Mansfield Park | Study Guide

Jane Austen

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Mansfield Park | Chapters 19–20 (Volume 2, Chapters 1–2) | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 19

Horrified at Sir Thomas's "most unwelcome, most ill-timed, most appalling" arrival, the guilt-ridden Bertram siblings rush to greet their father. At the moment of Julia's news, Maria and Henry were rehearsing a scene during which Henry held Maria's hand against his heart, an intimate gesture. The memory of the sensation of her hand in his gives Maria hope and courage as she faces her father. Fanny, Yates, and the Crawfords remain in the theater. Fanny is faint with fear for Edmund, Yates is clueless about the source of the palpable anxiety, and Henry and Mary find the interruption irritating. Finally, Fanny finds the courage to greet her uncle, who is looking for his "little Fanny." As she receives his kind kiss, his haggard, travel-worn appearance wins her sympathy. Business has improved; Sir Thomas is delighted to be in his home again, and even lethargic Lady Bertram finds herself excited to see her husband. Mrs. Norris fusses about where she is not wanted, but otherwise all is domestic bliss—until Lady Bertram mentions the play. Tom deflects the conversation, but after tea, Sir Thomas goes to his rooms, and the game is up. The Crawfords have left, so Sir Thomas's children and Yates must bear his grave anger alone. As Yates chatters blithely on about the play, Sir Thomas listens calmly. Tom interjects to blame first Yates for having brought the "infection" of acting into the house and then his father for having encouraged the children's creative impulses. Sir Thomas, now in possession of the details, looks reproachfully at Edmund in particular, ends the rehearsals, and reclaims his quiet home.

Chapter 20

In the morning, Edmund acknowledges his guilt to his father and, without rancor, explains the roles of the others; only Fanny, he says, "never ceased to think of what was due to you." Sir Thomas neither lectures nor punishes his children; he quickly removes every sign of the play's preparation and returns the house to its usual state, conveying his disapproval through these actions and making allowances for youthful enthusiasm and folly. However, with Mrs. Norris he is sterner; she has no excuse for not stopping the plans. As usual, she talks her way out of trouble, bragging especially on Maria's engagement. The narrator praises the "active and methodical way" Sir Thomas interviews his estate managers, catches up with accounts, and hunts down and burns all scripts of Lovers' Vows. That evening, Maria appears calm and chastened, though her mind is in turmoil over whether Henry will declare his intentions. The Crawfords wisely stay at the Parsonage, waiting for the storm to blow over. When Dr. Grant and Henry visit the next day, Maria overhears Henry tell Tom he is leaving to meet his uncle, the admiral, at Bath. His apparent affection, Maria now knows, was feigned. Julia is glad Henry is gone and is ready to take Maria's part again; Fanny is gladder still to be rid of Henry's corrupting presence. With Yates's departure, the family circle returns to its quiet habits.

Analysis

It is fitting that the dramatic events of Chapters 13 through 18, dominated by the theatricals and their effect on the household, end in an unpredictable and sudden rescue—a deus ex machina, in essence. In ancient Greek and Roman drama, plays sometimes ended when a "god from the machine" (Latin: deus ex machina) swooped in to remove characters from problems they could not solve on their own. An actor playing a god would be lowered to the stage by a crane-like device (because gods didn't simply walk onto the stage). The god would resolve the chaos human characters' choices created. Similarly, Sir Thomas's arrival, by ship and coach, puts an end to Tom's foolish authority, saves Fanny from humiliation, and interrupts a moment of stage passion between Maria and Henry—in the nick of time. The absence of his paternal authority has made the improper behavior possible, and its return quickly sets all things right again—except for Maria, who slowly realizes that Henry was only flirting for the pleasure her reactions gave him.

Sir Thomas is calm, effective, and thorough as he cleans up the mess his children have made. By refraining from punishing them, he is acknowledging their youth and hoping their consciences will teach them. He seems an exemplary parent, by the standards of the day. Furthermore, his behavior toward Rushworth is also kind. The narrator remarks lightly that Sir Thomas does not expect "genius" in his soon-to-be son-in-law, but hopes for "a well-judging steady young man"; he is prepared to give Rushworth the benefit of the doubt. Yet the narrator also predicts Sir Thomas's disappointment when he gets to know Rushworth better.

Chapter 20 focuses not only on Sir Thomas but also on Maria, as she struggles to understand Henry's motives, and on Mrs. Norris, as she connives to escape her share of blame. Maria seems to have the narrator's sympathy, despite her unkind, flirtatious behavior; she is, after all, a young woman who is supposed to be happy in her engagement (but in love with, or at least infatuated by, another man). Frantic with doubt, she is desperate for Henry to declare his love and free her from her engagement. Readers today may miss how shocking a change she is fantasizing. To break an engagement, even to a man of more modest fortune, would endanger Maria's reputation and, by extension, the family's. Not many situations could justify such a breach, and tongues would wag. That she imagines Henry asking to marry her, when she is already engaged, reveals the desperation of her heart.

Mrs. Norris's role in the chapter, in contrast, provides some comic relief. She talks her way out of trouble with Sir Thomas, leading him from topic to topic, hardly pausing for breath. She reminds him who arranged Maria's excellent engagement (she did), expresses worries for the family coachman and horses, and otherwise blathers on until he gives up, "foiled by her evasions, disarmed by her flattery." Despite the humor, this section hints at later trouble. Mrs. Norris's failure as a surrogate parent matters; Sir Thomas's vulnerability to her praise and prattle has dire consequences later in the novel. For now, however, a comic coda ends the chapter as Mrs. Norris goes home, pleased to have snuck the green curtain out from under Sir Thomas's nose for her own use.

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