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Jane Austen

Nora Bartlett

10. What’s Wrong with Mansfield Park

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  • 1 ‘Many readers, I suspect, like myself, have found Mansfield Park the most difficult of the works, i (...)

1I have been thinking about this moment with trepidation ever since it became apparent that I was not going to be allowed to get away with just talking to you about Pride and Prejudice. I find Mansfield Park the most troubling, the most complicated of Jane Austen’s novels, and I am not alone. R. W. Chapman, the great modern editor of her works, calls it ‘the most difficult’ and acknowledges that it divides readers, not least on the subject of its heroine, Fanny Price.1 As we’ll see, it divided Jane Austen’s own family. It is, along with Northanger Abbey, the least re-read. Often, when I mentioned I was writing about it, I was told, ‘oh, I haven’t read it for years’, or ‘I haven’t read it since I was in school and they made us read it’. It’s the one I usually re-read only every few years, as, if I am honest, I feel it to cause a kind of darkening of mood I am not always willing to undergo.

2I feel as though I need to approach it as Henry Crawford approaches the task of improving Sotherton, from more than one direction, though I hope with more sincerity. Last year I did a workshop on Mansfield Park whose title was ‘what’s the matter with Fanny Price?’ I don’t want to forget that important question, but I want to approach it from a new direction, so this talk will be in, I think, three parts: my first part examines the question, ‘what’s the matter with Mansfield Park?’ meaning the estate, not the novel; in the second I am going to look at Fanny by examining the novel’s presentation of her in a series of settings; and in the last part I want to interweave some questions about Fanny and the men in her life: Fanny and William, Fanny and Henry Crawford, Fanny and Edmund; the first two love affairs can’t happen, the first because it’s against the law of God and man, the second for reasons I want to investigate. The third does happen, but it doesn’t make us happy the way that, say, Elizabeth and Darcy, Anne and the Captain, Emma and Mr. Knightley, do.

3I am going to read from the novel’s opening:

About thirty years ago Miss Maria Ward, of Huntingdon, with only seven thousand pounds, had the good luck to captivate Sir Thomas Bertram, of Mansfield Park, in the county of Northampton, and to be thereby raised to the rank of a baronet’s lady, with all the comforts and consequences of an handsome house and large income. […] She had two sisters to be benefited by her elevation; and such of their acquaintance as thought Miss Ward and Miss Frances quite as handsome as Miss Maria, did not scruple to predict their marrying with almost equal advantage. But there certainly are not so many men of large fortune in the world as there are pretty women to deserve them. Miss Ward, at the end of half a dozen years, found herself obliged to be attached to the Rev. Mr. Norris, a friend of her brother-in-law, with scarcely any private fortune, and Miss Frances fared yet worse. Miss Ward’s match, indeed, when it came to the point, was not contemptible: Sir Thomas being happily able to give his friend an income in the living of Mansfield; and Mr. and Mrs. Norris began their career of conjugal felicity with very little less than a thousand a year. But Miss Frances 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. She could hardly have made a more untoward choice. (I i 2–4)

  • 2 Karen Joy Fowler, The Jane Austen Book Club (London: Penguin, 2005), p. 94.

4The novelist Karen Joy Fowler, in The Jane Austen Book Club, remarks that the opening of Mansfield Park resembles the story of ‘ [T] he Three Little Pigs’.2 Frances Ward has married a man of straw, and like that other runaway, Lydia Bennet, will never have a substantial or settled home. Miss Maria Ward—Lady Bertram when we meet her—very much does have a substantial home. Indeed, she hardly ever leaves it, hardly ever goes farther than the shrubbery (and there only in fine weather, I vi 65). The house could almost be said to be a kind of confinement for her, an enclosure, an imprisonment. I want to explore her situation further, but first just to note in passing that this beginning ‘about thirty years ago’ is unique in Jane Austen. Contrast it with other openings:

  • 3 Pride and Prejudice.
  • 4 Northanger Abbey.
  • 5 Persuasion.
  • 6 Emma.

It is a truth universally acknowledged…3
No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland…4
Sir Walter Elliot, of Kellynch-hall…5
Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever and rich…6

5Closest to it is Sense and Sensibility, which takes us through ten years of Dashwood family history before introducing us to the heroines. Mansfield Park’s opening, with its thirty-year retrospective, has, has it not, a Victorian feel to it? Even the title might make us think of Wuthering Heights or Bleak House.

  • 7 When he visits Fanny in Portsmouth, Henry is ‘convinced that her present residence could not be com (...)

6Quite late in the novel, Henry and Mary Crawford will be worried about the air of Portsmouth, about whether confinement there is good or safe for Fanny.7 No one ever seems to worry about the air of Mansfield Park. But let’s look for a moment about what it does to people, especially to women: ‘Lady Bertram […] was a woman of very tranquil feelings, and a temper remarkably easy and indolent’ (I i 4). Now I do not dislike Lady Bertram as much as some of her critics do, but something about her life, either as beautiful Miss Maria Ward or as the mistress (nominal) of Mansfield Park, has robbed her of vitality, has made her a moral and intellectual cipher, and a complete nonentity as a parent in a way that makes Mrs. Bennet, in Pride and Prejudice, by contrast, seem a woman of uprightness and energy. Mrs. Bennet does, at least, stand upright most of the time.

7The woman who is contrasted with Lady Bertram in the novel, of course, is not a parent at all. It is her childless sister, Aunt Norris, who is a bundle of energy and determination but also a moral cipher, indeed worse than that, a vicious hypocrite. Is this not interesting? That at Mansfield Park there is either too much or too little vitality among the older women, and no morality? And if we look down the family tree at the younger Bertram ladies, plenty of vitality, but no moral life at all, no family affection. They very nearly hate their father, who loves them but does not know them, and, almost worse than no love, there is no fun. Until the Crawfords come, Julia and Maria ride and dance and dress and lord it over Fanny, but the ‘winter […] gaieties’ (I iv 39) promoted for them by their busy aunt in Chapter iv seem strangely glacial:

The Miss Bertrams were now fully established among the belles of the neighbourhood; and as they joined to beauty and brilliant acquirements a manner naturally easy, and carefully formed to general civility and obligingness, they possessed its favour as well as its admiration. Their vanity was in such good order, that they seemed to be quite free from it, and gave themselves no airs; while the praises attending such behaviour, secured, and brought round by their aunt, served to strengthen them in believing they had no faults. (I iv 40)

8The arrival of the Crawfords changes this in many ways, bringing lively walks and rides, impromptu dances, theatricals! This all changes the environment of Mansfield Park in a way that cannot be reversed by their departure.

9To be sure, the house can grow quiet again, as it was before. There is a brief exchange of views on this in Chapter xxi between Fanny and Edmund, in which, for the first time, she corrects his picture of things: ‘ “it does not appear to me [Fanny tells Edmund] that we are more serious than we used to be; I mean before my uncle went abroad. As well as I can recollect, it was always much the same. There was never much laughing in his presence”’ (II iii 230). And Edmund is forced to concede that she is right; what has altered things for him is his passion for Mary Crawford, which robs him, and Fanny, of some of their peace. But Maria has lost all of hers in her passion for Henry: ‘She was less and less able to endure the restraint which her father imposed […] being prepared for matrimony by an hatred of home, restraint, and tranquillity’ (II iii 236). Since marriage in the nineteenth century involves all of those things for women, Maria’s state of mind, from the moment she refuses to accept her father’s offer to help her escape from it, is truly harrowing to contemplate.

10But let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I want to put that off a little—we will find plenty of both, I think, in our consideration of Fanny—and look at one of Mansfield Park’s livelier moments, when, later in the novel, Mr. Crawford, somewhat valiantly, one feels, tries to teach the unwilling Fanny and the unable, practically moronic, Lady Bertram, the game of Speculation:

In the evening it was found, according to the predetermination of Mrs. Grant and her sister, that after making up the Whist table there would remain sufficient for a round game, and every body being as perfectly complying and without a choice as on such occasions they always are, Speculation was decided on almost as soon as Whist; and Lady Bertram soon found herself in the critical situation of being applied to for her own choice between the games, and being required either to draw a card for Whist or not. She hesitated. Luckily Sir Thomas was at hand.
‘What shall I do, Sir Thomas?—Whist and Speculation; which will amuse me most?’
Sir Thomas, after a moment’s thought, recommended Speculation. He was a Whist player himself, and perhaps might feel that it would not much amuse him to have her for a partner.
‘Very well, ’ was her ladyship’s contented answer—‘then Speculation, if you please, Mrs. Grant. I know nothing about it, but Fanny must teach me.’

  • 8 For discussion of the Lottery Tickets game in Pride and Prejudice, see Chapter 1.

11The game of Speculation, like the game of Lottery Tickets in Pride and Prejudice, is packed with meaning.8 Here, again, as in Pride and Prejudice, an ambiguous male is seated between two women of unequal abilities; even the name of the game is significant, for Henry Crawford is speculating as to his intentions toward Fanny, just as in Pride and Prejudice Wickham was after a prize and Lydia was being lined up to pay a forfeit.

12Speculation was played by the Austens, and introduced by Jane Austen to enliven the evening entertainments at her wealthy brother Edward Austen Knight’s house. So, unlike Fanny and Lady Bertram, she knew the rules, had played it, had, like Henry Crawford, taught others to play it! Like Lottery Tickets, it’s a ‘round game’ with an unfixed number of players, and a noisy game; here it is contrasted with the stately silence which prevails at the Whist table. But might it be the case that such noisy, lively round games were not played at Mansfield Park, even though with four children and an aunt there would have been enough people to play? I want to suggest that the Mansfield Park party’s ignorance of the game is symbolic of the strange, solemn, vitiated quality of life among the family there. When the sons, who have other influences, good and bad, in their lives, are excepted, there is Sir Thomas, whose company his daughters find insupportable, Lady Bertram, who does not enliven, does not talk, barely thinks, and Aunt Norris, who provides a kind of fidgety parody of activity, but who is really a life-sucking parasite.

13It seems significant that Fanny picks up the rules of the game in three minutes: Fanny is clever and quick. In a family situation, indeed in two family situations, in which the prevailing ethos does not observe or value those abilities, she has nevertheless continued to develop her intelligence, and we’ll look at how in a moment. What is more curious, is that in family situations which seem to offer no opportunity for moral development, she should have developed such a deep (and deepening, as the novel progresses) moral being. I want to make some suggestions about that, and about why I think Fanny’s moral life remains a problem, at least for me, a little later. What I would like to point out here is that one disappointment for the lover of Jane Austen’s other novels, is that we miss that wonderful cross-fertilization between different social strata and contrasting personality types that crowns the liveliest of them: Elizabeth and Darcy, Wentworth and Anne Elliot, Catherine and Henry, all so unlikely at the start, all so perfect in the end. We feel that nothing like that happens here: Fanny marries someone she meets in the first chapter, and with whom she grows up. No surprises, no influx of energy.

14What I would like to suggest is that the surprise, and the influx of energy—the cross-fertilization we think is denied—does happen, but it happens in Chapter i, when Fanny comes to live at Mansfield Park. She is the stranger who changes Mansfield Park, who grows in such a way as to give this vacuum a moral centre, and the novel is an examination of what it costs her. In this sense, I think Mansfield Park is, like Emma, not a romance but a psychological study. Emma is, crudely speaking, an experimental novel about how to live, as a woman, with too much ego; Mansfield Park is about what can be accomplished with too little.

  • 9 From Spectator, 199 (1957), 339–40; repr. in Jane Austen: Critical Assessments, ed. by Ian Littlewo (...)

15There is a famous essay by Kingsley Amis called, ‘What Became of Jane Austen?’ in which he makes the unforgettable remark, ‘To invite Mr. and Mrs. Edmund Bertram round for the evening would not be lightly undertaken’.9 This remark combines the true and the unfair pretty much as Kingsley Amis’s always do, but I think it does show us something about Fanny and why so many people find her hard to like: she is the most hidden and unsocial of Jane Austen’s heroines, and unlike say Anne and Elinor who have no equal to speak to but who seem to turn to us, Fanny does not seem to need us, either. I emphasize ‘seem’ there because I think she does reach out to the reader, but in the most hesitant, almost reluctant fashion. We see in Anne Elliot someone whom time has subdued, and in Elinor someone whom circumstances have required to be discreet, but in Fanny we see someone who has been made, throughout a childhood that we see—at greater length than that of any other Austen heroine—to feel small, to feel almost invisible. The brilliance with which this is rendered almost outdoes itself in succeeding in making her invisible to us.

16But not quite. We need to try a little of the patience and sensitivity that enable Edmund, even when a boy, to find her worth talking to, but we also have to look for her, as he does when he finds her on the stairs, in unexpected places. Because she is, in a way none of the other heroines are, elusive. Just a quick run-through, though, of the whole gang of seven, will show up a lot more shyness than we expect: Elizabeth doesn’t speak until Chapter ii, Elinor, Marianne and Anne until Chapter iii. It is only Emma and Catherine who appear on the first pages of their novels, and only Emma who speaks in Chapter i. Fanny is a Chapter ii speaker. This is the timid conversation that begins on the attic stairs with Edmund that wins a little girl’s heart, fixes her affections on her kind cousin for life. I want to look at that lovely moment:

The grandeur of the house astonished, but could not console her. The rooms were too large for her to move in with ease; whatever she touched she expected to injure, and she crept about in constant terror of something or other; often retreating towards her own chamber to cry; and the little girl who was spoken of in the drawing-room when she left it at night as seeming so desirably sensible of her peculiar good fortune, ended every day’s sorrows by sobbing herself to sleep. A week had passed in this way, and no suspicion of it conveyed by her quiet passive manner, when she was found one morning by her cousin Edmund, the youngest of the sons, sitting crying on the attic stairs.
‘My dear little cousin, ’ said he, with all the gentleness of an excellent nature, ‘what can be the matter?’ And sitting down by her, he was at great pains to overcome her shame in being so surprised, and persuade her to speak openly. […] For a long while no answer could be obtained beyond a ‘no, no—not at all—no, thank you;’ but he still persevered, and no sooner had he begun to revert to her own home, than her increased sobs explained to him where the grievance lay. He tried to console her.
‘You are sorry to leave Mamma, my dear little Fanny, ’ said he, ‘which shows you to be a very good girl; but you must remember that you are with relations and friends, who all love you, and wish to make you happy. Let us walk out in the park, and you shall tell me all about your brothers and sisters.’ […] He talked to her more, and from all that she said, was convinced of her having an affectionate heart, and a strong desire of doing right; and he could perceive her to be farther entitled to attention, by great sensibility of her situation, and great timidity. […] From this day Fanny grew more comfortable. She felt that she had a friend. (I ii 16–19)

17Even the most heartless reader—even Kingsley Amis—must be moved by that picture, and what it tells us about the nature of Fanny’s heart. Her ‘attachments’, to use a frequent Jane Austen phrase, are strong. Edmund notices that and admires it. I want us to note that capacity for strong attachments, because I think it is, for Jane Austen, one of the foundations of moral life.

18But I would like to note also that Edmund, often described from later events as a bit of a stick himself, is here quick-witted and active. He goes swiftly through all the things that might upset any little girl, then reminds himself that this little girl has been separated from her family. He finds out quickly which people matter, finds out about her beloved brother William, and he also swiftly finds something for them to do— to write a letter to William—and does it with dispatch. His invitation, ‘Then let it be done now. Come with me into the breakfast-room’, makes him hero material (I ii 18). How many other busy young boys would have suggested doing it tomorrow, and then forgotten? Edmund does not forget, and Fanny does not forget that. This is quiet, unemphatic information about him, about both of them. Just as, tucked way back at the beginning of the passage, Fanny’s not being wooed by the grandeur of the house, her family and home and those she loves mattering more, opens her up to us a little; again, a foundation of moral life suggested here, in being attached not to things but to persons. And we see also here a thing we will see over and over again in Fanny: her sense of her own smallness and insignificance: ‘The rooms were too large for her to move in with ease.’ And—the plot thickens—a curious sense of guilt or shame: ‘whatever she touched she expected to injure, and she crept about in constant terror of something or other’.

19Fanny is, of course, the child who could be spared; the child who, we learn here, required an adored brother (who is an adored son) to be her ‘advocate’ with her mother, a mother we will later see outrageously favouring her sons over her daughters (I ii 17). Fanny is not the favourite of either parent, and she has come to a new environment where not much favouritism will fall her way, either. In each environment she finds a brother or brother-substitute to be a sort of advocate, and she locks herself into a connection with that brother which prevails over other attachments, even, I think, that attachment with the reader which Jane Austen’s other heroines encourage us to form. What is distinctive about the presentation of Fanny is that despite this tender introduction and our natural interest in the lonely child, the little girl orphan of much great fiction, for, though of course Fanny has two parents, they just don’t need her to be around, Fanny remains for the early chapters of the book comparatively hidden and distanced from the reader.

20There are a number of reasons for this. One of these is the relative rarity of her speech, and I want to talk about that in a minute in greater detail, but another is that the action of the opening chapters is not given us through her eyes as happens in the other novels. The omniscient narrator stays much more active and remains aware of things and events that Fanny cannot see or even know about. Even little seventeen-year-old Catherine, in Northanger Abbey, conceived and written more than a decade earlier, moves swiftly to the centre of her novel and stays there, but Fanny, aged eighteen, takes a very long time to take up that position, and holds it more diffidently, though not always more diffidently. Trying to find Fanny’s role in the novel, I felt a little like Mary Crawford when she asks the Bertrams, ‘ “Pray, is she out, or is she not?”’, a remark which, of course, Fanny does not hear (I v 56). Here, in the same paragraph in Chapter v, the omniscient narrator speaks of Fanny: ‘And Fanny, what was she doing and thinking all this while? And what was her opinion of the new-comers? Few young ladies of eighteen could be less called on to speak their opinion than Fanny’ (I v 56).

21I think myself that Jane Austen is having a joke with us here about that silence I want us to talk about. Fanny does speak in the opening chapters, once to tell Edmund, and us, the pitiful fact that she believes, ‘ “I can never be important to anyone”’ (I iii 29), probably the only Jane Austen heroine who has felt that at eighteen! But as we read our way through the opening chapters we see and hear many things that Fanny does not. The tone in those chapters is of a novel of manners set in an English country house, without a central point of view, which tells us about Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram and their children, and Mrs. Norris, and the Crawfords, the young ‘new-comers’. It is possible in those chapters to forget, as the Bertrams often do, that Fanny is there, and it is only, for most of us, on re-reading that she becomes the person we are most interested in—unless we have such tender hearts that we cannot forget the little girl sobbing on the attic stairs.

22To establish the importance of Fanny’s silence, and absence from the opening, let’s look at some conversations Fanny does not hear, which occur in those chapters. I have in mind a rash of conversations which take place after the death of the (completely silent) Mr. Norris. One wonders if there were some clerical jokes on him that were crossed out, since the clergy are for the most part taken seriously here. There is Dr. Grant, the gourmand who dies after too many good dinners, but he hardly appears; there is no Mr. Collins or Mr. Elton to make Edmund’s desire to be a clergyman look silly. By Chapter iii, Mr. Norris has gone to his reward, and Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram expect Mrs. Norris to take up her time-share option on Fanny, one promised years ago when the arrangement began:

Lady Bertram soon brought the matter to a certainty, by carelessly observing to Mrs. Norris, –
‘I think, sister, we need not keep Miss Lee any longer, when Fanny goes to live with you?’
Mrs. Norris almost started. ‘Live with me, dear Lady Bertram, what do you mean?’
‘Is she not to live with you?—I thought you had settled it with Sir Thomas?’
‘Me! Never. I never spoke a syllable about it to Sir Thomas, nor he to me. Fanny live with me! the last thing in the world for me to think of, or for any body to wish that really knows us both. Good heaven! what could I do with Fanny?—Me! a poor, helpless, forlorn widow, unfit for any thing, my spirits quite broke down, what could I do with a girl at her time of life, a girl of fifteen! the very age of all others to need most attention and care, and put the cheerfullest spirits to the test. Sure Sir Thomas could not seriously expect such a thing! Sir Thomas is too much my friend. Nobody that wishes me well, I am sure, would propose it. How came Sir Thomas to speak to you about it?’
‘Indeed, I do not know. I suppose he thought it best.’
‘But what did he say?—He could not say he wished me to take Fanny. I am sure in his heart he could not wish me to do it.’
‘Then you will not mind living by yourself quite alone?’
‘Lady Bertram, I do not complain. I know I cannot live as I have done, but I must retrench where I can, and learn to be a better manager. […] I must live within my income, or I shall be miserable; and I own it would give me great satisfaction to be able to do rather more—to lay by a little at the end of the year.’
‘I dare say you will. You always do, don’t you?’
‘Well, Lady Bertram, ’ said Mrs. Norris, moving to go, ‘I can only say that my sole desire is to be of use to your family—and so, if Sir Thomas should ever speak again about my taking Fanny, you will be able to say that my health and spirits put it quite out of the question—besides that, I really should not have a bed to give her, for I must keep a spare room for a friend.’
Lady Bertram repeated enough of this conversation to her husband, to convince him how much he had mistaken his sister-in-law’s views. (I iii 32–35)

  • 10 Claire Tomalin, Jane Austen. A Life (London: Penguin, 1998; repr. 2000), p. 232.

23I’ve chosen to look at this very typical exchange between the two sisters, so unalike in style and yet so alike in self-absorption, because I think it suggests something about the nature of dialogue in parts of Jane Austen’s novels. The comedy here comes, and often comes in Jane Austen, from characters contradicting themselves. Here Lady Bertram—of whom I think it could be said that she is not a hypocrite, not even a hypocrite, perhaps, because her moral existence is not quite significant enough to attain to hypocrisy—does not generally contradict herself (it would take too much effort to play more than one part), though she is often absurd. Mrs. Norris, on the other hand, is one of Jane Austen’s great comic creations, though Claire Tomalin says, with some justice, that she is ‘almost too horrible to be comic’.10 Both Mrs. Norris and her sister are revealed through characteristic dialogue in a way that Fanny, at least in the opening chapters, and perhaps altogether, is not. Here, dialogue and gesture give us Mrs. Norris’s appalled reaction to the suggestion that she should share her bed and board with her teenage niece: ‘Mrs. Norris almost started “Live with me, dear Lady Bertram, what do you mean?”’ From Lady Bertram’s wonderful, spaced-out rejoinders one would suspect, if there were an apothecary in attendance on Lady Bertram as there is on Mr. Woodhouse in Emma, substance abuse. Lady Bertram does not expect, or desire, to be kept informed of things, but she does know her husband and her sister are both always busy about something.

24Then there is the rapid fire, the rat-tat-tat of Mrs. Norris at her most self-protective. My favourite images of her are perhaps of her making off with a few eggs in a basket or saving a few inches of fabric no one wants, but there is much to marvel over in her long, complicated passages of angry self-justification. Her speech here is rigid with exclamation points, they position themselves like fence pickets or sword points: it requires seven exclamations to get rid of the spectre of a long visit from Fanny. ‘ “Me!”’ she squeaks more than once, and more than once, too, she refers to the (surely unnecessary) ‘spare bed for a friend’.

25Lady Bertram’s pace is altogether different, but she is, though less harshly, I think, being exposed to us by her speech in all her absurdity. I quoted the novel earlier to the effect that she is a ‘woman of very tranquil feelings, and a temper remarkably easy and indolent’, which the reader can corroborate as she spends much of the novel asleep, but her absorption in her pug and her ‘work’—that wonderful Jane Austen word for needlework of all kinds, for what women did who didn’t have to do anything—marks her, as Mrs. Allen’s interest in clothes in Northanger Abbey will mark her, as something of a fool: ‘ “I hope she will not tease my poor pug”’, is all we hear her say on the subject of her little niece coming to live with them (I i 11). Later in the novel, when circumstances—the illness of her son, the disgrace of her daughter— require her to feel, she is shown as distinguished less by the depth of her feelings, than by their adaptability, their willingness to accept substitutes. She does not, fortunately, lose her son, but when she to all purposes loses her daughter, Fanny becomes the substitute; then Susan becomes the substitute for Fanny; just as, presumably, in all these years, one pug must have given way to another.

26I want to suggest that the hallmark of real feeling, of moral heroism, in this novel, the test of the strength of the capacity for attachment and therefore of one’s moral life, is the refusal to accept substitutes. We might note in passing that this reflects better on Fanny than on Edmund. The little girl who loved her brother William, and was loved by him, can enlarge her heart for that sort of love just once, I think. Chapter ii ends, ‘she loved him (Edmund) better than any body in the world except William; her heart was divided between the two’ (I ii 25). When I reread this I can find it in my heart to pity Mr. Crawford.

27Dialogue is used, in this novel, not only to expose as is the case with Mrs. Norris and Lady Bertram, but also to reveal. The opening chapters continue to enlarge the family circle with the introduction of Mr. Rushworth and his engagement to Maria—poor Mr. Rushworth! ‘a heavy young man, with not more than common sense’, and then the far from heavy, in every sense, Crawfords, the brother and sister who will cause all the trouble (I iv 44). I just want to point out that so far are we from being inside Fanny’s head in these chapters (Chapters iv and v) that the conversations which introduce this attractive pair take place at the parsonage, where their half-sister lives with her piggy husband, while from the sections which follow, in which the two households of young people get to know each other, Fanny is almost eerily fenced off. But I think it is here, as Edmund and Mary Crawford begin to pair off (and, alas, Maria and Henry also, two pairs of doomed lovers in this novel which is full of doomed and illicit love affairs), that because, as Mary says about Fanny, ‘ “she says so little”’, it gradually comes to be along with her that we hear the others speaking, and Fanny begins to gain importance for the reader as a kind of co-witness, and interpreter, of the events (I v 56). It is important that as she, with deep and unacknowledged sadness and, more painful, I think, unacknowledged rage, watches Edmund drifting toward Mary Crawford, that protective brother-circle around her is removed and we have a space to be with her and know her feelings.

28I want to look now at a conversation which Fanny does hear, though she takes almost no part in it. This is in Chapter x, the day at Sotherton, after Fanny, exhausted by being an awkward third in the flirtatious conversation about distances (nicely complemented by the growing lack of distance between Edmund and Mary Crawford), is sitting pensively on a bench, only to be joined by Maria and Henry, another mismatched, erotically charged duo, and find herself once again, at barely eighteen, in a position halfway between chaperone and voyeur. As Edmund and Mary had made an allegory out of distance, Henry and Maria make one out of boundaries: ‘ “I cannot get out”’, Maria quotes, gesturing toward the locked park gate that points in the direction of her marriage to Mr. Rushworth (I x 116). ‘ “And for the world you would not get out without the key and without Mr. Rushworth’s authority and protection”’, Mr. Crawford hums suggestively, ‘ “with my assistance, I think it might be done”’. Maria passes round the edge of the gate to ‘the other side’ while Fanny objects, ‘feeling all this to be wrong’ and unconsciously grasping all the couple’s double entendres (I x 116). And surely feeling that, while Mr. Crawford is trifling with Maria, he is treating Fanny as if she were of less consequence than a servant, as if she were nothing. This is so close to Fanny’s own sense of herself that this moment, forgotten by him but not by her, is where her instinctive dislike of Mr. Crawford ripens into something very like hatred.

29This moment is neatly, and painfully, paralleled with the later moment, in Chapter xviii, when, in the midst of the bustle of the theatricals, Fanny retreats to her beloved, if frigid, East Room to find herself followed there, first by Mary and then by Edmund, who are surprised and delighted to find each other! Once again, she is the unwilling third, the unhappy chaperone, in an unacknowledged love scene. In this section, in fact, she has to prompt the two lovers as they stumble through the scene in the play which does acknowledge their love. Fanny is by now very much the central point of view; let us see and hear the rich episode of the rehearsals of August von Kotzebue’s Lovers’ Vows, as translated by Elizabeth Inchbald.

30The plot is as follows: Baron Wildenhaim has seduced and abandoned a young chambermaid called Agatha Friburg in his youth. When the story opens she is living in poverty, where she is found by her son, Frederick, who has been a soldier. When he learns the true story of his birth, he goes out to beg in order to support his mother. On the road he meets the Baron, his father, and tries to rob him. When he is taken by the police he reveals the identity of his mother, his father and himself. With the aid of the clergyman, Anhalt, he persuades the Baron to marry Agatha. The Baron also consents to the marriage of his daughter, Amelia, to Anhalt, instead of to Count Cassel, a rich but brainless fop he had in mind for her. The casting at Mansfield Park is as follows:


Baron Wildenhaim

Mr. Yates

Count Cassel

Mr. Rushworth


Edmund Bertram


Henry Crawford

The Butler

Tom Bertram


Tom Bertram


Tom Bertram


Agatha Friburg

Maria Bertram

Amelia Wildenhaim

Mary Crawford

Cottager’s Wife

Mrs. Grant (first, Fanny Price)

31I think the wit with which Jane Austen accomplished the casting is very clear. Henry is Maria’s son. This may license some touching, which Edmund would be more worried about if he weren’t busily compromising himself with Mary while playing the clergyman who is to marry her character. Mr. Yates has all the lines, Tom is all over the place and poor Mr. Rushworth plays someone rich but brainless who gets written out of the story. Fanny writes herself out, too, but she stays to watch and listen to (and prompt—for she is always useful) the others.

  • 11 Ibid., p. 229. Austen wrote: ‘Henry has this moment said that he like M.P. better & better;—he is i (...)
  • 12 Letters, p. 261.
  • 13 Tomalin, Jane Austen, p. 229: ‘This is a remark so noncommittal that you suspect him too of reserva (...)

32Now, the issue of the moral dangers of private theatricals is always going to be a tough one for modern readers, but we should note it was an odd one for Jane Austen’s contemporaries as well. The Austens performed plays at home themselves, Jane Austen as a teenager wrote plays for home performance, they attended many plays—even in the last year of her life, Jane Austen attended plays. She and Cassandra assisted, as women of nearly Lady Bertram’s and Mrs. Norris’s age, at the making of costumes—perhaps, who knows, the sewing of the curtain, too—in private theatricals at the house of her rich brother, Edward Austen Knight. The issue here seems not to be theatricals themselves, but both the absence of Sir Thomas and the presence of all of the strangers, though without Mr. Yates and the Crawfords, of course, the matter would never have arisen. That characteristic Bertram lack of joie de vivre means that, unlike the Austens, they have always confined themselves to occasional recitations from Shakespeare. Not only Jane Austen’s audience in the wider public, but her first audience, her family, found the moral weight given to the theatricals a problem, and it was not the only problem that they found in the novel. They read in instalments, and Jane’s beloved brother Henry, as soon as his namesake appeared, said to her, ‘ “I see now how it will go”’, but read the second half, he confessed, ‘in bafflement’.11 Jane told another correspondent, here showing less capacity for self-delusion than Fanny, I think, how much Henry liked Mansfield Park as a whole: ‘Henry has finished Mansfield Park, & his approbation has not lessened. He found the last half of the last volume extremely interesting’.12 Austen’s biographer, Claire Tomalin, is not alone in pointing out how often we say that when we don’t know what to say !13

  • 14 ‘Opinions of Mansfield Park’, in Later Manuscripts, ed. by Janet Todd and Linda Bree, The Cambridge (...)
  • 15 Later Manuscripts, ed. Todd and Bree, p. 231. Louise Knight ‘remembers their arguing the matter but (...)

33The family didn’t like Fanny much, either, Mrs. Austen famously finding her ‘insipid’, the favourite niece Anna declaring she ‘could not bear Fanny’, and there is a long line of subsequent critics who have also found her insufferable.14 Cassandra Austen was ‘Fond of Fanny’, and is reported to have ‘tried to persuade [Jane Austen] to alter the end of Mansfield Park and let Mr. Crawford marry Fanny Price’.15 Why didn’t Austen let this happen? Crucial here, it seems to me, is what Fanny sees when she is acting as impromptu prompter in Lovers’ Vows. As readers we have to enjoy this part of the novel very much, as one thing it does is communicate the huge sense of fun and importance that surrounds almost all amateur dramatics: fun, importance, egoism, trickery, flirtation, disappointment, deception. And self-deception—even before the ghastly rehearsal in the East Room, Fanny has had the agony of listening—and trying to fill her required role sincerely—while Edmund talks himself into playing opposite Mary. ‘ “It must be a great relief to her,” said Fanny, trying for greater warmth of manner’ (I xvi 182). Still, even Fanny has, through the play, reluctantly, some fun. She admires Mr. Crawford’s acting, ‘ “good hardened real acting”’ as Edmund calls it (I xiii 146): ‘She did not like him as a man, but she must admit him to be the best actor’ (I xviii 193–94). She enjoys this, and enjoys prompting the others, listening to their complaints, sewing alongside her aunts, but she will not act, she will not even read the part, it is this fate from which Sir Thomas’s startling return saves her.

34And I would like to raise a question about that, and a suggestion. We know Jane Austen acted as a child and enjoyed acting as an adult, so it can’t be acting that is wrong. But something about it is very wrong for Fanny, because although Edmund’s request forces her to yield and say she will read the part, she never gets to do that. Why? We have seen this young woman suppressing, with mounting distress and nearly with anguish, her deepest feeling, the passion for Edmund, and her position at Mansfield Park has meant that she cannot at all hope to have what she wants, she can only refuse to take what she does not want. I wonder if it is not that, because we see her suppressing so much, it is perhaps terribly important, for our trust of her, that we not see her pretending? Is it perhaps that the novel does not—how could it?—condemn theatre, or acting—what it condemns is pretending?

  • 16 Mr. J. Plumptre: ‘I had not an idea till the end which of the two wd. Marry Fanny, H.C. or Edmd.’ L (...)

35I would like to close by returning to the contemporary ‘Opinions of Mansfield Park’, and in particular to the readers who thought that Fanny might marry Mr. Crawford.16 I want to get there—if indeed I will get there—as Jane Austen did, via Lovers’ Vows. If you glance at the plot summary, you will see that Baron Wildenhaim, when young, seduced Agatha, a servant in his mother’s house. When young he was that stereotypical figure of Restoration and eighteenth-century drama, the rake. The play, like many others, gives him a second chance at love. He marries Agatha at the end, becoming ‘the rake reformed’, another stereotype. I see how it will be, Henry Austen, himself a bit of a charming chancer, if not exactly a rake, told his sister happily. No you don’t, she must have been thinking, with that enigmatic smile we see in her portrait. There are such difficulties with Mr. Crawford: there is the scene which I have discussed, in which he and Maria behave so shamefully, and with so little care for Fanny’s inexperience or her peace of mind. He pays dearly for that bit of indifference. Careless talk costs lives. And there is the heartless, unforgivable scheme he hatches with Mary in Chapter xxiv: ‘ “my plan is to make Fanny Price in love with me”’ (II vi 267). To which Mary’s careless remonstrance is, ‘ “I do desire that you will not be making her really unhappy”’ (II vi 269). There is a BBC adaptation of the novel from the 1980s, which has many flaws, but which has hit upon a brilliant stroke of casting in that its Crawfords look like twins: here they are twins of evil. Though Fanny never hears what is being planned here, the reader cannot forget it.

36But what the reader also cannot forget is the change which overtakes Henry Crawford, and I think the reader (this reader, anyway) does not recover from the moment in Chapter xxx when Henry, in love with Fanny Price, the nobody he thought to bowl over with his charm, says, and says truly, ‘ “I could so wholly and absolutely confide in her […] and that is what I want”’ (II xii 341). It is surely very daring of Jane Austen to have a moment like this, when this rake longing to reform shows the sort of understanding of marriage that we attribute to the fortunate few who, in her other novels, triumph over the arduous process of courtship. This has echoes of Elinor and Edward in Sense and Sensibility—the foolish, erring man, the wise and understanding woman. Rational happiness. It takes perhaps many readings to note that she has staged this touching scene in the same room in the Parsonage, with the same dramatis personae, as the previous scene in which the Crawfords planned their assault on Fanny’s innocence. We are not being allowed to forget Mr. Crawford’s failings here, though we very nearly do forget them, in the scene in Portsmouth, another triangular scene, but here with Mr. Crawford attempting to undo the evils of those earlier triangles by his focus on Fanny without any discourtesy to Susan. No reader can ignore, I think, the way his quiet concern with Fanny resonates through his, ‘ “I know Mansfield, I know its way, I know its faults toward you. I know the danger of your being so far forgotten, as to have your comforts give way to the imaginary convenience of any single being in the family”’ (III xi 476). The terrible irony here is twofold: crudely, it seems that given sufficient distractions, Henry Crawford, too, can fall back into the Mansfield habit of forgetting Fanny. But the other forgetfulness, operating in these chapters set in Portsmouth, is Fanny’s strange absent-mindedness about those Mansfield faults. In those chapters, as she realizes that her own mother really has no need of her—she was, remember, the child who could be spared—she begins to imagine that Mansfield Park, where she is ‘useful’, has been a refuge. But the reader was there, and knows what it was like for her. It is very disturbing for that remembering reader, to see Fanny recreate the East Room in miniature in the hideaway she makes for herself and Susan upstairs in the noisy Portsmouth house. And to see the alacrity with which she returns to Mansfield Park, ‘in […] danger of being exquisitely happy, while so many were miserable’ (III xv 513).

  • 17 ‘In Mansfield Park alone does Jane Austen tread the confines of tragedy.’ Chapman, Facts and Proble (...)

37There are lovely moments in the closing pages. The reader is electrified by Lady Bertram’s coming ‘with no indolent step’ to greet her niece with the words, ‘ “Dear Fanny! now I shall be comfortable”’ (III xv 517). But the ending, Edmund’s disillusionment with Mary, Fanny’s efficient filling him in on the many faults he had missed, the vindictive completeness with which Maria and Mrs. Norris are packed off to ‘another country’ and, most of all, the cousin-marriage, with its suggestion of very quiet satisfactions indeed, seems deeply psychologically credible, rather than romantically satisfying (III xvii 538). Earlier I compared Mansfield Park with Emma and called it a psychological study. I would like to close by raising that comparison again and suggesting that both novels also, more daringly than the others, portray sexual passion, in particular, hidden passion. Emma gives us the extraordinary story of Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill, and Mansfield Park gives us those theatricals, where we see, in a rather Shakespearean way, Mr. Rushworth who loves Maria who loves Henry Crawford, who is also loved by Julia; and Edmund, loving Mary, and also loved by Fanny, who will later be loved by Henry Crawford; and none of these people—the story is, as R.W. Chapman says, very near tragedy—none of these people will get what they want.17 Except for Fanny. And that is, to quote Jane Austen’s brother Henry, ‘very interesting’. In the very last paragraph of the novel, as the young couple remove to Mansfield, which is defined there as ‘thoroughly perfect’, there is an undeniable sense of the drawbridge going up (III xvii 548). The reader can choose whether to be worried, or relieved, that Susan is also inside, ‘the stationary niece’, the explicit substitute for Fanny, but older, tougher, more vigorous—remember that she carries a knife! (III xvii 546). The two sisters have made their way into Mansfield as two earlier sisters did, and one, Fanny, has brought moral depth and moral meaning to the emptiness and silence she found there, but at such a cost. One remembers, almost too late, that these two sisters are called ‘Price’. I draw from these disquieting events one consolation: Fanny and Edmund’s children will love their parents and know themselves loved by them. Theirs will be a more blessed generation.


1 ‘Many readers, I suspect, like myself, have found Mansfield Park the most difficult of the works, in the sense that it is there hardest to be sure of the writer’s general intention.’ R. W. Chapman, Jane Austen: Facts and Problems (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1948; repr. 1949), p. 194.

2 Karen Joy Fowler, The Jane Austen Book Club (London: Penguin, 2005), p. 94.

3 Pride and Prejudice.

4 Northanger Abbey.

5 Persuasion.

6 Emma.

7 When he visits Fanny in Portsmouth, Henry is ‘convinced that her present residence could not be comfortable, and, therefore, could not be salutary for her’ (III xi 475); he tells her sister, ‘ “I am considering your sister’s health […] which I think the confinement of Portsmouth unfavourable to. She requires constant air and exercise. When you know her as well as I do, I am sure you will agree that she does, and that she ought never to be long banished from the free air, and liberty of the country”’ (III xi 476). Mary Crawford writes to Fanny, ‘My dear little creature, do not stay at Portsmouth to lose your pretty looks. Those vile sea-breezes are the ruin of beauty and health’ (III xii 483).

8 For discussion of the Lottery Tickets game in Pride and Prejudice, see Chapter 1.

9 From Spectator, 199 (1957), 339–40; repr. in Jane Austen: Critical Assessments, ed. by Ian Littlewood, 4 vols (Mountfield: Helm, 1998), IV, pp. 74–77 (p. 75).

10 Claire Tomalin, Jane Austen. A Life (London: Penguin, 1998; repr. 2000), p. 232.

11 Ibid., p. 229. Austen wrote: ‘Henry has this moment said that he like M.P. better & better;—he is in the 3d vol.—I believe now he has changed his mind as to foreseeing the end’ (Letters, p. 258).

12 Letters, p. 261.

13 Tomalin, Jane Austen, p. 229: ‘This is a remark so noncommittal that you suspect him too of reservations about the way she chose to end the story’.

14 ‘Opinions of Mansfield Park’, in Later Manuscripts, ed. by Janet Todd and Linda Bree, The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Jane Austen (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), pp. 230–31. Janet Todd writes that she was ‘startled, then offended’ by Fanny Price as a student, but offers a reconsideration of her in the light of later feminisms in Janet Todd, ‘The Price is Right: Returning to Mansfield Park by Jane Austen’, TLS (March 6, 2020),

15 Later Manuscripts, ed. Todd and Bree, p. 231. Louise Knight ‘remembers their arguing the matter but Miss Austen stood firmly and would not allow the change’; quoted in Deidre Le Faye, Jane Austen. A Family Record, 2nd edn. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), p. 275. Jan Fergus suggests that this was ‘almost certainly […] a mock argument’ (Jane Austen: A Literary Life (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1991), p. 144).

16 Mr. J. Plumptre: ‘I had not an idea till the end which of the two wd. Marry Fanny, H.C. or Edmd.’ Later Manuscripts, ed. Todd and Bree, p. 233.

17 ‘In Mansfield Park alone does Jane Austen tread the confines of tragedy.’ Chapman, Facts and Problems, p. 200.


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