Mansfield Park Jane Austen
The following entry presents criticism of Austen's novel, Mansfield Park (1814). See also Northanger Abbey Criticism and Pride and Prejudice Criticism.
A novel of manners set among privileged British society in the early nineteenth century, Mansfield Park chronicles the growth of its heroine, Fanny Price, a timid girl sent to live on her uncle's country estate. Distinguished from Austen's other works for its omniscient narrative, moral didacticism, and lackluster protagonist, critics have nevertheless considered Mansfield Park the author's most ambitious, if aesthetically flawed, novel. Set in the relatively isolated world of the English landed gentry, Mansfield Park, a comedy outwardly concerned with marriages of social advantage, is additionally thought by critics to reflect not only Austen's superb narrative craftsmanship, but also her brilliant sensitivity to the human concerns of love, virtue, and family.
Plot and Major Characters
The novel begins as Fanny Price, a girl of ten years, is conveyed to Mansfield Park, the estate of her aunt, Lady Bertram. Fanny's mother, who has eight other children and a military husband no longer fit for service, does not have the means to care for all of her offspring, and sends Fanny off to grow up among her cousins Tom, Edmund, Maria, and Julia. While the eldest son, Tom, and the two girls ignore their ignorant, poor relation, the shy and reserved Fanny finds a friend and companion in Edmund. Some five years later, Fanny's uncle, Sir Thomas Bertram, departs for Antigua with Tom. Meanwhile, Maria falls in love with the rich but dull-witted Mr. Rushworth and accepts his offer of marriage. Time passes as it always had, until the arrival of charming Henry Crawford and his beautiful sister Mary. Henry becomes the new rector, and the object of Maria and Julia's interest, while Mary draws the attention of Edmund and Tom, who has since returned from the Caribbean. Tom, at the suggestion of his friend Mr. Yates, decides to stage a play, Lovers's Vows, at Mansfield Park. Fanny and Edmund initially resist the idea, but soon give in. The return of Sir Thomas, however, brings an end to the play and the inappropriate behavior it encouraged. Henry Crawford departs for Bath to the grave disappointment of Maria—her hopes of marrying him instead of Mr. Rushworth now dashed. After returning and attending a ball held in her honor, Henry falls in love with Fanny. Unimpressed with Henry's inconsistency and flirtatiousness, Fanny flatly refuses his proposal of marriage, despite the encouragement of both her uncle and Edmund, now a clergyman who is himself enthralled with Mary Crawford. Incensed at her refusal of such a advantageous match, Sir Thomas sends Fanny to visit with her family in Portsmouth. Hoping that her family will embrace her, Fanny is disappointed at their disinterest and the poverty of their circumstances. In the meantime, Henry follows Fanny to Portsmouth to convince her to reconsider his proposal. Softened by the seeming earnestness of his love, she nevertheless doubts his character and continues to refuse his proposal. He leaves, and soon Fanny learns that Maria, now married to Mr. Rushworth, has run off with Henry. Fanny is called back to a Mansfield Park in disorder, where Maria has been banished, Tom has become seriously ill, and Julia has agreed to marry Mr. Yates. Amid this turmoil, Sir Thomas forgives Fanny for her lack of interest in the immoral Henry. Shortly after Fanny's return, Tom recovers and the now disgraced Maria ends her affair with Henry. Meanwhile, in an effort to separate his family from the Crawfords, Edmund cuts ties with Mary. The tale closes as Edmund finally realizes his love for virtuous Fanny. He and Fanny marry and settle near the family estate.
Critics of Mansfield Park almost invariably focus on its heroine Fanny Price, who is generally thought to be a static figure, the embodiment of Christian virtue firmly placed within the context of nineteenth-century British aristocratic life. Fanny's morally upright behavior in Mansfield Park is also said to contrast sharply with the inauthentic and superficial expressions of the other characters in the novel. Others have noted that Austen treats her heroine with the same degree of irony as those of her previous novels, and indeed satirizes the idealized, conduct-book view of woman as the paragon of domestic virtue. Some critics have also interpreted Fanny as the heroine of a Bildungsroman, or novel of education, arguing that Austen presents a psychologically complex feminine figure who develops substantially over the course of the novel. In addition to a sometimes contentious thematic focus on Fanny, critics frequently comment on the subject of marriage, which appears prominently in Mansfield Park as it does in all of Austen's novels. Marriage, the sanctity of the family, and the bonds of filial responsibility and love, scholars observe, all exist as principal motifs in the work.
While Mansfield Park, like the remainder of Austen's mature works, has been generally well-received, modern scholars have almost universally labeled the novel Austen's most difficult. As such, the work has elicited a great deal of interest from various quarters, including a range of feminist and cultural critics. A number of commentators have concentrated on the ideological component of Mansfield Park and its contrast with Austen's somewhat lighter early novels. Among the most influential appraisals has been that of Marxist critic Edward Said, who has found in the work a deeply imperialist sensibility. Said's comments have also spawned a political understanding of the novel that probes its representation of cultural exclusion. Other assessments of Mansfield Park have concentrated on Fanny Price and Lionel Trilling's famous remark that, ‘no one, I believe, has ever found it possible to like the heroine of Mansfield Park.’ Indeed, some critics have viewed Fanny as essentially a morally perfect individual, lacking in dynamic tension. In contrast, many have found this notion reductive. Overall, Mansfield Park has not enjoyed the same degree of popularity as Austen's other novels, largely due to issues related to the characterization of Fanny. Still, the work has been considered a complex and rich production of one of the nineteenth century's most insightful novelists.