(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.

Major Themes

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Sense and Sensibility (novel) 1811

Pride and Prejudice (novel) 1813

Mansfield Park (novel) 1814

Emma (novel) 1816

Northanger Abbey: And Persuasion (novels) 1818

Lady Susan (novel) 1871

The Watsons (unfinished novel) 1871

Love and Friendship and Other Early Works, Now first printed from the Original MS (juvenilia) 1922

[Sanditon] Fragments of a Novel (unfinished novel) 1925

Jane Austen's Letters to her Sister Cassandra and Others, edited by R. W. Chapman (letters) 1932

Volume the First (juvenilia) 1933

Volume the Third (juvenilia) 1951

Volume the Second (juvenilia) 1963

Marilyn Butler (essay date 1975)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Mansfield Park: Ideology and Execution,” in New Casebooks: Mansfield Park and Persuasion, edited by Judy Simons, Macmillan Press Ltd., 1997, pp. 19-36.

[In the following excerpt originally published in 1975, Butler explores the ideological conflicts—particularly between Fanny Price's Christianity and the Crawford's materialism—in Mansfield Park.]

With the possible exception of Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park is the most visibly ideological of Jane Austen's novels, and as such has a central position in any examination of Jane Austen's philosophy as expressed in her art. It is all the more revealing because here she has...

(The entire section is 6780 words.)

John Halperin (essay date 1983)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Novelist as Heroine in Mansfield Park: A Study in Autobiography,” in Modern Language Quarterly, Vol. 44, No. 2, June, 1983, pp. 136-56.

[In the following essay, Halperin contends that Mansfield Park is Austen's most autobiographical novel, and considers the work's affinity with Austen's other novels.]

Mansfield Park is Jane Austen's Vanity Fair. Almost everyone in it is selfish—self-absorbed, self-indulgent, and vain. This helps make it her most unpleasant novel—and her most controversial. For years critics have exercised themselves trying to explain, justify, expound, or attack its moral slant. Misreadings of the book...

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Nina Auerbach (essay date 1983)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Jane Austen's Dangerous Charm: Feeling as One Ought about Fanny Price,” in Jane Austen: New Perspectives, edited by Janet Todd, Holmes & Meier Publishers, Inc., 1983, pp. 208-23.

[In the following essay, Auerbach considers Fanny Price as a version of the Romantic monster.]

Alone among masters of fiction, Jane Austen commands the woman's art of making herself loved. She knows how to enchant us with conversational sparkle, to charm our assent with a glow of description, to entice our smiles with the coquette's practiced glee. No major novelist is such an adept at charming. Samuel Richardson, her greatest predecessor, disdained gentlemanly amenities in...

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Margaret Kirkham (essay date 1983)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Feminist Irony and the Priceless Heroine of Mansfield Park,” in Jane Austen: New Perspectives, edited by Janet Todd, Holmes & Meier Publishers, Inc., 1983, pp. 231-47.

[In the following essay, Kirkham outlines the irony of Fanny Price's characterization in Mansfield Park as it subtly mocks the sentimental conduct-book ideal of womanhood.]

“‘I do not quite know what to make of Miss Fanny. I do not understand her.’” So says Henry Crawford (Mansfield Park, p. 230).1 What to make of Miss Fanny is the central moral puzzle Jane Austen presents to her anti-hero. He fails to discover the correct solution. It is also the...

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Jane McDonnell (essay date 1984)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘A Little Spirit of Independence’: Sexual Politics and the Bildungsroman in Mansfield Park,” in Novel: A Forum on Fiction, Vol. 17, No. 3, Spring, 1984, pp. 197-214.

[In the following essay, McDonnell evaluates Mansfield Park as a Bildungsroman that deals authentically with feminine childhood experience.]

Mansfield Park has never lacked detractors. Kingsley Amis is typical, if a little intemperate, in calling it an “immoral book” and the character of Fanny Price a “monster of complacency and pride, who under a cloak of cringing self-abasement, dominates and gives meaning to the novel.”1 Others have criticized the...

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Ruth Bernard Yeazell (essay date 1984)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Boundaries of Mansfield Park,” in New Casebooks: Mansfield Park and Persuasion, edited by Judy Simons, Macmillan Press Ltd., 1997, pp. 67-92.

[In the following essay originally published in 1984, Yeazell presents an anthropological study of Mansfield Park, focusing on the novel's concern with transgressed boundaries, such as the anxiety associated with the taint of spiritual pollution.]


Immediately before the climax of Mansfield Park, in the last chapter of Fanny Price's exile at Portsmouth, comes a passage extraordinary for Jane Austen—extraordinary both in the concreteness of its...

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David Kaufmann (essay date 1986)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Closure in Mansfield Park and the Sanctity of the Family,” in Philological Quarterly, Vol. 65, No. 2, Spring, 1986, pp. 211-29.

[In the following essay, Kaufmann sees Mansfield Park as primarily concerned with the responsibilities of family, rather than the contractual obligations of marriage.]

Mansfield Park is, above all, a novel not about the sanctity of marriage, but the sanctity of the family. In many ways it sets the two in opposition to each other. Familial relationships cross the generations, and, by emphasizing filial duty, may be defined as hierarchical; marriage, on the other hand, creates a relationship whose obligations...

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C. Knatchbull Bevan (essay date 1987)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Personal Identity in Mansfield Park: Forms, Fictions, Role-Play, and Reality,” in SEL: Studies in English Literature 1500-1900, Vol. 27, No. 4, Autumn, 1987, pp. 595-608.

[In the following essay, Bevan discusses acting and fiction-making as inauthentic forms of self-expression in Mansfield Park.]

Two papers which deal pertinently with acting as a rhetorically crucial theme in Mansfield Park are those by Lionel Trilling and Thomas R. Edwards.1 Of these, Lionel Trilling's seminal essay fails to observe the pervasiveness of the theme of role-play in the novel as a whole. Professor Edwards, though he deals cogently with the whole...

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Edward W. Said (essay date 1989)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Jane Austen and Empire,” in Contemporary Marxist Literary Criticism, edited by Francis Mulhern, Longman Group, 1992, pp. 97-113.

[In the following essay originally published in 1989, Said evaluates Mansfield Park as a pre-imperialist text.]

We are on solid ground with V. G. Kiernan when he says that ‘empires must have a mould of ideas or conditioned reflexes to flow into, and youthful nations dream of a great place in the world as young men dream of fame and fortunes.’1 It is, I believe, too simple and reductive a proposition to argue that everything in European and American culture is therefore a preparation for, or a consolidation...

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Pam Perkins (essay date 1993)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “A Subdued Gaiety: The Comedy of Mansfield Park,” in Nineteenth-Century Literature, Vol. 48, No. 1, June, 1993, pp. 1-25.

[In the following essay, Perkins examines Mansfield Park for its juxtaposition of two traditions of literary comedy—the sentimental humor of feminine development and Restoration wit.]

At the beginning of Shirley, Charlotte Brontë warns readers fresh from the Gothic thrills of Jane Eyre not to expect anything like her earlier work. What they are about to read, she informs them, is mere lenten fare, “something unromantic as Monday morning.” Aggrieved Jane Austen fans, finding Mansfield Park rather...

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John Wiltshire (essay date 1997)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Mansfield Park, Emma, Persuasion,” in The Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen, edited by Edward Copeland and Juliet McMaster, Cambridge University Press, 1997, pp. 58-83.

[In the following excerpt, Wiltshire probes the psychological focus and narrative technique of Mansfield Park.]

Mansfield Park was published only a year after Pride and Prejudice, but moving from one novel to the other the reader is keenly aware of a change of tone and atmosphere. Partly it is that Mansfield Park is evidently the work of an older, maturer, woman. The narrator is not an intrusive presence, by any means, but one who, while an insider of the world...

(The entire section is 3584 words.)

Further Reading

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Anderson, Misty G. “‘The Different Sorts of Friendship’: Desire in Mansfield Park.” In Jane Austen and Discourses of Feminism, edited by Devoney Looser, pp. 167-83. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995.

Discerns evidence of homoerotic desire in Mansfield Park.

Cleere, Eileen. “Reinventing Nieces: Mansfield Park and the Economics of Endogomy.” In Novel 28, No. 2 (Winter 1995): 113-30.

Sees the extended family as the “primary source of middle-class empowerment” proposed in Mansfield Park.

Cohen, Paula Marantz. “Stabilizing the Family System at Mansfield Park.” In ELH 54, No. 3 (Fall...

(The entire section is 1062 words.)