Mansfield Park, considered the author's most ambitious novel, was published anonymously, as were all of Jane Austen's novels, in 1814. While Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice are considered, as one critic remarks "the gay offsprings of her youth," Mansfield Park is a far more mature, darker novel, written by a woman who had by then experienced more of the world. As Adolphus Alfred Jack remarked in his 1897 Essay on the Novel, Mansfield Park is "more finished," "more subtle," and "quieter than her earlier works." As Austen grew older, he continues, "her powers grew and deepened...while Pride and Prejudice is gay, Mansfield Park is sombre." Indeed, it is of interest to note that it is Mary Crawford - witty, active, and unable to stand still - who is cast in the mold of other Austen heroines such as the effervescent Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice and the silly, meddling Emma Woodhouse in Emma, while it is the weak, mild-mannered, motionless, often ill Fanny Price who remains the novel's central character...and a highly likeable one at that. Unlike the other heroines, who have a myriad of lessons to learn, Fanny possesses the innate sensibility expected of a Regency lady of this era.
These traditional values were of particular importance when the novel was written, in the aftermath of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, and amid the tumultuous beginnings of industrialism, which drained the farm workers from the countryside and enticed them toward the overcrowded city of London. In this regard, the novel can be viewed as an expression of a political agenda: traditional values are represented by the bucolic country estate, Mansfield Park, while the young characters, Fanny Price withstanding, are seduced by the invading evil influences that are represented by the bustling city of London. After all, Fanny Price, unlike most of Austen's other heroines, never does go to London, and all of the characters who do travel to the city are "infected" by a loosening of their better judgments and morals. As literary critic Amanda Claybaugh insists on her introduction to the novel, "Mansfield Park stands as Austen's most profound treatment of politics, her richest response to the wars and revolutions of the times." Simply put, Austen was an artist who utilized her art to effect social change.
According to William Dean Howells in his 1895 My Literary Passions, "Austen is the most artistic of the British novelists." In his estimation, "she was the first and last British novelist to treat material with entire truthfulness," and it remains of some interest to note how critics and scholars have viewed the novel. Avrom Fleishman's study of the novel, for example, suggests that "the structure of that part of the plot which has to do with Sir Thomas Bertram's choice of a new daughter" resembles King Lear's attempt to choose "one daughter among three." And indeed, near the end, Fanny seems much like Sir Bertram's third daughter, "the daughter that he wanted." Furthermore, Sir Thomas is the very picture of the traditional patriarch who treats Fanny like a daughter, especially when he punishes her by sending her to Portsmouth to make her come to her senses and accept Henry's proposal of marriage. Another critic, David Kaufmann, insists that Austen cleverly drew a parallel between the novel's original three sisters: Lady Bertram, who married exceptionally well and moved up socially, Mrs. Norris, who married a pastor and remained on her original rung of the social ladder, and Mrs. Price, who married a lowly, drunken sailor. To achieve symmetry, the novel needed three daughters: Maria, who more or less remains on the same social level until she disgraces herself and her entire family by (despite her marriage to Mr. Rushworth) running away with Henry Crawford, Julia, who marries down by eloping with the stage manager and friend of her brother Tom, Mr. Yates, and Fanny, the pseudo-daughter who marries up when she becomes the wife of Edmund Bertram. Fanny, at this point, becomes a fully realized family member, standing next in line to be lady of the country estate.