Mansfield Park | Study Guide

Jane Austen

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Mansfield Park | Chapters 1–3 (Volume 1, Chapters 1–3) | Summary

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Summary

Mansfield Park was originally published in three volumes, each of which began with Chapter 1. More recent versions, however, are often published as a single novel. Both the recent chapter numbers and the older volume and chapter numbers are provided in the summaries.

Chapter 1

Years before the novel's main action begins in the early 1800s, three sisters marry. The oldest, Maria Ward, marries Sir Thomas Bertram, wealthy owner of Mansfield Park, a country estate in Northampton. With the help of Sir Thomas, the second sister, Miss Ward, marries Mr. Norris, a clergyman in the Mansfield Park parish. The third, Miss Frances Ward, marries Mr. Price, a poor, uneducated lieutenant in the Marines, against her family's wishes. Lady Bertram and Mrs. Norris remain in close contact, while Mrs. Price is cut off from the family. Injured in action, her husband is retired from duty and spends much time and money drinking. Poor and expecting her ninth child, Mrs. Price writes to her sisters asking for help, and Mrs. Norris suggests perhaps one of the Price progeny—the eldest daughter, Fanny—could be fostered at Mansfield Park. She negotiates terms that let her take credit for generosity while placing the financial burden entirely on the Bertrams. They and Mrs. Norris discuss Fanny's place in the family: she is to be educated with the Bertram sisters and take part in family life but does not have their status and is to sleep in the attic near the servants. Mrs. Norris devises a cheap way for 10-year-old Fanny to travel from her home in Portsmouth to Mansfield Park; however, Sir Thomas spends more money to ensure a more comfortable trip for young Fanny. Mrs. Price, surprised the Bertrams have selected her daughter rather than her eldest son, is nonetheless relieved and hopes the change of scenery will improve Fanny's health.

Chapter 2

Fanny Price—a slight, shy child—arrives at Mansfield Park and meets her cousins. Tom Bertram, 17, is the handsome family heir; Edmund, 16, is studious and kind. Sisters Maria, 13, and Julia, 12, are accustomed to privilege and pretty clothes. Fanny feels shamed and homesick rather than grateful and is sent to bed to cry and rest. "Nobody meant to be unkind," the narrator tartly observes, "but nobody put themselves out of their way to secure her comfort." Julia and Maria treat Fanny like the poor relation she is, and Sir Thomas's gruff voice frightens her. When he finds Fanny crying on the stairs, gentle Edmund draws her out on a favorite subject, her older brother William. Edmund helps Fanny write to William, then advises her on getting along with his sisters by being merrier, and makes her feel more at home. From that day on, she feels less afraid and joins her cousins as an acceptable companion.

As the children grow up, Sir Thomas helps Fanny's brothers find work and frets over the wasteful behavior of his own son, Tom. Only once during these years do Fanny and William spend time together, just before he goes to sea. Edmund, studying at Oxford to become a clergyman, continues to encourage Fanny, who loves him and William above all others.

Chapter 3

When Fanny is 15, Mr. Norris dies, leaving empty a few years too soon the living that was to be Edmund's. To pay debts Tom has accrued, Sir Thomas must sell the living to Dr. Grant, who will hold it until his death. About 45 and indulgent in fine food (the Grants employ an expensive cook), Dr. Grant is married to a woman about 15 years younger than he, and the couple settle into village life. Although Sir Thomas has a second living to bestow on Edmund, his younger son will lose a great deal of income over decades, and Sir Thomas urges his older son to change his wasteful ways. Tom privately excuses himself because he is less in debt than his friends are.

Mrs. Norris moves into a house Sir Thomas owns in town, and Fanny learns, to her dismay, he expects her to be her aunt's live-in companion. Because Sir Thomas's sugar plantation in Antigua has become less profitable, he seeks to reduce expenses at home by dismissing the governess and sending Fanny into town. Edmund tries to persuade Fanny of the benefits of this move, but after Mrs. Norris presents a litany of reasons Fanny cannot live with her, the move is off, and Fanny remains at Mansfield Park.

Some months pass before Sir Thomas must travel to Antigua to oversee business at his plantation. He takes Tom with him, hoping to cut his son's disreputable connections, and leaves Edmund in charge. Julia and Maria take advantage of their father's absence to indulge their every whim, but Fanny is sorry to be parted from her benefactor and worries about having disappointed him.

Analysis

The opening chapters of Mansfield Park introduce the characters, backstories, and situations that drive the novel's main conflicts and resolutions. They also introduce themes the novel develops.

In particular, Chapter 1 raises questions about marriages and alliances, presenting the Ward sisters as examples of the kinds of alliances available to women of moderate means in Austen's day. They are a middling family, but the eldest, Maria, is a beauty. (Later in Chapter 29, Mary Crawford will worry about rivals, observing, "There is a beauty in every family.—It is a regular thing.") It was common for the eldest daughter to marry first, and Maria's success in capturing a baronet's heart has benefited not only her but her entire family. She married up, becoming Lady Bertram and enabling her younger sister to marry securely as well. The youngest sister, however, married to "disoblige her family"—a phrase that means not merely to displease them but to hinder their upward movement in society. Why Mrs. Price married Mr. Price is not revealed; if it were for love, it would have been among the least important motivations for marriage. Over the course of the story, Lady Bertram's marital success benefits many, including Mrs. Norris and her husband, and Fanny and her brother William. In contrast, Mrs. Price becomes nothing but an embarrassing drag on her extended family. Understanding marriage as a social and familial responsibility with lasting consequences helps readers unravel the conflicts among the young people later in the novel.

Chapter 1 also establishes Mrs. Norris's character. Fostering Fanny at Mansfield Park is her idea, and she takes credit for the generous act while managing to escape any actual work or expense related to Fanny's upbringing. A pastor's wife, charged with aiding her husband in the care of the parish's souls, Mrs. Norris is, in fact, a hypocritical, discontented, snobbish, and stingy woman, reminiscent of some of Charles Dickens's famous "characters readers love to hate" class. "My own trouble, you know," she tells Sir Thomas, "I never regard," yet the novel is full of her attempts to put herself to as little trouble as possible. Even so, her predictions for Fanny's future, should Sir Thomas agree to take her in, turn out to be correct; and without her falsely kind idea of fostering one of her sister's children, Fanny would never have been rescued from her mother's marital folly.

Chapters 2 and 3 present the extended household and develop Fanny's character by placing her among the characters with whom she will interact. Here, Austen carefully lays the foundation for the conflicts and resolutions that occur later. The narrator emphasizes Tom's wasteful irresponsibility, for example. As heir, he should be learning to manage the estate and its surroundings; instead, he attends parties and gambles in London. As heir, he should be preparing to care for his family, yet his debts damage his brother's future (as Sir Thomas must sell the living at Mansfield Park rather than hold it for Edmund). In Austen's time, a living was a church position that guaranteed a clergyman a home (the Parsonage, in this case) and a percentage of the parish's products (milk and grain, for example); it was a secure job for life. Livings were valuable and sought after; they could be sold for a high price. Tom's selfishness costs Edmund dearly.

Edmund emerges as serious, kind, and thoughtful. He comforts and guides Fanny, studies for his career, and advises his father when called on. Maria and Julia, encouraged by Aunt Norris—who incessantly demeans Fanny and praises her rich nieces—reveal their vanity and snobbery in their treatment of Fanny as inferior in intellect and character. It is no wonder, the narrator remarks, that the spoiled sisters are "entirely deficient ... in self-knowledge, generosity, and humility," a harsh statement that, by the novel's end, seems especially true of Maria. Finally, Sir Thomas's departure for Antigua seems a matter of indifference to his wife and of delight to his daughters. Only Fanny feels genuine regret.

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