Mansfield Park: What’s in a Name?

I have been pondering why I am finding Mansfield Park so different to Austen’s other works, and thinking around the topic in this way rather than focusing on the likeability of the characters has helped me gain some new insights. Firstly, Mansfield Park’s title; it is a place. Northanger Abbey aside, Austen’s major novels are either eponymous – Emma – refer to emotions – Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility – or highlight an action – Persuasion. In each of these cases, the reader is directed towards something human in the very title of the novel. In Emma and in Sense and Sensibility, we witness the growth of a girl from immaturity to maturity; in Pride and Prejudice, we watch as Elizabeth and Darcy are forced to reassess their preconceptions; in Persuasion, we watch Anne blossom through the hope of love revived. Mansfield Park, however, has nothing to do with character, romance or emotion; it is a house, filled with a variety of different people, none of whom is necessarily meant to be of more consequence than any other. Why do we automatically assume that Fanny is supposed to the centre of the book, and the heroine? She gets no more page time than anyone else, and the story is not told through her eyes. We hear just as much of Mary Crawford’s feelings as we do of Fanny’s, and the wide cast of characters means that there are a variety of interesting narratives co existing at any one time. This is not a single issue or a single character novel, and focusing on Fanny and whether she needs a slap or not (answer: she definitely does) does somewhat distract from the textual complexity and daring nature of Mansfield Park, which is a significant departure from Austen’s other works and one that neatly subverts the reader’s expectations while still managing to be a satisfying reading experience.

So, back to the significance of the title; all we know of Mansfield Park is that it is a large, modern built house with well appointed rooms, set in a spacious park. It speaks of wealth but not of history; a ‘modern’ built house can surely not be more than around fifty years old, and Sir Thomas may very well be the first baronet – his money comes from plantations in Antigua, not from acres of ancient Northamptonshire land, after all. Therefore, Mansfield Park is a handsome and comfortable home, but it rests on shaky ground. Sir Thomas must be very worried about his financial situation in order to take the dangerous and lengthy trip to Antigua and remain there for the best part of two years, and let us not forget that Edmund’s reduced circumstances speak of a genuine lack of ready paternal cash. Mansfield Park gives off the appearance of wealth and success, but it hides a deeper concern about lack of status and financial security; Sir Thomas allows Maria to marry Mr Rushworth despite his clear shortcomings due to his status in the county – the alliance will do Sir Thomas good. Plus, Sir Thomas’ influence in the world outside of Mansfield Park is limited – he cannot secure William Price a rise in rank to lieutenant, as he lacks the appropriate connections. Sir Thomas, then, is in all likelihood a newly created baronet, keen to enter the ranks of the gentry and gain the respect of families with more robust lineage and a less questionable source of income than his own. His wealth and position are not secure, and Mansfield Park’s modernity and relative obscurity – no high profile visitors enter its doors – give it an air of impermanence and insignificance that cannot help but rub off on its inhabitants.

What then, does Mansfield Park as a setting tell us about the story that unfolds within its walls? Well, for Fanny, it is a far cry from the cramped and squalid home in Portsmouth where she spent her first ten years, though she does not benefit from the aforementioned spacious and well appointed rooms herself. Instead she is banished to a section of the house where the servants sleep, and it is only when she is no longer under the care of the governess that she is allowed the additional use of the old school room – and only because her bedroom is so small in the first place. Fanny is frightened and intimidated by the house and prefers her own shabby rooms to the formal downstairs spaces; this reflects Fanny’s inherent dislike of show and pretence. Mary and Henry Crawford, on the other hand, are impressed by Mansfield, and Mary can well imagine herself being mistress of such a lovely house. To them it reflects Sir Thomas’ wealth and position and is a fine place to be associated with; perhaps a reflection of their more shallow outlook on life and the pleasure they take in material things. Maria, Julia and Tom don’t seem to care much for their home; it is not a place they feel particularly sentimental about, and they don’t have a huge amount of respect for it. All are happy to knock it about in the course of putting on their play, and they are only too keen to get away from Mansfield just as soon as they get the opportunity. Brought up by a lazy and ineffectual mother and a distant father, they take their father’s wealth and their luxurious surroundings for granted. Mansfield Park doesn’t impress them, and this lack of understanding and appreciation of what they have been blessed with demonstrates their parents’ nouveau riche status. No expense has been spared on educating the Bertram children to be accomplished and fit for the society Sir Thomas has bought his way into, but their moral characters have been forgotten about, and not been developed or guided as they should be. As such the Bertram children have grown into adults who are just as lacking in firm foundations and traditional values as their modern family home.

Mansfield Park is therefore a place of contradiction and of unease; on the one hand it is an elegant and impressive display of prosperity and comfort; on the other, a shallow status symbol built from the proceeds of human slavery by a man whose aspirations outstrip his means. As such it is a reflection of the novel itself, whose appearance of being a romance novel actually conceals a fascinating and complex exploration of human nature that makes the reader wonder what exactly Austen is trying to get at. It isn’t a romance, because we can’t love Fanny and Edmund enough to feel that sense of fist pumping euphoria at their wedding, and it isn’t a tragedy, because we don’t really care that Maria ends up ruined. The ending falls rather flat; Fanny gets what she wants, but Austen marries her off to Edmund, who not only is a judgemental hypocrite, but is also rather unconvincing as a lover; he falls in love with Fanny over the course of one paragraph after having spent the previous 500 pages of the novel being in love with someone else. It’s obvious that Edmund loved Mary and that Fanny was his second choice; Fanny may have passive aggressively stood her ground and waited her turn but is her prize worth all of her sacrifices and hand wringing? I don’t think so, and I don’t think Austen did either. Mary Crawford may end up single but this is no bad fate; she is an attractive woman of fortune and will make a match eventually – I think she had a lucky escape, actually. So, is Austen playing with her readers by keeping her tongue firmly in her cheek throughout this novel, or does she genuinely mean to portray Fanny’s virtues as an ideal? Given the circumstances of Fanny’s happy ending, I think the former, but it’s a tough call to make. I’d love to hear more of your thoughts and I shall be writing more about Mansfield Park and its characters in a couple of days, so check back in then to continue the discussion!

33 comments

  1. I am enjoying these thoughts on Mansfield Park and I look forward to reading it shortly I hope.

    You have given me plenty to think about whilst reading,thank you.

    1. Glad to hear it Jo – try and tackle it soon. It’s not Austen’s best in terms of reader satisfaction but it does leave you with a lot to ponder on. It’s a rich novel.

  2. I skipped the final paragraph of this post because I feared spoilers, but just to say — this novels sounds SOOOOO good, and yes, different from other Austens. I plan to read it later in the year.

    (I think Henry Austen, Jane’s brother, provided the titles for Persuasion and Northanger Abbey after Jane’s death? I could be wrong on that.)

    1. Yes sorry about that – hope I didn’t spoil anything for you! I hope you’ll enjoy reading it when you get the chance and will have plenty to ponder when you do!

      Hmmm…not sure about that…I know he arranged for their publication but I’m not aware of him choosing the titles. It would be interesting if he did!

  3. This is a fascinating post, and has encouraged me to re-read Mansfield Park some day. I read it when I was a teenager and didn’t enjoy it then, probably because I fell into the trap of thinking that because Fanny and Edmund’s romance is unconvincing Austen had failed somehow. I suppose I had been programmed to pigeon hole Austen into boy-meets-girl. It was only when I read Emma in my 20s, which has such a strong ensemble cast, that I began to look beyond her central love stories.

    I think you’re bang on in your analysis of Sir Thomas’ status. It always puzzled me that there could be such a huge economic gulf between Fanny’s family and her cousins at Mansfield; and also that Austen would write about a class of people above/below her usual subjects. But if Sir Thomas is a self-made man it explains a lot, and also adds frisson to the novel. Sir Thomas and his family is living on a knife-edge, and could easily be brought crashing back down to the cramped Portsmouth apartments at any moment.

    1. Hi Victoria, glad you enjoyed reading! I think that’s the problem with MP – a lot of people seem to think it’s a poor relation because the romance between Fanny and Edmund doesn’t quite work. I don’t think Austen meant this to be a straight up romance and there is a lot more to MP than meets the eye, once you start digging beneath the surface.

      Yes indeed – and the similarities between Lady Bertram and Mrs Price show this too. Austen says that the sisters look identical and have the same personalities – it is just luck that has separated them and given one a life of ease and wealth and the other one of poverty and toil. It’s quite a daring novel in that respect – food for thought for her contemporary nouveau riche readers, perhaps!

  4. A brilliant analysis, Rachel. It would have taken me hours to write that, but I’m guessing you did it in less than one? I have a reputation among those who know me for failing to see the obvious and reading far too much into things, however, you have revealed to me just how superficial my understanding of Mansfield Park has been hitherto. Far from regarding Fanny as being, as you put it, needing a slap, I’ve always regarded her as one of Austen’s most admirable heroines (what sort of prig does that make me I wonder?), whilst regarding Mary Crawford with contempt as a designing fortune hunter. Edmund is harder to defend, but then he is a man and, both on page and on screen, the level of passion and consistency expected of the male half of a romantic partnership tends to be much lower than for the female half.

    On a lighter note, Mansfield Park is one of novels given an alternative title in this blog post:
    http://janeausteninvermont.wordpress.com/2011/08/15/a-better-title-for-jane-austens-mansfield-park/

    1. Thank you David! It didn’t take me long to write but I had the thoughts swirling in my head for quite some time. So I am not as much of a genius as all that!😉

      I have warmed to Fanny slightly now I have finished, but I do find her rather a smug and dull girl, who dislikes anyone who doesn’t exactly agree with her narrow minded principles. I love Mary Crawford for daring to be honest – she doesn’t beat around the bush and says it how it is. Fanny stands up for her principles, yes, but she is so serious and black and white ad allows for no weakness, no temptation, no mischief, in other people. I am very much like Mary Crawford, you see, so I just can’t, try as I might, see Fanny’s point of view. She is just too judgemental for my liking.

      Thank you for that link – hilarious!

  5. I have enjoyed your post about Mansfield Park and find it hard to believe that I haven’t read this book. I must correct this soon.

  6. How lovely and eloquent!

    It’s hard for me to believe that Austen would genuinely idealize a character such as Fanny and encourage such virtuous passivity. It’s been a while since I read this novel so I’m tempted to read it again, using some detective skills this time😉

    But first I will finish Cranford🙂 Gaskell is fantastic🙂

    1. Thank you, Lucy!

      Yes, me too. I don’t think she means to idealise Fanny and I think we are meant to see her faults as well as her virtues. Some may disagree but I think Austen shows the mean spirited and narrow minded side of Fanny just as she does her good heart and strong principles.

      I have just watched Cranford on DVD – magnificent. Have you seen the BBC series? You must if you haven’t. I remember loving Cranford but it’s been years since I read it. I’d love to read it again but I have no idea what’s happened to my copy.

  7. Just discovered your blog – recommended by my sister. Have watched the mini series of Mansfield Park but have not read the book. Loving your reviews.

  8. So much food for thought!

    I agree, this book is more of an ensemble piece. Fanny doesn’t really dominate the book, her role is very different than Elizabeth’s in P&P. I find this book a bit frustrating, because I feel that, while a lot of characters get ‘page-time’, I don’t really get to know anyone very well.

    Sir Thomas, for example. I would really like to know more about him. At first I thought he was stuffy and uninteresting, but there are some interesting little flashes … When he asks his daughter if she is sure she wants to marry Mr. Rushworth, for example. I think it shows he really cares about his children and wants what’s best for them, even if that goes against making a very good connection with an old country family. (Maybe you and I have a slightly different feeling about this. I got the idea that he has his doubts about letting his daughter make this match.) We really don’t know anything about his background. In one of the recent adaptations of this book, it was suggested that he made his money through slave trading, for example. We really need some back story to fully understand him, I think.

    And while we agree to disagree on Fanny😉 I think you’re right about Mary Crawford. A very narrow escape, she’s had. She would never have been happy with Edmund. Although Mary is a bit bit too outspoken and sure of herself at times for my taste, I agree with you that she seems to be a good person with no malice or jealousy towards anybody. I’m afraid that Edmund would have tried tame her and would have made the both of them very miserable.

    I agree, as has been pointed out by you and the other commenters, that this novel is a bit of an enigma, when compared to Jane Austen’s other work. Love this exchange of ideas, it has really made me re-evaluate this novel and how I react to it.

    1. Yes, what’s interesting about Sir Thomas is that we never hear about his family or where he came from. His past is totally a blank to us. That’s what makes me think he comes from nowhere – if he had illustrious relations then they would surely have made an appearance.

      Yes, I agree about Mary and Edmund – eventually Edmund would have realised that he couldn’t have changed Mary and then it would have ended terribly. You can’t marry someone believing that you’re better than them. All of Edmund’s talk about Mary’s faults and vices made me furious – because obviously he’s perfect himself! Ha! Men!

      MP is an enigma which is why it’s proving so interesting to discuss…I’m so glad you’ve been enjoying the discussion and thank you for your enlightening comments, Elke!

  9. Great questions here bookssnob … and wish I had more time to engage. I like the way you grapple with the book and its difference. One thing to look at is WHEN it was written, which was at a moment of economic uncertainty in England – they’d been at war for a long time and things weren’t looking good. Does this have an impact on the mood/tone of the novel? The plantation businesses overseas were suffering due to changes in the law too.

    The main thing I wanted to say now though has to do with Fanny. I don’t think she was passive : she stood up to Sir Thomas in an extraordinary way for a young woman in her position in that time.That took guts. It also took guts to refuse to take part in the play despite all the pressure. We might think her reasons silly from our 21st century view of things, but in her time and in her position she again showed strength of character in refusing to do what she felt was morally wrong (re Maria, for example, and her playing such a role with someone not in the family) and against the wishes of Sir Thomas (for moral and economic reasons, as I recollect). Again, not passive, at least that’s how I view it.

    But, isn’t this why we love Austen … she’s not as simple and straightforward as the naysayers think!

    1. Hi, yes, good point. I don’t know an awful lot about the historical context of the period, to be honest. This is something I need to remedy as I do think it would help give insight into what Austen is trying to convey in MP.

      Yes – I agree – in that sense, she isn’t passive – when pushed she can stand her ground. But in the sense of not pushing for things, not speaking up, crying all the time, and generally being a wet blanket, I do see her as being passive, and the way in which she and Edmund get together is very passive, and also very disconcerting. It’s like a brother and sister marrying one another. It doesn’t sit right at al, but that’s another conversation!

      Yes exactly – Austen is far more complex than she is given credit for. It’s not all bonnets and britches!

  10. I really enjoyed reading your thoughts on Mansfield Park – I re-read it a couple of years ago and had a completely different reaction to it from my first read. I remembered Fanny as being very prim and proper and not a great ‘heroine’ – as you say, she is somewhat over shadowed by Mary Crawford.

    However, when I re-read it, I felt a lot more engaged with Fanny and thought she was a much stronger character than when I first read it. This is a young lady, in a vulnerable position, dependent on her uncle and his family’s goodwill and an outsider in the family, yet she has a strong understanding of her own character and will stand up for herself and what she believes is important, despite her position. Rather than being boring and prissy, I found her to be a fairly praise-worthy heroine, who will not sacrifice her own principles, in spite of her desire to make everyone happy.

    She certainly isn’t an Elizabeth Bennet, or a Marianne Dashwood, though she may have something of Elinor in her, who also remains true to herself without the need for outward displays of her passions or emotions, and is accused of being too sensible and unfeeling by her own sister because of this.

    I am inclined to agree with you about Edmund though – I do not find him to be a particularly attractive hero, not truly appreciating Fanny for who she is, though I do think him better suited to Fanny than to Mary. And Mary… yes, she has many attractive qualities, is witty and accomplished and bright, but I always felt that these were put on, a facade to attract and dazzle men, that her witty comments are carefully manufactured for a particular effect – whereas in Lizzy Bennet her wit and liveliness is natural and believable.

    I think your point about Sir Thomas’ potentially unstable economic position is brilliant, tying together the plot and explaining his focus on the economic suitability of Henry as a match for Fanny; if he is preoccupied with his own finances, then the economic attractiveness of Henry will be forefront in his mind regarding this as well.

    Sorry for the long reply – but your post made me think about a lot of the ideas I had when I re-read the novel and I needed to write them down!

    1. Hi Alison, thanks for your thoughts! I am finding it so interesting to see how divisive Fanny is – love her, hate her, indifferent towards her…everyone has a different opinion! I must say that I have slightly warmed to her…and I have always been able to theoretically sympathise with her, because her position is undoubtedly a terribly difficult one that she navigates very sensitively and gracefully – but somehow she never quite comes alive to me and I find her SUCH a prig. But I think it’s because I like Mary Crawford so much as a heroine that Fanny annoys me as she does – her dislike of Mary is based on petty jealousy and an expectation that everyone should think and behave as she does. I don’t see the virtue in that!

      I don’t think Mary’s character is put on to attract men – I think she is genuinely just a light hearted person, really – doesn’t take life too seriously. And that’s no bad quality! I don’t see why Mary is considered to be so bad and immoral – she’s perfectly capable of appreciating the good in others and doesn’t do anything particularly bad – yes, she’s got an eye on Edmund’s financial status, but she’s just being practical – she knows a life of poverty wouldn’t make her happy and she’s realistic about it!

      I do agree with you about Edmund though – total nightmare of a man and just the sort I would hate to marry!!

      1. What a great discussion … I’m not a Mary fan. She’s not all bad but she’s a manipulator and she rides roughshod over Fanny. Remember the pendant? Her moral values are also a little skewed particularly regarding constancy and faithfulness. She’s probably great company, but she’s not a friend I could trust.

    2. hi whispering gums…no Mary is definitely not a girl you’d want to tell all your secrets, but where it matters, she does the right thing, I think. I don’t think the necklace thing was manipulative…she genuinely wants Henry and Fanny to get together because her brother loves her, and I think she believes Fanny will come around and see the good in Henry eventually. I don’t read that as being nasty or malicious – she does it with good intentions. Fanny is just ridiculously, over the top offended by everything that isn’t straight down the line and that I cannot stand!

  11. In desperation, I just googled “what did Jane Austen say about Mansfield Park”, and this is what I got http://www.pemberley.com/janeinfo/opmansfp.html – nothing from Jane herself, but Cassandra and Fanny Knight, among others.

    It’s interesting that you thought to analyze the larger picture, and you are always so adept at that, and at summarizing. But even though Fanny isn’t obviously the main character, she really is the main character, isn’t she? – after all, the story of Mansfield Park begins when she comes to the place.

    I never had the idea that Edmund was really in love with Mary, just infatuated. He and Fanny are very well suited for each other, being so similar in their ways of thinking.

    I’ll keep reading!

    1. Interesting link, Lisa! It seems that MP has always torn readers right from the start!

      Thank you – I suppose you could say Fanny is the main character – but she is not the main focus – and I think therein lies the difference.

      Yes – Fanny and Edmund are well suited – but only because Edmund has formed her mind! It is totally a strange relationship …. like brother and sister marrying! I don’t like it at all!!

  12. I’m loving your discussion so far on this particular novel, Rachel. I haven’t read this one yet, but your take on this story is inspiring me to hurry it up and join in!

  13. “Fanny is just ridiculously, over the top offended by everything that isn’t straight down the line and that I cannot stand!” It is interesting that your opinion against her seems to have hardened as the discussion has gone on. This is fair enough. It seems perfectly reasonable for readers to respond very differently to the same characters, after all, we respond differently to people we meet in real life.

    Just one further thought on the issue of MP being different to the rest of Austen’s books. It is possible to see what we might now call learning and personal development as a connecting theme. All Austen’s heroines have to go through a process of learning about themselves and how they relate to others in order to end up as better or stronger people. This is particularly true of Fanny who, I think I am right in saying, is one of Austen’s youngest central female characters. The concept of the “teenager” had not been invented in Austen’s day, but Fanny displays the sort of single-minded idealism that we might now associate with, for example, teenage vegetarians who campaign against animal cruelty. There is perhaps a fine line between idealism and blinkered obstinacy? For you at least, Fanny oversteps it.

    1. Oh David, I can’t stand her!!

      I find your comment about Fanny being overly idealistic due to her youth very interesting and something I hadn’t thought of before. I’ll have to think on that. She definitely oversteps the mark for me but that is mainly because of her judgemental character – judgemental people are the least forgiveable in my mind – I value open mindedness and acceptance of others incredibly highly and Fanny has neither of those traits. I don’t have much hope that a marriage to Edmund would being about much growth in that area as she ages, either!

      1. Do you check you Spam Folder in WordPress? I do every now and then … and occasionally find real stuff there. In fact I’ve just checked mine and found your commenter in my Spam list so I’ve unspammed her (him?)

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