Mansfield Park: by Jane Austen - Summary & Analysis

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      Mansfield Park centres on the development of its heroine Fanny Price from a timid, passive girl to a mature and self-knowing woman. Fanny is inwardly ‘shaped’ by a house, Mansfield Park, which is the symbol of a cultivated, harmonious way of life. The most dramatic exterior happenings are those that disturb that way of life.

      The principal themes woven around Fanny are, first, her integration into the world of Mansfield Park, which eventually entails a mental separation from her own family background. Second is her love for her cousin Edmund Bertram, impeded throughout the novel by his infatuation with a worldly heiress Mary Crawford, and only reciprocated at the novel’s end. Third is her courtship by Miss Crawford’s brother Henry, steadfastly rejected by Fanny, and eventually ending when he elopes with her married cousin Maria Bertram.

      We first meet Fanny Price at the age of ten, when she is taken into the house of her uncle and aunt, Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram. Lady Bertram’s successful marriage contrasts with that of her sister, Fanny’s mother, who has married a poor Lieutenant of Marines, now retired, lazy and inclined to drink. The remaining sister, Mrs. Norris, is married to a clergyman. Awkward and frightened, Fanny meets her handsome, confident cousins Tom and Edmund, Maria and Julia. Edmund, who is to become a clergyman, is the only one who befriends and encourages her. After her initial terror, Fanny grows to love Mansfield Park.

      When Fanny is eighteen, Sir Thomas has to go to the West Indies on business. Maria and Julia are in the midst of a busy social round, going to balls chaperoned by Mrs. Norris, now widowed, while Fanny stays at home with the indolent Lady Bertram. Mrs. Norris decides that Maria should marry Mr. Rushworth, a rich but dull-witted young man with a fine house and estate, and they become unofficially engaged. During Sir Thomas’s protracted absence, Henry and Mary Crawford come to stay at the parsonage with their half-sister Mrs. Grant, whose husband Dr. Grant became rector of the parish on Mr. Norris’ death. The Crawfords are rich and charming: Mrs. Grant hopes that Henry will marry Julia Bertram, but Mary warns her that he is an incorrigible flirt. The two families become very friendly, with Julia and Maria (despite her engagement) both attracted by Henry Crawford, and Mary Crawford interested in Tom Bertram, who will inherit his father’s title, money and estate. When he is away, however, she transfers her interest to Edmund, who, attracted first by her harp playing, then by her lively manner, falls in love with her. This attraction is noticed by Fanny, whom we already know to have tender feelings for Edmund; she is hurt when Edmund offers Miss Crawford the mare he had bought specially for Fanny to ride. Miss Crawford proves an excellent rider, keeps the mare longer and longer, and for several days she and Edmund go off to ride with the other young people, leaving Fanny with no exercise, and only her aunts for company. Edmund reproaches himself for this when he finds Fanny exhausted from running errands for her aunts; she is confused by his change from neglect to concern.

      The two families plan a visit to Sotherton, Mr. Rushworth’s house, which he is anxious to ‘improve’. Edmund ensures that Fanny, at first destined to be left behind, is included. Maria is vexed when Julia sits beside Henry Crawford on the driver’s box, but grows more cheerful as they approach the splendid estate which will be hers on her marriage. Mr. Rushworth and his mother show them the house; in the private chapel, a joke made by Julia about Edmund performing the marriage ceremony for Maria and Mr. Rushworth makes Mary Crawford realise for the first time that Edmund is to become a clergyman. She is taken aback, having already made several frivolous remarks about the clergy. In the garden, Miss Crawford and Edmund leave Fanny alone on a bench while they go to explore. Henry Craw lord and Maria, after a flirtatious conversation, scramble past a locked gate into the park although Mr. Rushworth has gone to get the key. Julia, cross, hurries after them. The whole party spends the day unsatisfactorily.

      Tom’s friend, John Yates, then comes to stay and fires all the young people with enthusiasm for acting; they plan a theatrical performance of a rather risque play, Lovers’ Vows, much to the dismay of Edmund and Fanny. Maria is given the leading role, and Julia, piqued that Henry Crawford does not propose her for it, flounces out, refusing to take part. Maria, showing a marked indifference to Mr. Rushworth, rehearses incessantly with Mr. Crawford. Mary Crawford persuades Edmund to play Anhait the clergyman opposite her, despite his disapproval of the whole venture. The house is put into disarray; Sir Thomas’s study is rearranged, scenery and stage are built. Lady Bertram is too lazy to disapprove, Mrs. Norris too busy helping and interfering. Despite mounting pressure, Fanny refuses to take part, and watches the disintegration of the harmonious household and the indecorous behaviour of the actors; she is particularly disturbed when Edmund and Mary Crawford rehearse an outspoken scene together in her room. During the first rehearsal of all the cast, Sir Thomas returns unexpectedly.

      Unaware of their dismay, Sir Thomas greets his family, finding Fanny much grown and much improved. It is not until he hears Mr. Yates rehearsing that he finds out about the theatricals, to his horror. Deeply disappointed, particularly in Edmund, he has his house put back in order. The party disperses. Henry Crawford leaves abruptly, to Maria’s chagrin; she had hoped that he would propose to her. Noticing her indifference to Mr. Rushworth, Sir Thomas asks her if she really wished to marry him, and she insists that she does. After the wedding, the couple goes away, accompanied by Julia. Fanny, as the only young woman left at home, is now more important and more confident. She becomes friendly with Mary Crawford. Henry Crawford resolves to make her fall in love with him, not knowing that she is protected by her feelings for Edmund. Her sailor brother William comes to stay, and Sir Thomas plans a ‘coming out ball’ for Fanny. Mary Crawford persuades her to accept a necklace (originally the gift of her brother Henry) to wear with an amber cross that William has given her. Fanny is much more pleased by a plainer gold chain bought for her by Edmund; she wears both. At the ball, Edmund and Mary Crawford disagree; she has continued to try to dissuade him from becoming a clergyman.

      William goes back to sea. Mary Crawford becomes jealous of the friends with whom Edmund is staying before his ordination as a clergyman. Henry Crawford, now determined to marry Fanny, uses his influence to have William promoted, and then proposes to her. Despite her refusal, he perseveres; Sir Thomas and Mary Crawford press her to accept, and even Edmund regards the match as very suitable, and feels sure that Henry Crawford will prevail. He himself, is on the point of proposing to Mary Crawford; she and her brother go to London.

      Sir Thomas decides that Fanny should go to stay with her parents in Portsmouth; she finds a noisy, disorderly family and house, a slovenly mother and a coarse father. The only person who shows signs of sense or sensitivity is her sister Susan, whom she tries to guide and educate. Feeling very cut off from Mansfield society, Fanny has to rely only on letters for news. Henry Crawford unexpectedly visits her; though still refusing to marry him, she now thinks more highly of him. From letters she learns that Mary Crawford is becoming increasingly worldly; that Tom is dangerously ill (as a result of dissipation); that Edmund has not yet proposed to Mary Crawford. Sir Thomas cannot come at the end of the appointed two months to take Fanny back to Mansfield, which she now realises is her true home, Letters become increasingly disquieting as she learns of a rumour that Henry Crawford and Maria have eloped, then that the rumour is true, then that Julia has eloped with Mr. Yates. Edmund comes to take Fanny home to Mansfield Park with Susan; he is distressed because Mary Crawford has taken Maria’s elopement very lightly - he sees now that she is spoilt and corrupt. Fanny knows that she can comfort and help him and everybody at Mansfield Park.

      In the final chapter we learn what happens to the characters in the aftermath of the elopements. Maria is divorced by Mr. Rushworth, and lives for a time with Henry Crawford, but they part without marrying, she to live with Mrs. Norris, inharmoniously. Mr. Yates proves a more suitable husband for Julia than he appeared. Tom is restored to health and quiet living. Edmund, having thought he would never meet another woman like Mary Crawford, discovers that he loves Fanny. They marry; he eventually becomes the rector of Mansfield Park and they live happily in its parsonage. Fanny has taken her place in society.

Critical Analysis

      The Main Plot: Fanny Price’s development from immaturity to maturity may be seen as the main plot of ‘Mansfield Park’. There are three aspects of Fanny’s development - her relationship with Mansfield Park and its inhabitants in contrast to her separation from her own home in Portsmouth; her relationship with Edmund Bertram in contrast to Edmund’s infatuation with Mary Crawford and finally her relationship with Henry Crawford in contrast to his double entanglement with the Betram sisters ending in his elopement with Maria. But these three aspects can be seen together in Fanny’s relationship with herself. When we first meet her she is timid and shy and unable to integrate into the society in which she finds herself. She is in the danger of isolating herself in Mansfield Park for she yearns to be ‘of consequence’ but is yet afraid and akward in the presence of her handsome and confident cousins. It is not until Fanny separates herself mentally from her own family in Portsmouth that she becomes her adult, responsible, comforting and strong - minded self. She matures enough to act as a mentor to Edmund and comforts Lady Betram in the end. She is also proved right in her disapproval of Henry and Mary Crawford.

      The Heroine: The novel’s greatest weakness is seen in the character of the heroine Fanny Price. She seems insufferably good, too much of a prig, too much in the right always to be a favourite with the reader. The heroines of all the other novels have a certain rebelliousness. Elizabeth Bennet is prejudiced, Emma is deluded and wants to play God, Catherine Morland is Gothic-infected and Anne Elliot totally independent. Even Elinor Dashwood who is much like Fanny Price in being always right in her actions and judgements, exhibits an occasional irony and sympathy for others. But Fanny can only condemn. Fanny is righteous but she is also envious of her gay and prosperous cousins and even suffers from jealousy. None the less the book revolves round her and in the second part especially the action centres on her.

      Marriage: The various aspects of Marriage—material, intellectual and emotional compatibility are dealt with. The emphasis is on marriage as a necessary duty for women, especially to marry within one’s own class and preferably above one’s position.

      The material and social aspects are the major consideration of marriage. Mr. Rushworth’s eligibility rests only on his land and money and Sir Thomas allows this consideration to outweigh Maria’s coldness towards Mr. Rushworth. Similarly, Mr. Crawford is considered the ideal match for Fanny only because of the money, rank and position he would offer her. That the material consideration leads to a bad marriage is evident in Maria eventually eloping with Henry Crawford inspite of being married to Rushworth. Edmund is the one who sees the need for emotional attachment as well as intellectual compatibility and finally makes a happy marriage with Fanny on the basis of their similarities.

      The Church: The theme can be seen as an examination of the validity of Christian attitudes to life. The duties of the clergy and such Christian virtues as Benevolence, Charity and good deeds appear in the novel. The adoption of nine year old Fanny Price is an example of benevolence and charity. Fanny Price herself is a model of the Christian virtues of humility and self-denial and all the other characters stand exposed in their moral weakness. Mary and Henry Crawford arc the tempters and Maria, Julia and even Edmund succumb to it in varying degrees. Only Fanny does not. In the novel, Jane Austen presents two views of the clergy: The Crawfords belittle it, while Sir Thomas Betram, Edmund and Fanny elevate it. The seriousness with which this subject is treated is surprising, because clergymen in her other novels - Mr. Collins, Henry Tilney, Mr. Elton - never appear in a very good light and are often comic in their worldliness. This aspect of the theme contributes to the serious tone of the novel and contrasts it with the lighter vein of her other novels.

      Edmund Betram and Henry Crawford: It may appear that of all Jane Austen heroes, Edmund Betram is the one least likely to capture our sympathy or affection. However, Edmund although a prig is not a paragon as his infatuation with Mary Crawford shows and this failing makes him more acceptable to the reader. Henry Crawford on the other hand is more interesting and one may want to see Fanny marrying Henry Crawford at the end. However, he is a villian and his attractiveness is part of Jane Austen’s attempt to present him as the tempter. He may have some good qualities (love for Fanny, helping William Price to get a Commission in the navy) but his elopement with Maria establishes him as the villain that he is.

      The Betram sisters. Maria and Julia are contrasts to Fanny and are selfish, conceited and spoilt. Their education has not helped them to acquire self-knowledge, generosity and humility. This is evident in their attitude towards Fanny and also in their succumbing to the temptation offered by Henry Crawford.

      Mrs. Norris: A widow of a clergyman she pretends to be principled and frugal but is infact a flatterer and a hypocrite, totally uncharitable. She is linked with the Christian theme and Fanny’s gentle obedience to her aunt Norris is a test of her Christian virtues.

      Letters: Letter writing plays an important part in the narrative structure of Mansfield Park, especially in the final part of the novel. Tom’s illness, Henry Crawford’s meeting with Maria in London, the elopements are all revealed through letters. Jane Austen uses this technique of the epistolary novel. (In an epistolary novel the entire narration is through letters written by the chief protagonists) in almost all her works to reveal important twists in the plot.

      Conclusion: Mansfield Park is the most serious of Jane Austen’s novels and hence also the most controversial. It lacks the comic irony so characteristic of her other novels. The two central characters are presented in a straight-forward manner, without any contradictions. And this seems to be the reason for the novels unpopularity. All that made the earlier novels attractive in terms of comedy seems to have disappeared here. It is definitely much darker than Jane Austen’s other novels.

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