Mansfield Park focuses on the life of Fanny Price and her experience living at Mansfield Park, where she's been sent due to her family's financial problems. The main themes of the novel are the development and collapse of social relationships...
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 family sends her at age ten to live in the household of her wealthy aunt and uncle and following her development into early adulthood. From early on critical interpretation has been diverse, differing particularly over the character of the heroine, Austen's views about theatrical performance and the centrality or otherwise of ordination and religion, and on the question of slavery. Some of these problems have been highlighted in the several later adaptations of the story for stage and screen.
Fanny Price, at age ten, is sent from her impoverished home in Portsmouth to live as one of the family at Mansfield Park, the country estate of her uncle, Sir Thomas Bertram. There she is mistreated by all but her elder cousin Edmund. Her aunt Norris, the wife of the clergyman at the Mansfield parsonage, makes herself particularly unpleasant.
When Fanny is fifteen, Aunt Norris is widowed and the frequency of her visits to Mansfield Park increases, as does her mistreatment of Fanny. A year later, Sir Thomas leaves to deal with problems on his plantation in Antigua, taking his spendthrift eldest son Tom. Mrs Norris, looking for a husband for Maria, finds Mr Rushworth, who is rich but weak-willed and considered stupid, and Maria accepts his proposal.
The following year, Henry Crawford and his sister, Mary, arrive at the parsonage to stay with their half-sister, the wife of the new incumbent, Dr Grant. With their fashionable London ways, they enliven life in Mansfield. Edmund and Mary then start to show interest in one another.
On a visit to Mr Rushworth's estate, Henry flirts with both Maria and Julia. Maria believes Henry is in love with her and so treats Mr Rushworth dismissively, provoking his jealousy, while Julia struggles with jealousy and resentment towards her sister. Mary is disappointed to learn that Edmund will be a clergyman and tries to undermine his vocation. Fanny fears that Mary's charms are blinding Edmund to her flaws.
After Tom returns, he encourages the young people to begin rehearsals for an amateur performance of the play Lovers' Vows. Edmund objects, believing Sir Thomas would disapprove and feeling that the subject matter of the play is inappropriate for his sisters. But after much pressure, he agrees to take on the role of the lover of the character played by Mary. The play provides further opportunity for Henry and Maria to flirt. When Sir Thomas arrives home unexpectedly, the play is still in rehearsal and is cancelled. Henry departs without explanation and Maria goes ahead with marriage to Mr Rushworth. They then settle in London, taking Julia with them. Sir Thomas sees many improvements in Fanny and Mary Crawford initiates a closer relationship with her.
When Henry returns, he decides to entertain himself by making Fanny fall in love with him. Fanny's brother William visits Mansfield Park, and Sir Thomas holds what is effectively a coming-out ball for her. Although Mary dances with Edmund, she tells him it will be the last time as she will never dance with a clergyman. Edmund drops his plan to propose and leaves the next day. So too do Henry and William.
When Henry next returns, he announces to Mary his intention to marry Fanny. To assist his plan, he uses his family connections to help William achieve promotion. However, when Henry proposes marriage, Fanny rejects him, disapproving of his past treatment of women. Sir Thomas is astonished by her continuing refusal, but she does not explain, afraid of incriminating Maria.
To help Fanny appreciate Henry's offer, Sir Thomas sends her to visit her parents in Portsmouth, where she is taken aback by the contrast between their chaotic household and the harmonious environment at Mansfield. Henry visits, but although she still refuses him, she begins to appreciate his good features.
Later, Fanny learns that Henry and Maria have had an affair that is reported in the newspapers. Mr Rushworth sues Maria for divorce, and the Bertram family is devastated. Tom meanwhile falls gravely ill as a result of a fall from his horse. Edmund takes Fanny back to Mansfield Park, where she is a healing influence. Sir Thomas realises that Fanny was right to reject Henry's proposal and now regards her as a daughter.
During a meeting with Mary Crawford, Edmund discovers that Mary only regrets that Henry's adultery was discovered. Devastated, he breaks off the relationship and returns to Mansfield Park, where he confides in Fanny. Eventually the two marry and move to Mansfield parsonage. Meanwhile, those left at Mansfield Park have learned from their mistakes and life becomes pleasanter there.
It is all Jane Austen's fault. In Pride and Prejudice, the novel that preceded Mansfield Park, she had created Elizabeth Bennet – a heroine to delight any discerning reader. How could we, and Mr Darcy, not fall for her? But Austen always reacted against her own creations and made a new heroine who was an antithesis to her last one. So after the irreverent, arch, daring Elizabeth, she turned to Fanny Price: dutiful, repressed and – let us sharpen the insult – prim. It is as if she was daring her readers to stay with her. Over the years, many have not. Even lovers of Austen's novels have their problems with Fanny Price. "Nobody, I believe, has ever found it possible to like the heroine of Mansfield Park," declared the great critic and Austen aficionado Lionel Trilling. Marilyn Butler, whose book Jane Austen and the War of Ideas did much to establish the novelist's intellectual credentials, nevertheless conceded "that Fanny is a failure is widely agreed". Others have been fiercer. Kingsley Amis called Fanny "a monster of complacency and pride" concealed under "a cloak of cringing self-abasement".
Modern discontent with Austen's heroine has been expressed clearly enough in the two most recent film adaptations of the novel. Patricia Rozema's 1999 film starred Frances O'Connor as a sharp-tongued Fanny who rode bareback through thunderstorms and was not averse to a snog with Henry Crawford. Rozema claimed that her interpretation had been shaped by the work of feminist academics; it certainly had little sanction from the novel. The 2007 ITV version fearlessly cast Billie Piper as a put-upon Fanny who was clearly a wild child beneath the surface, her silence legible as unexpressed rebellion. If only she wouldn't abase herself. "I can never be important to any one," is Fanny's heartfelt response when Edmund tells her she will be a valuable companion for her Aunt Norris, one of the most beautifully drawn sadists in all literature. Fanny is introduced into the Bertram house as an inferior – a poor relation who is being done a great kindness and must always be "sensible of her uncommon good fortune", as Mrs Norris puts it. Austen shows how character and circumstance are never completely distinct. Fanny, the only Austen heroine who is seen in childhood, is shaped by the compliance that is forced upon her.
Austen's own relations and friends perhaps grasped this better than later readers, for they did not seem disappointed to turn from Elizabeth to Fanny. "Fanny is a delightful Character!" thought her brother Francis. "Fond of Fanny," said her sister Cassandra. For all her reticence and awkwardness (she blushes more often than any other Austen heroine), Fanny has to be as stubborn and resourceful as any Brontë heroine. Beneath a grand veneer of respectability, the main characters in the novel are behaving very badly indeed and she must keep her head. With the arrival of Henry and Mary Crawford, the Bertrams, her adoptive family, descend from aristocratic self-regard into deception, sexual rivalry and mutual cruelty. The family falls apart and only Fanny understands what is happening.
Our sense of how Fanny is pushed aside is also a matter of Austen's fictional method. Those who find Fanny insufficiently forceful have been duped by this method into treating her as the Bertrams treat her. Fanny is the most absent of Austen's protagonists, a heroine designed to be neglected by the reader as much as by her adoptive family. On one occasion, Edmund and Julia Bertram arrive back late on a summer's evening, after dining enjoyably at the parsonage with the Crawfords. As they enter the Mansfield Park drawing room they find a sulky Maria, a cross Mrs Norris and a comatose Lady Bertram. But where is Fanny? asks Edmund. "Is she gone to bed?" "She was here a moment ago," says Mrs Norris – before Fanny herself answers gently from somewhere in the shadows at the end of the room, "which was a very long one".
"That is a very foolish trick, Fanny," retorts the appalling Mrs Norris – but, of course, it is the author's trick. Fanny is our heroine yet she is always at the edge of things, almost invisible. Sometimes you will almost forget her yourself. "And Fanny, what was she doing and thinking all this while?" Austen suddenly asks, as if she is catching us out for behaving like the Bertrams. Yet this marginalised, scorned character is also a romantic heroine, possessed of the most painful secret passion. She loves Edmund, but she has to watch him being entangled by Mary. So ignorant is Edmund of her true feelings that he recruits her as his adviser in his halting courtship of the glamorous incomer. At all costs, Fanny must keep the secret of her love – or she too will be open to Mary's wiles.
Mansfield Park is singular among Austen's novels for the number of scenes in which the heroine is absent. The goings-on at the great house, for instance, are counterpointed by chilling conversations between the Crawfords and Mrs Grant in the parsonage. We hear Mary and Henry coldly discussing how they will manipulate the foolish Bertrams. Anyone who has ever fallen for Fanny's charming, amoral antagonist, Mary Crawford, would do well to heed these exchanges. Mary is set like Satan to beguile us. Every teacher of Mansfield Park will know the student who so much prefers the harp-playing temptress to timid Fanny. Yet this is part of the novel's beautiful design. Everything that Mary says to the Bertrams is with an ulterior purpose. The tactics by which she seduces even the upright Edmund into the erotic exchanges of the amateur dramatics constitute a masterclass in manipulation. As Fanny silently exclaims, "Alas! it was all Miss Crawford's doing."
"I begin now to understand you all, except Miss Price," Mary tells the Bertrams, with her mischievous frankness. Fanny is often condemned to silence, and Austen hopes that we will understand her even if none of the novel's characters do. The worldly, cynical Crawfords are intrigued. How can she resist their charms? "I do not understand her," confesses Henry. "I could not tell what she would be at yesterday. What is her character? Is she solemn? Is she queer? Is she prudish?" Over two centuries, there have been many who have thought her all these. Yet in creating a heroine condemned to suffer in secret and powerlessly to watch the follies of others, Austen managed something as audacious as the invention of Elizabeth Bennet.
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