Mansfield Park | Study Guide

Jane Austen

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Mansfield Park | Chapters 40–42 (Volume 3, Chapters 9–11) | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 40

When a letter finally arrives from Mary, Fanny, in "exile from good society," surprisingly welcomes it. Mary writes that Henry has traveled to Everingham, his estate, to manage matters and that she has seen Julia and Maria in London. Maria and Rushworth have a grand London house, where Maria will soon host her first party. Slyly, Mary adds Henry's fortune pales in comparison to Rushworth's and hopes Maria is happy with her high social status and wealth, because she cannot possibly be happy with her husband. Julia, meanwhile, has caught John Yates's eye, but Mary knows Julia can do better than a younger son of a minor aristocrat whose inheritance will be relatively meager. As for Edmund, Mary laments, work duties seem to be keeping him from London.

Despite Mary's slightly catty tone, Fanny is glad to hear about her cousins. Portsmouth offers little in the way of society, especially to an outsider, so Fanny feels cut off. Still, as Fanny gets to know Susan better, she comes to admire the eager 14-year-old who tries so hard, without guidance or thanks, to help her mother. Fanny decides, after much thought, to spend some of the pocket money Sir Thomas gave her on a new silver knife for Betsey. Betsey's glee over her new treasure forever resolves the fractious issue of Mary's knife and wins Susan's love for Fanny. Even so, Fanny's dread of the letter Edmund promised to send clouds over this small, domestic triumph.

Chapter 41

Because Edmund's letter has not arrived, Fanny guesses he has either not yet made it to London to speak with Mary or has done so and is too happy to take time to write. Fanny has been in Portsmouth about four weeks when, to her embarrassment and dismay, Henry shows up at the Prices' home. Recovering quickly, she introduces him as William's friend and benefactor; fortunately, she has never mentioned him as her suitor. Henry goes along with her evasion, and Mrs. Price lavishes gratitude on her favorite son's influential friend. Henry conveys Mary's regards to Fanny, reporting Edmund in London and all well at Mansfield Park. Henry, Susan, and Fanny then walk toward High Street to run errands, but Fanny experiences "pain upon pain, confusion upon confusion" when they meet Mr. Price. Far from embarrassing Fanny, however, her father is on his most gentlemanly behavior with Henry, and they walk companionably to the dockyard. The pace is brisk; Fanny soon tires, and Henry sits with her, fervently wishing Susan were not there. He describes resolving issues with a less-than-scrupulous manager on his estate and, in the process, getting to know some cottagers and promoting their interests—responsible and gracious actions of which he knows Fanny will approve. Henry hints his hopes for a "friend, a guide in every plan of utility or charity," someone who will make Everingham his dearest home. Turning away, Fanny silently acknowledges his efforts at reform but still feels they are incompatible as a couple. When Henry sees her discomfort, he speaks instead of Mansfield Park, describing Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram in generous terms that warm her heart. But when he steps across the line again by imagining a future in which Thornton Lacey, Sotherton, and Mansfield will be united by marriages in "circumstances of superiority indescribable," Fanny becomes silent, thinking of the two marriages she objects to in his plan. As Mr. Price returns, Henry snatches a few moments to speak to Fanny alone, assuring her he is in Portsmouth only to see her. Fanny is perplexed. Henry's behavior is almost agreeable, certainly kinder and more considerate than before. Yet, she still wishes he would leave Portsmouth quickly.

Chapter 42

The next day, Henry goes to church with the Prices, looking more presentable than usual in their best clothes, and joins them afterward in their weekly walk on the ramparts. Without fanfare Henry is soon walking arm in arm with Susan and Fanny, who cannot politely disengage her arm without drawing attention to her discomfort. In addition, Fanny has not walked for exercise in a while and finds herself needing Henry's support, so she might as well enjoy the lovely day. Soon, Henry asks when she will return to Mansfield Park. He worries about her health in Portsmouth, where Fanny is scheduled to stay another month. Appealing to her concern for Susan, he assures her of his readiness to take them both in his carriage back to Mansfield whenever she likes. As they arrive at the Prices' home, Henry asks Fanny whether he should return to Everingham to follow up with the errant manager. Feeling incompetent to advise him, she urges him to follow his own instincts on the matter—a "better guide ... than any person can be." Though she tries to enter the house, his continued questions about her health and offers to be of service force her to stay. Finally, he presses her hand and leaves. The narrator comments that while Henry goes off to a fine dinner, Fanny shares her family's poor table where she is often unable to stomach the fare. She envies Henry, who can return to their friends when she cannot, and wonders at his improved manners and attitudes. If genuine, his concern for her health and welfare surely, she thinks, will compel him to give up his distressing marriage suit.

Analysis

In these chapters, Fanny is cut off from Mansfield Park, which she considers her home, and must get her information through Mary's gossipy letter and, later, Henry's visit. Mary's letter in particular reveals not only the latest news but also Mary's state of mind. For example, she has seen "'dear Julia and dearest Mrs. Rushworth,'" and they all "seemed very glad to see each other." Her use of quotation marks and italics calls her words into doubt. Apparently, Maria flushed when Mary mentioned Fanny, thus implying that news of Henry's proposal reached Maria. But, Mary says, Maria will no doubt look better when she throws her first big party in one of London's finest houses. Regardless of how Maria feels about Henry now, she "has got her pennyworth for her penny." This phrase reminds readers that, for Mary, marriage is a business transaction. Maria traded her "penny"—her faithful commitment—for Rushworth's wealth, and it was not a bad deal, Mary thinks, despite the absence of love in the marriage. Certainly Henry could not afford such luxury. Then Mary writes of Julia, now being courted by "Baron Wildenhaim"—that is, John Yates, who was to play the role of the baron in Lovers' Vows. Why does Mary use this stage name? She knows how intensely unhappy Fanny was during the play, so perhaps she is teasing or taunting her. Only a few sentences mention Edmund; Mary complains that parish duties have left her feeling neglected. All in all, this teasing, lively, irreverent letter suggests whatever thoughtfulness and quiet emotions the country evoked in Mary have given way to the witty, slightly catty tone of the London social scene. Yet beneath the gossip, Mary sounds lonely.

Meanwhile, Fanny is not wasting her time in Portsmouth, and her activities hint at the kind of wife she will be one day—the kind of wife who would help a clergyman serve his parish kindly and faithfully. She comes to admire Susan who, with no encouragement or instruction, tries to help her family. The younger boys won't stand still long enough for Fanny to work with them, Betsey is spoiled and silly, but Susan has potential. What she lacks is opportunity—the very thing Mrs. Norris gave Fanny, who has now become Susan's teacher, friend, and confidante. Fanny thrives in her newfound role, proudly becoming a "chooser of books" to share with Susan. Susan is grateful to Fanny for resolving the knife dispute: a thoughtful, generous act—perhaps inspired by Edmund's gift of the necklace—which is not only a gift but a means of settling a problem. To be a benefactor, to give help rather than always receive it, pleases Fanny. Yet she cannot shake the dread of receiving Edmund's promised letter.

When Henry arrives in Chapter 41, the narrator coyly presents him as a man undergoing reformation. He appears to be making a sincere effort to become a responsible owner of his estate, to see to his renters' needs, and to befriend the Prices. He quickly assesses Fanny's embarrassment in the Prices' home, gives her space to recover, and is gracious to the fawning Mrs. Price. Fanny is suspicious, though, of Henry's motives and hopes her family's "vulgarity" will cure him of his love for her; however, he and Mr. Price seem to get along well. Henry shows proper concern for Fanny's health (and indeed, the narrator comments later, if Sir Thomas could see the effect of his "medicinal project" on Fanny's physical and mental health, he might bring her home before it kills her) and noting her affection for Susan extends his invitation to her as well. In every way he seems kinder, more thoughtful, and less insistent. Henry leaves Portsmouth thinking Fanny is closer to loving him, but he still does not know her at all. In fact, she hopes his maturity will lead him to drop his pursuit.

Though Henry, Fanny (and, to a lesser extent, Susan) are the focus of these chapters, for a few paragraphs the narrator presents Mrs. Price sympathetically. In the same way Mrs. Norris evokes pity, Mrs. Price does as well. When she goes to church in her best clothes, she enjoys her only day of rest and pleasure. She sees her friends and partakes of the fresh air. However, she still frets over the children and feels spited if her incompetent, disrespectful servant Rebecca passes her with a flower in her hat on her day off. By complaining with her friends about the difficulty of hiring good help and catching up on gossip, Mrs. Price "wound up her spirits" for the coming week. Such details reveal a sad and hard life, far from her disdainful sister Mrs. Norris and her careless sister Lady Bertram.

As with many aspects of life in the early 19th century, there were rules that guided letter writing. A level of formality was required and maintained to show proper respect for position and title. The Bertram children would have learned the art of letter writing from their governess and tutor. Early letter-writing manuals from the 16th, 17th, and early 18th centuries originally contained letters by classical authors to serve as models. With the rise in education among the lower classes in the late 18th century, the letter-writing manuals switched to familiar letters—those that people typically wrote—to provide models to use when applying for positions, courting a woman, asking a parent for financial assistance. Authors, such as Jane Austen, used letters within their novels not only to provide information occurring "off stage," but also to illustrate the letter writer's level of education and ability to follow the social constructs of the time. As already mentioned, when Mary addresses a letter to Fanny with "My dear Fanny," not only is Fanny upset by the breach of conduct, but readers at the time of publication would have noticed the breach as well, which would most likely have caused them to think less of Mary.

Mary's letter in Chapter 40 continues to reveal her lack of letter-writing etiquette and her general lack of decorum. Her comments about Mrs. Rushworth's (Maria's) reaction to hearing Mary call Fanny by her proper name are inappropriate in a letter to Fanny. By calling Yates "Baron Wildenhaim," Mary alludes that his relationship with Julia has an element that is not following standards of proper behavior. With her flippant telling of events in London, Mary's letter displays her lack of proper etiquette, morals, and loose standards of behavior, all of which readers at the time of publication would have understood.

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