Title page of the first edition
Mansfield Park is the third published novel by Jane Austen, first published in 1814 by Thomas Egerton. A second edition was published in 1816 by John Murray, still within Austen's lifetime. The novel did not receive any public reviews until 1821.
The novel tells the story of Fanny Price, starting when her overburdened, impoverished family sends her at age ten to live in the household of her wealthy aunt and uncle; it follows her development and concludes in early adulthood.
From the late 20th century onward, critical reception has been diverse and Mansfield Park is now considered Austen's most controversial novel. In recent decades, historical context and allusions have featured prominently in criticism as has a growing awareness of Austen's sophisticated psychological characterisations.
Two notable film versions of the novel were released: Frances O'Connor starring in the lead role in the 1999 version co-starring Jonny Lee Miller and followed by Billie Piper starring in the 2007 version for ITV1 co-starring Blake Ritson.
- 1 Plot summary
- 2 Characters
- 3 Literary reception
- 4 Development, themes and symbols
- 5 Who is Fanny Price?
- 6 Landscape improvements
- 7 Theatre at Mansfield Park
- 8 Church and Mansfield Park
- 9 Slavery and Mansfield Park
- 10 Propriety and morality
- 11 Adaptations
- 12 References
- 13 External links
Frances "Fanny" Price, at age ten, is sent from her family home to live with her uncle and aunt in the country in Northamptonshire. It is a jolting change, from the elder sister of many, to the youngest at the estate of Sir Thomas Bertram, husband of her mother's older sister. Her cousin Edmund finds her alone one day and helps her. She wants to write to her older brother William. Edmund provides the writing materials, the first kindness to her in this new family. Her cousins are Tom Jr. (age 17), Edmund (16), Maria (13) and Julia (12). Her aunt, Lady Bertram, is kind to her, but her uncle frightens her (unintentionally) with his authoritative demeanour. Fanny's mother has another sister, Mrs Norris; the wife of the clergyman at the Mansfield parsonage. Mrs Norris and her husband have no children of their own, and she takes a 'great interest' in her nieces and nephews; Mrs Norris makes a strict distinction between her Bertram nieces and lowly Fanny. Sir Thomas helps the sons of the Price family find occupations when they are old enough. William joins the Navy as a midshipman not long after Fanny arrives at Mansfield Park. He visits them once after going to sea, and writes to his sister.
When Fanny is fifteen, Aunt Norris is a widow and moves into a small cottage. The frequency of her visits to Mansfield Park increases, as does her mistreatment of Fanny. Tom Bertram incurs a large debt and to pay it, Sir Thomas sells the living of the parsonage, freed up by the death of Uncle Norris, to clergyman Dr Grant.
When Fanny is sixteen, Sir Thomas leaves to deal with problems on his plantation in Antigua. He takes Tom along and trusts to Aunt Norris for the others. Mrs Norris takes on the task of finding a husband for Maria and finds James Rushworth, with income of ₤12,000 a year, but weak-willed and stupid. Maria accepts his marriage proposal, subject to Sir Thomas's approval on his return. After a year in Antigua, Sir Thomas sends Tom home to Mansfield Park.
One year later, the wealthy and worldly Henry Crawford and his sister, Mary Crawford, arrive at the parsonage to stay with Mrs Grant, their half-sister. The arrival of the fashionable Crawfords enlivens life in Mansfield and sparks romantic entanglements. Mary and Edmund begin to form an attachment. She is disappointed to learn that Edmund will be a clergyman, due to her love of fashionable society. Fanny fears that Mary's charms and attractions have blinded Edmund to her flaws in morality. On a visit to Mr Rushworth's estate Sotherton in Henry Crawford's barouche, Henry deliberately plays with the affections of both Maria and Julia. Maria believes Henry is falling in love with her and treats Mr Rushworth dismissively, provoking his jealousy, while Julia struggles with jealousy and resentment towards her sister. Fanny observes this while Aunt Norris, blinded by her self-importance and Edmund, infatuated with Mary, fail to perceive the various flirtations.
Encouraged by Tom and his friend Mr Yates, the young people decide to put on an amateur performance of the play Lovers' Vows after their return to Mansfield. Edmund objects, believing Sir Thomas would disapprove and feeling that the subject matter of the play is inappropriate for his sisters. Edmund reluctantly agrees to take on the role of Anhalt, the lover of the character played by Mary Crawford, to prevent an outsider from playing the part. The play provides a pretext for Henry and Maria to flirt in public. Fanny observes this, but Aunt Norris, caught up in the excitement of staging a play, does not.
Sir Thomas arrives home earlier than expected, while most are in the midst of rehearsal. He stops the play. Henry, from whom Maria had expected a marriage proposal, instead takes his leave, and she is not pleased. She goes ahead with marriage to Rushworth in order to prove she is unaffected, with her father's permission. They honeymoon in Brighton and then settle in London, taking Julia with them. Fanny's improved appearance and gentle disposition endear her to Sir Thomas. With Maria and Julia gone, Fanny and Mary Crawford visit often.
Henry returns to Mansfield parsonage, deciding to entertain himself by making Fanny fall in love with him. Fanny's brother William visits Mansfield Park, much to the delight of Fanny. Her familial love and delicate manner make Henry fall in love with Fanny, regardless of her lack of response to his attentions. Sir Thomas, noticing Henry's attentions to Fanny, approves the match and holds a ball to celebrate Fanny's coming out, an important distinction in the Regency era. Fanny borrows a necklace from Mary to hold a cross she has received as a gift from William, but is distressed to learn the chain was a gift to Mary from Henry. Immediately following, she receives a simpler chain that suits her much better from Edmund, and the cross fits on this chain. She wears both to the ball. Edmund, meanwhile, asks Mary for the first two dances at the ball, which she accepts while attacking his career choice, deterring his plan to propose and souring his mood for the ball. Fanny receives the honor of leading the dance, which in her modesty is a surprise to her. William leaves early the next day in Henry's barouche, with a stop in London before returning to Portsmouth. Edmund follows a few days later to take orders for the clergy, upsetting Mary.
Henry returns, announcing to Mary his intention to marry Fanny, a decided turn from his original notion. To further his suit, he uses his family connections to help Fanny's brother William gain promotion as a naval lieutenant, to her great joy and gratitude. When Henry proposes marriage, however, Fanny rejects him out of hand, due to his moral failings, observed during the play rehearsals. Sir Thomas is astonished at her refusal; she does not tell him about Henry's behavior during the play, afraid of incriminating Maria. He reproaches her, accusing her of ingratitude, and encourages Henry to persevere. Edmund returns from his absence, which he had prolonged, hoping to avoid meeting Mary. He quickly begins to fall for Mary again.
To help Fanny appreciate her life in a wealthy house, Sir Thomas sends her for a visit to her parents in Portsmouth. She sets off with William and sees him in his first berth as a commissioned officer. At Portsmouth, she develops a firm bond with her younger sister, Susan, but is taken aback by the contrast between her surroundings—noise, chaos, unpalatable food, crude conversation, and filth everywhere—and the harmonious environment at Mansfield. Henry visits her there. Although Fanny still refuses him, she sees some of his good features, in dealing with her family and managing his own estate.
Henry leaves for London, and shortly afterward, Fanny learns that scandal has enveloped him and Maria. The two meet at a party and rekindle their flirtation, which leads to an affair. An indiscreet servant makes the affair public and the story is in the newspapers. Maria runs away with Henry. Mr Rushworth sues Maria for divorce, and the proud Bertram family is devastated. At the same time, Tom has fallen gravely ill as a result of his irresponsible lifestyle, and Julia, fearing her father's anger for her part in concealing Maria's affair, has eloped with Tom's friend, Mr Yates.
Edmund takes Fanny back to Mansfield Park along with Susan. A repentant Sir Thomas now realises that Fanny was right to reject Henry's proposal, and now regards her as his own daughter. During an emotional meeting with Mary Crawford, Edmund discovers that Mary does not condemn Henry and Maria's adultery, and regrets only that it was discovered. She places blame on Fanny for failing to accept Henry right away. Edmund is devastated; he breaks off the relationship and returns to Mansfield Park.
Edmund slowly gets over his love for Mary. Then he comes to realise how important Fanny is to him. He declares his love for her, and they are married, live at Thornton Lacey, and eventually move to Mansfield parsonage, in the circle of those they love best. Susan takes Fanny's place as the companion of Lady Bertram. Tom recovers from his illness, a steadier and better man for it, and Julia's husband, Mr Yates, proves to be a respectable member of the family. Henry Crawford refuses to marry Maria. Her family will not take her in, but her father sets her up in a house with Aunt Norris, the both of them out of his sight. Mary Crawford moves in with Mrs Grant, hoping for a husband.
- Fanny Price
- The second eldest of nine children, Fanny is sent to live with her mother's sisters at Mansfield Park at age 10. Fanny is sensitive, shy, intelligent, and virtuous, with a good sense of morals, and her status at Mansfield Park as a dependent poor relation only intensifies these traits. Much of the novel takes place when she is 18 and 19. She has been in love with her cousin Edmund ever since she was young. However, it takes some time until Edmund realises that he reciprocates. Prior to her cousin's revelation, Henry Crawford tries unsuccessfully to woo Fanny. Edmund and Fanny marry at the end of the novel.
- Lady Bertram
- Maria Ward, who married the wealthy Sir Thomas Bertram. Middle sister of three Wards: Mrs Norris, Maria, and Fanny's mother Frances, also called Fanny. She is perpetually vague and distracted. She is lazy and indolent and primarily involved with her lapdog pugs. Born "Miss Maria Ward, of Huntingdon, with only seven thousand pounds [...].".
- Mrs Norris
- The officious, skinflint older sister of Lady Bertram, who lives near Mansfield Park. Her husband, Mr Norris, was the parson at Mansfield Park until his death. She dislikes Fanny and takes every opportunity to put her down and make a distinction between Fanny's treatment and that of her wealthier cousins. Mrs Norris also takes every opportunity to save money, such as taking jellies and sewing materials from the main house for her own home.
- Sir Thomas Bertram, baronet
- The husband of Fanny's aunt, Lady Bertram. He owns the Mansfield Park estate and an estate in Antigua. He is initially stern and correct, yet a man with a strong sense of family. He aids his wife's nephews in finding a place when they are old enough. He later realises his behaviour may have in part led to the ruin of his eldest daughter and the dissolute behavior of his eldest son. He wishes his own children were more like his niece and nephew, Fanny and William Price.
- Tom Bertram
- The older son of Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram; he is seven years older than Fanny. Tom is principally interested in horseracing, carousing in London society, and enjoying the pleasures of the theatre with his friend, Mr Yates. Tom incurs large debts, forcing Sir Thomas to sell the church position that would have gone to Tom's younger brother, Edmund. Eventually, Tom becomes gravely ill due to his dissolute lifestyle, helping to teach him the error of his ways.
- Edmund Bertram
- The younger son of Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram; he is six years older than Fanny. He plans to be a clergyman. He alone among his family has any consideration for Fanny's feelings. As her protector and friend, he has a great deal of influence over her and helps form her character. But he is also given to self-deception, and thoughtlessly causes Fanny pain, especially when he becomes attracted to Miss Crawford. But Miss Crawford's opinions on the scandal involving her brother mortify him. He later realises he is in love with Fanny and they are married.
- Maria Bertram
- The very beautiful elder daughter of Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram; she is three years older than Fanny. She becomes engaged to Mr Rushworth but she becomes attached to Henry Crawford. She expects Mr Crawford to propose and when he doesn't, she marries Mr Rushworth for his £12,000 a year, despite knowing him to be a boorish young man with little but his money to recommend him. Mr Crawford crosses her path in London soon after her marriage and they begin an affair, resulting in a great public scandal. Rushworth divorces her and Mr Crawford refuses to marry her. As a divorced woman she will be financially dependent on her family and they banish her, with her Aunt Norris, to live "in another country."
- Julia Bertram
- The younger daughter of Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram; she is two years older than Fanny. She has strong feelings toward Mr Crawford, but soon learns that he prefers Maria despite, or because of, her sister's engagement. Mr Yates pursues her, which is swiftly ended when Sir Thomas returns to the house. Julia later goes with Mr and Mrs Rushworth on their honeymoon and to their house in town. After Maria runs away with Mr Crawford, Julia elopes with Mr Yates, ostensibly to escape blame and punishment by her father for Maria's elopement with Mr Crawford and for the role she played in facilitating it.
- Dr Grant
- Parson at the Mansfield Park parsonage after Mr Norris dies. Age 45 when he arrives at Mansfield Park. He greatly enjoys food and drink.
- Mrs Grant
- The wife of Mr Grant, and half-sister of Henry and Mary Crawford. She is very interested to see her brother and sister married. She is 15 years younger than her husband; they have no children.
- Mr Henry Crawford
- Brother of Mrs Grant and Miss Crawford. A charming, persuasive and eligible bachelor who plays with the emotions of Maria and Julia. This is observed by Fanny. After Maria's marriage, he decides to make Fanny fall in love with him but instead falls in love with her. He loses any chance with her after he and Maria elope together.
- Mr. James Rushworth
- A wealthy but boring man who becomes engaged to Maria Bertram. He divorces her after she runs away with Henry Crawford.
- The Hon. John Yates
- A good friend of Tom Bertram. Tom and Yates carouse in London society and bring their love of the theatre to Mansfield Park. Yates expresses interest in Julia Bertram. He elopes with Julia around the time Mr Crawford and Maria run away together.
- William Price
- Fanny's older brother, a naval midshipman, with whom she is very close. Mr Crawford seeks to ingratiate himself with Fanny by helping William advance in his profession. William is polite, kind and engaging, and Fanny's only correspondent in her family until she visits them. Helped early in his naval career by his uncle Sir Thomas.
- Mr Price
- Fanny's father, an officer in the Marines who lives in Portsmouth. His main interests are the sea and the ships that sail from Portsmouth, and keeping up a social life with his seagoing friends. His large family outruns his income.
- Mrs Price
- Born Frances (Fanny) Ward, Fanny's mother, sister of Mrs Norris and Lady Bertram. She married a poor lieutenant of marines, Mr Price, for love. She resembles Lady Bertram in her easy character and laziness, but under the pressure of a large family and a low income she has become slatternly and overburdened. Like her husband, she seems to care little for Fanny. Mrs Price's husband becomes disabled and is released from the service on half pay; she has settled for a life far less comfortable than those of her sisters.
- Susan Price
- Fanny's younger sister, with whom Fanny first becomes close on a visit home. She returns with Fanny to Mansfield Park and takes Fanny's place helping her aunt when Fanny marries Edmund.
- Lady Stornoway
- A society woman, who is complicit in Mr Crawford and Maria's flirtation. They meet at her parties and eventually run away together from her home.
- Mrs Rushworth
- Mr Rushworth's mother and Maria's mother-in-law. Mr Rushworth is on his way to fetch her at Easter when Mr Crawford and Maria increase their flirtation and eventually run away together. Mrs Rushworth is not fond of her daughter-in-law after the marriage.
- Sir Thomas Bertram's butler at Mansfield Park. Although having significant responsibility he is mentioned by name on only three occasions. His one brief speech is accompanied by a knowing half-smile.
Although Mansfield Park was initially ignored by reviewers, it was a great success with the public. The first printing in 1814 sold out within six months. The second In 1816 also sold out. The first critical review in 1821 by Richard Whately was positive.
Regency critics praised the novel's wholesome morality. The Victorian consensus treated Austen's novels as social comedy. In 1911, A.C. Bradley restored the moral perspective, praising Mansfield Park for being artistic while having 'deeply at heart the importance of certain truths about conduct'. The influential Lionel Trilling (1954), and later Thomas Tanner (1968), maintained emphasis on the novel's deep moral strength. In the 1970's, Alistair Duckworth (1971) and Marilyn Butler (1975) laid the foundation for a more comprehensive understanding of the novel's historical allusions and context.
By the 1970's, Mansfield Park was considered Austen's most controversial novel. In 1974, the American literary critic, Joel Weinsheimer, described Mansfield Park as perhaps the most profound of her novels, certainly the most problematic.
The American scholar, John Halperin (1975), was particularly negative, describing Mansfield Park as the "most eccentric" of Austen's novels and her greatest failure. He attacked the novel for its inane heroine, its pompous hero, a ponderous plot, and "viperish satire". He described the Bertram family as appalling characters, full of self-righteousness, debauchery and greed, personal financial advantage being their only interest. He complained that the scenes set in Portsmouth were far more interesting than those in Mansfield Park, and that having consistently portrayed the Bertram family as greedy, selfish and materialistic, Austen, in the last chapters, presented life at Mansfield Park in idealised terms.
The latter part of the twentieth century saw the development of diverse readings, including feminist and post-colonial criticism, the most influential of the latter being Edward Said's Jane Austen and Empire (1983). While some continued to attack, and others to praise, the novel's conservative morality, yet others saw it as ultimately challenging formal conservative values in favour of compassion and a deeper morality, and having an ongoing challenge to subsequent generations. Isobel Armstrong (1988) argued for an open understanding of the text, that it should be seen as an exploration of problems rather than a statement of final conclusions.
To Susan Morgan (1987) Mansfield Park was the most difficult of Austen's novels, featuring the weakest of all her heroines yet one who ends up the most beloved member of her family. Thomas Edwards (1987) argued that there were more shades of grey in Mansfield Park than in her other novels, and that those who craved a simple dualist worldview might find this off-putting.
Readings by the beginning of the 21st century commonly took for granted Mansfield Park as Austen's most historically searching novel. Most engaged with her highly sophisticated renderings of the character's psychological lives and with historical formations such as Evangelicalism and the consolidation of British imperial power.
In 2014, celebrating 200 years since the novel's publication, Paula Byrne wrote: "Ignore its uptight reputation, Mansfield Park ...seethes with sex and explores England's murkiest corners". She called it pioneering for being about meritocracy. In 2017, Corinne Fowler revisited Said's thesis, reviewing its significance in the light of more recent critical developments in imperial history.
Development, themes and symbols
The novel has many autobiographical associations; some of these are indicated in the following sections about critical discussions of important themes. Austen drew considerably on her own experience and the knowledge of her family and friends. Her acute observation of human behaviour informs the development of all her characters. In Mansfield Park, she continues her practice, like that of the portrait miniaturist, painting on ivory 'with so fine a brush'. Apart from a day's visit to Sotherton and three months' confinement in Portsmouth, the novel's action is restricted to a single estate, yet its subtle allusions are global, touching on India, China and the Caribbean.
Austen knew Portsmouth from personal experience. She records that Admiral Foote, then Second-in-Command at Portsmouth, was "surprised that I had the power of drawing the Portsmouth-Scenes so well". Her brother, Charles Austen served as a Royal Navy officer during the Napoleonic Wars. In the novel, Fanny's brother William joins the Royal Navy as an officer, whose ship, HMS Thrush, is sited right next to HMS Cleopatra at Spithead. Captain Austen commanded HMS Cleopatra during her cruise in North American waters to hunt French ships from September 1810 to June 1811. If the novel refers to the ship in its historical context, this would date the main events of the novel as 1810–1811. William's tales of his life as a midshipman recounted to the Bertrams would have indicated to early readers that he had sailed with Nelson to the Caribbean. Lady Bertram requests two shawls if he goes to the East Indies.
William gives Fanny the gift of an amber cross. This echoes the gift of a topaz cross given by Charles Austen to his sister Jane before he set sail to the Royal Navy's North America stations in Halifax and Bermuda. In Fanny's East room, Edmund speculates from her reading that she will be 'taking a trip into China' in the footsteps of Lord Macartney's pioneering cultural mission.
Symbolic locations and events
The first critic to draw attention to the novel's extensive use of symbolic representation was Virginia Woolf in 1913. Three overtly symbolic events are: the visit to neighbouring Sotherton and the ha-ha with its locked gate (chs. 9-10), the extensive preparation for the theatricals and its aftermath (chs. 13-20), and the game of Speculation (ch. 25) where, says David Selwyn, the card game is a "metaphor for the game Mary Crawford is playing, with Edmund as stake". 'Speculation' also references Sir Thomas's unpredictable investments in the West Indies and Tom's gambling which causes financial embarrassment to Sir Thomas and reduced prospects for Edmund, not to mention the speculative nature of the marriage market..
Who is Fanny Price?
Austen's mother thought Fanny insipid, though other unpublished private reviewers liked the character (Austen collected comments by those in her social circle). Many have seen Fanny Price as a nineteenth century Cinderella.
A major debate concerns whether or not the character of Fanny is meant to be ironic, a parody of the wholesome heroines so popular in Regency novels. Lionel Trilling (1957) maintained that Austen created Fanny as "irony directed against irony itself". William H. Magee (1966) wrote that "irony pervades, if (it) does not dominate, the presentation of Fanny Price." By contrast, Andrew Wright (1968) argued that Fanny "is presented straight-forwardly, without any contradiction of any kind".
Thomas Edwards (1965) regarded Fanny as the most likeable character in the novel, the most human of all the Austen heroines, even though flawed by what he considers her limited morality. Austen biographer Claire Tomalin (1997) argues that Fanny rises to her moment of heroism when she rejects the obedience that, as a woman, she has been schooled to accept and follows the higher dictate of her own conscience.
Clara Calvo (2005) says that many modern readers find it difficult to sympathise with Fanny's timidity and her disapproval of the theatricals, finding her "priggish, passive, naive and hard to like". Priggishness has been a longstanding criticism of Austen's heroine. Wiltshire (2005) challenges the negative judgement of Fanny suggesting that it is the apparent conservatism of the novel that makes it confronting, and that 'many readers cannot get past it'.
Tomalin sees Fanny as a complex personality who, despite her frailty, shows courage and grows in self-esteem during the latter part of the story. Her faith, which gives her the courage to resist what she thinks is wrong also makes her intolerant of some of the sinners. Fanny, always self-reflective, is intolerant of her own intolerance. Change in her character is most marked during her three months exposure to Portsmouth life. Initially, shocked by the coarseness and impropriety of her parental home and its neighbourhood, she condemns it. Her father's attitude is one that modern readers might also condemn, given the tone of incestuous sexual harassment in a man who scarcely notices her except 'to make her the object of a coarse joke'. While now recognising she can never be at home in Portsmouth, she gradually overcomes her acknowledged prejudices, recognises the distinctive qualities of her siblings and works hard not to cause offence. In the wider community, judgement is more even-handed; Fanny does not take to the young ladies of the town and they, offended by the 'airs' of one who neither plays on the pianoforte nor wears fine pelisses, do not take to her. She comes to see that part of her physical frailty stems from the debilitating effect of the internal arguments, conversations and identifications that sap her energy.
Auerbach suggests that Fanny, as the quiet observer, adopts "the audience's withering power over performance". She says, "our discomfort at Fanny is in part our discomfort at our own voyeurism", and that we implicate ourselves as well as Fanny "in a community of compelling English monsters".
Paula Byrne (2014) says, "At the centre of the book is a displaced child with an unshakeable conscience. A true heroine."
Fanny's inner world
Fanny is unique amongst the Austen heroines in that her story begins when she is ten and traces her story up to age eighteen. Byrne says, "Mansfield Park is perhaps the first novel in history to depict the life of a little girl from within". By the beginning of the 21st century, says John Wiltshire, critics, appreciating Austen's highly sophisticated renderings of her character's psychological lives, now understood Fanny, formerly seen as the principled pivot of moral right (celebrated by some critics, berated by others) as ‘a trembling, unstable entity, [an] erotically driven and conflicted figure, both victim and apostle of values inscribed within her by her history of adoption'. Joan Klingel Ray suggests that Fanny is Austen's insightful study of "the battered-child syndrome", a victim of emotional and material abuse in both households. From early on she is seen as mentally and physically fragile, a little girl with low self-esteem, vulnerable and thin-skinned. The rock on which she stands, enabling her to survive, is the love of her older brother William. At Mansfield, her cousin Edmund gradually takes on a similar role; both young men fulfil the essential role of care-giver left vacant by the adults. The East room, which Fanny gradually appropriates, becomes her 'safe place' where, though unheated, she retreats in times of stress. Here she reflects that, "though there had been sometimes much of suffering to her; though her motives had often been misunderstood, her feelings disregarded, and her comprehension undervalued; though she had known the pains of tyranny, of ridicule, and neglect, yet almost every recurrence of either had led to something consolatory", and the chief consolation had always been Edmund.
The trauma of her dislocation at the age of ten is recalled by Fanny eight years later when she is promised a visit to her birth family. "The remembrance of all her earliest pleasures, and of what she had suffered in being torn from them, came over her with renewed strength, and it seemed as if to be at home again would heal every pain that had since grown out of the separation." The pain of separation is as evident as is the idealisation of her former life at Portsmouth, an idealisation that masks the deeper pain of an abandonment soon to be acknowledged. John Wiltshire, returning to the theme in 2014, describes Fanny as, "a heroine damaged early by her upbringing, as well as by her quasi-adoption, who experiences intense conflict between gratitude to her adoptive family and the deepest rebellion against them", a rebellion scarcely conscious.
Negative criticism of Fanny sometimes identifies with that voiced by other characters in the story. For some early feminists, Fanny Price was close to being considered, as she was by Mrs Norris, 'the daemon of the piece'. Many have despised her as 'creepmouse'. as did her cousin Tom'. Margaret Kirkham (1983) in her essay "Feminist Irony and the Priceless Heroine of Mansfield Park" argued that Austen was a feminist writer who liked complexity and humour and enjoyed presenting puzzles for her readers. Many have missed the feminist irony of the character of Fanny. Austen was a feminist in the sense that she believed women were as equally endowed with reason and common sense as men, and that the ideal marriage should be between two people who love each other. Ironically, the love match between Fanny's parents is portrayed as far from ideal.
Kirkham sees Mansfield Park as an attack on Jean-Jacques Rousseau's popular 1762 book, Emile, or On Education, which depicted the ideal woman as fragile, submissive, and physically weaker than men. Rousseau stated: "So far from being ashamed of their weakness, they glory in it; their tender muscles make no resistance; they affect to be incapable of lifting the smallest burdens, and would blush to be thought robust and strong." The contemporary philosopher, Mary Wollstonecraft, wrote at length against Rousseau's views in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. She also challenged followers of Rousseau like Dr James Fordyce whose sermons had long been a part of a young woman's library.
At the beginning of the novel, Fanny, with her constant illnesses, timid disposition, submissiveness and fragility, conforms outwardly to Rousseau's ideal woman. Subversively, her passivity is primarily the result of the trauma of dislocation and the internal complexities of her mental well-being. The once beautiful aunt Bertram, in her indolence and passivity, also satirises the stereotype. In the end, Fanny unwittingly undermines prevailing attitudes to propriety and finds the strength to place conscience above obedience and love above duty. Fanny's refusal to capitulate to Sir Thomas' wish that she marry Henry Crawford is seen by Kirkham as the moral climax of the novel. Through her deep-seated integrity and compassion, her reason and common sense, she is able to triumph, thus challenging the prevailing ideal of femininity (and propriety) in Regency England.
Canadian scholar, David Monaghan, describes the main conflict in the novel as Fanny's struggle to assert herself and to save the values represented by Mansfield Park from corruption. At first, Fanny is passive, at best reacting to the views of others, and is generally ignored. The preparation for Lovers' Vows marks the novel's turning point. Despite Fanny's dislike for a play that "combines political radicalism and sexual permissiveness", she eventually capitulates to pressure, recognising the important principle of being socially involved in order to influence society for the better. When Henry Crawford later complains about Sir Thomas shutting down Lovers' Vows, Fanny expresses firm disapproval, attracting Henry's attention for the first time. This change in her behaviour is recognised by Sir Thomas, who now begins to appreciate Fanny's moral qualities. Although Mrs. Norris tries to sabotage Fanny's social coming out, Sir Thomas allows Fanny a dinner with the Grants and provides her with a carriage that befits a lady. Then, furthering her social prestige, he organises a ball at which Fanny reluctantly accepts centre stage. Later, Fanny is forced again into inactivity. She knows she can best serve the Bertrams by refusing to marry Henry despite the pressure they put on her. Later still, when Henry comes to court her at Portsmouth, despite being impressed by his apparent improvements, she is conflicted and remains inactive. In so doing, she demands of Henry more perseverance and moral commitment than he is capable of. However, by the end of the first week at Portsmouth Fanny has entered a new active phase. She has attended to Sam's linen, and made an ironic joke about her true home, based on Dr Johnson's sardonic observation about celibacy and matrimony. She begins to see her birth family in a more positive light; she settles her sisters' longstanding squabble over the silver knife, amazes herself by tutoring Susan to the delight of both, and she joins a circulating library.
Fanny finally marries Edmund and is able to uphold the values that she cherishes.
A woman of will
The American literary critic, Harold Bloom, calls Fanny Price, "a co-descendant, together with Locke's association-menaced will, of the English Protestant emphasis upon the will's autonomy".
He draws attention to C. S. Lewis's observation that "into Fanny, Jane Austen, to counterbalance her apparent insignificance, has put really nothing except rectitude of mind, neither passion, nor physical courage, nor wit, nor resource". Bloom agrees with Lewis but argues that he misses the importance of Fanny's 'will to be herself' as a causal agent in the plot. Bloom argues that paradoxically it is Fanny's lack of the 'will to dominate' that enables her 'will' to succeed. Her struggle just to be herself causes her to exercise moral influence, and this leads her to triumph in the end.
Fanny as a 'literary monster'
Nina Auerbach recognises an extraordinary tenacity in Fanny "with which she adheres to an identity validated by none of the conventional female attributes of family, home, or love. By so doing, Fanny "repudiates the vulnerability of the waif to the unlovable toughness of the authentic transplant." Fanny emerges from the isolation of the outcast, becoming instead the conqueror, thus "aligning herself rather with the Romantic hero than with the heroine of romance."
To Auerbach, Fanny is a genteel version of a popular archetype of the Romantic age, 'the monster', who by the sheer act of existing does not and cannot ever fit into society. In this interpretation, Fanny has little in common with any other Austen heroine, being closer to the brooding character of Hamlet, or even the monster of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (published only four years later). Auerbach says there is "something horrible about her that deprives the imagination of its appetite for ordinary life and compels it toward the deformed, the dispossessed."
Auerbach argues that Fanny defines herself best in assertive negatives. Fanny's response to the invitation to take part in Lovers' Vows is, "No, indeed, I cannot act." In life she rarely acts, only counteracts, watching the world around her in silent judgement. Fanny is "a woman who belongs only where she is not." Her solitude is her condition, not a state from which she can be rescued. "Only in Mansfield Park does Jane Austen force us to experience the discomfort of a Romantic universe presided over by the potent charm of a heroine who was not made to be loved." Auerbach's analysis seems to fall short when Fanny finally experiences the love of her adopted family and, despite its traumas, achieves a sense of home.
Thomas Edwards maintained that Mansfield Park was the most beautiful of Austen's novels, full of loving descriptions of the English countryside. As such, Bloom saw Mansfield Park as belonging to the tradition of first generation Romantics. Alistair Duckworth noted that a recurring theme in Austen's novels is the way the condition of the estates mirrors that of their owners. The landscape (and house) of Mansfield Park remains hidden for much of the story, unlike that of Sotherton where the reader is given a tourist's introduction to the house by Mrs Rushworth followed by a tour of the estate guided by the wandering footsteps of the young people.
The theme of country in conflict with city recurs throughout the novel, symbolising that which is natural and life-renewing over against the artificial and corrupting effects of society. Through the Crawfords the reader gains glimpses of London society; and further glimpses when Maria is married and gains what Mary Crawford describes as 'her pennyworth', a fashionable London residence for the 'season'. Byrne posits that the heroine, Fanny Price, is "the filter through which we view the mesmerising Crawfords", the Londoners who bring their lively, seductive ways to the countryside.
At Sotherton, Mr. Rushworth decides to employ popular landscape improver, Humphry Repton, his rates being five guineas a day. Repton had coined the term landscape gardener and also popularised the title Park as the description of an estate. Austen's uncle, Rev Thomas Leigh, inherited Stoneleigh Abbey in 1806 and on his first visit to claim the estate, took Austen, her mother and sister with him. Leigh, who had previously employed Repton at Adlestrop, commissioned him to make improvements at Stoneleigh. Repton redirected the River Avon and flooded a section of the land to create a mirror lake. In 1808, he created a perfect cricket pitch called 'home lawn' in front of the west wing, and a bowling green lawn between the gatehouse and the house. Austen is thought to have based her fictional Sotherton partly on Stoneleigh Abbey. Henry Crawford is full of his own ideas for improvements to the landscape. He is described as the first to go forward to examine the 'capabilities' of the walled garden near the wilderness, hinting at ironic comparison with Repton's celebrated predecessor, Lancelot 'Capability' Brown.
At Sotherton, Fanny objects to Mr Rushworth's plans to destroy the trees; she values what has emerged naturally over the centuries. David Monaghan (1980) contrasts her perspective with that of others, each demonstrating something of their own character. The materialist Mary Crawford, thinks only of the future, willing to accept any improvements money can buy, providing she does not have to experience present inconvenience. Henry lives for the present moment, only interested in playing the role of improver, not in the finished product. Only the introverted Fanny can hold in her mind the bigger picture of past, present and future.
The Napoleonic Wars (1803–1815) are part of the novel's hidden background. Calvo, quoting Roger Sales, says Mansfield Park can be read as a Condition-of-England novel that 'debates topical issues such as the conduct of the war and the Regency crisis'. Duckworth believes that Austen took the landscaping symbol from Edmund Burke's influential book, Reflections of the Revolution in France (1790). Burke distinguished between beneficial "improvements" and malign "innovations". "Improvements" were valued as a part of conservation, but "innovations" and "alterations" to society were to be abhorred as they led to the destruction of heritage. Duckworth (1994) argues that Mansfield Park is pivotal to an understanding of Austen's views. Estates, like society, might be in need of improvements, but the changes allegedly advocated by Repton were unacceptable innovations, alterations to the estate that, symbolically, would destroy the entire moral and social heritage. Austen, aware of the fragility of a society uninformed by responsible individual behaviour, is committed to the traditional values of a Christian humanist culture.
The French Revolution was in Austen's view an entirely destructive force that sought to wipe out all that had come before. Austen's sister-in-law, Eliza de Feullide, was a French aristocrat whose first husband, the Comte de Feullide, had been guillotined in Paris. She fled to Britain where, in 1797, she married Henry Austen. The account of the execution of the Comte de Feullide, as related by her sister-in-law, left Austen with an intense dread and horror of the French Revolution that lasted for the rest of her life.
Warren Roberts (1979) interprets Austen's writings as affirming traditional English values and religion over against the atheist values of the French Revolution. The character of Mary Crawford whose 'French' irreverence had alienated her from church is contrasted unfavourably with that of Fanny Price whose 'English' sobriety and faith leads her to assert that: "there is something in a chapel and chaplain so much in character with a great house, with one's idea of what such a household should be". Austen presents the Church of England as a force for stability that holds together family, customs and English traditions; she contrasts this with the attitude of Mary Crawford whose criticism of religious practice makes her an alien and disruptive force in the English countryside.
To David Monaghan, in his writings on Structure and Social Vision, the carefully maintained avenue of trees at Sotherton is a symbol of the organic principles which formed the basis of English society with its 'consideration of times and seasons' and the proper values of 'elegance, propriety, regularity, harmony'. The principle flaw with both Sir Thomas and Mr Rushworth is their inability to live up to the standards required of the English gentry, leaving 'landed society...ripe for corruption'. Only Fanny is able to appreciate the charm of Sotherton as a great house despite its imperfections. She sees the house 'built in Elizabeth's time' as a symbol of tradition; Mr Rushworth dismisses it as 'a dismal old prison'. The Crawfords from London represent the money-grubbing, vulgar middle class, the antithesis of Austen's rural ideal. They come from a world where everything is to be got with money, and where impersonal crowds have replaced peace and tranquillity as the social benchmarks. Only Fanny is aware of the value of the old manners, and in Austen's world manners only have value when they stem from morals. It falls to her to defend the English idyllic society, despite in many ways being unequipped for the task.
Moral symbolism and understatement
Juliet McMaster argued that Austen often used understatement, and that her characters disguise hidden powerful emotions behind apparently banal behaviour and dialogue. This is evident during the visit to Sotherton where Mary Crawford, Edmund Bertram and Fanny Price debate the merits of an ecclesiastical career. Though the exchanges are light-hearted, the issues are serious. Edmund is asking Mary to love him for who he is, while Mary indicates she will only marry him if he pursues a more lucrative career in the law.
To subtly press her point, Austen has set the scene in the wilderness where their serpentine walk provides echoes of Spencer's, The Faerie Queene, and the "sepentining" pathways of the Wandering Wood. Spencer's 'Redcrosse Knight' (the novice knight who symbolises both England and Christian faith) is lost within the dangerous and confusing Wandering Wood. The knight nearly abandons Una, his true love, for Duessa, the seductive witch. So too, Edmund (the would-be Church of England minister) is lost within the moral maze of Sotherton's wilderness.
Others have seen in this episode, echoes of Shakespeare's As You Like It, though Byrne sees a more direct link with recent and contemporaneous stage comedy, in particular George Colman and David Garrick's highly successful play, The Clandestine Marriage (inspired by Hogarth's series of satirical paintings, Marriage a la Mode) with which Austen was very familiar, which had a similar theme and a heroine called Fanny Sterling. (Sir Thomas later praises Fanny's sterling qualities.)
'Wilderness' was a term used by landscape developers to describe a wooded area, often set between the formal area around the house and the pastures beyond the ha-ha. At Sotherton, it is described as "a planted wood of about two acres, and though chiefly of larch and laurel, and beech cut down, and though laid out with too much regularity, was darkness and shade, and natural beauty, compared with the bowling-green and the terrace." The alternative meaning of wilderness as a wild inhospitable place would also be familiar to Austen's readers, not least from the Biblical account of the 40-year exodus of the Israelites through the wilderness, and of the desert place where Jesus fasted and was tempted for 40 days.
When Fanny indicates that she is tired, Edmund takes her arm to provide support. However, when Mary extends him her arm, he expresses amazement at how light her arm is. McMaster contrasts this scene with writings by Austen's critic, D. H. Lawrence, who provided loving descriptions of what he called "That exquisite and immortal moment of a man's entry into the woman of his desire". In a far more understated way, Edmund "registers, and within the bounds of polite converse, expresses the thrill he feels at this physical contact with Mary".
Byrne suggests that the 'serpentine path' leading to the ha-ha with its locked gate at Sotherton Court has shades of Satan tempting Eve in the Garden of Eden. The ha-ha represents a boundary which some will cross, while others will not. It is a symbolic forerunner of the future moral transgressions of Maria Bertram and Henry Crawford. Austen prompts the reader to look for the allegorical for, when Henry Crawford, looking across the ha-ha says, "You have a very smiling scene before you," Maria responds, "Do you mean literally or figuratively?" Thomas Edwards describes Mansfield Park as full of double entendres. Maria complains here of being trapped behind a 'gate' that gives her "a feeling of restraint and hardship". Mr. Rushworth has gone to find a 'key'. The dialogue seems to be as much about sex as about being trapped in the wilderness. Henry suggests subtlety to Maria that, if she "really wished to be more at large" and could allow herself "to think it not prohibited", then freedom was possible. Shortly after, Edmund and Mary Crawford are also 'tempted' to leave the wilderness.
Later in the novel, when Henry Crawford suggests destroying the grounds of Thornton Lacy to create something new, his plans are rejected by Edmund Bertram who insists that although the estate needs some improvements, he wishes to preserve the substance of what has been created over the centuries. In Austen's world, the true mark of a man worth marrying is a man who keeps his estate well-maintained and has respect for tradition. Edmund's reformist conservatism marks him out as a hero.
Theatre at Mansfield Park
Jocelyn Harris (2010) says that Austen's subject in Mansfield Park is theatricality in which she brings to life a controversy as old as the stage itself. Some critics have assumed that Austen is using the novel to promote anti-theatrical views, possibly inspired by the Evangelical movement. Harris says that, whereas in Pride and Prejudice, Austen shows how theatricality masks and deceives in daily life, in Mansfield Park, 'she interrogates more deeply the whole remarkable phenomenon of plays and play-acting'.
Returning after two years from his plantations in Antigua, Sir Thomas Bertram discovers the young people rehearsing an amateur production of Elizabeth Inchbald's Lovers' Vows, (adapted from a work by the German playwright, Kotzebue). Predictably, it offends his sense of propriety, the play is abandoned and he burns all unbound copies of the play. Fanny Price on reading the script had been astonished that the play be thought appropriate for private theatre and she considered the two leading female roles as "totally improper for home representation—the situation of one, and the language of the other so unfit to be expressed by any woman of modesty".
Claire Tomalin (1997) says that Mansfield Park, with its strong moralist theme and criticism of corrupted standards, has polarised supporters and critics. It sets up an opposition between a vulnerable young woman with strongly held religious and moral principles against a group of worldly, highly cultivated, well-to-do young people who pursue pleasure without principle.
Jonas Barish, in his seminal work, The Antitheatrical Prejudice (1981), adopts the view that by 1814 Austen may have turned against theatre following a supposed recent embracing of evangelicalism. Austen certainly read and, to her surprise, enjoyed Thomas Gisborne’s Enquiry into the Duties of the Female Sex, which stated categorically that theatricals were sinful, because of their opportunities for ‘unrestrained familiarity with persons of the other sex’. She may well have read William Wilberforce's popular evangelical work that challenged the decadence of the time and also expressed strong views about theatre and its negative influence on morality. Tomalin argues that there is no need to believe Austen condemned plays outside Mansfield Park and every reason for thinking otherwise. Austen was an avid theatregoer and a critical admirer of the great actors. In childhood her family had embraced the popular activity of home theatre. She had participated in full-length popular plays (and several written by herself) that were performed in the family dining room at Steventon (and later in the barn) supervised by her clergyman father. Many elements observed by the young Austen during family theatricals are reworked in the novel, including the temptation of James, her recently ordained brother, by their flirtatious cousin Eliza.
Paula Byrne (2017) records that only two years before writing Mansfield Park, Austen, who was said to be a fine actress, had played the part of Mrs Candour in Sheridan's popular contemporary play, The School for Scandal, with great aplomb. Her correspondence shows that she and her family continued to be enthusiastic theatre-goers. Byrne also argues strongly that Austen's novels, and particularly Mansfield Park, show many signs of theatricality and have considerable dramatic structure which makes them particularly adaptable for screen representation. Calvo sees the novel as a rewrite of Shakespeare's King Lear and his three daughters, with Fanny as Sir Thomas's Regency Cordelia.
Over eight chapters, several aspects of anti-theatrical prejudice are explored; shifting points of view are expressed. Edmund and Fanny find moral dilemmas; even Mary is conflicted, insisting she will edit her script. Theatre as such is never challenged. The questions about theatrical impropriety include the morality of the text, the effect of acting on vulnerable amateur players, and performance as an indecorous disruption of life in a respectable home. Other aspects of drama are also discussed.
Austen's presentation of the intense debate about theatre tempts the reader to take sides and to miss the nuances. Edmund, the most critical voice, is actually an enthusiastic theatre-goer. Fanny, the moral conscience of the debate, "believed herself to derive as much innocent enjoyment from the play as any of them." She thought Henry the best actor of them all. She also delighted in reading Shakespeare aloud to her aunt Bertram.
American scholar, Stuart Tave, emphasises the challenge of the play as a test of the characters' commitment to propriety. The priggish Mrs. Norris sees herself as the guardian of propriety. She is trusted as such by Sir Thomas when he leaves for Antigua but fails completely by allowing the preparation for Lovers' Vows. Edmund objects to the play, believing it somehow violates propriety, but fails to articulate the problem convincingly. His intense objection to an outsider being brought in to share in the theatricals is not easy for the modern reader to understand. Mr Rushworth's view that, "we are a great deal better employed, sitting comfortably here among ourselves, and doing nothing", is affirmed only by Sir Thomas himself. Fanny alone understands the deepest propriety; she knows from her penetrating observations of the household that the acting will have a negative impact on the emotions and subsequent behaviour of the actors, but she lacks the strength to persuade the others.
Historically, Fanny's anti-theatrical viewpoint is one of several first formulated by Plato, and which continued to find expression well into the 20th century. During rehearsals, Fanny observes the ongoing flirtation between Henry and the about-to-be-married Maria, "Maria acted well, too well." She also sees the sexual tension and attraction between Edmund and Mary as they play the part of the two lovers. This fills her with misery but also jealousy. Later, when Mary describes to Fanny her fondest memory, it is playing the dominant role of Amelia, with Edmund as Anhalt in a position of sexual submission. "I never knew such exquisite happiness ... Oh! it was sweet beyond expression."
Tave points out that, in shutting down Lovers' Vows, Sir Thomas is expressing his hidden hypocrisy and myopia. His concern is with an external propriety, not the propriety that motivates beneficial behaviour. He is content to destroy the set and props without considering what had led his children to put on such a play. Only later does he come to understand his shortcomings as a parent.
A common anti-theatrical theme also stemming from Plato is the need to avoid acting (i.e. pretence and hypocrisy) in everyday life. Fanny is often criticised because she 'does not act', but deep down beneath her timid surface she has a solid core. Henry Crawford, the life and soul of any party or society event, constantly acts; he has many personas but no depth, consistency or identity. Thomas Edwards says that even when Henry, during a discussion about Shakespeare, tries to please Fanny by renouncing acting, he is still acting. He measures his every word and carefully watches the reaction on her face. His need to live by imitation is expressed when he considers careers in the Church of England and in the Royal Navy after encounters with Edmund and William, respectively. He is a man who constantly reinvents himself. At Sotherton, Henry acts the part of landscape improver, a role he later reprises for Thornton Lacey, though he lacks the consistency to manage effectively his own Norfolk estate. At the first suggestion of a theatre at Mansfield Park, Henry, for whom theatre was a new experience, declared he could undertake 'any character that ever was written, from Shylock or Richard III down to the singing hero of a farce in his scarlet coat and cocked hat. I feel as if I could be anything or everything.' Later still, in reading Henry VIII aloud to Lady Bertram, Henry effectively impersonates one character after another, even impressing the reluctant Fanny with his skill. When Henry unexpectedly fall in love with Fanny, he acts out the part of devoted lover, fully inhabiting the part. Even the hopeful Sir Thomas recognises that the admirable Henry is unlikely to sustain such a role.
Edwards suggests that the inherent danger of Lovers' Vows for the young actors is that they cannot distinguish between acting and real life, a danger exposed when Mary says, "What gentleman among you am I to have the pleasure of making love to?".
When Edmund agrees to act, Tom and Maria only feel 'glee' at the thought of the would-be clergyman acting in an improper play. Maria enjoys seeing the discomfort on Julia's face when she acts with Henry.
David Selwyn argues that the rationale behind Austen's apparent anti-theatricality is not evangelicalism but its symbolic allusion to regency political life. Mansfield Park is a book about the identity of England. Tom, whose lifestyle has imperilled his inheritance, and the playboy Henry are regency rakes, intent on turning the family estate into a playground during the master's absence. If the Regent, during the King's incapacity, turns the country into a vast pleasure ground modelled on Brighton, the foundations of prosperity will be imperilled. To indulge in otherwise laudable activities like theatre at the expense of a virtuous and productive life leads only to unhappiness and disaster.
Church and Mansfield Park
Following the publication of Pride and Prejudice, Austen wrote to her sister, Cassandra, mentioning her proposed Northamptonshire novel. "Now I will try to write of something else; it shall be a complete change of subject: Ordination." Trilling believed Austen was making ordination the subject of Mansfield Park; Byrne argues (as do others) that although this is based on a misreading of the letter, 'there is no doubt that Edmund's vocation is at the centre of the novel'. Decadence in the Georgian church had been seriously challenged over several decades by the emerging Methodist movement that had only recently seceded from the mother church, and also by the parallel Evangelical movement that stayed within it. Brodrick describes the Georgian church as 'strenuously preventing women from direct participation in doctrinal and ecclesiastical affairs'. However, disguised within the medium of the novel, Austen has succeeded in freely discussing Christian doctrine and church order, another example of subversive feminism.
In several set pieces, Austen presents debates about significant challenges for the Georgian church. She discusses clerical corruption, the nature of the clerical office and the responsibility of the clergyman to raise both spiritual awareness and doctrinal knowledge. Topics range from issues of personal piety and family prayers to problems of non-residence and decadence amongst the clergy. Dr Grant who is given the living at Mansfield is portrayed as a self-indulgent clergyman with very little sense of his pastoral duties. Edmund, the young, naive, would-be ordinand, expresses high ideals, but needs Fanny's support both to fully understand and to live up to them.
Locations for these set pieces include the visit to Sotherton and its chapel where Mary learns for the first time (and to her horror) that Edmund is destined for the church; the game of cards where the conversation turns to Edmund's intended profession, and conversations at Thornton Lacey, Edmund's future 'living'.
Austen often exposed clergy corruption through parody. On the basis of close observations of her brother-in-law, Dr Grant, Mary Crawford arrives at the jaundiced conclusion that a 'clergyman has nothing to do, but be slovenly and selfish, read the newspaper, watch the weather and quarrel with his wife. His curate does all the work and the business of his own life is to dine'.
In the conversation at Sotherton, Mary applauds the late Mr Rutherford's decision to abandon the twice daily family prayers, eloquently describing such practice as an imposition for both family and servants. She derides the heads of households for hypocrisy in making excuses to absent themselves from chapel. She pities the young ladies of the house, 'starched up into seeming piety, but with heads full of something very different—specially if the poor chaplain were not worth looking at'. Edmund acknowledges that long services can be boring but maintains that without self-discipline a private spirituality will be insufficient for moral development. Although Mary's view is presented as a resistance to spiritual discipline, there were other positive streams of spirituality that expressed similar sentiments.
Mary also challenges the widespread practice of patronage; she attacks Edmund's expectation for being based on privilege rather than on merit. Although Sir Thomas has sold the more desirable Mansfield living to pay off Tom's debts, he is still offering Edmund a guaranteed living at Thornton Lacey where he can lead the life of a country gentleman.
In the final chapter, Sir Thomas recognises that he has been remiss in the spiritual upbringing of his children; they have been instructed in religious knowledge but not in its practical application. The reader's attention has already been drawn to the root of Julia's superficiality during the visit to Sotherton when, abandoned by the others, she was left with the slow-paced Mrs Rushworth as her only companion. "The politeness which she had been brought up to practise as a duty made it impossible for her to escape." Julia's lack of self-control, of empathy, of self understanding and of "that principle of right, which had not formed any essential part of her education, made her miserable under it." She was a prisoner of duty, lacking the ability to appreciate either duty's humanity or its spiritual source.
To what extent Austen's views were a response to Evangelical influences has been a matter of debate since the 1940s. She would have been aware of the profound influence of Wilberforce's widely read Practical Christianity, published in 1797, and its call to a renewed spirituality. Evangelical campaigning at this time was always linked to a project of national renewal. Austen was deeply religious, her faith and spirituality very personal but, unlike contemporary writers Mary Wollstonecraft and Hannah More, she neither lectured nor preached. Many of the family were influenced by the Evangelical movement and in 1809 Cassandra recommended More's ‘sermon novel', Coelebs in Search of a Wife. Austen responded, parodying her own ambivalence, 'I do not like the Evangelicals. Of course I shall be delighted when I read it, like other people, but till I do, I dislike it.' Five years later, writing to her niece Fanny, Austen's tone was different, ‘I am by no means convinced that we ought not all to be Evangelicals, and am at least persuaded that they who are so from Reason and Feeling, must be happiest and safest.' Jane Hodge says, 'where she herself stood in the matter remains open to question. The one thing that is certain is that, as always, she was deeply aware of the change of feeling around her.' Broderick concludes after extensive discussion that 'Austen's attitude to the clergy, though complicated and full of seeming contradictions, is basically progressive and shows the influence of Evangelical efforts to rejuvenate the clergy, but can hardly be called overtly Evangelical'.
In a scene in which Henry Crawford reads Shakespeare aloud to Fanny, Edmund and Lady Bertram, Austen slips in a discussion on sermon delivery. Henry shows that he has the taste to recognise that the 'redundancies and repetitions' of the liturgy require good reading (in itself a telling criticism, comments Broderick). He offers the general (and possibly valid) criticism that a 'sermon well-delivered is more uncommon even than prayers well read'. As Henry continues, his shallowness and self-aggrandisement becomes apparent: "I never listened to a distinguished preacher in my life without a sort of envy. But then, I must have a London audience. I could not preach but to the educated, to those who were capable of estimating my composition." He concludes flippantly, expressing the philosophy of many a lazy clergyman, maintaining that he should not like to preach often, but "now and then, perhaps, once or twice in the spring". Although Edmund laughs, it is clear that he does not share Henry's flippant, self-centred attitude. Neither (it is implied) will Edmund succumb to the selfish gourmet tendencies of Dr Grant. "Edmund promises to be the opposite: an assiduous, but genteel clergyman who maintains the estate and air of a gentleman, without Puritanical self-denial and yet without corresponding self-indulgence."
Edmund recognises that there are some competent and influential preachers in the big cities like London but maintains that their message can never be backed up by personal example or ministry. Ironically, the Methodist movement, with its development of lay ministry through the 'class meeting', had provided a solution to this very issue. There is only one reference to Methodism in the novel, and there it is linked, as an insult, with the modern missionary society. Mary in her angry response to Edmund as he finally leaves her, declares: "At this rate, you will soon reform every body at Mansfield and Thornton Lacey; and when I hear of you next, it may be as a celebrated preacher in some great society of Methodists, or as a missionary in foreign parts."
An ideal clergyman
When Mary learns at Sotherton that Edmund has chosen to become a clergyman, she calls it 'nothing'. Edmund responds, saying that he cannot consider as nothing an occupation that has the guardianship of religion and morals, and that has implications for time and for eternity. He adds that conduct stems from good principles and from the effect of those doctrines a clergyman should teach. The nation's behaviour will reflect, for good or ill, the behaviour and teaching of the clergy.
Rampant pluralism, where wealthy clerics drew income from several 'livings' without ever setting foot in the parish, was a defining feature of the Georgian church. In chapter 25, Austen presents a conversation during a card evening at Mansfield. Sir Thomas's whist table has broken up and he draws up to watch the game of Speculation. Informal conversation leads into an exposition of the country parson's role and duties. Sir Thomas argues against pluralism, stressing the importance of residency in the parish,
"... and which no proxy can be capable of satisfying to the same extent. Edmund might, in the common phrase, do the duty of Thornton, that is, he might read prayers and preach, without giving up Mansfield Park; he might ride over, every Sunday, to a house nominally inhabited, and go through divine service; he might be the clergyman of Thornton Lacey every seventh day, for three or four hours, if that would content him. But it will not. He knows that human nature needs more lessons than a weekly sermon can convey, and that if he does not live among his parishioners, and prove himself by constant attention their well-wisher and friend, he does very little either for their good or his own."
Sir Thomas conveniently overlooks his earlier plan, before he was forced to sell the Mansfield living to pay off Tom's debts, that Edmund should draw the income from both parishes. This tension is never resolved. Austen's own father had sustained two livings, itself an example of mild pluralism.
Slavery and Mansfield Park
It is generally assumed that Sir Thomas Bertram's home, Mansfield Park, being a newly built property, had been erected on the proceeds of the British slave trade. It was not an old structure like Rushworth's Sotherton Court, or the estate homes described in Austen's other novels, like Pemberley in Pride and Prejudice or Donwell Abbey in Emma.
The Slave Trade Act had been passed in 1807, four years before Austen started to write Mansfield Park, and was the culmination of a long campaign by abolitionists, notably William Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson. Though never legal in Britain, slavery was not abolished in the British Empire until 1833.
In chapter 21, when Sir Thomas returns from his estates in Antigua, Fanny asks him about the slave trade but receives no answer. The pregnant silence continues to perplex critics. Claire Tomalin, following the literary critic, Brian Southam, argues that in questioning her uncle about the slave trade, the usually timid Fanny shows that her vision of the trade's immorality is clearer than his. It is possible Austen herself would have supported abolition. In a letter to her sister, Cassandra, she compares a book she is reading with Clarkson's anti-slavery book, "I am as much in love with the author as ever I was with Clarkson". Austen's favourite poet, the Evangelical William Cowper, was also a passionate abolitionist who often wrote poems on the subject, notably his famous work, The Task, also favoured by Fanny Price.
Does Mansfield Park endorse slavery?
In his 1978 book, Culture and Imperialism, the American literary critic Edward Said implicated Mansfield Park in western culture's casual acceptance of the material benefits of slavery and imperialism. He cited Austen's failure to mention that the estate of Mansfield Park was made possible only through slave labour. Said was relentless in his attacks against Austen, depicting her as a racist and supporter of slavery whose books should be condemned rather than celebrated. He argued that Austen created the character of Sir Thomas as the archetypal good master, just as competent at running his estate in the English countryside as he was in exploiting his slaves in the West Indies. He accepted that Austen does not talk much about the plantation owned by Sir Thomas, but contended that Austen expected the reader to assume that the Bertram family's wealth was due to profits produced by the sugar worked by their African slaves. He further assumed that this reflected Austen's own assumption that this was just the natural order of the world.
Paradoxically, Said acknowledged that Austen disapproved of slavery:
"All the evidence says that even the most routine aspects of holding slaves on a West Indian sugar plantation were cruel stuff. And everything we know about Jane Austen and her values is at odds with the cruelty of slavery. Fanny Price reminds her cousin that after asking Sir Thomas about the slave trade, "there was such a dead silence" as to suggest that one world could not be connected with the other since there simply is no common language for both. That is true."
The Japanese scholar Hidetada Mukai understands the Bertrams as a nouveau riche family whose income depends on the plantation in Antigua. The abolition of the slave trade in 1807 had imposed a serious strain on the Caribbean plantations. Austen may have been referring to this crisis when Sir Thomas leaves for Antigua to deal with unspecified problems on his plantation. Hidetada further argued that Austen made Sir Thomas a slave master as a feminist attack on the patriarchal society of Regency England, noting that Sir Thomas, though a kindly man, treats women, including his own daughters and his niece, as disposable commodities to be traded and bartered for his own advantage, and that this would be parallelled by his treatment of slaves who are exploited to support his lifestyle.
Said's thesis that Austen was an apologist for slavery was again challenged in the 1999 film based on Mansfield Park and Austen's letters. The Canadian director, Patricia Rozema, presented the Bertram family as morally corrupt and degenerate, in complete contrast to the book. Rozema made it clear that Sir Thomas owned slaves in the West Indies and by implication, so did the entire British elite. The essence of the Triangular trade was that after the ships had transported the slaves from Africa to the Caribbean, they would return to Britain loaded only with sugar and tobacco. Then, leaving Britain, they would return to Africa, loaded with manufactured goods.
Gabrielle White also criticised Said's condemnation, maintaining that Austen and other writers admired by Austen, including Samuel Johnson and Edmund Burke, opposed slavery and helped make its eventual abolition possible. The Australian historian Keith Windschuttle argued that: "The idea that, because Jane Austen presents one plantation-owning character, of whom heroine, plot and author all plainly disapprove, she thereby becomes a handmaiden of imperialism and slavery, is to misunderstand both the novel and the biography of its author, who was an ardent opponent of the slave trade". Likewise, the British author Ibn Warraq accused Said of a "most egregious misreading" of Mansfield Park and condemned him for a "lazy and unwarranted reading of Jane Austen", arguing that Said had completely distorted Mansfield Park to give Austen views that she clearly did not hold. However, the post-colonial perspective of Said has continued to be influential.
Margaret Kirkham points out that throughout the novel, Austen makes repeated references to the refreshing, wholesome quality of English air. In the 1772 court case Somerset v Stewart, where slavery was declared by the Lord Justice Mansfield to be illegal in the United Kingdom (though not the British Empire), one of the lawyers for James Somerset, the slave demanding his freedom, had said, "English air is too pure for slaves to breath". He was citing a ruling from a court case in 1569 freeing a Russian slave brought to England. The phrase is developed in Austen's favourite poem:
I had much rather be myself the slave
And wear the bonds, than fasten them on him.
We have no slaves at home – then why abroad?
And they themselves, once ferried o’er the wave
That parts us, are emancipate and loosed.
Slaves cannot breathe in England; if their lungs
Receive our air, that moment they are free,
They touch our country and their shackles fall.— William Cowper, from 'The Task', 1785
Austen's references to English air are considered by Kirkham to be a subtle attack upon Sir Thomas, who owns slaves on his plantation in Antigua, yet enjoys the English air, oblivious of the ironies involved. Austen would have read Clarkson and his account of Lord Mansfield's ruling.
Austen's subtle hints about the world beyond her Regency families can be seen in her use of names. The family estate's name clearly reflects that of Lord Mansfield, just as the name of the bullying Aunt Norris is suggestive of Robert Norris, "an infamous slave trader and a byword for pro-slavery sympathies."
The newly-married Maria, now with a greater income than that of her father, gains her London home in fashionable Wimpole Street at the heart of London society, a region where many very rich West Indian plantation owners had established their town houses. This desirable residence is the former home of Lady Henrietta Lascelles whose husband's family fortune came from the notoriously irresponsible Henry Lascelles. Lascelles had enriched himself with the Barbados slave trade and had been a central figure in the South Sea Bubble disaster. His wealth had been used to build Harewood House in Yorkshire, landscaped by 'Capability' Brown.
When William Price is commissioned, Lady Bertram requests that he bring her back a shawl, maybe two, from the East Indies and 'anything else that is worth having'. Edward Said interprets this as showing that the novel supports, or is indifferent towards, colonial profiteering. Others have pointed out that the indifference belongs to Lady Bertram and is in no sense the attitude of the novel, the narrator or the author.
Propriety and morality
Propriety is a major theme of the novel, says Tave. Maggie Lane says it is hard to use words like propriety seriously today, with its implication of deadening conformity and hypocrisy. She believes that Austen's society put a high store on propriety (and decorum) because it had only recently emerged from what was seen as a barbarous past. Propriety was believed essential in preserving that degree of social harmony which enabled each person to lead a useful and happy life. Tave points out that while Austen affirms those like Fanny who come to understand propriety at its deeper and more humane levels, she mocks mercilessly those like Mrs. Norris who cling to an outward propriety, often self-righteously and without understanding. Early in the novel when Sir Thomas leaves for Antigua, Maria and Julia sigh with relief, released from their father's demands for propriety, even though they have no particular rebellion in mind. Decline sets in at Sotherton with a symbolic rebellion at the ha-ha. It is followed later by the morally ambiguous rebellion of play-acting with Lovers' Vows, its impropriety unmasked by Sir Thomas's unexpected return. Both these events are a precursor to Maria's later adultery and Julia's elopement.
'Propriety' can cover not only moral behaviour but also anything else a person does, thinks or chooses. What is 'proper' can extend to the way society governs and organises itself, and to the natural world with its established order. Repton, the landscape gardener (1806), wrote critically of those who imitate whatever is new "without inquiring into its reasonableness or propriety", a failure embodied in Mr Rushworth, ironically eager to employ Repton for 'improvements' at Sotherton. Repton also expressed the practical propriety of setting the vegetable garden close to the kitchen.
Commentators have observed that Fanny and Mary Crawford represent conflicting aspects of Austen's own personality, Fanny representing her seriousness, her objective observations and sensitivity, Mary representing her wit, her charm and her wicked irony. Conversations between Fanny and Mary seem at times to express Austen's own internal dialogue and, like her correspondence, do not necessarily provide the reader with final conclusions. Responding in 1814 to her niece's request for help with a dilemma of love, she writes, "I really am impatient myself to be writing something on so very interesting a subject, though I have no hope of writing anything to the purpose ... I could lament in one sentence and laugh in the next." Byrne takes this as a reminder that readers should be very hesitant about extracting Austen's opinions and advice, either from her novels or her letters. For Austen, it was not the business of writers to tell people what to do. Even Fanny, when Henry demands she advise him on managing his estate, tells him to listen to his conscience: "We have all a better guide in ourselves, if we would attend to it, than any other person can be".
Conscience and consciousness
Thomas Edwards in his article, The Difficult Beauty of Mansfield Park (1965) discusses strength and weakness. The Crawfords are presented as attractive personalities, appreciated by fashionable society, their neighbours and the reader, yet they are marred by self-destructive flaws. Edmund and Fanny, essentially very ordinary people, a disappointment to some readers and lacking social charisma, prove ultimately to be the stronger. Edwards suggests that Austen could have easily entitled Mansfield Park, 'Conscience and Consciousness', since the novel's main conflict is between conscience (the deep sensitivity in the soul of Fanny and Edmund) and consciousness (the superficial self-centred sensations of Mary and Henry).
Edmund's conscience is at times blunted by his 'limitations'. To Edwards, Edmund is the 'most believable' of Austen's heroes; he respects Edmund as a plodding, honest and good-hearted man. He argues that Edmund's phlegmatic character saves him from being trapped by the sexual advances of Mary; Edmund is simply too stolid and dim to grasp her double entendres. Even when Edmund sees Mary for the last time, he is still conflicted, sad to 'close the door' on her forever.
Only Fanny has a full conscience, a sympathetic understanding of what others feel. Fanny's natural empathy is at times so intense that she is overwhelmed by the perceived needs of others. Her empathy also acts as a partial balance against her tendency towards judgementalism. She can feel compassion for Mrs Norris even when narrator and reader feel only condemnation. "Fanny's disposition was such that she could never even think of her aunt Norris in the meagerness and cheerlessness of her own small house, without reproaching herself for some little want of attention to her when they had been last together."
The Crawfords are driven to express strength by dominating others.
Henry is initially attracted to Fanny because he cannot fathom her mind, and is obsessed with 'knowing' her. He plans to destroy her identity and remake her in an image of his own choosing. This self-centredness makes him, in Edwards' view, the most monstrous of Austen's villains. Following initial failure, Henry finds himself unexpectedly in love with Fanny. The climactic struggle of the novel takes place as Henry strives to dominate and win Fanny, at times verging on psychological abuse. Fanny steadfastly resists him, determined to keep her own identity. The shallowness of Henry Crawford's feelings are exposed when, having promised to take care of Fanny's welfare, he is distracted by Mary's ploy to renew his contact in London with the newly married Maria. Challenged to arouse Maria afresh, he inadvertently sabotages her marriage, her reputation and, consequently, all hopes of winning Fanny. The likeable Henry, causing widespread damage, is ultimately revealed as the regency rake, callous, amoral and egoistical. Lane, more sympathetically says, "We applaud Jane Austen for showing us a flawed man morally improving, struggling, growing, reaching for better things—even if he ultimately fails."
Social perceptions of gender are such that, though Henry suffers, Maria suffers more. And by taking Maria away from her community, he deprives the Bertrams of a family member. The inevitable reporting of the scandal in the gossip-columns only adds further to family misery.
Mary Crawford possesses many attractive qualities including kindness, charm, warmth and vivacity. However, her strong competitive streak leads her to see love as a game where one party conquers and controls the other, a view not dissimilar to that of the narrator when in ironic mode ... Mary's narcissism leads to lack of empathy. She insists that Edmund abandon his clerical career because it is not prestigious enough. With feminist cynicism, she tells Fanny to marry Henry to 'pay off the debts of one's sex' and to have a 'triumph' at the expense of her brother.
Susan Morgan believes that to understand the novel properly requires an understanding of the potential of characters to change. Some learn from their mistakes and move on. Others do not. Superficial and materialistic, Mary is unable to appreciate improvements. She lacks both the discernment to value change in moral character and the hard work necessary to bring it about.
Edwards concludes that those who, like most people, lack a superabundance of wit, charm and wisdom, get along by avoiding what they cannot understand. Those with superficial strength are ultimately revealed as weak; it is the people considered as 'nothing' who quietly triumph.
Byrne finds in Mansfield Park an exploration of the role of parents in raising their children and forming their moral characters, as shown by Sir Thomas in his changing view of his niece. At first he feels that she is not the social equal of his daughters; nevertheless, she is more than a servant and her future must be provided for. Six years later, as he departs for Antigua, he tells her she has hardly changed. On his return he notices and affirms her improvements. At the end, he acknowledges her advantages in starting from hardship in her parents' home, and recognises his failings in guiding his own daughters. The novel also shows the influence of siblings and cousins upon one another, Fanny's guiding lights being her older brother, William and her cousin, Edmund.
Morgan says that Fanny, though a flawed heroine, possesses "the energy, open to us all, to struggle against selfishness, toward self-knowledge and that generosity of mind which should illuminate our view of the people around us." Fanny's principle virtue is that of 'growing worth', her ability to understand the world around her, to use her reason, to care about others, to change yet remain true to herself.
McMaster underlines the subtleties of the novel. She challenges the common criticism that it is unbelievable how quickly Edmund finally transfers his affections from Mary to Fanny. All along the 'subsurface movement' of the novel has been "Edmund's unconscious courtship of Fanny, which has been concurrent with his deliberate courtship of Mary". Austen herself, in the final chapter (which is essentially an epilogue) asks the reader to determine the time-scale for Edmund's dawning recognition of his love for Fanny.
- 1983: Mansfield Park, BBC series directed by David Giles, starring Sylvestra Le Touzel as Fanny Price, Nicholas Farrell as Edmund Bertram and Anna Massey as Mrs Norris.
- 1999: Mansfield Park, film directed by Patricia Rozema, starring Frances O'Connor as Fanny Price and Jonny Lee Miller as Edmund Bertram (he also featured in the 1983 version, playing one of Fanny's brothers). This film alters several major elements of the story and depicts Fanny as author of some of Austen's actual letters as well as her children's history of England. It emphasises Austen's disapproval of slavery.
- 2003: Mansfield Park, a radio drama adaptation commissioned by BBC Radio 4, starring Felicity Jones as Fanny Price, Benedict Cumberbatch as Edmund Bertram, and David Tennant as Tom Bertram.
- 2007: Mansfield Park, a television adaptation produced by Company Pictures and starring Billie Piper as Fanny Price and Blake Ritson as Edmund Bertram, was screened on ITV1 in the UK on 18 March 2007.
- 2011: Mansfield Park, a chamber opera by Jonathan Dove, with a libretto by Alasdair Middleton, commissioned and first performed by Heritage Opera, 30 July – 15 August 2011.
- 2012: Mansfield Park, stage adaptation by Tim Luscombe, produced by the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds, toured the UK in 2012 and 2013.
- 2014: "From Mansfield with love", web series modernisation produced by Foot in the Door Productions began airing on YouTube
- 2016: Mount Hope: An Amish Retelling of Jane Austen's Mansfield Park, by Sarah Price
- 2017: Seeking Mansfield, a young adult retelling by novelist Kate Watson set in the theater scene of modern-day Chicago.
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