Mansfield Park

Development, themes and symbols

Background

The novel has many autobiographical associations; some of these are indicated in the following sections about critical discussions of important themes. Austen drew considerably on her own experience and the knowledge of her family and friends. Her acute observation of human behaviour informs the development of all her characters. In Mansfield Park, she continues her practice, like that of the portrait miniaturist, painting on ivory 'with so fine a brush'.[14] Apart from a day's visit to Sotherton and three months' confinement in Portsmouth, the novel's action is restricted to a single estate, yet its subtle allusions are global, touching on India, China and the Caribbean.

Austen knew Portsmouth from personal experience.[15] She records that Admiral Foote, then Second-in-Command at Portsmouth, was "surprised that I had the power of drawing the Portsmouth-Scenes so well".[16] Her brother, Charles Austen served as a Royal Navy officer during the Napoleonic Wars. In the novel, Fanny's brother William joins the Royal Navy as an officer, whose ship, HMS Thrush, is sited right next to HMS Cleopatra at Spithead.[17] Captain Austen commanded HMS Cleopatra during her cruise in North American waters to hunt French ships from September 1810 to June 1811. If the novel refers to the ship in its historical context, this would date the main events of the novel as 1810–1811.[17] William's tales of his life as a midshipman recounted to the Bertrams would have indicated to early readers that he had sailed with Nelson to the Caribbean. Lady Bertram requests two shawls if he goes to the East Indies.

William gives Fanny the gift of an amber cross. This echoes the gift of a topaz cross given by Charles Austen to his sister Jane before he set sail to the Royal Navy's North America stations in Halifax and Bermuda.[17] In Fanny's East room, Edmund speculates from her reading that she will be 'taking a trip into China' in the footsteps of Lord Macartney's pioneering cultural mission.[18]

Symbolic locations and events

The first critic to draw attention to the novel's extensive use of symbolic representation was Virginia Woolf in 1913.[19] Three overtly symbolic events are: the visit to neighbouring Sotherton and the ha-ha with its locked gate (chs. 9-10), the extensive preparation for the theatricals and its aftermath (chs. 13-20), and the game of Speculation (ch. 25) where, says David Selwyn, the card game is a "metaphor for the game Mary Crawford is playing, with Edmund as stake".[20][21] 'Speculation' also references Sir Thomas's unpredictable investments in the West Indies and Tom's gambling which causes financial embarrassment to Sir Thomas and reduced prospects for Edmund, not to mention the speculative nature of the marriage market..


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