Mansfield Park | Study Guide

Jane Austen

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Mansfield Park | Chapters 21–23 (Volume 2, Chapters 3–5) | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 21

Life is less lively at Mansfield Park after Sir Thomas's homecoming. Edmund misses the Crawfords (by whom he means mainly Mary); Fanny, however, is content with quiet days. For Edmund, the long evenings lack love's glow, but Fanny could listen for hours to Sir Thomas's stories of traveling. Edmund encourages her to converse more confidently with Sir Thomas, and compliments her for growing into a young woman attractive in appearance and spirit. He has no idea how painful his praise is, especially when he adds Mary, too, deems Fanny "almost as fearful of notice and praise as other women were of neglect." Once on the subject of Mary, Edmund grows wistful and wonders how Mary will handle winter away from London's busy social scene. The conversation takes a serious turn when Fanny hopes Sir Thomas will continue to like Mr. Rushworth. Edmund is more realistic: the more Sir Thomas gets to know the boring Rushworth, the less he will approve of the match. Edmund judges accurately. After spending time with Rushworth at Sotherton, Sir Thomas deems Maria's happiness more important than the benefits of the marriage and offers to tolerate the social embarrassment of a broken engagement. But Maria, still grieving over Henry, claims to be content with Rushworth; and Sir Thomas, relieved, accepts her decision. The narrator reveals, however, that Maria is motivated only by "the comfort that pride and self-revenge could give." Maria also wants to escape her home and find distraction in the social circles in which she will move as mistress of Sotherton. Within a few weeks, Mrs. Rushworth moves to Bath, and Maria and Rushworth marry. Julia accompanies the newlyweds on their honeymoon to Brighton, and Fanny is left behind.

Chapter 22

Fanny's importance in the smaller family circle at Mansfield Park increases, and she becomes a welcome visitor at the Parsonage as well, after taking refuge there from a storm one evening. Mrs. Grant and Mary treat her kindly, and Fanny finally hears Mary play her harp. Yet Fanny cannot ignore how much Edmund enjoys hearing Mary play—and why. Fanny visits Mary frequently. She shares some of her thoughts about nature, but Mary remains "untouched and inattentive," saying she could perhaps be happy with country life in the right circumstances. Because Mary does not know the depth of Fanny's feelings for Edmund, she muses without malice about life in a comfortable country home like the Parsonage. As the women stroll silently, Edmund approaches. Fanny admits she likes his name—a name "of honor and renown ... chivalry and warm affections"—but Mary thinks it just any old name unless Sir or Lord precedes it. Edmund and Mary converse brightly about the chilly weather until Mrs. Grant interrupts with housekeeping concerns that prompt Mary to make scornful comments about the limited sphere of life at the Parsonage. Yet Mrs. Grant insists that one day Mary will contend with her own "vexations," no matter how wealthy the man she marries.

Thoughts of wealth and poverty lead Mary to criticize Edmund again for what she perceives as his lack of ambition. But he does not lack ambition (he insists to Fanny's silent approval); rather, he defines ambition differently. As Edmund leaves to walk Fanny home, the Grants invite them to dinner the next day. Fanny demurs modestly, but Edmund accepts on her behalf.

Chapter 23

Lady Bertram is not happy that Fanny, her mainstay, has been invited to dine at the Parsonage, but she agrees to let Sir Thomas decide whether to allow her to go. Still shy around her gruff uncle, Fanny flees the discussion in which Edmund and Sir Thomas support her accepting the invitation over Lady Bertram's hesitation. Fanny thanks Edmund while silently worrying about the pain of seeing him and Mary together at table. The next day, Mrs. Norris engages in her favorite activity: demeaning Fanny with insulting instructions about behavior (and revealing her jealousy), but finally the cousins take the carriage to the Parsonage—another favor Sir Thomas grants Fanny. They find Henry has arrived, too, with news and stories from his visit to Bath and plans to stay awhile. Henry earns Fanny's disapproval when he asks, "with a significant smile," about Maria's marriage, and mocks Rushworth as unworthy of Maria. He renews his complaint about Sir Thomas's calling off the play and wishes weather had kept Sir Thomas at sea—safely, of course—a few days more. Pricked by anger, Fanny rejects Henry's objections primly. Henry is taken aback but accepts her judgment. Meanwhile, Dr. Grant gives Edmund advice on managing the living he soon will have, reminding Mary of the approach of his ordination. Because Mary's influence has not changed his mind, she turns cool toward Edmund for choosing a life "which he must know she would never stoop to."

Analysis

With the excitement of the theatricals now in the past, the novel's themes of self-discovery and marriage come to the fore again in the way parents and surrogates see potential marriages, and in the way the younger people think of their futures.

Sir Thomas approved of Maria's engagement in a letter, but now he makes an effort to find out what Rushworth is like. Rushworth's estate is generations old, whereas Sir Thomas's wealth, like the house at Mansfield Park, is relatively new. Rushworth's ancestors held higher ranks than Sir Thomas's, and Sotherton is worth much more than Mansfield Park. The marital alliance would enhance the Bertram family's standing considerably. These facts make his decision to allow Maria to break the engagement all the more remarkable. Although their relationship is neither tender nor close, Sir Thomas genuinely loves his daughter, so "every inconvenience should be braved" to save her from a life with an "inferior young man" despite his wealth. Sir Thomas could insist on, order, and command the marriage—and in many a novel set at that time, the patriarch would do so. Yet Sir Thomas's misgivings about the marriage are not quite strong enough to actively prevent it. When Maria, heartbroken and silent on why, commits herself anew to Rushworth, Sir Thomas is "too glad to be satisfied" by her choice, too easily persuaded, according to the narrator. He is glad "to escape the embarrassing evils of a rupture" and hopes for "an addition of respectability and influence," perhaps because, by joining the families in marriage, the source of his recent wealth—slavery—will disappear in the shadow of the more respectable, hereditary wealth of the Rushworths. When Fanny, the only family member who enjoys Sir Thomas's travel stories, asks about "the slave-trade," silence falls in the room. The narrator does not explain its cause, but because Parliament abolished the trade in 1807, wealth derived from this source (now illegally and furtively) came with a social stigma. Because Jane Austen rarely refers to events of the times, her reference to the slave trade is an important allusion to something repugnant. Whatever his reasons for allowing the marriage to go forward, Sir Thomas is clearly worried, with good cause, about its success. His concern foreshadows the disaster of the union.

The younger characters have their own views about impending marriages. Readers see it in Mary's comments in Chapter 22 about Edmund's name. Fanny lovingly hears "nobleness ... heroism and renown ... warm affections" in Edmund's name, but Mary likes his name only if a title precedes it. To Fanny, Edmund's name captures his nature, whereas to Mary his status as second son matters more than his nature. She has some wealth of her own but not enough; she has expectations of a brilliant social life as the wife of a great man and mistress of his properties. She wants what Maria has: "brilliant, happy hours" and a house in which to "give the best balls in the country." In fact, Mary sees Maria's marriage as a "public blessing" to London's social circles. She has learned to place the highest values on these ambitions, which now conflict with her genuine affection for Edmund. She turns up her nose at Mrs. Grant's domestic concerns and declares, "A large income is the best recipe for happiness I've ever heard of." Mary's fixation on wealth is understandable but also rather sad. Her conversation with Edmund, as they stroll near the Parsonage, is sparkling and witty, much like Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet's sprightly conversations in Pride and Prejudice, but her fear of what she considers poverty overshadows her bright, pleasant nature.

Chapter 22 also includes Fanny's musings on the hedge at the Parsonage. As she and Mary sit in the Parsonage's gardens, which Mrs. Norris and her husband tended for years and Mrs. Grant now happily sees to, Fanny pronounces them "pretty—very pretty." She points out a hedgerow that once was untended shrubbery near a field but now, under Mrs. Grant's careful nurture, gracefully borders the walkway and adds beauty to the garden. Before it became part of the garden, it was "never thought of as any thing, or capable of becoming any thing," but now it is integrated into the Parsonage's gardens. Fanny draws a lesson from her observations about the time required for growth and usefulness and about memory's role in human perception. She appreciates the effort required to take a wild growing thing and shape it, over years, to ordered use in the garden. Fanny loves such order; the gardens around Mansfield Park comfort her as she walks in them. But her appreciation leaves Mary, ever a child of the city, "untouched and inattentive."

Readers see Henry's jaded view of marriage in Chapter 23. Although it comes from the perspective of a young man with a sizable estate who can choose among many women, his opinion of marriage is transactional, as Mary's is. "Birthright and habit must settle the business" of a young man's income and choice of wife, he says, and Edmund's living is not a bad deal. Yet Mary, bitter because Edmund ignores her unreasonable badgering about his career, decides "to match his indifference," unaware of his own sacrifices of feeling on her behalf.

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