Jane Austen’s third novel deviates from the first two books quite dramatically, not only in the nature of her heroine, but also in her domestic position.
The novel deals principally with the progeny of three sisters. Mrs. Bertram has married into wealth and position. As the wife of Sir Thomas Bertram, she is mistress of Mansfield Park, a large country estate in Northamptonshire. They have four children, Tom, Edmund, Maria, and Julia. Her sister, Mrs. Norris, marries into the clergy and her husband is resident in the Mansfield parsonage.
They have no children. The third sister, Mrs. Price, marries into the lower middle class and lives on the verge of poverty in Portsmouth with her husband, a former navy man. She has nine living children (and one deceased), the chief of which are William, the eldest, Fanny, the next eldest, and a younger sister, Susan.
As the novel opens, Mrs. Norris has conferred with the Bertrams about bringing one of their sister’s children from Portsmouth to live with them and it is decided that the eldest girl, Fanny, should be the one. She arrives as a slight, uneducated girl of ten, and is installed in an attic bedroom. From the very beginning, she is told that she is always to be inferior to Mrs. Bertam’s four children and Mrs. Norris takes great pains to make sure that she never forgets it. Although she becomes dedicated to helping the sickly Mrs. Bertram, she lives in fear of Sir Thomas, who seems very great to her indeed. Among the other children, only Edmund befriends her. He becomes her advocate and remains so throughout the novel.
The children grow up through their teen years and a pecking order is established. Tom, as the eldest son, is destined to inherit Mansfield Park and he lives his life in carefree abandon, gambling, traveling to London, and acquiring debts. Edmund is the more level-headed of the two, but he is destined to become a clergyman. The two Bertram girls grow up as privileged belles, and Fanny continues timid, shy, and very serious. Through Edmund’s efforts, she has been very well-educated, is a devout reader, and is constantly at needlework, but she never develops the habits of wealthy young ladies, such music or drawing.
Facing problems with his West Indies company, Sir Thomas sails to Antigua to set everything right. Maria eventually manages to secure a proposal of marriage from a local lordling, Mr. Rushworth, with assistance from Mrs. Norris. When Mr. Norris dies, Mrs. Norris moves into a smaller house. She is still present at Mansfield Park every day, organizing the household and the children, but the parsonage is now occupied by Dr. and Mrs. Grant. When family problems force Mrs. Grant’s half brother and sister, Henry and Mary Crawford, into an extended visit at the parsonage, the two young urbanites become good friends with the Bertram children.
Against Edmund’s advice and Fanny’s strong disapproval, the young people decide to do a play for their own amusement. During the course of rehearsals, a lot of flirtation goes on. Henry Crawford is charming both Bertram girls, in spite of Maria’s engagement, while Mary Crawford takes a liking to Edmund. To create the theater, they appropriate Sir Thomas’ office and billiard room, but their plans go awry when Sir Thomas returns unexpectedly and puts an end to it. Maria marries Mr. Rushworth and they take Julia with them away to Brighton.
From that point on, everything goes downhill. Although Fanny very much disapproves of the Crawfords for a variety of moral and ethical reasons, Henry begins to court her, while Mary attempts to become her best friend. Fanny is astounded when Henry proposes to her. She goes into full retreat as she is pestered by everyone to agree to the marriage. She stoutly refuses and is eventually sent back to Portsmouth for two months so that she can see what her life would have been like without Mansfield Park to give her gentility. It is quite a shock to her, but she maintains her belief regarding the Crawfords and is eventually proved right.
Fanny Price is one of deepest and most well-constructed characters in all literature. Although she is timid to a fault, she learns everything that Mansfield Park can teach her and it all becomes a rock-solid part of her character. Once she has been molded, she becomes inalterable in her essence. Having seen first-hand what the Crawfords are, she does not deviate in her opinion of them, even when all around her would be duped. Even Edmund, steady as he is, becomes drawn to Mary Crawford, and Fanny grieves for him and wishes him to see the truth. When Sir Thomas approaches her with Henry Crawford’s proposal, she refuses to give in and stands up to him. Her personal feelings are always kept inside and she leaves others to discover truth for themselves. The few times during the novel when she becomes overwhelmed with events and breaks down, it seems truly catastrophic and creates deeply moving passages of writing.
In many ways, Mansfield Park is superior to Pride and Prejudice, which is her acknowledged masterpiece. The biggest downfall to the novel is the conclusion, which Ms. Austen writes first person, author to reader, summarizing how everything falls out, rather than creating scenes which depict this action. Otherwise, it is first rate all the way.