Mansfield Park: An Overview

Henry has finished “Mansfield Park,” and his approbation has not lessened. He found the last half of the last volume extremely interesting.
Jane Austen to Cassandra
March 9, 1814

Mansfield Park is a novel by Jane Austen, written at Chawton Cottage between 1812 and 1814. It was published in July 1814 by Thomas Egerton, who published Jane Austen’s two earlier novels, Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice. When the novel reached a second edition, its publication was taken over by John Murray, who also published its successor, Emma.

The main character, Fanny Price, is a young girl from a poor family, raised by her rich uncle and aunt, Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram, at Mansfield Park. She grows up with her four cousins, Tom Bertram, Edmund Bertram, Maria Bertram and Julia, but is always treated as inferior to them; only Edmund Bertram shows her real kindness. He is also the most virtuous of the siblings: Maria and Julia are vain and spoiled, while Tom is an irresponsible gambler. Over time, Fanny’s gratitude for Edmund’s kindness secretly grows into romantic love.

When the children have grown up, the stern patriarch Sir Thomas leaves for two years so he can deal with problems on his plantation in Antigua. Henry Crawford and his sister Mary Crawford arrive in the village, which begins a series of romantic entanglements. Mary and Edmund begin to form an attachment, though Edmund often worries that, although her manners are fashionable, they hide a lack of firm principle. However, she is engaging and charming, and goes out of her way to befriend Fanny. Fanny fears that Mary has enchanted Edmund, and love has blinded him to her flaws. Henry plays with the affections of Maria Bertram and Julia, despite Maria being already engaged to the dull, but very rich, Mr. Rushworth. Because Fanny is so little observed in the family circle, her presence is often overlooked and Fanny sees Maria and Henry in compromising situations several times.

Encouraged by Tom and his friend Mr. Yates, the young people decide to put on Elizabeth Inchbald’s play Lovers’ Vows; Edmund and Fanny oppose the plan, believing Sir Thomas will disapprove, but Edmund is eventually drawn into it, offering to play the part of Anhalt, who is the lover of the character played by Mary Crawford. In particular, the play provides a pretext for Henry and Maria to flirt in public. Sir Thomas arrives unexpectedly in the middle of a rehearsal, which ends the plan. Henry leaves, and Maria is crushed; she marries Mr. Rushworth and they leave for their honeymoon, taking Julia with them. Fanny’s improved looks and pleasant temper endear her to Sir Thomas, who pays more attention to her care.

Henry returns to Mansfield Park and decides to amuse himself by making Fanny fall in love with him. However, her genuine gentleness and kindness cause him to fall in love with her instead. When he proposes marriage, Fanny’s knowledge of his improper flirtations with her cousins, as well as her love for Edmund, cause her to reject him. The Bertrams are dismayed, since it is an extremely advantageous match for a poor girl like Fanny. Sir Thomas rebukes her for ingratitude. Thereafter she soon returns to her lower middle class family where she wishes to return to Mansfield Park. Sir Thomas is hopeful that she will realize the usefulness of a rich husband. Henry goes to visit her there, to demonstrate that he has changed and is worthy of her affection. Fanny’s attitude begins to soften but she still maintains that she will not marry him.

Shortly after Henry leaves, Fanny learns of a scandal involving Henry and Maria. The two have met again in London and begun an affair that, when discovered, ends in scandalous elopement and divorce. To make matters worse, the dissolute Tom has taken ill, and Julia has eloped with Mr. Yates. Fanny returns to Mansfield Park to comfort her aunt and uncle and to help take care of Tom. Although Edmund knows that marriage to Mary is now impossible because of the scandal between their relations, he goes to see her one last time. During the interview, it becomes clear that Mary doesn’t condemn Henry and Maria’s bad behaviour, only that they got caught. Her main concern is covering it up and she angrily implies that if Fanny had accepted Henry, he would have been too busy and happy to flirt with other women. This reveals Mary Crawford’s true nature to Edmund, who realises he had idealised her as someone she is not. He tells her so and returns to Mansfield and his living at Thornton Lacey. “At exactly the time it should be so, and not a week sooner” Edmund realises how important Fanny is to him, declares his love for her and they are married. Tom recovers from his illness, a steadier and better man for it, and Julia’s elopement turns out to be not such a desperate business after all. Austen points out that if only Crawford had persisted in being steadfast to Fanny, and not succumbed to the affair with Maria, Fanny eventually would have accepted his marriage proposal–especially after Edmund had married Mary.

Mansfield Park is the most controversial and perhaps the least popular of Austen’s major novels. Regency critics praised the novel’s wholesome morality, but many modern readers find Fanny’s timidity and disapproval of the theatricals difficult to sympathise with and reject the idea (made explicit in the final chapter) that she is a better person for the relative privations of her childhood. Jane Austen’s own mother thought Fanny “insipid”, and many other readers have found her priggish and unlikeable. Other critics point out that she 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 rather 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.”

The story contains much social satire, targeted particularly at the two aunts. It is perhaps the most socially realistic Austen novel, with Fanny’s family of origin, the Prices, coming from a much lower echelon of society than most Austen characters.

Edward Said implicated the novel in western culture’s casual acceptance of the material benefits of slavery and imperialism, citing Austen’s omission to mention that the estate of Mansfield Park was made possible only through slave labour. Other critics, such as Gabrielle White, have criticised Said’s condemnation of Jane Austen and western culture, maintaining that Austen and other writers, including Samuel Johnson and Edmund Burke, opposed slavery and helped make its eventual abolition possible. Claire Tomalin, following literary critic Brian Southam, claims that Fanny, usually so timid, questions her uncle about the slave trade and receives no answer, suggesting that her vision of the trade’s immorality is clearer than his. However, Ellen Moody has challenged Southam’s interpretation, arguing that Fanny’s uncle would not have been “pleased” (as the text suggests) to be questioned on the subject if Southam’s reading of the scene were correct.

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From Wikipedia, The online Encyclopedia.

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