Mansfield Park | Study Guide

Jane Austen

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Mansfield Park | Chapters 16–18 (Volume 1, Chapters 16–18) | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 16

Fanny goes to bed troubled by Tom's demands and Mrs. Norris's accusations of being stubborn and ungrateful. She spends the next morning in the East room, an attic room that once served as the girls' schoolroom. Unused by the family, the room is now Fanny's private space. Here, her books and plants comfort her despite the chill; Mrs. Norris has forbidden her to use the fireplace. Fanny paces anxiously, interrogating her own motives and counting the family's many kindnesses. Edmund knocks; he wants to consult with her about Tom's plan to bring in "a young man very slightly known to any of us" to play Anhalt. Surely, Edmund says, it is better he—Edmund—play the role, even though he hates to do it, to keep the theatricals private and to protect Mary from discomfort. When Fanny does not whole-heartedly support his plan, Edmund reminds her of Mary's kindness the night before and takes Fanny's hesitation as agreement. He leaves, but Fanny is too anxious to read. Not only has Edmund proved inconsistent (and not only can Fanny guess his real reasons), but now that Edmund has been persuaded to act, she, too, may have to comply.

Chapter 17

Tom and Maria try not to gloat openly about their victory over their brother, and Fanny is spared further coercion when Mrs. Grant takes the role of the cottager's wife. Still, Fanny is miserable and jealous when she sees how glad Mary and Edmund are to be cast as lovers. Everyone bustles about happily while Fanny, out of the action, is again ignored. Julia is perhaps more wretched, having realized Henry was only toying with her. Alarmed, Mrs. Grant reminds Henry not to compromise Maria's reputation, but Mary comments scathingly to her sister, "You had better tell Miss Bertram to think of Mr. Rushworth." Mary objects more to the idea of Rushworth's vast wealth and future influence in Maria's care than to Maria's behavior, but Mrs. Grant decides she must speak with Henry seriously and soon. Mrs. Grant and Fanny, separately, pity Julia; Mary scorns her, and Maria goads her by using the play to flaunt Henry's attraction to her. But Tom and Edmund are oblivious to their younger sister's pain, distracted (in Tom's case) by props and sets, and in Edmund's case, by the roles, real and fictional, he is playing with Mary.

Chapter 18

As preparations continue, the actors become irritable, and Fanny quietly hears all their complaints. She helps Rushworth with his lines, serves as audience for rehearsal, and sews for the set. Secretly, however, she dreads Amelia and Anhalt's love scene, which Mary and Edmund will soon rehearse, so around noon she escapes with her sewing to the East room. Mary soon interrupts, asking her to run the scene's lines, and Edmund arrives for the same reason. Instead of escaping, Fanny becomes an unenthusiastic audience of one. "Her spirits sank under the glow of theirs," the narrator commiserates, "and she felt herself becoming too nearly nothing" as Edmund and Mary lose themselves in the lines. Fanny knows, as she praises the actors, that she will have to see the scene again that evening. At the evening rehearsal, Mary announces Dr. Grant is ill, and because Mrs. Grant is with him, Fanny must read the cottager's wife's lines. True to her nature, Fanny blames herself: she should have stayed in her room. Feeling the "tremors of a most palpitating heart," she accepts her punishment. Then Julia rushes in to announce Sir Thomas's early and unexpected arrival home.

Analysis

The tension builds as Volume 1 rushes to its surprise ending with the early return of Sir Thomas. Chapter 16 focuses at last on Fanny, taking a break from the action below to describe her attic room. A biographical connection may exist behind the long, loving description of the East room, which serves as Fanny's physical refuge (no one else wants it) and symbolizes her emotional privacy. Before writing Mansfield Park, Jane Austen had been unsettled for about nine years as she, her parents, and her sister moved several times to rented rooms. Biographers sometimes refer to this nine-year period as a time of silence; apparently, Austen wrote little during these years. But once her brother helped her, her sister, and her mother settle at Barton College, where Austen again had space of her own dedicated to her writing, she exploded into activity, revising Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, and writing three more novels, including Mansfield Park. Having a settled home and time to write seems to have benefited Austen, and the East room certainly is Fanny's haven: "The comfort of it in her hours of leisure was extreme," the narrator says. All her precious personal items are there—books, plants, writing desk, "her works of charity and ingenuity," and every object she sees there is either "a friend, or bore her thoughts to a friend." Austen uses symbols sparingly, but Fanny's room is a symbolic space—not entirely in her control (because stingy Aunt Norris forbids her to light a fire in the fireplace there) but still her small domain. When readers understand the symbolic importance of the East room, they understand why Edmund asks permission to enter and why Mary's sudden arrival is something of an invasion.

These chapters further develop the pernicious effect the theatricals have on the participants. Edmund provides a good example. By agreeing to do what he steadfastly refused, on moral grounds, to do, Edmund disappoints Fanny terribly. And he cannot be honest about his decision. He casts himself as nobly stooping to disgraceful action to prevent Maria's shame and Mary's embarrassment when he really does want to play the role of Mary's lover—and Fanny sees right through his false heroism. Her world is shaken by his defection from the moral. But readers also see the spread of the play's corruption as Mrs. Grant, a clergyman's wife, takes on a role and as Julia becomes Maria's "greatest enemy" with Maria goading her sister's envy. By Chapter 18, irritation has set in as the play degrades the characters' usual courtesy: everyone gave "the occasion of discontent to the others," no one knows their lines, and all complain of each other.

Yet there is entertainment. Even Fanny finds moments of pleasure during rehearsals, especially when Henry, a naturally talented actor, is on stage. Readers note that Henry acts even when not on stage, as he flatters Maria, appeases Julia, and mocks Rushworth. But the moment of crisis arrives for Fanny when Mrs. Grant stays at the Parsonage to tend her ill husband. Tom presses Fanny to take the part, and this time Edmund gently urges her to do so, too. Only the unexpected arrival of the real authority of house spares Fanny this shame.

Readers may be unfamiliar with Lovers' Vows, the play the young people eventually choose, but Austen likely chose it for good reasons. Some scenes develop the idea of dangerous influences by placing the young actors in inappropriate relationships and putting immodest lines in their mouths—Mary, blushing for once, says to Fanny, "There, look at that speech, and that, and that. How am I ever to look [Edmund] in the face and say such things?" But on a deeper level, the play deals with what brings—and keeps—lovers together by examining marriages of convenience. Anhalt tells Amelia, "when convenience, and fair appearance joined to folly and ill humor, forge the fetters of matrimony, they gall with their weight the married pair. Discontented with each other—at variance in opinions—their mutual aversion increases with the years they live together." These lines do not bode well for the marriage of Maria and Rushworth.

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