Mansfield Park | Study Guide

Jane Austen

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Mansfield Park | Chapters 30–31 (Volume 2, Chapters 12–13) | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 30

Mary feels less worried after talking with Fanny and is cheered by Henry's arrival from London. The next day, he visits briefly with the Bertrams and returns to the Parsonage "quite determined to marry Fanny Price." Mary is amazed but pleased, especially for Fanny. Henry is unconcerned about his uncle's disapproval of the marriage, sure Fanny will win him over, and is confident Fanny will accept his proposal. Mary agrees that the "gentleness and gratitude of her disposition" guarantees Henry's success. Henry praises Fanny as pretty, kind, thoughtful, patient—as everything he could want in a wife—but especially as someone in whom he can confide. Mary, while not revealing the reason, is glad to hear Henry's decision to live nearby, so that Fanny will be near the Bertrams, and predicts the early marriage will prevent Henry from repeating their uncle's scandalous mistakes. When Mary wonders how Maria and Julia will react to the news, Henry judges their treatment of Fanny as "abominable neglect and unkindness," and relishes the idea of astounding them. Henry boasts of how happy he will make Fanny, who is now, he says, "dependent, helpless, friendless, neglected, forgotten," except, Mary counters, for Edmund.

Chapter 31

Henry arrives early to visit the Bertrams the next day, bringing welcome news. William, with the admiral's help, is "made"—that is, promoted to lieutenant. Henry has hurried to bring the letters of promotion to Fanny, thrilled to watch her face as she reads them. But when Henry detains Fanny, who wants to rush the letters to Sir Thomas, by twice taking her hand, she pulls away in dismay and confusion. To his actual proposal Fanny cries, "No, no, no," covering her face with her hands before fleeing to the East room. There she paces, torn between feeling "infinitely obliged" on William's behalf and "absolutely angry" at the proposal. After Henry leaves, Fanny comes down to share her joy with Sir Thomas, to whom Henry has also told the news. To Fanny's dismay Henry returns for dinner, bringing a letter of congratulations in which Mary addresses Fanny by first name. Fanny is too miserable to eat. As Henry and the family converse about William's good fortune and the savings, according to Mrs. Norris, it will produce for Sir Thomas, Fanny tries to grasp Henry and Mary's plan—for plan there must be. His proposal cannot be serious, because he is such a desirable catch and because his sister hopes to advance herself socially through marriage.

Before Henry leaves, he insists Fanny write a reply to Mary's letter, so with shaking hands she does so. Addressing Mary as "Miss Crawford," Fanny politely but unambiguously asks Mary never to bring up the idea of her marrying Henry again. As Henry carries the note away, Fanny is confident Mary will read it and tell Henry to stop pursuing her.

Analysis

How sincere is Henry? How much has he changed since his days of flirting with Maria? Several chapters keep readers and Fanny (and perhaps Henry himself) guessing. He has acted his way toward his goals often enough to make gauging his real nature a challenge. In Chapter 29, for example, Henry amazes Mary with his intention to marry Fanny. He admits he was "bad, very bad" to trifle with Fanny before, but now he knows her, and he is a better man for it. Fanny has "steadiness and ... a high notion of honor"; she is devout and ethical. Mary agrees Henry will "find your good" in what started as his "wicked project upon her peace." Henry seems to have reformed, too, in his plan not to take Fanny far from those she loves at Mansfield Park, and certainly his efforts to help William receive a promotion deserve a commendation. It seems as though Henry has fallen in love with Fanny.

And yet, as readers carefully consider Henry's raptures over Fanny and Mary's response, alarming details emerge. For instance, both siblings assume Fanny gladly will accept the proposal. "Does she know her own happiness?" Mary asks, adding Fanny "will never have the heart to refuse." And in his litany of her virtues, Henry includes her ability to put up with abuse, because everyone but Edmund has "continually exercised her patience and forbearance," suggesting he needs a wife who will be meek, regardless of his behavior. Further hints of what Henry admires in a wife appear in his description of how Fanny, with "ineffable sweetness and patience," attends to "all the demands of her aunt's stupidity, working with her, and for her," almost as if he is describing a housemaid he might hire, not a woman he loves. Henry also takes a spiteful pleasure in the thought of how angry Maria and Julia will be at the marriage, and he casts himself as the only person who cares about Fanny's happiness, as if Sir Thomas has not raised her as a daughter. Fanny will be happy, he declares in his self-centered way, and he will be happy knowing "I am the doer of it." Henry's sudden love for Fanny is most likely all about Henry, once again.

To grasp the magnitude of Henry's efforts on William's behalf, readers need to know a little about the system of promotions in the Navy at this time. Officers were nearly always members of the upper classes. Younger sons, who could not inherit the family estate and wealth, often entered the military by purchasing commissions—that is, buying their ranks. Seniority drove promotions among officers who generally kept themselves apart from the enlisted men, who came from less wealthy families and could be discharged (fired) at any time for any reason. Without an influential patron willing to push for a promotion, even a hard-working, competent sailor like William had little chance of crossing the divide between enlisted man and officer. Henry does William an invaluable favor by taking him to dine with his uncle, the admiral, and persuading the admiral to arrange the promotion. Yet, what a bind his actions put Fanny in! As with Mary's necklace, this gift of influence evokes deep gratitude in Fanny but comes with painful obligations. Henry immediately presumes his gift allows him the right to take Fanny's hand (twice, even after she pulls away), an intimate gesture, and to press his proposal on her. "While her heart was still bounding with joy and gratitude on William's behalf," the narrator reports, "she could not be severely resentful of any thing that injured only herself." But finally, she tells him clearly, "Do not distress me. I can hear no more of this." Fleeing to the East room, Fanny seethes with conflicting emotions, but is so distrustful of Henry that she believes he does "nothing without a mixture of evil."

During the time the story takes place, formality was the rule, even among friends. Readers may not catch the clues in the exchange of letters ending Chapter 31 (and Volume 2) because society is less formal today. However, in Austen's day, first names were reserved for only the closest of friends; even spouses referred to each other by last name, as Mrs. Grant does with her husband, Dr. Grant; or by title, as Lady Bertram refers to Sir Thomas when anyone else is nearby. Therefore, when Mary writes, "My dear Fanny, for so I may now always call you," she assumes Fanny has accepted Henry's proposal and will soon be her sister-in-law. And when Fanny addresses her reply to "my dear Miss Crawford," she knows Mary will understand she has rejected Henry and the connection to the Crawford family. As far as Fanny is concerned, her reply closes the matter. That Henry ignores both her spoken and written rejections of his proposal is another hint that perhaps he is not yet a truly reformed gentleman after all.

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