Mansfield Park | Study Guide

Jane Austen

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Mansfield Park | Chapters 43–45 (Volume 3, Chapters 12–14) | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 43

Two days later, Mary writes Fanny to tell her, at Henry's request, what she already knows—he visited her at Portsmouth, walked with her, and became concerned for her health. She seconds Henry's offer to carry her "at an hour's notice" to Mansfield by way of Everingham. In other news, Maria's party was a success, Edmund is in London impressing Mary's friends, and she and Henry plan to attend a party where they will see the Rushworths. Fanny mulls over this letter for days. Clearly, Edmund has not yet proposed, but Mary's apparent reliance on the impression he has made on her wealthy friends bothers Fanny. It seems to slight Edmund himself. Perhaps, Fanny thinks, Mary won't be able to settle for Edmund's social rank and lesser fortune after all. More worrisome, Mary seems to be throwing Henry in Maria's path—a "grossly unkind and ill-judged" action.

Fanny awaits the next letter so anxiously that for a few days she can hardly attend to Susan, but finally she regains her composure. By now, Susan is attached to her older sister and looks to her for guidance. They read literature and history, Fanny acting as teacher and commentator, and they talk of the people and places of Mansfield. Fanny realizes how out of place Susan is in Portsmouth and begins to dread the day she must leave her sister behind.

Chapter 44

Seven weeks after Fanny's arrival in Portsmouth, she receives a long letter from Edmund and prepares to read of his happy engagement to Mary. But, in fact, the letter is a series of emotionally charged sentences, often interrupted by dashes, and desperate in tone. He explains when he visited Mary in London, he found her manner changed. Mrs. Fraser, at whose home Mary is staying, is a proud, cold woman who blames her unhappiness not on her unsatisfying marriage but on having less wealth than some women do. Her sister, Lady Stornaway, is her rival in wealth, and both have influenced Mary with their greed, encouraging "habits of wealth" that prejudice her against him and his career in the church. Yet he cannot stop loving Mary, and he worries Henry will drop his proposal to Fanny if Mary refuses his own proposal. Edmund is talking himself into writing Mary a letter explaining everything, but if Mrs. Fraser becomes aware of the letter, she will surely prejudice Mary against a positive response.

Edmund reports having seen Henry and Maria meet coolly at a party, confirming Edmund's belief that Henry is devoted to Fanny. Maria and Julia are enjoying Rushworth's wealth and status in London. At Mansfield Park all are well and miss Fanny; Sir Thomas will be in Portsmouth after Easter to bring her home.

Having digested this lengthy letter, Fanny decides she never wants another letter because they bring only disappointment and sorrow. Now homesick, she is also irritated by Edmund's delay in settling matters with Mary. Edmund is blind to Mary's faults; if she marries him, she will at best bring him misery and at worst ruin him entirely. Fanny, separated from Mary's charm for weeks now, sees clearly her selfish love, which extends past herself only to Henry. "Oh, write," she urges Edmund. "Fix, commit, condemn yourself." However, her anger soon wanes, and her heart softens toward Edmund who clearly loves her as a sister and whose generous opinion of others, she fears, will lead to heartbreak.

Meanwhile back at Mansfield Park, Lady Bertram writes a letter to Fanny—brief and full of anxiety. Tom has fallen seriously ill in London; Edmund is with him and hopes to bring him home soon. Sir Thomas must delay his business in Portsmouth, so Fanny must stay longer. More homesick than ever, Fanny frets over her aunt's anxiety, Tom's illness, and Edmund's letter to Mary, now perhaps postponed again. Lady Bertram pours out her "daily terrors" in letter after letter to Fanny, reporting Tom's improvement, followed by his journey home and feverish setbacks. Susan consoles Fanny as both wait for news; Mrs. Price, so long distant from her sister, tries but fails to empathize.

Chapter 45

After a week's convalescence, Tom's recovery seems assured, according to Lady Bertram's letters. However, Edmund writes Fanny with the truth: Tom has "strong hectic symptoms" associated with consumption, a wasting illness. Until the doctor is certain, Sir Thomas is shielding his wife from the possibility of this dreadful diagnosis. Edmund sits by Tom's bed and reads when Tom is up to it; Sir Thomas's booming voice is an irritant in the sickroom. Tom's illness, Edmund adds, has prevented him from writing to Mary. Although the family has no history of consumption, Fanny cannot help but think Mary would be glad if Tom died, leaving Edmund the wealthy heir to Mansfield Park.

Easter passes, Tom's recovery drags on, and Fanny longs to be home, after nearly three months away, if only to comfort Lady Bertram. Spring intensifies Fanny's homesickness; the stench and crowd of Portsmouth make her long for the open woods and green fields of Mansfield. Unlike Fanny, Maria and Julia could travel quickly to Mansfield Park at any time, yet they stay in London while their brother is ill at home, a choice Fanny cannot comprehend. London, Fanny thinks, must somehow warp people's natural compassion and attachments. Evidence of this idea comes in a letter from Mary in which she expresses sympathy for Tom's illness but also her self-serving belief that the estate would be better off in Edmund's care, should Tom die. Mary assures Fanny such thoughts are "not only natural, they are philanthropic and virtuous." Mary then turns casually to other news about comings and goings. She confirms Maria knows about Tom's danger but prefers to stay in London, and Henry is also in London, as usual for this time of year—not to see Maria, of course, because Henry loves only Fanny. Mary closes by offering again to fetch Fanny and bring her to Mansfield, an offer that tempts Fanny, despite her revulsion at the letter's contents. As much as she wants to leave, she cannot gratify "her cold-hearted ambition—his thoughtless vanity"—by accepting the Crawfords' offer. Fanny is shocked, though not surprised, to learn Henry may be flirting with Maria again. She writes a quick response refusing the offer with a politic lie—she'd just be in the way at Mansfield Park while Tom is ill.

Analysis

Home had meant Portsmouth before this visit; now, Fanny realizes, Mansfield Park has become her true home and the Bertrams her true family. Yet she considerately tries to conceal her preference from the Prices. The kindness with which she treats her Portsmouth family is not returned, except for Susan's attachment to her, nor does Fanny come to love them, other than Susan, or even understand them. Her heart is in Mansfield Park and to a lesser extent in London, yet as the saying goes, good breeding will out. Fanny has learned polite, gracious behavior that carries her through social situations even when her focus is elsewhere, as it is when Mary sends a meandering letter mentioning Maria's first party and ending with a report of the good impressions Edmund is making in town and an enigmatic "but—but—but." Fanny is irritated. Mary claims to love Edmund but speaks only of his good looks—"What an unworthy attachment," she fumes—and relies not on her close friendship of half a year with Edmund but on a London socialite's opinion of him. The letter so upsets Fanny she loses her composure and neglects her duties, even with Susan, for a time. Although late in the novel the Portsmouth chapters reveal something of Fanny's limits and foibles, they make her a more rounded, relatable character: a little snobby because of her upbringing at Mansfield Park, a little more willing to acknowledge jealousy, a little less than perfect. Then in Chapter 44, her anger blazes out, and its target, surprisingly, is Edmund. His long, disjointed, painful letter about Mary is the cause.

Jane Austen relies on letters in Volume 3 of the novel because Fanny is cut off from news, but the letters also conveniently reveal character traits that do not come across in conversation. Mary's peevish, petty concerns and Edmund's impassioned heart cry are two examples.

His complaints are the same: Mary is changing at her friends' homes in London, learning to disdain all but the wealthy. His rationalizations are the same, too: "cold-hearted, vain" Mrs. Fraser and other London friends are encouraging the "weak side" of Mary's character. She is less likely now to sacrifice her vision of a brilliant, wealthy future than to sacrifice these desires to marry him. Still, "I cannot give her up," he repeats, consigning himself to a loveless future. He praises only one thing about Mary—her sisterly love for Fanny. That is the proverbial last straw. Mary's love is "nonsense all," for she loves only herself and her brother and always has. Edmund is blind and, should Mary agree to marry him, will walk into a miserable pit of a marriage. Fanny is indignant and insightful, but she also has compassion. She understands unrequited love and pities Edmund as much as she criticizes him.

Lady Bertram's letters, too, call for pity and concern. Except for the chapters about the theatricals, Tom is not a major character in most of the novel. He is off in London or in Antigua with his father much of the time. Also, as the oldest Bertram sibling, he is not close to Fanny. Yet his illness triggers her "tenderness of heart" for Mansfield Park's heir, another sign Portsmouth is no longer home and the Prices no longer her real family. Now her homesickness is acute and the Crawfords' offer to bring her home more tempting and easier to justify. But another letter from Mary closes that door forever and, for Fanny (and perhaps many readers), closes the case on Mary. Lively or not, Mary reveals herself cold and calculating when she anticipates Tom's death because Edmund deserves to be heir. Mary couches her claim in ethical and practical terms that have nothing, really, to do with her. Edmund would manage the estate better, is all. Could Mary have shed these transactional views of human relationships had she stayed at the Parsonage, or was the damage done by her upbringing already too severe? The question is open, but Fanny feels only "disgust" and would rather suffer the wait in Portsmouth than accept help from the Crawfords.

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