Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

August 9, 2011
Custom User Avatar
More by this author
Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park was written in 1811 to 1813 and published anonymously in 1814. As with all her novels, Austen’s name was not attached until after her death. It was Austen’s third published novel (after Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice), and the first that was not a revision of an earlier work. This report will feature a plot summary and my thoughts on the setting, plot, characters and theme of this novel.

Mansfield Park is the story of Fanny Price, a young woman who is good, quiet and moral, but also perceived as unfortunately weak until the third volume of the novel. She was adopted by her wealthy uncle, Sir Thomas Bertram, and goes to live at his home, Mansfield Park, because her own mother has too many children to cope with. As Fanny grows up, she is repeatedly taken advantage of by her two aunts who reside there, Lady Bertram and Mrs. Norris, and by her cousins, except for kind cousin Edmund, the younger Mr. Bertram, who always cares for her well-being. Everything is as it should be until Mr. and Miss Crawford arrive in town, the former wrecking havoc with both of Fanny’s female cousins, the elder Maria, who is engaged to silly Mr. Rushworth, and the younger Julia, who is frequently outdone by her sister, and the latter enticing Edmund into a rollercoaster relationship without him actually seeing her true personality. After much drama and confusion, Mr. Crawford decides to trick poor, sensitive Fanny into loving him, but he ends up loving her. When he proposes, everyone is celebratory, apart from Fanny who refuses adamantly as she knows his true morals and is strong enough to stick to hers. Fanny is sent to her family’s home in Portsmouth, where she is appalled at the loudness and lack of manners, and Mr. Crawford disappears to London, where massive scandal is produced with Maria, leading to her divorce, and Julia elopes with a vague acquaintance we met earlier in the novel, Mr. Yates. Fanny returns to Mansfield in the midst of all this fuss, and Edmund discovers the true vile nature of Miss Crawford. In distress, they turn to each other and realize that they are very much in love, and are each the other’s only possible chance of happiness. They marry and the book ties up all the loose ends gracefully.

Mansfield Park is in fact a rather boring setting. It’s a big house in the middle of Northampton, and it has its walks and its shrubbery and its grand rooms, but it is not the most exciting place in society. However, the cousins and the Crawfords spend ample time in London and other fashionable places, so the residents of Mansfield are often in connection with city life. And we have the Parsonage at Mansfield Park, which is where the Crawfords stay (with their other sister and her husband, though they are not a major characters). And we have our trip to Sotherton (the Rushworth’s great house), which Fanny is surprisingly allowed to participate in. And we have the highly inappropriate play which Sir Thomas turns up in the middle of (and calls off). And we have the ball which Sir Thomas holds to please Fanny. And we have visits from Fanny’s dearest brother William who brings exciting tales from sea. And we have Fanny’s not-as-good-as-expected visit to her family’s house in Portsmouth. So, although Mansfield is quite a dull place where walks, horse-riding and card games are the height of entertainment, Austen keeps the plot running beautifully with enough drama and action to delight any reader.

The plot of this novel is full of drama, scandal and action. Many of the characters are spiteful, shocking and vivacious, which is probably why Austen wanted such a good, sensitive heroine as Fanny Price. The Bertrams and the Crawfords go through some times, getting right up to the final rehearsal of a very improper play (Lover’s Vows), marrying for money and spite of another (Maria to Mr. Rushworth, to spite Mr. Crawford), lying for affection (Miss Crawford), playing with women’s feelings and planning trickery then professing love very openly and determinedly and moving on to another affair (Mr. Crawford), being a complete air-head with a pet pug (Lady Bertram), and hating her own niece so much that she invents ridiculous random errands for her that are well below her duties (Mrs. Norris). Also, the ball is a completely crazy outcome of Sir Thomas’s coming back from being away to a newly-beautiful Fanny and planning it just to please her, and to try to fix her up with Mr. Crawford, when the only person she cares for is Edmund.

Fanny is not a traditional heroine, and she is often treated as significant as the furniture in most scenes, but we can also see that this is because that is how her friends and relatives treat her and that their lives would actually be affected a lot without her. We believe her to be weak for most of the book – easily tired, frequent tears, blushes – but when she utterly refuses Mr. Crawford, we see that she is in fact a very strong character, and will be true to herself and stick with her morals.

Edmund proves not to be such a strong character, as he is easily enticed by Miss Crawford. Maria and Julia are not strong enough at the start to stop Mr. Crawford bringing a wedge between them. Mr. Crawford himself is not strong enough to stay constant with his love for Fanny. The same goes for Miss Crawford to Edmund. Fanny’s aunts aren’t strong enough to cope without her. Mr. Rushworth isn’t strong enough to keep Maria’s attention. Even Fanny’s dearest parents aren’t strong enough to properly support all their children. That doesn’t leave us with many strong characters (except for Sir Thomas, but his role in the story makes it impossible for him to be anything but the over-bearing, controlling head of the family) so Fanny is in fact a strong heroine. Edmund is indeed not a strong hero and he doesn’t for one minute deserve Fanny, but he is all she knows of kindness and the only person she could ever grow to love, so they two are readily made for each other. Their relationship is awkward and a bit weird for the length of the novel, and we begin to think Fanny will become a disowned spinster, when suddenly Edmund realizes he loves Fanny, and she admits she loves him, and the reader loves them both (and Austen) for deceiving everyone so.

The theme of Mansfield Park has been debated about by many readers. The main reason for this is that Austen wrote in a way where the reader has to figure out the theme, unlike her other novels where one simple theme is quite clearly stated. We’ve talked about the theme in the character of strong vs. weak. We can also look at good vs. evil, with Fanny being a very good character, and others such as her cousins and the Crawfords having a slight evil within them. However, I don’t think this is a battle of good and evil; I think moral vs. immoral would more accurately sum that part of the story up where Fanny is always following her morals and acting exactly as we expect a respectable lowly cousin to act, whereas Maria’s open flirting and Mr. Crawford’s indiscretions and Julia’s utter jealousy are all presented to us as the immoral side. Fanny is the perfect contrast to all of the scandals, gossip and rumours about her relatives and acquaintances, as she is drawn as a very righteous and proper young woman who sticks to her rule book of manners.

This is another theme we could consider; sticking to what you believe in or succumbing to a greater force. Fanny shows her strength when she declines Mr. Crawford, and continues to decline him no matter what her relatives or the Crawfords say to convince her. She might get tempted, but then she remembers his past imprudence and knows that she must be true to her values, her morals and herself by being determined to refuse him. Other characters do not show these qualities. Miss Crawford throughout seems quite intent on marrying for money, just like her friends in London, who we meet late in the novel. She could stick to an alternative idea that marrying for love is the only matrimony worthwhile but she does not; she and her friends ultimately would do anything for the financial benefits, no matter what they truly believe in. Maria Bertram shares this weakness. She does not follow her heart to Crawford, which in the end could’ve changed his wild ways with women – she listens to her family, mainly Sir Thomas, and marries Mr. Rushworth who possesses nothing she likes except his estate, and who she cannot and will not ever truly love. Later in the novel she blatantly regrets her choice as she goes back to Crawford, but all that scandal could’ve been stopped had she just stuck to her true feelings.

I have one last probable suggestion with the regards to theme. I believe that there was a more minor theme which some may overlook if they get caught up in all the drama: education. In this novel we have poor Fanny who had to leave those she loved to go to Mansfield so she can become an educated and polite young woman, which she does. When she returns to her family, however, it is this education that brings her sorrow. She finds her family more boisterous, loud and rough than she remembered, because she has forgotten how she used to think lessons, art and music a total bore and how she didn’t know her manners very well at all. She has been educated by her rich relatives’ governess and now she returns a different person, and is made even sadder to see her sister, Susan, who is “very little better fitted for home than her elder sister” (last paragraph of Chapter XII, Volume Three). Fanny reaches out to Susan and soon realizes that if Susan would just be allowed to Mansfield, or some other proper home, she would be given the chance of good education that she deserves. The character of Susan makes the reader feel gloomy because the two sisters, only four years apart, have been given such different chances in life when they were primarily just as suited to the literary, musical, artistic, calm and comfortable life as each other. This sadness is reflected in our other sisters: Lady Bertram got the big chance, Mrs. Norris got to tag along, and Mrs. Price was left poor in Portsmouth with nothing to her advantage apart from somewhere to send her eldest daughter. Education can make people who were previously the same in all respects differ from each other, and have to lead separate lives, in separate circles. It is a pitiful concept that all these sisters could not have had equal advantages so that they could still be connected as a family, but that is the way it is.

I would definitely recommend this novel to anyone as it is interesting, witty and dramatic. Despite the fact that it is the only of Austen’s novels not particularly favoured by her fans, I believe it was a very good read, and that these fans only dislike this novel because Fanny is a different sort of character that Austen’s others, and the theme is not quite as clear and more reader-interpretive. It was, however, a good book to read; believable, scandalous and surprising, and Fanny herself is the only heroine I could imagine in such a story and she shines with a sparkle that only Austen could’ve sprinkled in my memory.





Post a Comment

Be the first to comment on this article!

bRealTime banner ad on the left side
Site Feedback