Mansfield Park | Study Guide

Jane Austen

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Mansfield Park | Chapters 37–39 (Volume 3, Chapters 6–8) | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 37

Watching Fanny closely for signs she misses Henry's attention, Sir Thomas sees none, while Edmund is surprised how seldom Fanny mentions Mary. Fanny thinks of Mary often, however, convinced Edmund and Mary are now more intent on marrying. When Edmund goes to London for business in a few weeks, he will surely see and possibly propose to Mary. Fanny perceives Mary as someone "led astray and bewildered," who thinks herself more moral than she is, and on whom marriage to a good man like Edmund would be wasted.

When William visits Mansfield Park on leave, Sir Thomas devises a plan to persuade Fanny to accept Henry's proposal. He will send Fanny to Portsmouth with William so she can visit the Prices for a couple of months. He presents his plan, to which Edmund agrees, as a favor to Fanny, who hasn't seen her parents or siblings, other than William, in years. But, in fact, this "medicinal project" is aimed at manipulating Fanny to see the advantages of Henry's wealth. Fanny joyfully anticipates being back amidst family that she has missed and enjoying pleasant companionship with her mother, and believes a separation from Edmund will be good for her. Sir Thomas persuades his wife to do without Fanny for a while, and Fanny writes to her mother, who responds briefly but kindly. William hopes Fanny's quietly efficient ways will influence his chaotic family; all is happily arranged, after Mrs. Norris's sudden plan to go along is scuttled by the price of traveling home on her own.

Fanny's joy is marred slightly by Edmund who, delaying his trip to London, promises to write to her with news he assumes she will be happy to hear and by the sadness of leaving Mansfield Park and its inhabitants behind.

Chapter 38

Fanny and William, happy in each other's company, talk of plans and hopes as they travel. William kindly avoids the distressing subject of the Crawfords. Mary's frequent letters have pressed Fanny so hard about the proposal that she dreads receiving them, especially when Edmund asked her to read them and praised Mary's sprightly writing. She hopes her absence from Mansfield Park will stop the letters. On the second day of the trip, Fanny returns to her childhood home, finding it in chaos and neglect. No one greets her on arrival. A maid opens the door and updates William on the status of his ship, the Thrush; a brother, Sam, rushes out to do the same; neither does more than stare at Fanny. Inside, Mrs. Price hugs her daughter briefly but then complains about getting Sam ready to sail the next day. William reassures his frantic mother as Fanny considerately says nothing about the cramped, dark house or the lack of proper welcome. Mrs. Price calls belatedly for tea, which Rebecca, the servant, does not bring; the fire has burned down, and no one can find a candle for light. Fanny's father enters, ignoring her presence, and joins the conversation about the Thrush—the only topic that seems of interest. William presents Fanny, but after a quick hug and an approving glance, her father pays her no more attention.

About the time a candle is found, Tom, a baby when Fanny left, and Charles, born after her departure, dash in, noisy and dirty, and stomp upstairs. Tea still has not come, William cannot find everything he needs to pack, and fingers of blame are pointed this way and that. The confused state of the family makes Fanny's head ache. As Sir Thomas hoped, she feels the difference between the Price household and the calm order of the Bertram household.

Tea finally arrives, brought by a servant as inferior to those at Mansfield Park as the Prices' meager rooms are to the great house. A cup of tea and William's return, in his splendid uniform, restore Fanny's mind, and Mr. Price's departure leaves the room quieter. Mrs. Price now has leisure to ask after her sisters, but before Fanny can share any news, her mother digresses into complaints about managing servants. Gazing at her little sister Betsey, Fanny sadly recalls her deceased sister Mary. Betsey has Mary's silver knife, a gift from Mary's godmother, which Susan (goddaughter of Mrs. Norris who gives her nothing) claims Mary left her; the two sisters have squabbled over this prized possession for years. Mrs. Price hides the knife, Betsey finds it, Susan angrily claims it, and Mrs. Price hides it again. The whole situation exhausts Fanny, who retires to the small, uncomfortable room she will share with Susan during her visit.

Chapter 39

By week's end, with William at sea again, Fanny knows for certain what an "abode of noise, disorder, and impropriety" her parents' home is. She cannot respect her coarse, boring, heavy-drinking, neglectful father or her incompetent mother, who clearly favors her sons over her daughters. Like Lady Bertram, Mrs. Price is sluggish by nature, but unlike her wealthy sister, Mrs. Price must make do with little. The narrator, in revealing Fanny's thoughts, calls Mrs. Price "a partial, ill-judging parent, a dawdle, a slattern" who fails to discipline her children, keep her house, or even converse pleasantly.

Fanny says not a word of disapproval but sets about being helpful right away. She manages Sam's packing and considers how to assist her other siblings. But the ceaseless noise and disorder of the family and home wear on Fanny's nerves and cause her to long for the quiet order of Mansfield Park. Even Mrs. Norris's critical remarks now seem "a drop of water to the ocean" of chaos in the Price household.

Analysis

Fanny is discouraged as Chapter 37 opens. She is relieved to be free of Henry's harassing presence, but her opinion of Edmund is troubled. He seems to have tossed aside "the scruples of his integrity" for love of Mary who, Fanny thinks, has "scarcely a second feeling in common" with Edmund and could never make him happy. Readers may judge Fanny as snobbish or priggish as she judges the witty, lively Mary unworthy of Edmund, but the narrator points out Fanny is not immune to jealousy.

Arriving just when Fanny needs him most, her brother, now Lieutenant William Price, visits on leave, giving Sir Thomas the idea that will shift the scene to Portsmouth and the Price household. Only he knows his real motivation: to "teach her the value of a good income" and make her a "wiser and happier woman," willing to marry Henry. However, readers may wonder whether Sir Thomas is really trying to punish Fanny for continuing to refuse Henry, letting her see that he could send her back to her family permanently if she does not do her duty and accept the marriage proposal of a wealthy man. Edmund is happy for Fanny because she will see her parents after many years, and William hopes Fanny will establish order in the Price home by teaching her own mother how to keep house, making the children obedient, and rendering everything "right and comfortable." Everyone seems to have a task for Fanny, and the tasks usually involve fixing someone or something. The trip to Portsmouth lets readers see William and Fanny together, and reveals William's inherently kind nature. William admires Henry as his benefactor, "the first of human characters," and cannot fathom Fanny's rejection of his proposal; yet he is careful not to "distress her by the slightest allusion" to the painful situation. Mary, in contrast, brings it up constantly in her frequent letters. It is clear who has Fanny's interest at heart.

Jane Austen's description of the Price household is, critics note, one of the few times she uses a lower-class setting in a novel. It is almost Dickensian in its details, which keep mounting until readers may share some of Fanny's exhaustion in the chaotic Price home. Too many people in too small a space, without enough light, and with no comforting routines around which to structure the day—Fanny feels the contrast with Mansfield Park's orderly atmosphere immediately, just as Sir Thomas hopes she will. But at no point during the chapters set in Portsmouth does Fanny suddenly sit up and say, "I know—I'll marry Henry!" She gets homesick for Mansfield Park, but she also acts where she is, to the extent she can, to bring a little of the order of Mansfield Park into the Price home. When Mary and Henry come from London to Mansfield Park, they bring a little of the city's jaded attitude and lax morality with them. On the other hand, Fanny brings a little of Mansfield Park with her as she slowly and gradually improves her family's home, like yeast working in bread.

Not only is the Price household badly managed, randomly supplied, and haphazardly maintained, but the people in it are out of order, too. The children are ill kempt, ill mannered, and rowdy, bickering among themselves. The patriarch, Fanny's father, ignores everything and everyone at home, and Mrs. Price is an ineffective mother who shows Fanny and Susan little attention while heaping affection, if not guidance or instruction, on her sons and the spoiled Betsey. These parents have responsibilities to prepare their children for adult life, but without Sir Thomas's kind influence and assistance, none of the four older sons would have the positions they do; and as for Susan, the eldest daughter at home, no one is helping her grow into a young woman—until Fanny decides to do so.

When readers meet Mrs. Price, they complete the mental pictures of the three Ward sisters: indolent Lady Bertram, active Mrs. Norris, and incompetent Mrs. Price. Contrasting these women helps Fanny realize something about Mrs. Norris in particular: she might be a busybody and a scold, but she knows how to manage an income, direct the servants, and keep the children in line. She would have been "a very respectable mother of nine children," unlike her younger sister. Sir Thomas probably would not have predicted Fanny's growing respect for her resentful, angry aunt. Fanny realizes Mansfield Park is her real home, and Austen implies that Fanny would have suffered or even died had she been left to grow up with the Prices.

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