Mansfield Park by Jane Austen (1814) — Plot summary and analysis

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen2

Jane Austen by Sarah Fanny Malden (1889) offers a 19th-century view of Jane Austen’s works. The following analysis and plot summary of Mansfield Park by Jane Austen (1814) focuses on her third published novel, and the one considered most controversial.

Mansfield Park is the story of Fanny Price, sent by her impoverished family to be raised in the household of a wealthy aunt and uncle. The story follows her into adulthood and is a commentary on class, family ties, marriage, and the status of women.

The novel went through two editions before Jane Austen’s death (1817) but didn’t receive any public reviews until 1821. Critical reception for this novel, from that time forward, has been the most mixed among Austen’s works.

In an introduction to a contemporary edition, Kathryn Sutherland portrays Mansfield Park as a darker work than Austen’s other novels, because it challenges “the very values (of tradition, stability, retirement, and faithfulness) it appears to endorse.”

The 1889 publication of Malden’s Jane Austen was part of an Eminent Women series published by W.H. Allen & Co., London. The following excerpt is in the public domain:

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Jane Austen’s earlier work in contrast with her later books 

When Pride and Prejudice came out in 1813, it completed the series of Jane Austen’s earlier writings, excepting only Northanger Abbey, which was not then in her hands for publication.

The two novels that had already appeared were finished before she was four-and-twenty; those that followed were not begun till she was well over thirty, and I think that, even without the authority of dates, no one could doubt that Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion belong to a later stage of authorship than Sense and Sensibility or Pride and Prejudice.

They are no less brilliant, but they are more mature; the motives and actions of the dramatic personæ are more complex; there is less rapidity in the working out (rapidity is usually a sure sign of youth), and the satire is a little softened.

The feelings expressed, too, are more womanly and less girlish. In both the earlier novels, the predominant passion is the love of the sisters for each other; the lovemaking is gracefully worked out and properly adjusted, but on the lady’s side it is left very much to our imagination, and it is scrupulously kept under till the gentleman has revealed his devotion.


Mansfield Park: Its residents and relatives 

Mansfield Park is the ancestral home of the Bertram family, and Sir Thomas Bertram is the worthy, aristocratic, and high-bred, albeit somewhat pompous and formal, owner of the property, which is a very good one. He has two sons, Tom and Edmund, and two daughters, Maria and Julia.

Lady Bertram is “a woman of very tranquil feelings, and a temper remarkably easy and indolent.” She has two married sisters, Mrs. Norris and Mrs. Price. Mrs. Norris has married a clergyman, to whom Sir Thomas has given the family living of Mansfield, and, as she has a decided “spirit of activity,” no children, and nothing particular to do, she finds ample occupation in presiding over other people’s affairs, especially in the Bertram family.

Mrs. Price’s marriage has been unfortunate; she “married, in the common phrase, to disoblige her family, and, by fixing on a lieutenant of marines without education, fortune, or connections, did it very thoroughly.”

A breach takes place between her and her sisters in consequence; her home is many miles distant from theirs, and no communication is kept up, until, after struggling on for eleven years in poverty and difficulty, with a fast-increasing family, and an unemployed husband, she is compelled to apply to her sisters for help.

It is easy to guess after this what Mrs. Norris’s share of the undertaking will amount to, but Sir Thomas has not yet learned to see through his sister-in-law, and the arrangement is carried out as she has planned it, and in the full belief that she will take her fair share in it.


Fanny Price comes to live at Mansfield Park 

Fanny Price is accordingly sent for; and Miss Austen has painted nothing more true than the sufferings of a sensitive, timid child suddenly removed from the home, and plunged into a thoroughly uncongenial atmosphere.

No one is unkind to her, but no one understands or shares her feelings; she has no companion among her cousins, and the elders, seeing her quiet and obedient, have no idea of all that she silently suffers.

Tom and Edmund Bertram, at sixteen and seventeen, are quite out of their little cousin’s reach, and Maria and Julia Bertram, having always been well taught, and accustomed to thinking much of their own attainments, are full of contempt for a cousin only two years younger than themselves, but far less well-informed. 


Finding a friend in Edmund Bertram

Edmund Bertram is the only one in his family in whom Fanny finds a kind friend. He has all his father’s sterling qualities, with much more gentleness and tenderness than Sir Thomas ever shows, and, having surprised Fanny in tears one day, he finds out by degrees how readily she responds to any kindness, and how easily she can be made happy by it.

He devotes his leisure time to comforting her under the painful sense of her own deficiencies and bringing her forward as much as possible, for he has discovered that she is very timid and retiring, but has plenty of ability, and is far more intellectual in her tastes than his accomplished sisters.

He interests himself in her pursuits, devises little pleasures for her, directs her taste in readings, and as a reward for the affection and care he bestows upon her through the next five or six years, he makes her by degrees a very lovable and charming companion — far more like a sister to him than the highly accomplished Maria or Julia ever can be.

Edmund Bertram himself is an excellent specimen of a cultivated, thoughtful, right-minded young Englishman, not brilliant, but with plenty of sense, thoroughly good, and trustworthy.

Jane Austen once said of him that he was very far from being what she knew an English gentleman often was; but it is difficult for us to take this view of him, and, indeed, the only weak point in him is his clerical position, which, we must remember, was looked upon very different then from now.

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Fanny becomes a companion to her aunt

When Fanny is fifteen, Mr. Norris dies; and Sir Thomas naturally supposes that Mrs. Norris will now take the opportunity of installing Fanny in her home.

Fanny is therefore left at Mansfield Park, much to her own thankfulness, as well as Mrs. Norris’s; and her position there as a constant companion to her aunt becomes well defined. Lady Bertram cannot do without someone at hand to help and advise her continually.

The Miss Bertrams do not care for the society of their mother, who has never interested herself in any of their pursuits; and, therefore, while they enter into all the society of the county under Mrs. Norris’s chaperonage, Fanny spends her hours quietly at home, delighted to be unnoticed and of use.

Just as his children are all grown up, Sir Thomas Bertram is obliged to go to the West Indies to see about some of his property there; a voyage which, of course, entails an absence of several months, and he is sincerely grieved at having to go, but, unfortunately, his absence is rather a relief than otherwise to his children.

With all his warm affection for them, he has never been able to win any of their hearts, except, perhaps, Edmund’s. The others feel real relief at his departure, all the more as some new acquaintances have lately appeared, with whom they can now be on terms of unrestrained intimacy.


Enter Henry and Mary Crawford

Henry and Mary Crawford are excellent pictures of the brilliant, worldly, amusing, clever young people, who are such well-known features of London society, but to the Bertrams, they are a novelty; and, as Mary Crawford has twenty thousand pounds, and is quite ready to be fallen in love with by Sir Thomas’s eldest son.

Julia Bertram is equally ready to make a conquest of Henry Crawford, matters seem likely to go on very comfortably. Unluckily everything does not quite fit in as it should. Maria Bertram, the eldest daughter, is already engaged to Mr. Rushworth — wealthy, well-born, and very dull, for whom she does not care in the least.

Maria, as she is the most handsome of the two sisters, it amuses Henry Crawford to carry on a flirtation with both, so that neither can say which is preferred; and Mr. Rushworth is kept in a continual state of irritation, while nothing is said or done that could give tangible grounds for jealousy.

Meanwhile, Tom Bertram, who is a mere man of pleasure, does not seem especially bewitched by Mary Crawford, and she, on her side, is unaccountably attracted by Edmund Bertram.

Mary has done her best to get rid of whatever heart she had to start with, but she has not wholly succeeded, and now, in spite of his being a younger son, and destined for Holy Orders, and of his not being nearly so polished or complimentary as the men she is accustomed to, his straightforwardness, high principle, and simple admiration for her fascinate the hardened coquette, and she is on the verge of caring for him as much as she is capable of caring for anyone.

The attraction is quite as great on Edmund’s side, and this is less wonderful, as Mary Crawford is beautiful, clever, and amusing; his taste cannot always approve of her, but he sets down much that pains him to the account of the society in which she has lived, and the sincere affection between her and her brother makes him believe her capable of real feeling.


Feelings begin to grow for Edmund

Edmund makes Fanny his confidante in this—as in everything else—and talks to her constantly about the Crawfords; while Fanny, at first agreeing entirely in his estimate of them, by degrees begins to differ from him, and slowly wakes up to the pain of not yet of suspecting her own feelings for Edmund, but of seeing that she is no longer his first object, and of being unable to agree in his estimate of the Crawfords.

She sees more heartlessness in Miss Crawford than Edmund suspects; she perceives more or less of the double game which Edmund is too honorable to dream of, but which Mr. Crawford is playing between the Bertram sisters, and, with increased sufferings, she begins to fear that Edmund’s hitherto high unswerving standard of right and wrong, is becoming lowered by his admiration for Mary Crawford.

It is not the least wonderful that he should be fascinated, for there is an amount of good feeling at times in Mary Crawford that is irresistibly attractive.

It has been said that Miss Austen has always more affection for her female characters than her male ones, and I think this is true of the Crawfords; both are worldly, selfish, and untrustworthy, but Henry Crawford has no redeeming points, except his affection for his sister, while we are allowed to feel that Mary has more depth of feeling and that, if earlier in life she had fallen into better hands, she might have been a good and noble woman.


Private theatricals to while away the time

Edmund, indeed, believes that she might still become so; Fanny’s clearer sight sees that the attempt would be hopeless. The complications thicken when some private theatricals are started at Mansfield Park, ostensibly to while away the time till Sir Thomas returns, but really to amuse Tom Bertram and his friends. The description of them from first to last is excellent but too long to quote at length, though the opening difficulties will appeal to all who have ever belonged to an amateur theatrical company.

A play is, however, found at last, and matters would go smoothly, but that the opportunities for lovemaking in the rehearsals are so many, Henry Crawford and Maria Bertram are so unguarded, and Mr. Rushworth and Julia Bertram both so jealous from their different standpoints, that Fanny, who sees it all, is much grieved.

The play, Lover’s Vows, is in itself objectionable for such a party as theirs, but everyone seems blind to this; and only Fanny, and, perhaps, Mr. Rushworth, of all the Mansfield Park party, is rejoiced when Sir Thomas’s unexpected return puts a stop to the theatricals and makes Tom Bertram and his friends seek amusement elsewhere.


Preparations for Maria’s wedding in question

Henry Crawford, having amused himself sufficiently with the Bertram sisters, departs also on some visits; and preparations go on for Maria’s wedding, though Sir Thomas, who has not met Mr. Rushworth before, is much disappointed in him. He had expected a very different son-in-law, and, beginning to feel grave on Maria’s account, tried to understand her feelings.

Little observation was necessary to tell him that indifference was the most favorable state they could be in. Her behavior to Mr. Rushworth was careless and cold. She could not—did not like him. Sir Thomas resolved to speak seriously to her. Mr. Rushworth had, perhaps, been accepted on too short an acquaintance, and, on knowing him better, she was repenting.

With solemn kindness Sir Thomas addressed her; told her hid fears, inquired into her wishes, entreated her to be open and sincere, and assured her that every inconvenience should be braved, and the connection entirely given up if she felt herself unhappy in the prospect of it; he would act for her and release her.


An unwanted suitor for Fanny 

With the departure of Maria, and Julia, who accompanies her sister, Fanny becomes more than ever the daughter of the house, and, is treated with real kindness by everyone but Mrs. Norris, who never can bear to see her established there as an equal. She is very happy in her present life, and when her favorite brother, William, returns from sea, and is invited to stay at the Park, her happiness would be absolutely perfect, but for two circumstances.

One is the terms of increasing attachment on which Edmund and Miss Crawford stand; the other is that Mr. Crawford, having returned to the Grants for a fortnight’s visit, has, to everyone’s amazement, his own included, remained on there as Fanny’s declared suitor; he is, in fact, caught in his own trap.

To while away dull hours in the country, he had begun what he merely intended as a flirtation with her, but, quite unintentionally, his heartless sport has turned into earnest, and he is now seriously bent upon marrying her.

Neither he nor his sister has any doubt of his success, and when, through private influence, he procures William Price’s promotion, he feels sure enough of his ground to venture on a proposal which fills Fanny with horror and dismay.

Her refusal, though decided, is useless. He applies to Sir Thomas, who, knowing only that he is well-born, rich, clever, and very much in love, warmly takes his side, and a long siege sets in, in which the lover has everyone’s influence exerted on him, and Fanny stands alone in her determined rejection.

Edmund, Miss Crawford, and Sir Thomas, all believe that her refusal is merely from timidity; they are not conscious of the objections to his character, and Fanny keeps her secret so well, though with difficulty, that no one suspects her of having already given her heart elsewhere.

Crawford’s pursuit is resolute; he even follows her to Portsmouth, where she has gone for a visit to her own family and puts up with vulgarity and discomfort there for the sake of showing her how much he is in earnest; but after that, he is obliged to go to London for a time, and his visit there affects Fanny’s deliverance from a most unwelcome suitor.

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Quotes from Mansfield Park
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Uncomfortable encounters in London and at home

It is easy to see from what has been already quoted that any connection between Maria Rushworth and Henry Crawford would be very dangerous for both, and it is almost impossible for them not to come across each other in London society.

When they first meet, Mrs. Rushworth treats her former admirer with repellent coldness, and this instantly wakens his vanity. He determines to soften her into greater kindness, and succeeds only too well, for he has never had any idea how strong her feeling for him had been; and when once it is roused again, she is quite incapable of controlling it.

Matters are so evident, that an old friend writes to warn Sir Thomas, who sets off at once for London, but arrives too late; Maria has already left her husband’s house with Mr. Crawford, and Julia puts the climax to her father’s distress by eloping at the same time with an acquaintance of Tom Bertram, Mr. Yates who figured so conspicuously in the theatricals.

The first impulse of the whole Bertram family is to turn to Fanny, who is still at Portsmouth, for comfort and sympathy; and she hurries back to Mansfield Park to help and support them through all the days of misery that follow, while Sir Thomas and Edmund are vainly endeavoring to trace and bring back Maria.

Tom Bertram is dangerously ill, and there is much anxiety for him; but, deeply as Fanny feels for the whole family, her thoughts turn most constantly to Edmund, with an intense longing to know how all this will affect his prospects with Mary Crawford.

Sir Thomas is equally anxious on his younger son’s account, with the difference that he, seeing Edmund’s attachment, and knowing of no objections to Miss Crawford herself, is earnestly desirous for Edmund’s success. Fanny’s feelings are more mixed.


Convoluted relationships and conflicts

The relations between Edmund Bertram and Mary Crawford are among the best passages in Mansfield Park, but they are given by such a multiplicity of fine touches that no extracts could do them justice. On her side, there is as much attachment as worldliness and vanity have left her capacity for, held in check by a resolution never to become a clergyman’s wife, but tempered by a secret conviction that her influence can prevent him from taking orders.

This state of feeling produces a cat-and-mouse kind of conduct, to which Edmund submits; first, because he is in love; secondly, because he cannot understand that the sentiments she sometimes expresses are really earnest; and, finally, because he hopes in the power of her better nature to conquer the hardness and levity which he believes are only skin deep.

Miss Crawford, who is in London at the time of the elopement, has lately seemed far more encouraging than before and asks him now to call upon her. He goes, his thoughts divided between his own hopes and his sympathy for what she must be feeling about her brother; and when he returns to Mansfield Park after the interview, Fanny hears it all.

She had met him, he said, with a serious—certainly a serious—even an agitated air; but, before he had been able to speak one intelligible sentence, she had introduced the subject in a manner which he owned had shocked him.

The answer that Edmund makes to all this may be imagined but cannot be given at length; suffice it that his eyes are at length opened, and he bids Mary Crawford farewell in a harangue, which is, perhaps, a shade too sententious, but so genuine in its pain and disgust that all intercourse between the Bertram and Crawford families is ended forever.


A heartbroken Henry return to Mansfield Park

He returns to Mansfield Park to recover slowly from the wound he has received, with the help of Fanny’s affectionate sympathy; nor is he wholly unavenged, for though Mary Crawford laughed at his “sermon,” her heart had been touched by his devotion.

Henry Crawford will not marry Maria Rushworth; and, as Sir Thomas refuses to let her live again at Mansfield Park, Mrs. Norris, to everyone’s extreme relief, departs to make a home for Maria elsewhere, which is as unhappy as might be expected.

In every other respect, matters by degree brighten for the Bertrams. Julia’s marriage turns out better than it had any right to do; Tom Bertram recovers and reforms, and Edmund’s marriage to Fanny, some years later, completes everyone’s happiness.


A summation of Mansfield Park

Mansfield Park is lengthy, but this can hardly be considered a blemish, as it was the deliberate intention of the author, and, after all, it is “readable from cover to cover.” The only part that could appear to anyone unnecessary is Fanny’s visit to her relations at Portsmouth, and no one would wish to lose so good a picture of the home mismanaged by the incapable wife and mother.

Henry Crawford’s lovemaking to Fanny is longer than I suspect that gentleman would ever have endured, but it is necessary to allow time for the renewal of his intimacy with Mrs. Rushworth, and it may be intended as a marked proof of Fanny’s power over him that he submits to so long suspense.

From first to last Fanny Price is charming, and, seeing how admirably her character is worked out, Mansfield Park cannot be considered too long for art, as it certainly is not too long for enjoyment.

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