Scholars suggest that social mobility is the primary theme in all of Austen's novels; this idea seems especially apparent in Mansfield Park. The opening chapter, in which the three Ward sisters marry men of very different social categories (high, middle and low), fixes this construct as the novel's primary theme. Maria Ward moves above her designated social station by marrying the baronet, Sir Thomas Bertram of Mansfield Park; the middle sister, Mrs. Norris, marries at a more socially appropriate (middle) station; the youngest sister marries a common sailor, Mr. Price, who will in time become an unemployed drunkard. Austen utilizes this triad to illustrate that high morals do not necessarily come with high social standing, and that people born into lower social ranks should be given the opportunity to move up through their moral behavior.
Lady Bertram has four children with the baronet, but her oldest son, Tom Bertram, moves to London, where he finds himself corrupted by city life. A gambler, he drinks to excess and causes his father so much financial hardship that he is forced to go to Antigua to oversee his financial investments in the island's plantations. Lady Bertram's daughters are spoiled, selfish, and act immorally, the married Maria going so far as to run away with Henry Crawford. Her youngest son Edmund, although a minister, is so distracted by his sexual desire for Mary Crawford that he forgets his upbringing and his own moral imperative of impeccable social behavior. Thankfully, Mrs. Norris has no children, but she is implicated in the fate of the Bertram children because she had great influence over them when they were young.
It is Fanny Price, one of the nine children fathered by the drunken sailor, who proves to be the character in the novel with the highest moral standards. From early on in the novel, Fanny is portrayed as shy, retiring, and helpful to all. Patient to a fault, she never complains, has the ability to see through people, and possesses an innate capability to determine right from wrong. In time, everyone comes to admire her. No one objects to her marrying her social superior, Henry Crawford, but Fanny refuses although she knows her life would be far easier if she agreed. In keeping with Austen's theme of social mobility for the deserving, it is hardly surprising that Fanny winds up the daughter-in-law of a baronet who could, in time, even come to replace Lady Bertram as the mistress of Mansfield Park.
The Evils of Primogeniture
The British aristocratic social system embraces the concept of primogeniture, the right of the first-born child (usually the eldest son) to inherit the parents' entire estate. In her novels, Austen examines and criticizes this aristocratic class system. Since the privileged oldest son inherited the entire estate under primogeniture, the younger sons were forced to "do something" for themselves, and usually enlisted in the army or the navy, or sought careers in the law or the clergy. Girls were viewed as financial assets when they "married to advantage," and as heiresses only when they had no brothers. As the oldest Bertram, the profligate Tom Bertram, who drinks and gambles too much in London, will become the next Sir Thomas, while his younger brother Edmund is slated for the clergy. No one ever considers the possibility that Tom might not inherit the estate, despite the fact that his unconscionable behavior causes the family great financial hardship and necessitates his father's trip to Antigua to oversee his financial investments in the Island's plantations. Clearly, Edmund would make a better baronet and lord of the manor, but there is nothing he can do but wish for his brother's death - something the upright Edmund would never dream of doing, although the highly doubtful Mary Crawford wishes this later on in the novel. Daughters are expected to marry within (or, ideally, above) their own social strata, and Maria Bertram scores high social points in this regard for marrying the insipid and boring Mr. Rushworth, one of the richest men in the county.
Austen uses the character of Tom Bertram to bring the inherent problems of the primogeniture system to light. Sir Thomas's forced departure to manage his investments leaves his children without any real supervision and ultimately results in grievous events that deeply affect his daughters' lives. Also, as a result of Tom's profligacy, Sir Thomas cannot afford to hold the parsonage position for Edmund, who is not yet an ordained minister. Instead, he is forced out of financial necessity to let the position go to Dr. Grant, an action which allows for the introduction of Mrs. Grant's younger siblings, the highly immoral Mary Crawford and Henry Crawford, who in time come to "infect" Mansfield. Edmund must remove himself from Mansfield to take a lesser job at a poorer parsonage. Clearly, the wrong brother has the power, while the more deserving Edmund is helpless to do anything about it. Edmund's only other options are to join the Navy as an officer or to enter the legal or medical profession - jobs that Edmund would hardly find suitable or rewarding.
Town and Country
Although everything changes at the bucolic Mansfield Park after Henry and Mary Crawford arrive from London, the meeting between the Country Bertrams and the Town Crawfords is far more than a plot device intended to intensify the novel's action. Indeed, the introduction of the new arrivals demonstrates the ongoing tension between modernity and traditional values. For example, Mary demonstrates how out of touch she is with the rural need of the farmers to harvest the hay by selfishly insisting upon obtaining a wagon merely to transport her harp. Time is of the essence, and all vehicles are necessary for this vital project. She believes that given enough money she can have her way, but fails to realize that if the hay isn't brought in while the weather is right, people might not eat for the entire winter. Edmund, like Fanny, is put off by her selfish attitude, but his better judgment is cast aside by his sexual attraction to the lovely lady.
Furthermore, although Mary's brother Henry is heir to a country estate, he is continually absent. Henry would have been abhorred by early nineteenth-century readers as an absentee landlord who spends the proceeds from his farm estates to live the high life of fun and frolic while his tenants and property are neglected. Henry is thus also ignorant of the needs of rural life.
Rags to Riches
In Mansfield Park, Fanny Price is transformed from a poor, bedraggled nine-year-old to the "daughter" of Mansfield Park and the wife of the Mansfield "prince," Edmund Bertram. Simply put, Mansfield Park is the classic Cinderella tale revisited. Fanny arrives at Mansfield as a disheveled, impoverished relation, and is made to feel unwelcome by her cousins (with the exception of Edmund). Although she doesn't have to literally clean out the ashes from the fireplace as the fairy-tale Cinderella did, Fanny nevertheless must be at the beck and call of her relatives and provide constant care for Lady Bertram. With the exception of the trip to the Sotherton estate, Fanny is never allowed to leave, and thus could be viewed as a prisoner at Mansfield: after all, Lady Bertram "cannot do without Fanny." Since Mrs. Norris is responsible for the day-to-day running of Mansfield, she takes on the evil stepmother role, treats Fanny as a servant, and generally makes the young girl's life miserable. The Bertram girls, who represent the fairy-tale evil stepsisters, denigrate young Fanny because she doesn't have fashionable clothes and are favored by the evil Mrs. Norris due to their higher social rank.
Unlike Cinderella, Fanny doesn't seem to have a fairy godmother. She must develop her own skills to find her way in the world, and soon becomes an idealized daughter figure to Lady Bertram and Sir Thomas, whose own two daughters fail to make sensible decisions - especially concerning men. After Maria and Julia leave for London, Fanny attends her first ball, an affair thrown in her honor by Sir Thomas. When she leads the dance, all eyes are cast upon her, because everyone realizes that over time Fanny has come to look more and more like a beautiful princess. Fanny is so captivating that a prince with a fortune and an estate, Henry Crawford, falls in love with her and asks her to wed. Fanny sees through him, unlike Sir Thomas, who locks her up in Portsmouth until she "comes to her senses" and accepts Henry's offer of marriage. Over time, the true prince Edmund comes to rescue Fanny and takes her away from Portsmouth in a carriage. She returns to Mansfield with her lady-in-waiting, Susan, and is happily received by Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram, who have come to view Fanny as a loyal daughter of Mansfield. By the end of the novel, Fanny has married the young "prince", Edmund, while the evil Maria and Julia have been cast out into the dark world. Aunt Norris leaves as well, and all left at Mansfield Park live happily every after.
Mansfield Park Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Mansfield Park is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
If there is anyone who can withstand the social pressure to conform, it is Fanny. She naturally shies away from attention, and is horrified at the idea of standing on a stage with all eyes on her. However, even she cannot withstand the pressure to...