Mansfield Park | Study Guide

Jane Austen

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Mansfield Park | Chapters 10–12 (Volume 1, Chapters 10–12) | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 10

Rushworth, Maria, and Henry find Fanny at the bench and, after commiserating with her, begin discussing landscaping again. Maria sits between her fiancé and her admirer and prattles flirtatiously before asking Rushworth to return to the house for a key to the gate leading to the woods. Free of his company (but not of Fanny's observant eye), Maria and Henry flirt openly until, despite Fanny's warnings, Maria climbs over the fence, which separates the tended grounds from the wild grounds, to walk in the woods alone with Henry. Fanny is not alone long; Julia arrives, out of breath, having escaped the older women at last. Irritated that Maria and Henry have gone on without her, she scrambles over the fence in pursuit. A few minutes later, Rushworth appears with the key and sullenly refuses, after Fanny catches him up, to follow the others. After a short silence, Rushworth complains they "did very well without" the Crawfords' company. Fanny sighs in agreement. Rushworth decides to follow the others after all and unlocks the gate, leaving Fanny alone again. She decides to find Edmund and Mary and soon hears their voices as they return from touring a part of the grounds she particularly wanted to see.

Gradually, the splintered party reunites at the house, where Mrs. Norris has been interviewing the housekeeper, gardener, groundskeeper, and other staff; picking up tidbits of information; dispensing advice; and cadging eggs, samples of cheese, and plants. After a quick dinner, during which Fanny notes displeasure on Rushworth's and Julia's faces, a "quick succession of busy nothings" occurs to get the young people and Mrs. Norris back on the road for Mansfield Park. Julia again rides outside with Henry, restoring her spirits, while inside the carriage Maria grumbles that Mrs. Norris's packages are in the way. Mrs. Norris foists a package on Fanny and brags about her acquisitions, while Maria ungenerously but not inaccurately criticizes her mooching.

Chapter 11

Letters from Sir Thomas, announcing his return in November, await the young people at Mansfield Park and provoke varying reactions. Maria tries to deny reality, for her father's homecoming means her marriage to Rushworth will take place soon. Mary notes Rushworth's contrasting happiness at the news, which, she assumes, also means Edmund will soon take orders. While Fanny listens, Edmund and Mary banter about clergymen; Mary disparages them as lazy and unambitious, while Edmund lays out a vision of compassion and engagement. Mary even attacks Dr. Grant, her brother-in-law and generous host, as an "indolent selfish bon vivant" who complains excessively if his meals aren't just as he likes them. Fanny uncharacteristically joins the conversation to defend Dr. Grant, whose sermons, she argues, improve not only his parishioners but himself. Edmund's approval of her comments pleases Fanny, but his open admiration of Mary, as she walks away, quickly deflates her happiness. For a few moments the cousins admire the night sky together; but Edmund soon follows Mary to the piano, leaving Fanny to Mrs. Norris's lectures about the unhealthy cold air.

Chapter 12

In August Tom returns to Mansfield Park. Mary listens regretfully to his stories of the social whirl. Although Tom is the better catch, she is attracted to Edmund. Henry, meanwhile, travels to Norfolk to tend to his estate, but two weeks later boredom there brings him back to Mansfield Park to enjoy Maria's and Julia's affections in his careless way. Maria, tired of her fiancé's droning reports about dogs and neighbors, is grateful for Henry's sparkling presence, while Julia still thinks of herself as Henry's favorite. Friendly and flirty, Henry plays the sisters against each other, "stopping short of the consistence, the steadiness, the solicitude, and the warmth" of real affection. Fanny observes Henry's behavior, but when she voices her concerns to Edmund, he excuses it.

The young people hold an informal, private ball—Fanny's first dance—and hire a violinist. While sitting out a dance because she lacks a partner, Fanny hears Mrs. Rushworth and Mrs. Norris discuss the upcoming marriage, Henry's value, Julia's hopes, and Sotherton. Tom arrives, raising Fanny's hopes of dancing with him, but he complains of fatigue until the older adults try to get him to play cards. To escape the boring obligation, Tom claims to owe Fanny a dance but then ruins the fun by griping, as they dance, about Mrs. Norris's manipulative ways.

Analysis

Chapter 10 follows the young people's inappropriate actions at Sotherton and foreshadows future crises. Their unchaperoned situation borders on scandalous, and they take advantage of it. Maria and Henry are the gravest offenders as they pursue their flirtation in sight of Maria's fiancé and in his own home. Social disapproval would fall hardest, for Austen's original readers, on Maria, an engaged woman, who not only talks almost exclusively to Henry as Rushworth tries to keep up with the conversation but then, when Rushworth returns to the house for the key to the gate, climbs over the wall to walk alone with Henry in the woods.

In a culture that may perceive even Mary's choice to dismount her horse without assistance as unwomanly, Maria's decision to hitch up her skirts and climb over the wall is completely out of line. And it's no easy climb: the fence is a stone wall topped with ornamental iron spikes. It marks a boundary between the safe, orderly, tended gardens near the house and the woods. Furthermore, this boundary is a ha-ha, a landscaping element that features a drop in elevation. So when Maria, in her long skirts, climbs over the wall, she must drop several extra feet to reach the ground on the other side of the wall. Readers who visualize the setup realize that getting back over the wall would require someone strong to lift Maria up—unless the gate is unlocked so she can climb the stone stairs back to the tended grounds. Her actions are disrespectful to her fiancé and host, and significantly inappropriate for a young lady; Fanny's concerned cry that Maria may tear her dress or slip into the ha-ha can be taken metaphorically as well as literally. Once they are out of view of the house and leave the well-tended gardens, anything could happen between Maria and Henry in the woods.

Some of the other young people act inappropriately, too. Julia, jealous, literally chases Henry into the woods, and Mary and Edmund ditch Fanny, whose presence lends their intimate conversation respectability, to take a long walk and talk without restraint. Readers note, however, that Edmund and Mary stay on open ground where they can be observed from a distance, so their behavior is less immodest than Maria and Henry's. That even conscientious Edmund, on the verge of taking his orders, behaves improperly would have demonstrated to Austen's first readers the necessity of firm moral guidance and constant vigilance on the part of parents and surrogates to prevent disastrous liaisons.

As the characters return to Mansfield Park, readers glimpse the woman Mrs. Norris might have been in another time and social setting. She spends her day at Sotherton getting (and of course giving) advice on estate management. She researches how the estate's staff manages the kitchens, gardens, and livestock, and leaves with plans for Mansfield Park and pheasants' eggs to hatch. Mrs. Norris, given half a chance, might have made an excellent businesswoman, but snobbish Maria finds such interest in management boorish and embarrassing.

In Chapter 11, Maria compounds her immodest behavior at Sotherton with her response to news of Sir Thomas's return in November. She despairs over his arrival rather than welcomes it as a daughter would, yet readers may sympathize with Maria. Unable to accept losing Henry's playful company and of marrying dull Rushworth, Maria chooses to "throw a mist" over her father's inevitable return and hope "when the mist cleared away she should see something else." Fantasies of delays that might postpone his return follow this denial. Everyone thinks this way at times, the narrator remarks sympathetically, when reality and reason offer little comfort. Having won the marriage game and engaged herself to an extravagantly wealthy man, Maria has done exactly as she is expected to and should do to improve her already wealthy status, but the result is misery. Nevertheless, Maria's fantasies demand inconvenience and possible risk to her father and suggest selfish, disobedient motives.

Mary reveals similar motivations in this chapter when she criticizes, in playful yet sincere words, Edmund's choice to enter the church. She should respect the church and its representatives; instead, she resents clergymen as lazy, unambitious, stodgy killjoys and unkindly offers Dr. Grant, her brother-in-law and host, as an example. Neither Edmund nor Fanny can successfully defend clergymen to Mary, yet Edmund later praises Mary's sweet "temper which would never give pain" and blames the influence of her uncle, the immoral admiral, for her opinion of the church.

As in many chapters of Mansfield Park, Fanny's modest, respectable behavior contrasts with Maria's sullenness and Mary's criticism. Fanny respects even incompetent clergymen, defers to Edmund when he admires Mary, and reveals her romantic sensitivity to sublime nature as a teacher of morality, to Edmund's approval (and, readers may feel, the narrator's).

Chapter 12 offers insight into Henry's character and his influence on the other young people. Henry, the narrator says, is a man of "idle vanity" who, had he ever developed introspection, might avoid trouble and be more content. Only two weeks into his residence at his estate, Henry gets bored. He misses the gratifying jealousy between Maria and Julia and hurries back to Mansfield Park to provoke them into satisfying his pride. Fanny disapproves, but Edmund—as he does with Mary—excuses Henry's self-centered flirtations as efforts to make Maria happy and to decide whether he loves Julia. Henry has "too much sense" to put his reputation or his heart in danger and would leave if he thought Maria's affections serious. Readers may sense Edmund's reasoning is, in fact, rationalization that has more to do with his own attractions to Mary, a woman who openly rejects marriage to a second son and clergyman she has deemed unambitious. Until their conversation about Henry, Fanny trusts Edmund as a moral guide. But although she tries to believe him now, "she knew not always what to think." The conversation marks a break in her confidence in Edmund and shows the influence of Henry's questionable integrity on the earnest young man.

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