Mansfield Park | Study Guide

Jane Austen

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Mansfield Park | Chapters 4–6 (Volume 1, Chapters 4–6) | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 4

Edmund manages the estate in his father's absence, Mrs. Norris helps Maria and Julia make their debut into society, and Fanny becomes an indispensable companion to Lady Bertram, a woman too perpetually exhausted to act on her daughters' behalf. Maria and Julia are in a social whirlwind from which Fanny is excluded, but she likes to hear about the parties and balls Edmund and his sisters attend, thinking such extravaganzas are not for someone of her status. Edmund again proves his devotion to his cousin when Fanny's old pony dies and, against Aunt Norris's objections, he trades one of his horses for a mare suited to Fanny's abilities. This and other kind actions earn Fanny's gratitude and esteem.

In September Tom returns home, but his father stays in Antigua to resolve the "great uncertainty" plaguing his plantation. As winter begins, Mrs. Norris worries about Sir Thomas's finances (on which she depends) and decides to find Maria, now a marriageable 21, a suitable husband. She targets James Rushworth, the young heir to the nearby and prosperous estate of Sotherton. Rushworth, a dull man, falls quickly for Maria's beauty. Rushworth's mother approves the match, and Sir Thomas's approval arrives later in a letter from Antigua. That summer, Fanny turns 18, and newcomers from London arrive at Mansfield Park; they are Henry and Mary Crawford, Mrs. Grant's younger half-brother and half-sister. They have left London primarily because their uncle and guardian, Admiral Crawford, has chosen to live openly at his home with his mistress—a highly scandalous arrangement that compromises his family's social position. Mary is a pretty young woman who Mrs. Grant decides should marry Tom Bertram, and Henry, not so handsome but charismatic, should marry Julia. Henry, however, describes himself as "of a cautious temper, and unwilling to risk my happiness in a hurry." Mrs. Grant is not deterred; Henry simply has not yet met the right woman.

Chapter 5

The Bertram siblings and the Crawfords take to each other immediately, but an inappropriate attraction springs up between Henry and Maria. Maria tells herself there's "no harm in her liking an agreeable man," and Henry claims, for Mrs. Grant's sake, to prefer Julia. Still he admits to enjoying Maria's company because engaged women are settled and safe. He, Mary, and Mrs. Grant discuss marriage as a transaction. Mary calls marriage a "maneuvering business"—a con game in which spouses are likely to end up disillusioned—but Mrs. Grant says people learn to make the best of disappointing situations.

Despite her cynical comments, Mary knows Tom, the worldlier brother and heir to Mansfield Park, is a catch. However, Tom is often away on social jaunts, so Mary is thrown together with Edmund, who quickly becomes attracted to her. One day, she asks whether Fanny is out in society yet, initiating a long conversation that allows her to gauge Edmund's feelings for Fanny, indict mothers who push their daughters into the marriage game too soon, and fish for information about young women Edmund knows—all while presenting herself as sophisticated. Edmund explains that Fanny usually stays at home with Lady Bertram; indeed, Fanny is nearly absent from the story at this point.

Chapter 6

When Rushworth first dines at Mansfield Park, he drones on about the landscape designer he wants to hire to improve Sotherton. Mrs. Norris tries to seize the floor, chattering about the estate's beauty, until Dr. Grant and Edmund redirect the conversation. Then Fanny suddenly speaks up, objecting to Rushworth's plan to cut down an avenue of trees to improve a view. Edmund considerately advises Rushworth while sparing the unimaginative man's feelings. In a side conversation, Mary complains about not having been able to hire a horse and cart to bring her harp to the Parsonage. Irked at having her desires blocked, Mary operates on the "London maxim, that every thing is to be got by money." Edmund excuses her urban biases, patiently pointing out how farmers need every horse and cart during the all-important harvest season. The conversation strays into risky, and slightly risqué, territory when Mary relates her opinions about sailors and naval officers, but Edmund prudently steers her back to the main conversation on landscaping. Mrs. Grant has a brilliant idea: they should make a day trip to Sotherton so that Edmund and Henry can advise Rushworth on his plans. Lady Bertram, of course, will stay at Mansfield Park, and Fanny, of course, will stay to attend her. All agree to this plan except Edmund, "who heard it all and said nothing."

Analysis

Mansfield Park is, to a great extent, a novel about young people finding their way into adult roles, often with the help, or hindrance, of well-intentioned adults. In Chapter 4, for example, Edmund demonstrates his readiness to take on adult responsibilities, managing the estate while Sir Thomas and Tom are in Antigua. In addition to daily tasks, Edmund makes major decisions, for example, by replacing Fanny's horse. Today's readers can think of this action as that of a dependent son deciding to trade the family car for someone else's smaller model—without his father's approval. Edmund decides confidently, with Fanny's health in mind, and against Mrs. Norris's objection that the purchase is "very unjustifiable." The narrator approves of Edmund's actions, however, by describing Fanny's response as "respectful, grateful, confiding, and tender."

In other instances, adults push and prod the young people toward adult roles they think desirable, as Mrs. Grant does when Mary and Henry come to stay with her. They have been living in an unorthodox family environment in the company of their uncle's mistress under the same roof. Mary cannot stay there any longer without damage to her reputation, but despite her personal wealth she cannot live respectably on her own. As soon as the Crawfords arrive at the Parsonage, Mrs. Grant goes to work on their futures, deciding whom they should marry. This is her job, as surrogate parent; it is the same job Mrs. Norris does for Maria and Julia, because Sir Thomas is absent and Lady Bertram too slothful to do it.

Mary and Henry, having grown up in London and in a "bad school for matrimony," as Mrs. Grant describes the admiral's home, have jaded opinions about the future Mrs. Grant imagines for them. Mary criticizes the marriage market as a con—"not one in a hundred of either sex" isn't being taken. Henry, in contrast, enjoys flirting and playing the field; he is not interested in settling down. Neither Mary nor Henry, therefore, is eager to enter the adult world to which marriage is central. Maria and Julia, on the other hand, are more than ready, having been prepped and primed to be "the belles of the neighborhood" if not useful wives and mothers.

Even in the playful sparring around the dinner table in Chapter 6, the young people are trying on adult roles while their elders chaperone. Rushworth's estate, Sotherton, dwarfs the Bertrams' holdings in Mansfield; he is vastly wealthy. His concerns are with the house and its grounds—how to manage them, care for them, and improve them—but he is clearly out of his depth. The young people offer suggestions, object to others' ideas, and drop names of famous landscapers, vying to lead the conversation. Henry especially works to prove himself, while Maria listens, more knowledgeable than her fiancé is. Even Mary's daring conversational detour about the "bickerings and jealousies" of naval officers is an attempt to appear mature, cosmopolitan, and in the know about male behavior.

These chapters introduce the theme of masks and acts, which is further developed later in the novel. Characters here are playing roles—either from necessity or for amusement. For example, in trying to please everyone, Fanny is playing roles others expect from her and does so because she must. Out of necessity as well, Edmund assumes the role of family patriarch in his father's and brother's absences. Mrs. Grant has assumed the role of matchmaker. Mrs. Norris, in addition to playing mother and father to the Bertram girls, sees herself as a messenger of ill tidings. In Chapter 4, as the family awaits news of Sir Thomas's safe arrival in Antigua, not only is Mrs. Norris "indulging in very dreadful fears" about her brother-in-law's demise, she is actively encouraging Edmund to do so as well, even rehearsing how to break the news to the family (she assumes she will hear of it first). She then seems inconvenienced to learn of his safe journey.

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