Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Mansfield Park examines moral education in a rural family of English gentry in the early nineteenth century. Although Fanny Price’s moral principles are secure, those of her cousins, including Edmund, are insecurely grounded, leaving them susceptible to being led astray. The novel also explores women’s issues. First, there is Fanny, who is entirely without power or influence in a household and society dominated by men. Moreover, Fanny provokes strong reactions from readers, who seem either to admire her uprightness or to detest her priggishness. Furthermore, she stands socially and morally in stark contrast to the glittering Mary Crawford, as well as to her sophisticated cousins, who mock her lack of formal education, rich though it is in Scripture, in comparison to their own modern schooling in English monarchs and medieval science. The roles, responsibilities, and possibilities for women are thereby questioned by the novel.

Austen’s novel falls into three symmetrical parts, the first two at rural Mansfield Park, the last at remote, urban Portsmouth. The initial section introduces moral temptation and includes two of the great set pieces of Mansfield Park. One is an excursion to Sotherton, Rushworth’s estate, ostensibly so that Henry Crawford can advise its owner on “landscape improvement,” a fashionable project of the times that here leads to moral ambiguities. The characters split up for strolls over the property in literal directions that foreshadow figurative developments. Edmund and Mary forsake Fanny, for whom they walk too fast, and Henry and Maria abandon Julia to Mrs. Norris and also leave behind Rushworth, who must...

(The entire section is 683 words.)