The three Ward sisters marry very different men. Maria makes the most brilliant match, marrying the wealthy baronet Sir Thomas Bertram of Mansfield Park - much to the delight of her family and neighbors. The second sister becomes the wife of Rev. Norris, a perfectly acceptable match, but the third, Mrs. Price, marries a common sailor, to the horror of the family. Lady Bertram lives a life of leisure, spending her days lounging on the couch with her dog, Pug, and "caring" for her two sons, Tom and Edmund, and two daughters, Maria and Julia. Mrs. Norris lives nearby, in the parsonage attached to Mansfield Park. With the approval of her indolent sister, Lady Bertram, she takes over much of the housekeeping and "motherly" functions at the estate. The third sister's husband, Mr. Price, returns from the navy injured, begins drinking, and fathers nine children in quick succession. Mrs. Price has not corresponded with her two better-matched sisters for years, but is finally forced to contact them for help when the birth of her ninth child is imminent, realizing that Sir Thomas can provide her sons with good jobs. Lady Bertram and Mrs. Norris decide to help, more out of shame than goodwill. With the approval of Sir Thomas, they write to their sister, inviting her nine-year-old daughter Fanny to come and live at Mansfield Park. Lord and Lady Bertram and Mrs. Norris discuss Fanny's role in the Bertram household. Mrs. Norris insists that she should be kept in a lower place than the Bertram children, and not be given the same privileges. Mrs. Norris, who is childless, maintains that Fanny would be welcome in her house were it not for her ill husband.
Upon her arrival at Mansfield Park, Fanny meets her aunt and uncle, Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram, and their children. The eldest and heir to the estate is seventeen year-old Tom, followed by sixteen-year-old Edmund, who is destined to become a clergyman, thirteen-year-old Maria, and Julia, who is twelve. She also meets her other aunt, Mrs. Norris. Fanny is awed by the grandeur and frightened of her new family. Her cousins, Maria and Julia, castigate her for her poor, unfashionable clothing, her inability to speak French, and her lack of refined manners. Mrs. Norris constantly attempts to keep Fanny down, and completely ignores the possibility that the girl might be missing her family. One day, Edmund finds young Fanny crying alone and comforts her. Fanny immediately feels better, and quickly develops a strong attachment to Edmund. To the girls' horror, Fanny does not exhibit any inclination towards musical instruction or drawing, but the adults seem pleased with her quiet, unobtrusive demeanor. Sir Thomas procures a position in the Navy for Fanny's favorite brother, William.
After five years, Mr. Norris dies. Since Edmund is not old enough to take over his position as minister, the job and the parsonage go to Mr. Grant. The widowed Mrs. Norris moves to a nearby house, and everyone expects that Fanny will go and live with her. Fanny is crestfallen at the thought of living with her miserly aunt, but Mrs. Norris convinces the Bertrams to keep Fanny at Mansfield Park.
Sir Thomas' financial difficulties continue to worsen, and he leaves for the Caribbean island of Antigua to oversee his plantation. He takes with him his son and heir, Tom Bertram, whose over-spending is at the root of his troubles. The atmosphere at Mansfield Park becomes much more relaxed in the absence of the strict Sir Thomas. Fanny feels bad because she doesn't feel sad that he is gone. During his absence, Maria Bertram becomes engaged to Mr. Rushworth, a wealthy (if boring) neighbor. In addition, Mrs. Grant's younger, wealthy half-brother Henry Crawford and her beautiful half-sister Mary Crawford arrive at the parsonage for an extended visit. While the Bertram girls make socials calls and attend balls, the shy and retiring Fanny becomes Lady Bertram's companion. Fanny's sole joy in life is her cousin Edmund, who insists that she have a horse to ride for her health.
The Bertrams and the Crawfords become fast friends. Although Mrs. Grant is intent on matching Henry with the single and available Julia Bertram, he seems to prefer Julia's sister Maria Bertram, who is engaged to the oafish Mr. Rushworth. Mary warns them that her brother "is the most horrible flirt that can be imagined. If your Miss Bertrams do not like to have their hearts broke, let them avoid Henry." Although Mary Crawford is initially not attracted to Edmund, in time she becomes used to him. While Henry and Mary Crawford talk to the Bertrams, they admit that they are puzzled by Fanny Price's social position. Mary inquires whether Fanny is "out" in society, and after many twists, turns, and tales, she concludes that Fanny is indeed "not out." Maria Bertram's fiancÃ©, Mr. Rushworth, has taken a keen interest in improving his estate, Sotherton, through remodeling and landscaping, and the Bertrams and the Crawfords decide to visit Sotherton in hopes of helping him decide what can be done.
The opening chapter, in which the three Ward sisters of Huntingdon marry men in different social categories (high, middle and low), fixes social mobility as Mansfield Park's primary theme. This is hardly surprising, since Jane Austen utilizes this theme in many of her novels. Lady Bertram's marriage to Sir Thomas illustrates that it is possible for a young woman to climb up the social ladder. Mrs. Norris, the second sister, marries slightly above her station and lives comfortably in the Mansfield Park parsonage. In contrast, Mrs. Price's marriage to a lowly sailor serves as a warning to young women about making rash decisions regarding marriage. Lady Bertram sleeps most of the day, and lets others raise her children. Mrs. Norris is a nagging, miserly witch, while Mrs. Price winds up with an unemployed, drunken husband, and is finally forced to reach out for help during her ninth pregnancy. Although it appears that Lady Bertram and Mrs. Norris want to help their sister by bringing Fanny to Mansfield Park, they are very careful to ensure that Fanny does not have the privileges accorded to the Bertram children. It seems that, having made the social leap themselves, they will go to great lengths to keep the British class system in place. In their eyes, Fanny isn't good enough to climb the social ladder.
Mansfield Park appears to critique the system of primogeniture, the first-born son's right to inherit the entirety of their parents' estate. The younger sons were forced to "do something" for themselves, and usually found positions in the army, the navy, the law, or the clergy. Girls were viewed as financial assets only when they "married to advantage." They became heiresses only when they had no brothers. As the oldest Bertram, Tom will become the next Sir Thomas, while Edmund is slated for the clergy. The Bertram sisters will be expected to marry within their own social strata. Austen uses the character of Tom Bertram to expound upon the problems inherent in this system. Tom's excessive spending causes his father great financial hardship - so much so that Sir Thomas himself must travel to Antigua to manage his investments instead of sending an agent. Sir Thomas cannot afford to hold the parsonage position open for Edmund, who has not yet been ordained a minister, and is forced to allow Dr. Grant to take the job. Clearly, Austen believes that this restrictive system is problematic for all parties involved.
Although the Antigua plantation does not seem important at first, it provides a great deal of income for the family, allowing them to live an aristocratic lifestyle. It should be remembered that the family's fancy silk and lace dresses, elaborate balls, ornate carriages, London houses, country mansions, servants by the dozen, chapels, lap dogs, china tea cups, expensive furnishings, and piano fortes are all paid for through the trade and transport of such commodities as sugar, coffee, and rum - all products of Caribbean Islands such as Antigua. In short, it is slave labor that pays for the family's life of leisure, contemplation, good manners, and luxury. In addition, in this era the financial worth and yearly incomes of people were common knowledge. Thus Maria Ward, "with only seven thousand pounds," is fortunate to marry Sir Thomas, and Mary Crawford, with twenty-thousand pounds to her name, would indeed be an ideal financial match for Edmund, the poor second son.
Many eighteenth-century novels utilize the dichotomy between city and country life. In Mansfield Park, Austen uses the meeting between the Country Bertrams and the City Crawfords to highlight the discrepancy between the two regions. The London lady, Mary, is out of touch with the rural needs of the farmers. They must harvest their grain at any cost, and become upset when Mary insists on using one of their wagons to transport her harp. She fails to understand that she cannot have her way if the farmers are to have enough food to last them the winter. Edmund is put off by Mary's selfish attitude, as is Fanny, but Edmund's attraction to Mary causes him to abandon his better judgment.
Like Mary, Henry Crawford demonstrates an almost total ignorance of the realities of rural life. He is heir to an estate, but fails to attend to his properties and tenants. Simply put, the arrival of the Crawfords is intended to highlight the clash between the traditional values found at Mansfield Park and the "new ways" of London life. While the patriarch, Sir Thomas, leaves the young people in the inept hands of Lady Bertram and Mrs. Norris, they become "infected" by the city dwellers' loose morals.