“Do not let us be frightened from a good deed by a trifle. Give a girl an education, and introduce her properly into the world, and ten to one but she has the means of settling well, without farther expense to anybody.” Mrs. Norris, Chapter 1
Ten year old poor relation Fanny Price arrives at Mansfield Park and meets her cousins the Bertrams. Spoiled sisters Maria and Julia think her ignorant and stupid. Sad and sacred, her only friend is cousin Edmund who helps her write a letter to brother William. Five years pass. Sir Thomas Bertram and eldest son Tom leave for Antigua. Maria and Julia husband hunt with Aunt Norris. Fanny left out. Maria engaged to Mr. Rushworth. Mary and Henry Crawford arrive and meet their neighbors. Maria and Julia keen on Henry. Mary keen on Tom. Fanny and Edmund think Mary indecorous. Mary’s harp arrives, bewitching Edmund who falls in love with Mary. All the young people travel to Mr. Rushworth’s estate of Sotherton.
Jane Austen sets the tone of the novel immediately with Mrs. Norris’ passive-aggressive surly voice. It is effectively comical and annoying at the same time. She seems to run the Bertram family while her sister lounges on the sofa with her dog pug. I loved this description of Lady Bertram.
To the education of her daughters Lady Bertram paid not the smallest attention. She had not time for such cares. She was a woman who spent her days in sitting, nicely dressed, on a sofa, doing some long piece of needlework, of little use and no beauty, thinking more of her pug than her children, but very indulgent to the latter when it did not put herself to inconvenience, guided in everything important by Sir Thomas, and in smaller concerns by her sister. The Narrator, Chapter 4
I think that Austen is introducing a theme here of negligent parenting with possibilities for great material. Lady Bertram’s two spoiled and snarky daughters Maria and Julia are certainly the evidence of it. Their brother Tom the eldest son seems to be also ungovernable by their father Sir Thomas, gambling and drinking with little regret. Only second son Edmund seems to have his head on straight, though I fear he has over compensated for his lax upbringing and taken the high road too firmly with his moralizing and starchy attitudes. With an outlook like this, one can only imagine his frustration in living in a household of such cretins and understand his desire to be a minister to save unruly souls.
When we are introduced to newcomers to the neighborhood siblings Mary and Henry Crawford, I was amazed at how well their cutting remarks and superior attitude fit in with the Bertram clan. It is no wonder that the introductions go so well. I was amused that their sister Mrs. Grant immediately suggests possible mates for her single brother and sister. Shades of an Emma Woodhouse; – who may only be a gleam in Austen’s eye while writing this. Their discussion on marriage in chapters four and five is a great introduction to their personalities, and sets the stage for future romantic machinations. Here are two favorite quotes by Henry and Mary that really reveal what is coming.
“I am of a cautious temper, and unwilling to risk my happiness in a hurry. Nobody can think more highly of the matrimonial state than myself I consider the blessing of a wife as most justly described in those discreet lines of the poet-‘Heaven’s last best gift.'” Henry Crawford, Chapter 4
Of course, he is being totally sarcastic and poking fun at marriage and women after his sister Mary derides his past performance with ladies to their sister Mrs. Grant.
“In marriage…there is not one in a hundred of either sex who is not taken in when they marry. Look where I will, I see that it is so; and I feel that it must be so, when I consider that it is, of all transactions, the one in which people expect most from others, and are least honest themselves.” Mary Crawford, Chapter 5
Mary Crawford is much more frank about it. Like Elizabeth Bennet she decidedly expresses her opinions, but unlike Jane Austen’s other strong female character from Pride and Prejudice she does so without much censure and is often moralistically off center. I like that dangerous laissez-faire, wildly over confident quality about her. She definitely gets the sharp witty dialogue that Austen is so famous for. It is like watching a train wreck and makes for a great story.
But what of our heroine Fanny Price? At this point she has had little to say or do. Cleverly, I think that is Austen’s point. Being the poor relation and a charity case in a resplendent household is a tenuous position. We see her pitiful situation, how terribly she is treated by her cousins, and feel her pain. It is uncomfortable and we are angered by it. The over-eager reader may miss the subtly of her character and not understand why she is in the background so much. It is a bit perplexing but I am confident that Austen has her reasons that will unfold as the plot develops.
- Why is Mrs. Norris not given a first name? Is this a telescopic insight by Jane Austen by way of a slight?
- Fanny Price does not act like Jane Austen’s other heroines. Nor does Mary Crawford. Is Austen being ambiguous?
- Why do you think that Austen has set up such a caustic cast of characters? What are the benefits and downfalls to this approach?
Mansfield Park Madness: Day 2 Give-away
Leave a comment by August 30th. to qualify for the free drawing on August 31st. for one copy of
The Oxford Illustrated Jane Austen: Volume III: Mansfield Park
Oxford University Press, USA (1988). Third edition. This hardcover volume has been the preferred edition by many since its publication in 1923. It includes an unabridged novel text and extensive supplemental material. Nice compact, but could use a make-over!