Mansfield Park | Study Guide

Jane Austen

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Mansfield Park | Chapters 27–29 (Volume 2, Chapters 9–11) | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 27

Fanny's ambivalence about Mary's gift increases when Edmund surprises her with his own gift—a simple gold chain to wear with William's cross. Fanny's strong reaction takes Edmund aback until she explains her desire to return Mary's necklace. Edmund disapproves: returning the gift would insult and hurt Mary. He insists Fanny wear the necklace to the ball, although it does not go well with the cross, as a sacrificial gesture on Fanny's part to prevent "the shadow of a coolness" between the two women he loves best. Edmund leaves Fanny to vacillate between the pleasure of the gift and declaration of brotherly affection and the pain of knowing he loves Mary. She frets that Mary is unworthy of Edmund and then chastises herself for loving selfishly, because she has nothing to offer in marriage and should not presume to think of Edmund in that way. Fanny struggles between her youthful, loving heart and "the heroism of principle" as she stores the scrap of paper on which Edmund had begun a note to leave with the chain—12 words as precious to her as is the gold chain.

The next day, Henry sends a note inviting William to dine at the admiral's home in London. The note gives Fanny joy, although it means she will lose some time with her brother. Fanny helps with final preparations for the ball, dealing with grumpy Mrs. Norris, and feels tired even before she goes up to dress. Edmund meets her on the stairs, just back from the Parsonage, where he went to ask Mary for several dances. As usual, Edmund unburdens himself to Fanny, unwittingly causing her pain; as usual, she listens patiently and advises as best she can. Mary has teased Edmund by saying she refuses to dance with a clergyman; so when she and Edmund dance at the ball, it will be their last time to do so before Edmund leaves the next day to take orders. Edmund again blames the influence of London and the admiral's household for tainting Mary's thinking. Before they part, Edmund sparks Fanny's hopes when he says he's "almost given up every serious idea" of marrying Mary. Fanny's joy increases when Mary's necklace will not fit through the cross's ring. She has an excuse to wear both gifts and finishes dressing just as Lady Bertram thinks to send her maid, Mrs. Chapman, to help. Fanny is touched by the useless gesture.

Chapter 28

Sir Thomas compliments Fanny on her appearance, and Edmund asks her for two dances. As guests begin to arrive, Edmund's forced cheerfulness and Mary's beauty curtail Fanny's happiness somewhat. When Fanny explains the issue with Mary's necklace, rather than taking offense, Mary is moved by Edmund's thoughtful generosity. Fanny survives the frightening moment when she must open the ball under Sir Thomas's proud and approving gaze. When Mary praises Fanny to Sir Thomas, he is pleased, but Mrs. Norris skips over the compliment and complains, as she sets up to play cards, because Maria and Julia are absent. Mary also hopes to please Fanny with teasing words about how Henry and William will talk about her on the way to London, but Fanny merely feels "the confusion of discontent."

Edmund enjoys the ball only when he and Fanny dance because he does not have to keep up polite talk with her. His conversations while dancing with Mary, who continues to pester him about taking orders, leave him irritable and discouraged. The ball passes quickly, and before Fanny knows it, it's three in the morning. Sir Thomas sends his exhausted niece to bed for a few hours of sleep before breakfast, when she will see William and Henry off to London.

Chapter 29

After a quick breakfast, Henry and William leave for London, and Edmund rides to Peterborough for his ordination. Fanny cries a little; the remaining family feels melancholy. Julia has asked permission to stay in London with Maria; Lady Bertram vainly wishes the children could stay at home indefinitely, and Sir Thomas gently reminds her that parents must help their children leave the nest. At least, Lady Bertram consoles herself, Fanny will always stay. Sir Thomas suggests otherwise but does not force the point. Meanwhile, at the Parsonage Mary misses Edmund and regrets her unkind words at the ball. Trapped inside by winter weather, she nurses her anger at Edmund for taking orders despite her displeasure. When Edmund does not return on the weekend, Mary worries about the sisters of the young man hosting Edmund, Mr. Owen. Jealousy is a new and unpleasant emotion for Mary; it drives her to brave the weather to visit Fanny in hopes of more news.

Mary claims to be worried she will not see Edmund before she leaves for London. She asks Fanny, if that happens, to convey her "compliments" to her cousin. In fact, however, Mary really wants to find out what Fanny knows about the Owen sisters: Are they pretty? Are they musical? As daughters and sisters of clergymen, they are likely amenable to marrying a clergyman, and Mary would not blame them for trying for Edmund, because it is "every body's duty to do as well for themselves as they can." Fanny confesses she does not expect Edmund to marry soon or perhaps ever, and Mary, surprised, declares, "He is best off as he is."

Analysis

Small hints that Edmund and Fanny would make a good match are sprinkled through Mansfield Park, and the case of the necklaces is a good example. Mary's inconsiderate, manipulative gift burdens Fanny with a "doubtful good of a necklace" meant to please Henry more than Fanny. As she chooses it, Fanny must look at all Mary's expensive jewelry and feel again the contrast between what she could bring to a marriage with Edmund. The gift and its giving intimidate and humiliate Fanny. But Edmund's gift is considerate. He "endeavored to consult the simplicity" of her tastes as he chose "this little trifle," and he tries to leave the gift for her to spare her any sense of shyness in accepting it. The gift and its giving represent Edmund's kind nature and his knowledge of Fanny. Yet that knowledge has its limits, and Edmund cannot guess the pain he causes by asking Fanny to wear Mary's chain as a "sacrifice ... to one who has been so studious of your comfort." When Fanny, secretly delighted that only Edmund's chain fits William's cross, wears both necklaces to the ball, she pleases Edmund, Mary, and William, and their pleasure pleases her. But the chains also represent the ties of love and friendship that bind and constrain Fanny. Her sweet sisterly love for William and growing romantic love for Edmund are connected when only Edmund's chain will slip through the loop at the top of William's cross; there is no conflict between these loves, which are, in fact, compatible. But the presence of Mary's gift (really Henry's gift) is a physical reminder to Fanny of Mary's "careless" friendship, of Edmund's love for Mary and desire for Mary and Fanny to love each other as sisters, and of Henry's apparent and troubling attraction to Fanny. Fanny wears the tangled chains of future hopes and fears as she makes her debut as a marriageable young woman.

The ball is Fanny's debut event, her coming out into society. It is Sir Thomas's way of announcing her as of marriageable age. Unlike the ball in Pride and Prejudice, where Elizabeth and Darcy first meet, this ball gets little description beyond its impact on Fanny, who dresses without help (unusual for a young lady at this time), trembles as she opens the ball, and dances until the wee hours. Her debut is a social success, but her personal happiness is marred by others' passions. Mary shines in her beauty but pains Edmund with her talk, and Edmund passes this pain to Fanny, ever his confidante. Meanwhile, Henry hovers a bit too attentively. Still, Fanny swells with pride as she watches William dance and converse confidently, feeling it "barbarous to be happy, when Edmund was suffering," but happy nonetheless.

The letdown after the ball is reminiscent of Fanny's youth and inexperience. Her beloved brother is off to London with her tormenting suitor, and the exhaustion of the late night catches up with her. The narrator expresses Fanny's emotions in a humorous and somewhat uncharacteristic analogy: Sir Thomas gives Fanny space to cry over the empty chairs at the breakfast table, hoping "the remaining cold pork bones and mustard in William's plate, might but divide her feelings with the broken egg-shells in Mr. Crawford's." In fact, both Fanny and Mary find the young men's absences deflating; their loneliness brings them together to commiserate. But as usual, because Mary assumes Fanny loves Edmund as a brother, she unwittingly causes Fanny pain with her comical fretting over the Owen sisters.

Or does this conversation, in fact, reveal Mary's suspicion of Fanny as a rival for Edmund's love? If so, her worries about the Owen sisters are at least in part an attempt to draw out Fanny's feelings. Fanny, as many an analysis of Mansfield Park points out, can be mousy, overly deferential, and prudish, but she bares her teeth a little at the end of Chapter 28 as she claims more intimate knowledge of Edmund's marital intentions than Mary can have, causing Mary to drop the subject.

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