Of central interest are Fanny Price and her clergyman cousin, Edmund Bertram. At the age of nine Fanny had come to live with her uncle, Sir Thomas Bertram, and his family at Mansfield Park. Nine years later she has fallen in love with Edmund. He, however, loves Mary Crawford. Meanwhile Fanny is pursued, first jestingly and then earnestly, by Mary’s brother, Henry.
Fanny recognizes that Henry and Mary are morally flawed. Her judgment is vindicated when Henry runs off with Marie Bertram after she has married Rushworth. Mary’s refusal to condemn her brother reveals to Edmund that she would not be a suitable wife. With the Crawfords thus removed, Edmund and Fanny marry.
In a letter to her sister, Jane Austen wrote that the book is about “ordination.” Edmund Bertram’s choice of the church as a profession is indeed important in the novel, which explores the role of the clergy.
Ordination here is not limited to its clerical sense, though, for the novel, like all of Austen’s fiction, concerns the proper ordering of society. The Crawfords and most of the Bertrams lack those principles necessary for civilization to survive. They have wit but lack wisdom; and, as Austen wrote to her niece in 1814, “Wisdom is better than Wit, & in the long run will certainly have the laugh on her side.”
Such wisdom is not innate, and another concern of the novel is how to instill “that principle of right” that Fanny learns but the Crawfords and the Bertram girls do not.
Although the novel ends happily for Edmund and Fanny, the tone is somber. Writing at the time that Napoleon was upsetting the old order in Europe, Jane Austen warned that one violates conventions only at great peril to oneself and one’s world.
Armstrong, Isobel. Jane Austen: “Mansfield Park.” London: Penguin, 1988. A short but perceptive feminist examination of Mansfield Park with excerpts from contemporary influences (Mary Wollstonecraft, John Locke, Elizabeth Inchbald). Select bibliography.
Auerbach, Nina. “Jane Austen’s Dangerous Charm: Feeling as One Ought About Fanny Price.” In Romantic Imprisonment: Women and Other Glorified Outcasts. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985. A leading...
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