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Mansfield Park | Context

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Coming of Age in Regency England

In Mansfield Park, the Bertrams, the Crawfords, and the Rushworths, but not Fanny Price, belong to the landed gentry, a leisured class of people whose money from land, rents, and other income streams kept them from having to seek employment. For young women in this class, coming of age meant finding a suitable husband, most preferably a man with wealth. Eldest sons expected to inherit the family land and perhaps a minor title; they might prepare to manage their estates and tenants themselves or, like Henry Crawford, might leave such tasks to managers and spend their days hunting and nights socializing. Younger sons had to choose careers in the church, the law, or the military. The first two careers required study, but wealthy men could purchase military commissions for their sons.

Options for men and women were limited by class and gender. Because entry into respectable adulthood was critical, parents and other adults enforced strict codes of behavior. While a young man could, within limits, act something of the playboy for a while (as Tom does), he had to get his youthful improprieties out of his system and settle down (as Tom indeed does). But for women, the boundaries of proper behavior were more restrictive and more stringently enforced. Not only did a woman ruin her chances at a respectable, secure future if she behaved in even a slightly immodest fashion, but her ruined reputation could drag down sisters, cousins, and others as well. Fanny's prudent behavior is rewarded in this culture, whereas Maria's shamelessness is dutifully punished.

Big-City Scandals

London, the seat of authority, royalty, and culture in Regency England, shapes characters and plot events in Mansfield Park. London had its celebrities and its gossips, as evidenced by the shocked tone of the report about Mrs. R's dishonorable behavior that reaches even Portsmouth's newspaper. And the year Austen began work on the novel—1811—had its share of scandals, even in the highest ranks of aristocracy. Wealthy nobles acted as they pleased, protected from consequences but not from damaged reputations. Their exploits filled the news and served as discussion topics in many households, including the Austens' home, as biographers know from letters and other surviving documents.

Mary and Henry Crawford of Mansfield Park have lived in a scandalous household, where their powerful uncle lives openly with his mistress, a situation that echoes actual scandals in London. The young Crawfords bring their less-than-circumspect attitudes to Mansfield Park, with disastrous results. Thomas Egerton, who published Mansfield Park, praised the morality of the novel. The sparse reviews of the novel also mention its emphasis on strong moral principle, as embodied by Fanny who, even under duress and despite great potential advantage, refuses the slightest taint of scandal.

Abolitionism Rising

Austen's novels usually reflect detachment from actual historical events, but Mansfield Park is an exception, as it touches on several social issues of its day, especially the question of slavery. Rushworth's estate at Sotherton, the narrator says, is old; generations have lived in it. But Mansfield Park is new and modern and built on profits generated by slaves on Sir Thomas's plantations in Antigua, in the Caribbean. Although the house and its grounds are stately and tradition reigns in its wings, hints of a rotten foundation are present. Tom has wasteful habits which nearly lead to his death. Lady Bertram's days are lazy and unproductive; she often does little more than pet her pug, stitch endlessly on needlework that seems never to be finished, and expect to be waited on. Fanny herself, pulled from her family, treated like a servant, and banished to an attic room as domestic help would be, experiences dislocation and disrespect. If the house is built on a morally bankrupt foundation, Fanny's selfless dedication to her foster family, her marriage to the morally upright Edmund, and Sir Thomas's rededication to his duties as patriarch stabilize the household.

Austen's family had tangential connections to slavery but were nevertheless pro-abolition. Austen herself loved William Cowper's long poem, "The Task," a section of which pleads, "We have no slaves at home—then why abroad?" (Cowper was one of the most popular British poets of the late 1700s and a friend of Austen's.) Some critics have noted the title of the novel and of its primary setting may allude to Lord Chief Justice Mansfield, who served on the King's Bench of Great Britain from 1756 to 1788 and is mostly remembered for his contributions to commercial law. His rulings abridging the legal rights of slave owners were early movements toward England's eventual abolition of the slave trade in 1807.

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