her uncle’s disapproval, Fanny visits her parents and her eight brothers and sisters, only to discover that her years at Mansfield Park have left her unable to fit easily into her noisy, often vulgar family. She is summoned back by Sir Thomas when Maria leaves her husband for Henry Crawford and Maria’s sister, Julia, elopes. Now fully appreciated by her uncle, Fanny comes into her own, winning the love of Edmund Bertram.
Because Austen’s novels often adopt the tone of their heroines, Mansfield Park is a more somber, less satirical book than Pride and Prejudice. Fanny is a young woman who has been shaped by both her separation from her family and her awkward position as a poor relation in a wealthy household. Yet, it is her alienation from her cousins that has perhaps saved her from taking on their faults. They have been spoiled while she has been grateful; she has grown in sensitivity and moral strength while they have been indulged. In Austen’s world, true worth is always recognized in the end, and Fanny’s resistance to the more worldly pursuits of her cousins and their friends wins for her the love of her adored Edmund.
Fanny is also alone among Austen’s heroines in her uncertainty as to her position in society. Catherine Moreland of Northanger Abbey may visit wealthy friends, but she enjoys a secure place in her own family, as do the Dashwood and Bennet sisters and Emma Woodhouse of Emma. Only Anne Elliot of Persuasion, unappreciated by her self-centered father and sister, somewhat approximates Fanny’s experience. It is a situation that lends great poignancy to Fanny’s experiences and one which Austen conveys with great feeling and perception.
Mansfield Park is perhaps the most controversial of Austen’s novels. While some critics fault its author for abandoning the irony and elegant wit that characterize most of her work, others praise her for her willingness to undertake a variation on her usual themes. In Fanny Price, Austen has created a heroine who must engage the reader through her gentleness rather than her spirit, and Fanny does that with admirable success.
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...
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