Title page of the first edition
Mansfield Park is the third published novel by Jane Austen, first published in 1814. 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 concludes with her marriage.
The novel was first published by Thomas Egerton. A second edition was published in 1816 by John Murray, still within Austen's lifetime. The novel did not receive any critical attention when it was initially published. The first particular notice was in 1821 in a positive review of each of the published novels by Jane Austen.
From the late 20th century onward, critical reception has been diverse and Mansfield Park is now considered Austen's most controversial novel. Questions addressed in the critical reviews below include the following. Is the heroine Fanny Price appalling or appealing? Was Austen a traditionalist or a feminist? Is Mansfield Park simplistic or ironic? Did Austen support or oppose the slave trade? Does Mansfield Park portray city immorality as more attractive than country morality? How did Austen understand the church of her day? Was Austen for or against theatrical performance?
Paula Byrne, writing in the 21st century, found this to be one of Austen's best novels, and called it pioneering for being about meritocracy.
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 Development, themes and symbols
- 4 Who is Fanny Price?
- 5 Landscape improvements
- 6 Theatre at Mansfield Park
- 7 Church and Mansfield Park
- 8 Slavery and Mansfield Park
- 9 Other literary criticism
- 10 Literary reception
- 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 widowed 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 fashionable, 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 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 realizes 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. Historian and biographer Jon Spence suggested in Becoming Jane Austen that Mrs Norris was based on Austen's sister-in-law, Mary Lloyd, who had married James Austen, and who was the younger sister of Austen's close friend Martha Lloyd.
- 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. She is comparable to Kitty Bennet in Jane Austin's Pride and Prejudice.
- Dr Grant
- Parson at the Mansfield Park parsonage, after Mr Norris dies. Age 45 when he arrives at Mansfield Park. He is a man who 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. Her character is most similar to Fanny's, of all her siblings.
- 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.
Development, themes and symbols
The novel has many autobiographical associations as indicated in the following sections dealing with critical discussions of some of the 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.
Austen's 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, the HMS Thrush is sited right next to the HMS Cleopatra at Spithead. Captain Austen commanded the 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 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.
Symbolic locations and events
Mansfield Park draws heavily on the symbolic meaning of locations and events. The first critic to draw attention to this was Virginia Woolf in 1913. Three overtly symbolic events are: the visit to Sotherton and the locked gate at the ha-ha (chs. 9-10), the extensive preparation for the theatricals (chs. 13-18), 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".
Who is Fanny Price?
Fanny is unique amongst the Austen heroines in that her story begins when she is ten and traces her story up to age eighteen. Paula Byrne says, "Mansfield Park is perhaps the first novel in history to depict the life of a little girl from within". Many have seen Fanny Price as a nineteenth century Cinderella. Austen's mother thought Fanny insipid, though other unpublished private reviewers liked the character (Austen collected comments by those in her social circle). 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".
Other critics point out that Fanny is a complex personality, perceptive yet given to wishful thinking, and that she shows courage and grows in self-esteem during the latter part of the story. Austen biographer Claire Tomalin, who is generally critical of Fanny, argues that "it is in rejecting obedience in favour of the higher dictate of remaining true to her own conscience that Fanny rises to her moment of heroism." But Tomalin reflects the ambivalence that many readers feel towards Fanny when she also writes: "More is made of Fanny Price's faith, which gives her the courage to resist what she thinks is wrong; it also makes her intolerant of sinners, whom she is ready to cast aside."
Thomas Edwards regards 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.. Byrne says, "At the centre of the book is a displaced child with an unshakeable conscience. A true heroine."
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 the ideal marriage should be between two people who love each other.
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 like Dr 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, and she is miserable for it. In the end, Fanny, through her deep-seated integrity, her reason and common sense, is able to triumph, thus challenging the prevailing ideal of femininity 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. In the first part of the novel Fanny is very passive, at best reacting to the views of others. She is generally ignored. The preparation for Lover’s 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 of how Lover's Vows was shut down by Sir Thomas, Fanny expresses firm disapproval, leading Henry to pay attention to her for the first time. This change in her behaviour is recognised by Sir Thomas, who now comes 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. Reflecting her new social prestige, Fanny is given the honor of opening the ball at Mansfield Park.
In the third part, Fanny is forced to be inactive again. She knows she can best serve the Bertrams by refusing to marry Henry despite the pressure they put on her. Fanny becomes active again when Henry reads Shakespeare aloud to Lady Bertram and she gradually loses interest in her needlework and allows her eyes to fix on Henry. Later, when Henry comes to court Fanny at Portsmouth, despite being impressed by his apparent improvements, she feels conflicted and remains inactive. In so doing, she demands of Henry more perseverance and moral commitment than he is capable of. 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'
To Nina 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. She shares more in common with the brooding character of a Hamlet, or even the monster created by Frankenstein in Mary Shelley's novel (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.
She is a stern, priggish woman who watches the world around her in silent disapproval. Fanny is "a woman who belongs only where she is not." Auerbach says, "Fanny is a more indigestible figure than the wistful Victorian orphans for whom embracing their kin is a secular salvation."
There is 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."
"Her solitude is her condition, not a state from which the comedy will save her." "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."
Alistair Duckworth noted that a recurring theme in Austen’s novels is the way the condition of the estates mirrors that of their owners. In Pride and Prejudice the fine condition of Pemberley is used as a testament to Mr. Darcy’s good character.
Thomas Edwards maintained that Mansfield Park was the most beautiful of Austen's novels, full of loving descriptions of the English countryside. American literary critic, Harold Bloom, saw Mansfield Park as belonging to the tradition of first generation Romantics who appreciated the sublime quiet found in the countryside. The theme of country in conflict with city recurs throughout the book, symbolising that which is natural and life-renewing over against the artificial and corrupting effects of society. 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.
Conversations about improving the landscape occur frequently in Mansfield Park, and include discussions about the work of popular landscape improver, Humphry Repton. At Sotherton, Mr. Rushworth decides to employ Repton, his rates being five guineas a day. 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 an ironic comparison with Repton's predecessor, the great landscape improver, Lancelot 'Capability' Brown.
Repton had coined the term landscape gardener and also popularised the title Park as the description of an estate. His work was well-known to Austen and she is thought to have based her fictional Sotherton partly on Stoneleigh Abbey. Her 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 his own property, 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.
In the conversations at Sotherton about improvements to the estate, Fanny objects to Mr Rushworth’s plans to destroy the trees; she values what has emerged naturally over the centuries. David Monaghan contrasts her opinion with other perspectives. The materialist Mary Crawford is willing to accept any improvements money can buy, providing she does not have to experience the inconvenience. Henry is only interested in the work of improvement, not in the finished product. Each perspective demonstrates something of that person's character. Henry lives in the present, Mary thinks only of the future; only the introverted Fanny can hold in her mind, the past, the present and the future.
Duckworth believes that Austen took the motif of landscaping as a symbol of the human condition from Edmund Burke’s influential book, The Reflections of the Revolution in France (1790). Burke made a distinction between beneficial "improvements" and malign "innovations". "Improvements" are valued as a part of conservation. But "innovations" and "alterations" to society were to be abhorred as they meant the destruction of all that had come before. Austen believed that estates, like society might be in need of improvements, but the changes advocated by Repton were unacceptable 'innovations' and 'alterations' that would destroy the 'whole original fabric' of the estate. Duckworth argues that Mansfield Park is pivotal to an understanding of Austen's views. 'The estate' is emblematic of an entire moral and social heritage, and 'improvement', or the manner in which an individual relates to his estate, has crucial bearing on the state and direction of society. Austen, while clearly 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 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 caused her to cease attending church is contrasted unfavourably with that of Fanny Price whose 'English' sobriety and faith leads her to proclaim that church services should continue as, "It was a valuable part of former times. 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 lack of interest in religion makes her an alien and disruptive force in the English countryside.
To Canadian scholar, David Monaghan, in his essay, Structure and Social Vision, the carefully maintained rows of trees at Mansfield Park are 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 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 tranquility as the social benchmarks. Only Fanny is aware of the value of the old manners, and in Austen's world manners make for 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 over against a legal 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.
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 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. Here are echoes of the temptation of Eve in the Garden of Eden. Shortly after, Edmund and Mary Crawford are also 'tempted' to leave the wilderness.
Later in the book, 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
Returning from his slave plantations in Antigua, Sir Thomas Bertram discovers the young people preparing an amateur production of Elizabeth Inchbald's Lovers Vows. He argues vehemently, using statements such as "unsafe amusements" and "noisy pleasures" that will "offend his ideas of decorum", and burns all unbound copies of the play. Fanny Price judges that the two leading female roles in Lovers Vows are "unfit to be expressed by any woman of modesty".
The question arises as to whether these anti-theatrical views are an expression of Austen's own. According to Claire Tomalin (1997), Mansfield Park, with its strong moralist theme and criticism of corrupted standards, has generated more debate than any other of Austen's works, polarising 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. Austen herself was an avid theatregoer and an admirer of actors like Kean. 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 and supervised by her clergyman father.
Jonas Barish, in his seminal work, The Antitheatrical Prejudice, suggests that by 1814 Austen may have turned against theatre following a recent embracing of evangelicalism. William Wilberforce, like many evangelical leaders, had challenged the decadence of that time and had published a popular work that, in that context, also expressed strong views against the theatre and its influence on morality. Tomalin argues that there is no need to believe Austen condemned plays outside Mansfield Park and every reason for thinking otherwise. 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. Byrne also argues strongly that Austen's novels show many signs of theatricality and have considerable dramatic structure which makes them particularly adaptable for screen representation.
A major theme of Mansfield Park is propriety, said American scholar Stuart Tave. Maggie Lane says that Austen’s society, having recently emerged from what was seen as a barbarous past, put a high store on propriety (and decorum). It is hard to use such words seriously today, with their implication of deadening conformity and hypocrisy, but propriety was seen as essential to preserve that degree of social harmony which enabled each person to lead a useful and happy life. Austen mocks those like Mrs. Norris who cling outwardly to propriety, often in a self-righteous manner and without understanding what it really means; she praises those like Fanny who really live up to it. Those who really understand, take into account the feelings of others and draw the appropriate conclusions.
Tave interprets the introduction of the play, Lover's Vows, as a test of the characters' commitment to propriety. The priggish Mrs. Norris sees herself as the guardian of propriety and is trusted as such by Sir Thomas when he leaves for Antigua. She fails completely by allowing the preparation for Lover's Vows. Edmund objects to the play, as he knows it somehow violates propriety, but he fails to make his point clear to others. He bases his objections on specific matters rather than the universal one of propriety. Fanny alone understands; she knows that playing the characters will have impact on the actors, but she is not strong enough to persuade the others of this. Historically, Fanny's anti-theatrical viewshad been expressed as early as Plato, and continued to find expression well into the 20th century. During the rehearsals, Fanny sees clearly the sexual tension and attraction between Edmund and Mary as they play the part of the two lovers. This fills her with both misery and jealousy.
Tave also suggests that when Sir Thomas shuts down Lover's Vows, he is revealing the hypocrisy and myopia of his own character. He is content to destroy the set and props without considering what had led his children to put on Lover's Vows; he is only concerned with an external propriety, not that propriety that might really drive them.
A common anti-theatrical theme that also stems from Plato, is the need to avoid acting, i.e. pretence and hypocrisy, in everyday life. Thomas Edwards says that the climactic struggle is Henry's efforts to win Fanny so that he can remake her as he would like her to be, over against Fanny's efforts to maintain her own identity. Even when Henry tries to please Fanny when he renounces acting and discusses Shakespeare, he is still acting: He measures his every word and carefully watches the reaction on her face. The theatrical aspect of Henry can be seen in the way he considers careers in the Church of England and in the Royal Navy after encounters with Edmund and William respectively. He is a man with no identity of his own and who constantly reinvents himself.
Edwards argued that the danger inherent in Lover's Vows is that the young actors cannot distinguish between acting and life, a point grasped by Mary who says, "What gentleman among you am I to have the pleasure of making love to?". The Crawfords are always acting. For them, Lover's Vows is a way to win Edmund and Maria, as eventually both the Bertrams come to understand. For example, 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. Mary 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. Only Fanny has full "consciousness" in the better sense, a sympathetic understanding of what others feel."
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." Byrne argues that although the view that Austen was making ordination the subject of her novel is based on a misreading of the letter, 'there is no doubt that Edmund’s vocation is at the centre of the novel'. Brodrick describes the Established church of that time as 'strenuously preventing women from direct participation in doctrinal and ecclesiastical affairs'. However, disguised within the medium of the novel, Austen has done just that.
Many consider that in the early nineteenth century, the Church of England had become decadent and had lost its way. Its lack of commitment and spirituality had been seriously challenged 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. Austen took her faith very seriously and often exposed clergy corruption through parody. To what extent she responded to Evangelical influences has been a matter of debate since the 1940s. Evangelical leaders were profoundly influenced by Wilberforce’s widely read Practical Christianity, published in 1797 which would have been known to Austen. In 1809 Cassandra recommended Hannah More’s ‘sermon novel’, Coelebs in Search of a Wife. Austen responded, '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 several set pieces, Austen presents debates about significant issues in the Church of England. She discusses attitudes to clerical corruption, the nature of the clerical office, the responsibility of the clergyman to raise spiritual awareness and doctrinal knowledge; she presents her concept of the ideal country clergyman. Topics range from the problems of non-residential clergy and a clergyman's lifestyle to issues of personal piety and family prayers. 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 would-be ordinand, expresses high ideals, but needs Fanny's support 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 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'.
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 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.
At the end of the book, 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 any practical application.
In a scene in which Henry Crawford reads Shakespeare aloud to Fanny, Edmund Crawford and Lady Bertram, Austen slips in a discussion on sermon delivery. Crawford 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 Crawford continues, he betrays his shallowness and self-aggrandisement. '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, 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 Crawford's flippant and solipsistic attitude to preaching. .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."
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 a vocation which has responsibility for all that is most important to mankind, which has implications for time and for eternity, and which has the guardianship of religion and morals and consequently of conduct. He adds that conduct stems from good principles and from the effect of those doctrines which it is the duty of the clergyman to teach and recommend. 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."
Slavery and Mansfield Park
In Paula Byrne's view, Sir Thomas Bertram's home, Mansfield Park, was "a newly built property, a house 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 Domwell Abbey in Emma.
The Slave Trade Act was 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 of Mansfield Park, when Sir Thomas Bertram returns from his estates in Antigua, Fanny asks him about the slave trade but receives no answer. Claire Tomalin, following literary critic, Brian Southam, argues that Fanny, usually so timid, in questioning her uncle about the slave trade, shows that her vision of the trade's immorality is clearer than his. 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 favorite poet, William Cowper, was also a passionate abolitionist who often wrote poems on the subject, notably his famous work, The Task.
Does Mansfield Park endorse slavery?
In his 1993 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 admitted 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, and 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 treats women, including his own daughters and his niece, as disposable commodities to be traded and bartered for his own advantage, and that this is parallelled by his treatment of slaves who are exploited to support his lifestyle.
Said's thesis that Austen was an apologist for slavery received further attention when the 1999 film version of Mansfield Park in which the Canadian director, Patricia Rozema, presented the Bertram family as morally corrupt and degenerate. Rozema makes it clear that Sir Thomas owned slaves in the West Indies and by implication, so did the entire British elite. She added in a scene, not in the book, where Fanny hears terrible cries from a ship off the coast and learns that the ship is a slave ship bringing in its human cargo to Portsmouth. The Australian historian Keith Windschuttle criticised Rozema, noting that slaves were never brought to British shores. 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, including Samuel Johnson and Edmund Burke, opposed slavery and helped make its eventual abolition possible. 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 did not hold.
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 as an avid abolitionist who often read anti-slavery books would have been familiar with Lord Mansfield's ruling. (The name of the family estate may well reflect Lord Mansfield, just as the name of Aunt Norris may be drawn from Robert Norris, the opposite of the judge, as Norris was "an infamous slave trader and a byword for pro-slavery sympathies.")
Other literary criticism
Character - weakness and strength
Thomas Edwards in his article, "The Difficult Beauty of Mansfield Park", examines the strengths and weaknesses of some of the main characters. The more attractive Crawfords are marred by destructive flaws. Edmund and Fanny, are essentially very ordinary people who lack charisma but 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 feelings in the soul of Fanny and Edmund) and consciousness (the superficial self-centered thoughts of Mary and Henry).
The Crawfords are motivated by the desire to express their strength by dominating others. Henry Crawford is attracted to Fanny Price because he cannot fathom her mind, and is obsessed with 'knowing' her. He wants 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. In the same way, Mary Crawford refuses to accept Edmund as he is. She needs to remake him according to her notion of what a man should be. The shallowness and insincerity of Henry Crawford's feelings towards Fanny is exposed when he runs off with newly married Maria. By taking Maria away from her community, he has deprived the Bertrams of a family member. The reporting of the scandal in the newspapers adds further to the family misery. Henry is revealed as callous, amoral and egoistical.
To Edwards, Edmund is the 'most believable' of her heroes precisely because he has 'limitations', and there is 'much here to respect' about Edmund, a plodding, honest and good hearted man. He argues that the phlegmatic character of Edmund saves him from falling for 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 sad to 'close the door' on her forever.
Edwards concludes, "Fanny and Edmund learn less, but that is the point. For once we are to consider how people who, like most people, have no superabundance of wit and charm and wisdom, are to get along in the world. They get along, quite simply, by avoiding what they cannot understand." The strengths of the Crawfords are ultimately their weakness; the weaknesses of Edmund and Fanny become their strength.
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 on the same level as his daughters, but at the end, he acknowledges her advantages in starting from hardship in her parents' home, and recognizes his failings in guiding his own daughters. The novel also shows the influence of siblings and cousins upon one another.
Susan Morgan argues that to understand the novel properly requires an understanding of the potential of characters to change.
Mary Crawford, while possessing attractive qualities, charm and vivacity, is ultimately doomed by her superficiality, materialism and inability to change. A telling example of Mary’s character occurs when she says "Look, where I will, I see that it is so; and I feel that it must be". She assumes that what she sees before her is all that will ever be, and the possibility of anything else existing does not occur to her. Though not devoid of kindness, Mary has a strong competitive streak that leads her to see love as a game where one party conquers and controls the other. This, coupled with her cynicism and narcissism, leads to an insensitivity to the feelings of others. She insists that Edmund abandons his clerical career because it is not prestigious enough. She is unable to appreciate improvements; she lacks the discernment to value change in moral character and the hard work necessary to bring it about.
When Fanny, aged ten, is sent to Mansfield Park, her tears at leaving the only home she has ever known, shows her awareness of the past, of who she is and was, and her wish to maintain her identity. Though a flawed heroine, Fanny 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.". Austen also shows that change can be destructive when Fanny nearly succumbs to Henry Crawford’s charm. Fanny is drawn by his apparent reformation of character, even though she knows deep down that he is by nature malleable and undependable. Whatever his passions are now will be easily replaced. 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 explains that the common criticism, that it is unbelievable how Edmund finally transfers his affections from Mary to Fanny so quickly, is not warranted. 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, leaves it to the reader to determine the time scale.
While Mansfield Park was ignored by reviewers at first publication, it was a great success with the public. The first printing "sold out within six months" and in 1816 she had a second printing which also sold out. Austen's earnings on this novel were larger than for any of her other novels published in her lifetime. This novel received its first positive critical review in 1821, in a review of all of Jane Austen's published novels by Richard Whately, who specifically noted the character of Fanny Price. Regency critics praised the novel's wholesome morality.
Austen's sister, Cassandra, wanted the novel to end with Fanny marrying Henry; this dispute is one of the few known between the sisters. John Halperin, also noted that Austen's mother loved all of her novels except Mansfield Park, which he suggests may have been in part because of the similarities between Sir Thomas and her husband.
In the late 20th century, Mansfield Park raised much controversy among reviewers.
In 1974, the American literary critic Joel Weinsheimer wrote that Mansfield Park was of all the Austen novels "perhaps the most profound; certainly it is the most problematic". Susan Morgan called Mansfield Park the most difficult of all Austen’s novels; it features the weakest of all of Austen’s heroines yet one who ends up the most beloved member of the Bertram family. Thomas Edwards' argues that there are more shades of grey in Mansfield Park than in Austen's other novels, and that those today who crave a simple dualist worldview might find this off-putting. Even the fans praised only the "technical success" of the novel. 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." They reject the idea made explicit in the final chapter that she is a better person for the relative privations of her childhood.
To the American scholar, John Halperin, Mansfield Park is the "most eccentric" of all Austen's novels and her greatest failure. He attacked the book for its inane heroine, a 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 are much more interesting than those in Mansfield Park, and that having portrayed the Bertram familt as greedy, selfish and materialistic for most of the novel, Austen, in the last chapters, presents life at Mansfield Park in idealised terms.
Marking 200 years after this novel was published, Paula Byrne, author of a biography of Jane Austen, wrote a perspective on it, a novel she loves. Well aware that Mansfield Park is not generally viewed as she sees it, the subtitle to Byrne's article was "Ignore its uptight reputation, Mansfield Park ...seethes with sex and explores England’s murkiest corners".The novel bold in its humour, contains "Austen’s filthiest joke", when she makes a pun about sodomy in the Navy. Says Mary Crawford, “My home at my uncle’s brought me acquainted with a circle of admirals. Of Rears and Vices, I saw enough. Now, do not be suspecting me of a pun, I entreat."
- 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 (interestingly, 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
- 2017: Seeking Mansfield, a young adult retelling by novelist Kate Watson set in the theater scene of modern-day Chicago.
- Byrne, Paula (26 July 2014). "Mansfield Park shows the dark side of Jane Austen". The Telegraph. Retrieved 7 April 2018.
- Kindred, Shelia Johnson "The Influence of Naval Captain Charles Austen’s North American Experiences on Persuasion and Mansfield Park" pages 115–129 from Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal Issue, Issue 31, June 2009 page 125.
- cited in Southam, Jane Austen: The Critical Heritage, 1870-1940 p. 85
- Gay, Penny (2005). Todd, Janet, ed. Historical and cultural context: Pastimes. Jane Austen in Context. The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Jane Austen. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 341. ISBN 978-0-521-82644-0.
- Selwyn, David (1999). Jane Austen and Leisure. The Hambledon Press. p. 271. ISBN 978-1852851712.
- Morgan, Susan "The Promise of Mansfield Park" pages 57–81 from Jane Austen's Mansfield Park, New York: Chelsea House, 1987 page 72.
- Byrne, Paula. The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things, HarperCollins Publishers. (Kindle Locations 489-490).
- "Early opinions of Mansfield Park". Retrieved 16 May 2006.
- Calvo, Clara (2005). Holland, Peter, ed. Rewriting Lear's Untender Daughter: Fanny Price as Regency Cordelia in Jane Austen's Mansfield Park. Shakespeare Survey: Volume 58, Writing about Shakespeare. pp. 84–85. ISBN 978-0521850742.
- Weinsheimer, Joel (September 1974). "Mansfield Park: Three Problems". Nineteenth-Century Fiction. 29 (2): 185.
- Tomalin, Claire (1997). Jane Austen: A Life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. p. 230. ISBN 0-679-44628-1.
- Edwards, Thomas "The Difficult Beauty of Mansfield Park" pages 7–21 from Jane Austen's Mansfield Park, New York: Chelsea House, 1987 page 18
- Kirkham, Margaret “Feminist Irony and the Priceless Heroine” pages 117–131 from Jane's Austen's Mansfield Park edited by Harold Bloom, New York: Chelsea House, 1987 pages 117–118 & 130–131.
- Kirkham, Margaret “Feminist Irony and the Priceless Heroine” pages 117–131 from Jane's Austen's Mansfield Park edited by Harold Bloom, New York: Chelsea House, 1987 page 120.
- Kirkham, Margaret “Feminist Irony and the Priceless Heroine” pages 117–131 from Jane's Austen's Mansfield Park edited by Harold Bloom, New York: Chelsea House. 1987 pages 118–119.
- with Wollstonecraft, Mary. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, 1792, section 5:2 (Amazon Classics Edition)
- Kirkham, Margaret “Feminist Irony and the Priceless Heroine” pages 117–131 from Jane's Austen's Mansfield Park edited by Harold Bloom, New York: Chelsea House, 1987 pages 124–125.
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