Mansfield Park | Study Guide

Jane Austen

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Mansfield Park | Chapters 46–48 (Volume 3, Chapters 15–17) | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 46

A week later, a letter arrives from Mary. Fanny opens it prepared to read Mary's renewed offer to come to Portsmouth with Henry, but instead she finds a short, puzzling warning to ignore rumors that may reach her. "Henry is blameless," Mary insists—of what, Fanny cannot imagine. Mary speaks of attempts to hush up "Rushworth's folly" and says, "If they are gone," it's surely to Mansfield Park. She closes by reiterating her offer. The letter is six confusing sentences that raise more questions than they answer. Fanny has heard no rumors. If Henry has behaved in a way that might embarrass her or make her jealous, Mary's alarm is unnecessary, because Fanny does not love Henry. The next afternoon, as Fanny's father reads his newspaper, he shows her an article and declares he'd whip any daughter of his who behaved as Mrs. Rushworth has. The notice reports Mrs. R. has deserted her husband, Mr. R, with Mr. C; no one knows where the offending couple is. Even as Fanny insists the report is mistaken, she knows it is true. She fills in the blanks in Mary's letter, now terribly clear in its meaning. That night, Fanny cannot sleep, tormented by the shame of what Maria and Henry have done. Edmund can no longer hope to marry Mary; Sir Thomas must be deeply grieved; Julia's reputation will be smeared as well. Under the terrible circumstances, "instant annihilation" seems preferable for all Maria's kin. Three days later, a letter from Edmund confirms and adds to Fanny's fears. Not only have Henry and Maria not been found, Julia and Yates have eloped as well—a willful act but, compared to Maria's betrayal, seems less shocking. Sir Thomas is "not overpowered," however, and has asked Edmund to bring Fanny and Susan to Mansfield. Happiness and horror compete for Fanny's attention. She is going home, but to what an altered family! Susan, in contrast, glows with excitement, and both find relief in the packing they must quickly do.

Edmund arrives in the morning, embracing Fanny and exclaiming, "My Fanny—my only sister—my only comfort now." Edmund paces the ramparts in agitation while Fanny and Susan say their goodbyes. In the carriage, Edmund sighs but is silent because Susan is present. On the second day of traveling, Edmund looks closely at Fanny and sees signs of ill health but ascribes them to her heartbreak over Henry. His own heartbreak, he claims, is greater because he has loved Mary so long. Fanny does not correct him. As they draw near Mansfield Park, Fanny rejoices silently over the green countryside and then the house itself, now beloved by her. But Edmund is all gloom, and the servants greet them solemnly. Lady Bertram hurries—for once—to Fanny and embraces her gratefully.

Chapter 47

All members of the Bertram household are suffering, but none more than Mrs. Norris, whose plan to marry her favorite niece into wealth has gone so terribly, shamefully wrong. Mrs. Norris is "an altered creature, quieted, stupefied, indifferent" to everything except Fanny's presence. What better culprit, Mrs. Norris thinks, to bear her fury than Fanny, who, if she'd obediently married Henry, would have prevented this scandal. Mrs. Norris treats Susan as if she were there to spy on the family in their grief; however, Lady Bertram greets Susan kindly, despite her distress. In the next days, Edmund attends to Tom, Lady Bertram pours out her heart to Fanny, and Susan wanders the grounds happily. Fanny pieces together the disastrous events as she talks with Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram: The Rushworths and Henry visited mutual friends over Easter—sociable folks whose discretion Fanny doubts. When Rushworth traveled to Bath to visit his mother, Maria was unguarded—even Julia was away visiting family friends (and perhaps Yates). Shortly after the Rushworths returned to London, Mr. Harding, a good friend of Sir Thomas, wrote to urge him to come to London and restrain Maria's behavior, which was making Rushworth anxious. As Sir Thomas prepared to travel, Harding wrote again to inform him Maria and Henry had absconded. Harding did his best to hush matters up, but the elder Mrs. Rushworth's maid, with her mistress's permission, had already inflamed public opinion. Sir Thomas informed his family, and he and Edmund rushed to London, hoping to keep Maria "from further vice, though all was lost on the side of character," but they couldn't find her.

Now everyone awaits the outcome of events. Stress has compromised Tom's recovery, Julia has eloped with an inferior young man, and Maria has disgraced the family. Fanny worries about Sir Thomas, because three of his four children are in crisis; she is unaware Sir Thomas is anxious for Edmund, too. Sir Thomas doesn't press Edmund to talk about his disappointment but sympathizes with his son's dashed hopes. Yet, as the narrator notes, if Sir Thomas knew Mary as Fanny does, he would rejoice at the ruptured relationship. For several days Edmund seems to avoid Fanny, the only person to whom he can unburden himself; finally, they sit by the fire on a rainy Sunday evening and talk. He apologizes for the subject matter, thinking Fanny hurt by Henry's betrayal, and promises never, after this day, to speak of it again. Then he describes his final painful visit with Mary, at Lady Stornaway's home.

He expected to find Mary experiencing "all the feelings of shame and wretchedness" the sister of a reprobate should feel. But while Mary was irritated, she was not ashamed, seeing Henry and Maria's actions as stupid mistakes, not dishonorable choices. Henry was foolish to let Maria flatter and draw him on, and Maria was foolish to risk her wealth and status for a mere flirtation with a man who loves another woman. Mary directed her anger not at Henry and Maria's indiscretions but at their carelessness. They got caught—and then they ran, an equally foolish choice that cost Henry the happy future Fanny would have brought him. Fanny, Mary thinks, would have "fixed" Henry's flaws, but Fanny rejected his proposal, thus causing his ruin.

Fanny interrupts Edmund to criticize Mary's cruelty, but he defends Mary as not cruel but ignorant and misled. Hers is a "corrupted, vitiated mind," not an innately evil mind. Mary went on, Edmund continues, to urge him and Sir Thomas not to separate Maria from Henry but to work toward their marriage so that Maria can re-enter society to some extent. After a few silent, pained moments, Edmund relates his response to Mary. He complained of how lightly Mary treated Maria's disloyalty, to advise her to stay with the man who disgraced her, and said he knows Mary now for who she really is. Mary, flushed with anger, accused Edmund of sermonizing, and mocked his profession. They parted with his admonition for her to learn duty from her sufferings and with her pathetic attempt to smile flirtatiously, as if she could win him back.

Edmund and Fanny talk for a long time, recalling their friendship with the Crawfords. When Edmund reasserts proper upbringing would have made Mary an excellent woman, Fanny gently tells him how Mary felt about Tom's possible death. At first, Edmund cannot accept this truth. He despairs of finding another woman he can love as he loved Mary, though Fanny's friendship comforts him.

Chapter 48

In the novel's final chapter, the narrator addresses readers in first person to tell readers what happens to each character. The narrator wants to set judgment and blame aside, but no character escapes the consequences of poor choices. Readers do not hear from any characters in this chapter—only from the narrator.

The narrator begins with "My Fanny," who is happy—at home, useful, free from Henry's pestering, loved by her family. She worries because Edmund continues to mourn for "what could never be," but hopes time will soothe his grief.

Sir Thomas suffers deeply, regretting decisions that harmed his children and worried he "sacrificed the right to the expedient" and let the world's demands compromise his judgment. But Yates looks to Sir Thomas for guidance; his marriage to Julia starts shakily but promises to strengthen. Tom recovers and is now a more thoughtful young man, "useful to his father, steady and quiet, and not living merely for himself." Sir Thomas regrets especially not educating his daughters properly and allowing Mrs. Norris to praise and pet them. His sternness, rather than balancing her indulgence, merely made his daughters hide their thoughts from him. They learned outward manners but not an inward sense of duty and humility.

Maria refuses to leave Henry, still hoping to marry him, but Henry blames Maria for destroying his chances with Fanny. By the time mutual hatred drives them apart, Maria relishes the idea of having ruined his future. Rushworth uses his wealth and influence to arrange a divorce and hopes someday to marry more happily, but Maria is ruined; no one will marry her now. Mrs. Norris wants Maria to come home to Mansfield and live in the White house, but Sir Thomas argues Maria's presence would be "an insult to the neighborhood" and an affront to people of good character. He provides for and protects Maria by sending her and Mrs. Norris to live discreetly abroad, comfortable but cut off from the family, where, the narrator remarks, "it may be reasonably supposed that their tempers become their mutual punishment." For his part, Sir Thomas is relieved to have the irksome Mrs. Norris out of his house.

Julia proves herself wiser than Maria. When Henry returned to London, she had actively fled his presence, staying with other friends, and when she eloped with Yates, "selfish alarm," not vice or disobedience, motivated her, because once Maria's dishonor became public, Julia's chances of marrying would plummet.

The narrator displays sympathy for Henry. Ruined by independence he was too young to manage and a libertine uncle, Henry nevertheless had a chance to become a good and happy man, but his "freaks of cold-blooded vanity" cost him Fanny's affection. If not for Henry's disgraceful behavior, Edmund would have prevailed with Mary, and shortly thereafter, Fanny's love would have been "a reward very voluntarily bestowed." Rather than taking care of business at Everingham, as he told Fanny he would, Henry had detoured to London, where Maria received him coldly, spurring his desire to renew his conquest of her smiles. His attack succeeded, and his vanity was appeased; but he persuaded Maria so fully of his supposed love she unwisely left her husband. Once that was done, Henry was trapped. Unlike Maria, however, Henry is a man of wealth and status. He may recover his social standing and, older and wiser, marry someday; but he will always regret losing Fanny, whom he did love, the narrator says, "rationally, as well as passionately."

Conveniently for both families, Dr. Grant receives a promotion to a coveted position in London's Westminster Abbey. In London, Mrs. Grant can offer Mary, much in need of her sister's kindness now, a home away from her spiteful friends. Dr. Grant dies—of celebratory overeating—shortly after taking the new position, but Mary stays with her sister, finding it difficult, despite her beauty and fortune, to entice suitors or to forget Edmund.

As for Edmund, time not only heals his heartbreak but reveals to him how suited he and Fanny are in temperament, enjoyments, and future hopes. This is only natural, the narrator points out, because Edmund has been teaching and guiding Fanny since she was a child. Edmund is deeply pleased to learn how long Fanny has loved him, how much she has endured for his sake. And because Fanny is the daughter Sir Thomas has long wanted, he is happy to bless the match. Lady Bertram comes to rely on Susan as she once did on Fanny, and Susan basks in happy usefulness. William's merits allow him to continue to rise in rank.

The death of Dr. Grant restores the Mansfield living to Edmund, and soon Fanny learns to love the Parsonage as her home, setting aside painful memories of her conversations there with Mary.

Analysis

After the long chapters recounting Fanny's experiences in Portsmouth, the novel's pace quickens as the plot rushes to its resolution in Chapters 46 and 47. Letters fly to and fro, gradually disclosing to Fanny and readers the disastrous events happening far off in London and their ripple effects. One effect is to reveal and then rip away Fanny's naïveté. When she receives Mary's short, cryptic letter, the possibility of Maria's desertion of Rushworth doesn't enter Fanny's mind. It is inconceivable to her, so much so that when her father quickly ascertains the facts from the newspaper, Fanny denies them even as the "truth rushed on her," taking her breath away. Mr. Price's reaction is violent and telling; readers can imagine him flogging a daughter until he dropped from exhaustion. Readers today may have difficulty understanding how utterly ruinous Maria's desertion of her husband is. She can no longer be received in polite company; she is shunned and shamed, as is her family, though they can recover in time if they deal harshly and quickly with the offender, as Sir Thomas does in banishing Maria. Fanny's language is vivid: the disaster is "too horrible a confusion of guilt, too gross a complication of evil" to grasp. Maria would be better off dead. Rushworth is fortunate because his vast wealth and high status allow him to pay for a civil divorce, which required an act of Parliament and was expensive to procure.

Julia's elopement is shameful, too, because she is her father's property, not Yates's or her own. Only Sir Thomas, or another male guardian, can give her away in marriage; by eloping, Yates has, in essence, taken what is not his. But this shame can be overcome, at least, if the couple remains faithful.

The contagion of shame spreads to Mary, too, though she tries to deny it. When the narrator ties up loose ends in Chapter 48, Mary, still lively, pretty, and wealthy, is living with her sister and finding it hard to attract a husband. When she meets with Edmund, he expects to see her crushed by Henry's actions, almost as if she herself had behaved so shamefully. That she treats the matter more as an inconvenience seals her doom in Edmund's eyes. Her lack of proper womanly response appalls him, which is something Fanny has long perceived and is further revealed in Mary's letters to Fanny. This, too, is hard for readers today to grasp, accustomed as people are today to the concept of individual accountability. But the adage about the single bad apple spoiling the bunch applies to the marriage market in the novel, and Edmund is likely correct that poor parenting is in large part responsible for Mary's callous thinking.

Where is the happy ending in Mansfield Park? What readers find in the final chapter, in which the narrator addresses readers directly, is more of an accounting than a happily-ever-after resolution. The narrator presents the fallout of the poor decisions characters have made, offering "tolerable comfort" to those who offended in small ways or not at all and dismissing the worst offenders. Readers note several trends. The real offenders are punished by making themselves and others miserable and by being unable to escape their shame and make a fresh start. Mrs. Norris and Maria especially suffer this punishment, and Henry and Mary do to a lesser extent, but their wealth may eventually help them recover.

Characters who learn from their mistakes get chances to make things right and start again. Julia asks forgiveness, and Yates agrees be to guided by Sir Thomas, who is pleased to be consulted. Chastened by illness, Tom sets aside his wasteful habits and begins to learn to manage the estate that will one day fall to him—a privilege, yes, but also a grave responsibility.

Readers also notice the importance of work as consolation. Characters who busy themselves with tasks and responsibilities, as Edmund does, move more quickly through their grief. According to the narrator, Henry's vanity and foolishness developed because he had his fortune too soon but didn't know how to manage it. He needed to occupy his mind with challenging problems so as to avoid inappropriate challenges. Work matters—it keeps Fanny sane in Portsmouth—and the lack of work drives Mrs. Norris to meddling.

Finally, readers may notice even the happy ending in the novel—the marriage of Edmund and Fanny, which most readers expect—is described in muted tones. They are a good match and love each other, the narrator says, making their happiness in marriage "appear as secure as earthly happiness can be"—not exactly a ringing endorsement. And they begin their lives together in the Parsonage, a place that causes Fanny "painful sensations of restraint or alarm" until the memories of the Crawfords' stay there are purged by time and Fanny finally comes to love her home.

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