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.)

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

Mansfield Park

Mansfield Park. Estate of Sir Thomas Bertram; an elegant, well-maintained English country house set amid formal shrubberies and bridle paths. Although Lady Bertram is congenitally idle, the estate’s servants keep the large house running smoothly. Fanny Price, a young niece and poor relation, is quartered in a “little white attic near the old nurseries.” Across the park is the Mansfield parsonage, the home of Mrs. Norris, Lady Bertram’s overbearing sister, whose husband is the rector.

While Sir Thomas is in residence, the estate is a model of order and dignity, the beau ideal of a noble family seat. However, a flaw appears when the death of Mr. Norris coincides with the extravagant behavior of Tom, Sir Thomas’s older son. To cover this son’s debts, Sir Thomas must dispose of the estate to outsiders, the Grants, instead of holding it until his younger son is ordained. The Grants’ arrival opens the rectory doors (and hence, those of Mansfield) to their young relatives, the Crawfords. As this attractive but fundamentally cynical and corrupt pair begin to destabilize Mansfield Park, Sir Thomas must travel to Antigua to see to his properties there. An offstage presence in the story, Antigua hints at further disturbance of a basically conservative social order.

The Mansfield young people are talked into converting a room of the manor into a stage for amateur theatricals. Only Fanny is convinced that Sir Thomas would find this unacceptable; even Edmund, the most moral...

(The entire section is 626 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Mansfield Park, like all Austen’s works published in her lifetime, saw print anonymously, according to proper ladylike fashion of the day, under terms arranged by Austen’s brother, since a lady could not make professional commitments. Additionally, Mansfield Park was dedicated by royal command to the profligate Prince Regent. Austen would have preferred not to honor one of whom she so strongly disapproved, but as a woman without resources, she had no power of refusal.

For many years, Austen’s novels, while never forgotten but always read and justly celebrated for their perfections of style and construction, were relegated to a conve-nient apparent vacuum between the masculine achievements of the eighteenth century novels of Henry Fielding, Laurence Sterne, and Samuel Richardson and the rise of the Victorian novels of Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray, and Anthony Trollope. Quieter than those of the Brontës, apparently less far-reaching than George Eliot’s, Austen’s novels evidently sat on a shelf of novels of manners or ladies’ drawing-room fiction—Mansfield Park, with its vexing heroine and problematic ideology, securely bracketed by the sparkling Pride and Prejudice and the perennial favorite Emma. Austen herself contributed to her literary dispatch with humble comments, admittedly not for public consumption, made in letters that seemed to disparage any larger purposes to her art...

(The entire section is 409 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

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 negative essay on Fanny as “monster.”

Brown, Julia Prewitt. Jane Austen’s Novels: Social Change and Literary Form. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1979. Sees Mansfield Park’s message as the suffocating decline of England into Victorianism.

Butler, Marilyn. Jane Austen and the War of Ideas. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1987. Explores Austen’s conservative attitudes toward female education by contrasting Fanny, the “perfect” Christian heroine, with the other female characters. Argues that Fanny is a paradoxical and appealing mixture of feeble passivity and quiet endurance.

Duckworth, Alistair. The Improvement of the Estate: A Study of Jane Austen’s Novels. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1971. A crucial study of Austen’s treatment of the relation between the individual and society. Asserts that Austen uses the country estate to represent social,...

(The entire section is 644 words.)