In addition, Mansfield Park--in stark contrast to that darling of Austen's works, Pride and Prejudice--is a deeply serious book criticising the moral and religious shortcomings of the upper classes of modernist England, still with a didactic sting today. Stay with me: this review might run a little long, but there is so much goodness to dig out of Mansfield Park.
At just ten years old, little Fanny Price is sent to live with her rich uncle Sir Thomas Bertram and his family at Mansfield Park. Sir Thomas is in many ways a kind and principled man, but he lives detached from his children and his distant manner frightens meek Fanny. Lonely, snubbed by her aunt Mrs Norris and her girl cousins Maria and Julia, Fanny finds an unexpected friend in her cousin Edmund, who by speaking with her and lending her books advances her education and shapes her mind.
Eight years later, with Sir Thomas away on a trip to his property in Antigua, the four Bertram children and Fanny have finished their education and the book, in a way, chronicles their final exams. While Tom Bertram has grown into a foolish wastrel, Edmund Bertram is awaiting ordination as a clergyman. Maria and Julia have grown into well-mannered pleasure-seekers with no real depth of principle, but Fanny--the indentured servant of her aunts and ignored by all her cousins except Edmund--has grown into a meek, sincere, and virtuous young woman. When the two Crawford siblings--Henry and Mary, wealthy, smart, vivacious, flirtatious, and completely up-to-date--arrive to stay with their sister Mrs Grant, the local vicar's wife, the combination of so much money, youth, and foolishness tests each of the young people. While Maria and Julia immediately fall in love with the rakish Henry Crawford--which causes their formerly serene relationship, untested by adversity, to become a petty rivalry--Edmund finds himself increasingly attracted by Mary. Fanny watches in concern as Henry and Maria flirt under the nose of Maria's dull and stupid (but wealthy) fiance Mr Rushworth, and as Mary attempts to seduce Edmund away from his chosen vocation as a minister: alone, she discerns the moral vacuity of the Crawford siblings. When Tom Bertram arrives with his friend Mr Yates, and the young friends determine to stage a risque play in the Mansfield Park billiard-room, the situation is only saved by Sir Thomas's unexpected return from Antigua. But Fanny's trial is only just begun: Edmund falls seriously in love with Mary Crawford, and Henry Crawford, his fun with the Bertram sisters over, tries to feed his vanity by stealing Fanny's heart as well. Will Edmund escape the ruin of his life and vocation, represented by a match with Mary Crawford? And will Fanny's youth, naivete, and inexperience resist Henry Crawford's increasingly serious attempts to gain her heart?
One of my favourite things this time around Mansfield Park was the deep symbolism pervading the plot--symbolism so deep as to remind me of the Holy Grail passages which were my favourite thing in Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur. This is most obvious in two aspects of the book. The first is a scene set in a fenced wilderness-garden at Sotherton, Mr Rushworth's home, where the young people have gone to visit. Edmund, Mary, and Fanny, deep in conversation, walk to the end of the garden which is separated from the wilder lands by a sunken ditch, or ha-ha, and a gate. As Fanny is tired, Edmund seats her by the gate and eventually walks on with Mary. By degrees she leads him out of the garden altogether. Meanwhile Henry Crawford, Maria Bertram, and Maria's fiance Mr Rushworth arrive at the gate and desire to go out in order to take the view from a nearby hill. Mr Rushworth returns to the house for the key, but while he is gone Maria and Henry get tired of waiting and climb around the gate despite Fanny's protests. When Mr Rushworth arrives with the key, he finds himself left foolishly at the gate with the key, his intended wife already having left with the fascinating Henry Crawford. At first angry, he soon decides to follow them; later, Julia arrives, also in jealous pursuit, and climbs around the gate as well--leaving only Fanny to sit in the garden. This whole scene allegorises and foreshadows much of the rest of the book's plot: it bears a heavy, dreamlike quality, especially on second reading, and solidifies Fanny's position in the novel as the wise woman that doesn't transgress boundaries, the calm centre of the novel's turbulent action. Meanwhile Edmund's choice between Mary Crawford and Fanny Price contains all the ageless symbolism of the choice between the false bride and the true bride: between Lady Folly and Lady Wisdom, the False Church and the True Church.
Fanny Price versus Harriet Smith
One of the major themes of the book is constancy, and as the plot proceeds it soon becomes clear--even before she realises it herself--that Fanny has given her heart to Edmund. Her constancy in this unrequited love is the one thing, according to Austen, that saves her from falling prey to Henry Crawford's accomplished charms. While it is pleasant beyond words to read a Regency novel in which the vain and self-centred rake is the villain, I was surprised that Austen should credit constancy in unrequited love with preserving her heroine from his clutches--a foolish idea, to be sure. But on closer reading, this element of the story begins to make more sense. In Emma, the folly of unrequited infatuation is thoroughly rebuked in the character of Harriet Smith, who renders herself miserable and ridiculous by hoping for attentions from unsuitable men. Fanny's feelings for Edmund are not a shallow, selfish infatuation: Austen repeatedly makes the point that though she loves him, it is an unselfish and pure love. When Fanny realises that she loves Edmund and is about to lose him to Mary Crawford, she engages in "fervent prayers for his happiness" and resolves:
It was her intention, as she felt it to be her duty, to try to overcome all that was excessive, all that bordered on selfishness, in her affection for Edmund. To call or to fancy it a loss, a disappointment, would be a presumption for which she had not words strong enough to satisfy her own humility. To think of him as Miss Crawford might be justified in thinking, would in her be insanity. To her he could be nothing under any circumstances; nothing dearer than a friend. Why did such an idea occur to her even enough to be reprobated and forbidden? It ought not to have touched on the confines of her imagination. She would endeavour to be rational, and to deserve the right of judging of Miss Crawford's character, and the privilege of true solicitude for him by a sound intellect and an honest heart.Novelty versus Constancy
If there is a single major theme in Mansfield Park, it is the theme of novelty and activity versus patience, perseverance, and constancy; upheaval and chaos versus order and decorum; grasping and forcing the world versus receiving it as a gift, with gratitude; acting versus vocation.
Fanny and Edmund, of course, stand on the side of patience, constancy, order, gratitude, and vocation. Fanny herself is a heroine with deep roots in the folklore of Christendom: the Patient Grisel or Enid who is victorious in the end because of her unchanging, constant patience. Now of course, Fanny does indeed undergo character development in the novel: she winds up loved and honoured rather than belittled and ostracised; she becomes more outspoken and builds greater moral fibre as the plot forces her into more and more difficult situations: the Fanny of Book I, who is finally talked into reading a part in the play, is a weaker person than the Fanny of Book II, who steadfastly refuses Henry Crawford (although she does show signs of wavering towards Book III). But Fanny's growth in strength and fortitude is not a substantive change in her nature: she repents of nothing, she takes no radically new direction. It is precisely her constancy to her convictions that drive her character growth, as greater and greater pressure is put upon her.
Fanny's constancy and patience is mirrored by her physical location. While other characters come and go, Fanny spends all her time either in Mansfield Park or, towards the end, at her family's home in Portsmouth. Maria's eventual flight from her home is directly followed by Fanny's return to hers. In several scenes--most notably the garden scene--Fanny, sitting still in one place, is an audience to the swirling action of all the other characters. Fittingly--for she is the one character in the book least involved in the pervasive theme of acting--this very stillness, passivity, and constancy not only protects her from the harm that would come from inconstancy, but also enables her to discern the story more clearly: the only person who has seen the drama in the garden fully acted out, she has good reason to feel apprehensive about the play that allows Maria and Henry to woo under the guise of acting.
This theme is reinforced in many other ways. Fanny's passivity allows her to observe and understand, but it also allows her to enjoy. While the Crawfords and Mr Rushworth care about scenery only insofar as it can be "improved"--changed, made novel, and forced to boast about the wealth of its owner--Fanny instead goes into poetic raptures over the scenery as it is. As Peter Leithart points out in Miniatures and Morals: The Christian Novels of Jane Austen, Fanny is the only character not bent on chasing and grasping what she wants; thus, everything comes to her as a gift, and her response is abject humility and gratitude.
Edmund Bertram also stands for constancy in Mansfield Park. Throughout the novel, he is moving towards two events that will decide the future course of his life: ordination to the ministry, and matrimony. As he discusses the duties of a clergyman throughout the book, it becomes clear that his idea of the ministry is less about stylish preaching (as the Crawfords insist it is) and more about parish life, rootedness, ministering to people's needs, and acting as a role model for the rest of society. In Edmund's view, the whole life of a clergyman must be lived among his people for their instruction:
A fine preacher is followed and admired; but it is not in fine preaching only that a good clergyman will be useful in his parish and his neighbourhood, where the parish and neighbourhood are of a size capable of knowing his private character, and observing his general conduct, which in London can rarely be the case. The clergy are lost there in the crowds of their parishioners. They are known to the largest part only as preachers.Edmund thus considers himself called, and irrevocably called, to a ministry which will root him deeply in parish life. Constancy is thus indispensible to his calling. As the novel unfolds, it becomes clear that by falling in love with Mary Crawford he has exposed himself to attack and blinded himself to her failings: Mary, by turns, attempts to talk him out of becoming a clergyman, then tries to make him agree to be a fashionable clergyman, spending most of his time away from his flock; then finally, tries to construct a future in which his work intrudes as little as possible upon his life as a fine gentleman and local squire. As Henry Crawford puts it, while discussing Edmund's future parsonage:
By some such improvements as I have suggested [...] you may give it a higher character. You may raise it into a place. From being the mere gentleman's residence, it becomes, by judicious improvement, the residence of a man of education, taste, modern manners, good connexions. All this may be stamped on it; and that house receive such an air as to make its owner be set down as the great landholder of the parish by every creature travelling the road.Edmund stands for the importance--especially to men--of a lifelong calling, a vocation, a vision. While Fanny's work mainly consists in service to her aunts, the indolent (and totally passive) Lady Bertram on the one hand and the active and officious Mrs Norris on the other, Edmund's work is his life's calling.
Edmund and Fanny's foils are, of course, the two Crawford siblings: mad for novelty, always talking about improvements. "Every generation has its improvements," laughs Mary when she hears that family devotions have been discontinued at the Rushworth residence for some years. Mary's leaning towards novelty, improvements, modernity, and busy-ness is fully shown in her attempts to seduce Edmund away from his calling to parish life, and her preference of the metropolitan bustle of London to life as a clergyman's wife. Just as Fanny is the more constant of the Price-Bertram Allies, however, so Henry Crawford is the less constant of the Crawford Axis. He openly revels in the chaos, disorder, and misrule of the play sequence:
I shall always look back on our theatricals with exquisite pleasure. There was such an interest, such an animation, such a spirit diffused. Everybody felt it. We were all alive. There was employment, hope, solicitude, bustle, for every hour of the day. Always some little objection, some little doubt, some little anxiety to be got over. I never was happier.In addition, as an accomplished flirt, Henry redefines the very meaning of commitment:
An engaged woman is always more agreeable than a disengaged. She is satisfied with herself. Her cares are over, and she feels that she may exert all her powers of pleasing without suspicion. All is safe with a lady engaged: no harm can be done.Thus he considers Maria Bertram fair game. Whether harm can be done is eventually proven in the storyline. Meanwhile, he is the most accomplished actor of all the characters: in the play, he most easily takes on a part, and his reading of Shakespeare leaves even Fanny enthralled. But for Henry, acting is more than a diversion--it's his whole way of life. As a flirt, he's a consummate playactor, able to take up whatever persona will most easily guarantee him a conquest. As the book progresses, we even see him taking up a new act in order to win Fanny:
He had gone, had done even more good than he had foreseen, [...] and to feel that in performing a duty, he had secured agreeable recollections for his own mind. [...] This was aimed, and well aimed, at Fanny. It was pleasing to hear him speak so properly; here he had been acting as he ought to do.Henry is still performing and acting, and ominously, the act nearly takes in Fanny: she thinks him "much improved". But he still cannot help slipping every now and then. When he discusses the ministry with Edmund, it quickly becomes clear (for all his praise of fine sermons) that his regard is all a matter of style rather than substance, and that it is because he fancies himself as an orator, an actor, than he fancies himself as a minister:
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. And I do not know that I should be fond of preaching often; now and then, perhaps once or twice in the spring, after being anxiously expected for half a dozen Sundays together; but not for a constancy; it would not do for a constancy.Henry Crawford thus acts as a foil to Edmund: he is an actor, ready to slip into any or every act at the blink of an eye. Edmund, however, has been called; he is to be ordained; he is to live a life of total ministry. While Henry's ministry would consist of mysterious absences punctuated by dazzling sermons, Edmund's must consist of a transparent life wedded to his parish.
And here is the really important thing, the reason why the superficially dull Fanny and Edmund are so clearly contrasted--favourably contrasted--with the sparkling Henry and Mary. It is their very charm, their very hankering for novelty that makes the Crawfords so dangerous. But it is their very dullness, their constancy and faithfulness, that makes Fanny and Edmund the hero and heroine. Austen, of course, did not believe that goodness was incompatible with charm (one has only to read any of her other novels); but in Mansfield Park, she deliberately set them at odds to make a profound point.
As befits Jane Austen's most serious work, the work the characters do takes a greater place in the story. Austen has often been criticised by those who do not see her characters undertaking any really useful work. This may be a drawback, but it should not be assumed that Austen's characters never undertake useful work: Emma, for example, is seen visiting the poor with charitable intent; Anne Elliott visits ill friends; Fanny is basically the servant of her aunts. This lack of much talk about work is accounted for by the fact that her plots are moved forward by a variety of social interactions, conversations, and dinner-parties: her plots are about relationship-building (the feminine preoccupation) rather than work (the masculine preoccupation). The focus in Mansfield Park on the importance of Edmund's work as a clergyman and William Price's work as a sailor suggests that Austen was perfectly aware of the importance of work, but did not see it as her field of expertise.
Fittingly, this most mature of Austen's novels speaks seriously about work. Henry Crawford is a dilettante; Mary's and his presence at Mansfield Park in Book I is a steady round of pleasure-seeking which seems, as it should, vapid and irresponsible. By contrast, Edmund is taking a holiday between his studies and his ordination (interestingly, it's this physical and mental vacation that sees his temptation by Mary Crawford). While Fanny, as an unmarried woman, has no specific calling besides that of making herself useful by acts of service to her guardians, her brother William is sailing the seas of the Napoleonic wars.
Young as he was, William had already seen a great deal. He had been in the Mediterranean; in the West Indies; in the Mediterranean again; had been often taken on shore by the favour of his captain, and in the course of seven years had known every variety of danger which sea and war together could offer.Henry Crawford, hearing him, gets a hankering to try a new role:
He longed to have been at sea, and seen and done and suffered as much. His heart was warmed, his fancy fired, and he felt the highest respect for a lad who, before he was twenty, had gone through such bodily hardships and given such proofs of mind. The glory of heroism, of usefulness, of exertion, of endurance, made his own habits of selfish indulgence appear in shameful contrast; and he wished he had been a William Price, distinguishing himself and working his way to fortune and consequence with so much self-respect and happy ardour, instead of what he was!And finally, towards the end, as the young Prices give additional evidence of their worth,
Sir Thomas saw repeated, and for ever repeated, reason to rejoice in what he had done for them all, and acknowledge the advantages of early hardship and discipline, and the consciousness of being born to struggle and endure.In fact the crux of Edmund's decision between Mary and Fanny is so vitally important because his choice of wife will so clearly affect his effectiveness in his calling. It's not that Edmund the man is in danger from Mary; it's his calling that's in danger. By contrast, every reader can tell how perfect Fanny would be for him because she would be nothing but a support and help to him in his work.
Clergy and the Church
During their visit to Sotherton, Mr Rushworth's residence, Austen paints an unforgettable picture of the relationship of early nineteenth-century aristocracy to the church:
The church spire is reckoned remarkably handsome. I am glad the church is not so close to the great house as often happens in old places. The annoyance of the bells must be terrible.Meanwhile, old Mrs Rushworth shows the party over Sotherton house, including a visit to the chapel--a polished, well-appointed, comfortable place. Its whole purpose appears to be, not the glory of God (Fanny complains that there is "nothing awful here, nothing melancholy, nothing grand") but to the glory of the family wealth; the more so since it is unused:
"It is a handsome chapel, and was formerly in constant use both morning and evening. Prayers were always read in it by the domestic chaplain, within the memory of many; but the late Mr. Rushworth left it off."This last comment leads into an interesting discussion of family devotions. While Fanny protests that "a whole family assembling for the purpose of prayer" is exactly "what such a household should be"--while Fanny sees immediately how important family devotions are to the life of the family--Mary sees them as an inconvenience: she would leave the family and their servants to their own devotions, whenever they can get them. Edmund argues that family devotions are necessary to prevent the neglect of private devotions, but they are interrupted by Julia mentioning Edmund's upcoming ordination. Mary is shocked: "A clergyman is nothing." But Edmund argues that the influence of clergymen shapes manners and the whole nation:
"Every generation has its improvements," said Miss Crawford, with a smile, to Edmund.
And with regard to their influencing public manners, Miss Crawford must not misunderstand me, or suppose I mean to call them the arbiters of good-breeding, the regulators of refinement and courtesy, the masters of the ceremonies of life. The manners I speak of might rather be called conduct, perhaps, the result of good principles; the effect, in short, of those doctrines which it is their duty to teach and recommend; and it will, I believe, be everywhere found, that as the clergy are, or are not what they ought to be, so are the rest of the nation.Here is another important point. Many people, even many Christians, overlook Jane Austen's references to Christianity in her works because they are unfamiliar with the language of the day. When, in Emma, Emma is said to be "sincere in her thanks" upon Harriet Smith's suitable marriage, the allusion is to prayer. When, in Sense and Sensibility, Marianne repents sincerely of her inordinate love for Willoughby, her resolution to be "checked by religion" might be mistaken as some kind of rationalist formalism. But this--to us--veiled language should not be mistaken for empty religiosity. Austen was never more serious, never more sincere than when discussing religion. Critics have complained that Austen's works show no concern with personal holiness. This is misguided criticism: it shows a lack of familiarity with her language. "Good principles" is her word for it, and when Edmund speaks of manners or conduct, he doesn't mean please or thankyou; he means "Thou shalt not commit adultery." Personal holiness, or righteousness, is exactly what Edmund is arguing for here: clergymen, and fathers of families leading public devotion, are to be models of holiness living with their families and their congregations as role models and teachers. When the shattering climax of the novel's action--Maria's leaving her home--occurs, Mary Crawford's response is to deplore the loss of reputation; to hope everything can be hushed up, and to bewail, not the sin, but its discovery. This astonishes the righteous Fanny, who marvels that Mary has no idea whatsoever of the evil that Maria has committed: likewise, Sir Thomas follows her, with no hope of salvaging her reputation, but hoping to "[snatch] her from farther vice". In Mansfield Park, Austen shows herself concerned primarily with righteousness, as modelled by family and church leaders; not with manners.
Interestingly, while Edmund's future as a clergyman inclines him to think about the effect his life must have upon his parish, we see this principle of Christian life played out most importantly, not in the church but in the family. Sir Thomas, the father of the Bertram family, is clearly a kind, principled (ie, righteous) and just man. Yet he is a failure as a father because he distances himself from his flock of children. He fails to pass his principles on to the next generation--he almost certainly doesn't conduct family worship--and except for Edmund, the next generation runs after "improvements," going to waste very quickly.
The principles of another character--of Fanny--also come under close scrutiny in the novel. Interestingly, it is her very principle, her goodness, that attracts Henry Crawford to her:
Henry Crawford had too much sense not to feel the worth of good principles in a wife, though he was too little accustomed to serious reflection to know them by their proper name; but when he talked of her having such a steadiness and regularity of conduct, such a high notion of honour, and such an observance of decorum as might warrant any man in the fullest dependence on her faith and integrity, he expressed what was inspired by the knowledge of her being well principled and religious.Education
When Fanny arrives at Mansfield Park, her cousins Maria and Julia, their heads stuffed full of information and no wisdom, tease her for not knowing geography and French as well as they do. From then on, education forms a major theme in Mansfield Park. Edmund and Fanny, for example, both agree that Mary Crawford's education has been defective, leaving her (as it has) with little sense of right or wrong. By the definition in Mansfield Park, the aim of education is to "know oneself"--as Fanny says to Henry Crawford when he says he lacks constancy for preaching, "I thought it was a pity you did not always know yourself as well as you seemed to do at that moment". But here again, Austen's language can be misleading. This is no Gnostic, man-as-the-measure-of-all-things self-knowledge. The "self-knowledge" she speaks about is always in the context of the knowledge of one's own faults and shortcomings. Self-knowledge, and education, is thus learning to identify one's sins and mend them by repentance. Education is thus training in principle, or sincere holiness: it is Sir Thomas's failing that the education he gives his children has nothing to do with this. The result is clearly shown when first Julia Bertram, and then Fanny Price, are subjected to conversations with people they would rather avoid. Julia:
The politeness which she had been brought up to practise as a duty made it impossible for her to escape; while the want of that higher species of self-command, that just consideration of others, that knowledge of her own heart, that principle of right, which had not formed any essential part of her education, made her miserable under it.Julia, in other words, has excellent manners, but terrible principles. Her attentiveness is only skin-deep. Fanny, on the other hand, as we know sincerely dislikes Henry Crawford, but he rhapsodises on her service to her aunt:
[She was] attending with such ineffable sweetness and patience to all the demands of her aunt's stupidity, working with her, and for her, her colour beautifully heightened as she leant over the work, then returning to her seat to finish a note which she was previously engaged in writing for that stupid woman's service, and all this with such unpretending gentleness, so much as if it were a matter of course that she was not to have a moment at her own command, her hair arranged as neatly as it always is, and one little curl falling forward as she wrote, which she now and then shook back, and in the midst of all this, still speaking at intervals to me, or listening, and as if she liked to listen, to what I said.Unlike Julia, Fanny's anxiousness to please gives her real attentiveness, even in the company of people she dislikes.
To Conclude This Very Long Post
Mansfield Park, to conclude, is expressly concerned with the moral dissolution of the English upper classes, evidenced by idleness, lack of true religion in the family and church, and education that focuses more on trivial information than sincere holiness. The remedy it proposes is simple: national, parish and family life centred on Scriptural doctrine, public and private devotion, and education aimed at repentance.
This was just the second time I've read Mansfield Park, and I'm so glad I made the effort: it's a rich, profound book, perhaps the richest and most profound of Austen's works. While the light and sparkling Pride and Prejudice remains the most popular of her books, it would be unjust to evaluate Austen's worldview and attitude purely on the basis of such a comparatively shallow work. Mansfield Park provides an indispensible look at Austen's most deeply-held convictions, her most clear-sighted criticism of the world she was born into, and her most serious agenda for reconstruction. In addition to this, it's a deeply enjoyable Cinderella story, shot through with moments of humour. Its luminous heroine, humble and sweet, is pleasant to read about; and her eventual vindication is most satisfying. I loved this book, and highly recommend it.
I have seen the 1999 movie of Mansfield Park. Horrors!