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 secure the key to a locked gate while they symbolically circumvent respectable egress by climbing over. Events bear out these desertions.
The second and larger incident begins when Tom Bertram brings home his friend Yates, who tells of other leisured friends who distract themselves with amateur theatricals. Inspired by Yates, the Bertrams and Crawfords rehearse Elizabeth Inchbald’s Lovers’ Vows, a current rendition of a titillating German melodrama about seduction and illegitimacy, which provides the stage on which to act out sexual attractions. The propriety of the scheme is finessed because Sir Thomas is away, attending to his jeopardized estates; thoughtless Mrs. Norris is quite in support of something so dramatic; and Edmund is drawn in against his better judgment by Mary’s allure. Only Fanny recognizes the imprudence of this particular drama, especially when Sir Thomas is not at home, but no one heeds her. Sir Thomas suddenly returns, dissolving the production, but order is only temporarily restored.
The second part of the novel takes place under Sir Thomas’ eye. Three Bertram children are scattered elsewhere to establish themselves or to sow their wild oats—Maria is married in distant and dangerous London, Julia is visiting her, and Edmund is ordained and settled at his parish—so Fanny comes into her own as a center of attention and the object of Henry’s designs. She grows confident and attractive but is unmoved by Henry.
The last part banishes Fanny to the squalid chaos of parental Portsmouth to meditate on her much-rebuked rejection of Henry. Meanwhile, catastrophe threatens the Mansfield Park principals when dissipated Tom becomes deathly ill; Maria runs off with Henry, thereby vindicating Fanny’s judgment; and Julia elopes with Yates. In speedy resolution, Tom recovers, presumably spiritually and physically; Maria is exiled to the north with Mrs. Norris, who is finally revealed as a deluded adviser; Julia’s attachment is legitimized; Edmund is free to love Fanny when Mary refuses to condemn her brother; and Fanny’s younger sister is imported to Mansfield Park to replace her as Lady Bertram’s handmaiden and Sir Thomas’ prodigy. Because Mansfield...
(This entire section contains 683 words.)
Park is a true Protestant novel, however, correction is internal; the conscience rewards or punishes as the individual is aware.
Readers often protest the rapid-fire close, especially the fact that Austen draws the curtain before actually presenting Edmund’s change of heart and disposition toward Fanny from fraternal tutor to lover and husband. The crucial obstacle, however, has been his infatuation with Mary. Once that disintegrates, further exposition would belabor the obvious.
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 of the Bertram children, is swayed by the enthusiasm of the teasing Mary Crawford. Mrs. Norris, in charge owing to Lady Bertram’s indolence, indulges her nieces in rehearsing a play that encourages dangerous flirtations.
Sotherton. Family estate of Mr. Rushworth, Maria Bertram’s dull but wealthy fiancé, which is visited by a party from Mansfield Park. Approached through a long avenue of oak trees, the house, which has its own family chapel, is substantial but fairly modern and not very interesting. Its grounds include a bowling green and a long terraced walk, but beyond the formal parkland lies “a nice little wood,” in which shady serpentine paths overlook a sunken fence. There, a tired Fanny is forgotten as Edmund and Mary explore among the trees and Maria disappears with Henry Crawford. While Austen’s writings are rarely heavily symbolic, this locale surely underlines the moral wilderness into which most of the principal characters are plunging.
*Portsmouth. Port city on England’s southern coast to which Fanny is sent to stay at her parents’ home after she rejects Henry Crawford’s proposal of marriage. Sir Thomas hopes the contrast between the serenity and order of Mansfield Park and the squalor of a lower-middle-class home in the great naval port city will cause her to rethink her decision.
Price house. Portsmouth home of Fanny’s parents. The house is small, untidy, and full of ragged, dirty, and rude children. Its walls are thin, and it is an “abode of noise, disorder, and impropriety.” Austen makes no simplistic pairing of wealth with corruption and poverty with innocence. If Mansfield Park has become somewhat tainted, Portsmouth is altogether coarse and gross, failing even to recognize standards of harmony and restraint that one may be unable to meet perfectly. Although the Price house is disagreeable physically and disappointing emotionally, Fanny is able to control her desire to return to Mansfield Park until all the social couplings have been sorted out appropriately, and she is in a strong position to refuse Henry Crawford again. She eventually marries her cousin Edmund and installs the most trainable of her younger sisters as Lady Bertram’s resident niece and errand girl at the estate, which will be in good hands in the future.
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 beyond the village environs and its conventions and politics. Nevertheless, in one case, at least, she is advising a niece’s developing craft, not necessarily making claims for her own artistic range.
Critics have increasingly examined Austen’s work to reveal previously uncharted complexities of meaning, especially with regard to women’s issues. Mansfield Park, in particular, is rich to those who render the unprepossessing Fanny endlessly fascinating. Fanny has nothing, but she vanquishes a much more magnetic and vastly better endowed rival. Fanny has also foiled critics’ attempts to pinion her. Under the spotlight of women’s issues, she has been variously called patriarchy’s victim, society’s foil, the subversive worm bringing down English imperialism, evangelical Christianity’s avatar, the age’s embodiment of the female, and villainy incarnate. She is, therefore, a favored topic for writers interested in women, as in truth are all Austen’s protagonists. Although the novel has always been among the few creative outlets available to women writers, Austen is at last achieving recognition among the supreme heights of that genre’s practitioners of either sex, with some proclaiming Mansfield Park its crown jewel.
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, political, and moral order. In Mansfield Park, contrasts the “improvers,” who sacrifice harmony to individual desire, with Fanny, whose individual respect enlivens the communal values of Mansfield Park.
Fleishman, Avrom. A Reading of “Mansfield Park”: An Essay in Critical Synthesis. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1967. A detailed multiperspectival discussion of the novel. Places the novel in its historical context, examines the psychological realism of Austen’s characters, and analyzes the novel’s mythical structure. Also contains a helpful bibliography.
Gard, Roger. Jane Austen’s Novels: The Art of Clarity. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1992. Presents Austen as a major realistic novelist; sensitive but critical of Fanny. Thorough bibliography.
Handley, Graham. Jane Austen. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992. A helpful overview of Austen’s work.
Hardy, Barbara. A Reading of Jane Austen. New York: New York University Press, 1976. A sensitive study interpreting Fanny as Romanticism’s intellectual heir.
Honan, Park. Jane Austen: Her Life. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1987. An interesting, definitive biography. Vague on dates.
Johnson, Claudia. Jane Austen: Women, Politics, and the Novel. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988. A perceptive, well-informed feminist view of Austen as middle-of-the-road. Somewhat left-leaning. Sees Mansfield Park as an indictment of the gentry. Bibliography buried in endnotes.
Koppel, Gene. The Religious Dimension of Jane Austen’s Novels. Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research Press, 1988. Views Mansfield Park as a “dark”—that is, socially informed—comedy.
MacDonagh, Oliver. Jane Austen: Real and Imagined Worlds. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1991. An illuminating contextual study by a historian who reads Mansfield Park in contemporary religious terms.
Monaghan, David. Jane Austen: Structure and Social Vision. London: Macmillan, 1980. A useful new-historicist reading that views Fanny as central to her society.
Mooneyham, Laura G. Romance, Language and Education in Jane Austen’s Novels. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988. Interprets the central issue of Mansfield Park as the heroine’s education. Sees this, however, as Fanny’s progress from the negative, because incomplete, virtues of duty and patience to the positive, active, virtues of judging and directing.
Morgan, Susan. In the Meantime: Character and Perception in Jane Austen’s Fiction. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980. A thoughtful analysis of Fanny as a developing character.
Southam, B. C. Critical Essays on Jane Austen. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1968. A helpful, introductory collection of ten essays, two of which deal specifically with Mansfield Park, exploring the artistry with which Austen conveys the novel’s moral and social conservatism.
Tanner, Tony. Jane Austen. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1986. Graceful, rewarding introductory essays. Admiring of unchanging Fanny.
Thompson, James. Between Self and World: The Novels of Jane Austen. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1988. A new-historicist reading using the marriage contract as emblematic of English society.