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Mansfield Park | Study Guide

Jane Austen

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Mansfield Park | Discussion Questions 1 - 10


How do the three Ward sisters' marriages establish a central problem for the younger characters in Mansfield Park?

The need to marry successfully and the consequences for women who fail to do so are explained in the novel's first paragraphs when the narrator realistically observes that "there certainly are not so many men of large fortune in the world, as there are pretty women to deserve them." The three Ward sisters are a case study in this unfortunate fact. The eldest marries unexpectedly well, becoming Lady Bertram, and uses her new connections to help the second sister, who becomes Mrs. Norris, marry respectably to a clergyman whose living Sir Thomas Bertram arranges. But the youngest sister's marriage violates social expectations, and thus Mrs. Price and her offspring are, for years, cast out of the family. When Mrs. Price reconnects with the family, she does so mainly to ask for assistance. Again, connections to families of wealth and influence benefit not only the women who marry into them but also their extended family; for the wealthy husband, these obligations are inescapable and must enter into the marriage. This backstory connects to the marriage hopes of the novel's young characters, such as Fanny and Edmund. They will be judged, as the Ward sisters were, on the basis of the decisions they make about marriage. Their marriages may bring success and comfort, as Lady Bertram's has brought, or embarrassment and want, as Mrs. Price's has.

In what ways do the actions of Mrs. Norris as Fanny Price's surrogate parent in Chapter 2 of Mansfield Park succeed and fail?

Chapter 2 reports on Fanny Price's first five years at Mansfield Park. She is 10 when she arrives and 15 when Chapter 3 begins; she learns much about herself and her surroundings during these years. Because Lady Bertram's lethargy prevents her from mothering Fanny, the task falls to Mrs. Norris, whose idea it was to foster Fanny with her Bertram cousins, an idea that turns out successfully. But Mrs. Norris, childless herself, is a harsh and demanding surrogate mother. Fanny constantly falls short of her expectations and desires, and she clearly prefers Maria and Julia as the prettier, more socially adept, and of course, wealthier girls. For example, when the cousins think Fanny "so stupid" for not having had the opportunity to learn about geography and art, Mrs. Norris agrees Fanny's ignorance is "very stupid indeed" but serves as a useful distinction between the fostered girl and her privileged cousins. Fanny cannot express enough gratitude or meekness to please Mrs. Norris, nor can she express it correctly for her fault-finding aunt. Moreover, Mrs. Norris is miserly and does whatever she can to avoid spending money.

In Chapter 3 of Mansfield Park, how do Mrs. Norris's arguments against taking Fanny Price into her home reflect her manipulative abilities?

On Mrs. Norris's advice, Sir Thomas Bertram has kept Fanny Price at Mansfield Park to be educated with Julia and Maria for five years. Now that Fanny's 15, Sir Thomas expects her to become Mrs. Norris's responsibility, for now she is a widow who will live in a house he is providing and his finances are strained by business downturns and Tom's gambling. But Mrs. Norris has never had any intention of paying Fanny's way. As readers see in Chapter 1, she wants a reputation for generosity but craftily avoids actual outlay. Her "Oh, poor me" act is on full display in Chapter 3 as she explains to Lady Bertram why Fanny cannot live with her: The White house is too small. In fact Mrs. Norris has chosen the house, one of Sir Thomas's properties in the village, to keep Fanny from being foisted on her. She has a spare room, but it is for friends, not for fosterlings. Mrs. Norris is on a fixed income. This is true, but her income is a third more, for her needs alone, than the annual amount Mrs. Price has to raise nine children. She also claims to be saving money to leave to the Bertram children. Mrs. Norris is "a poor helpless, forlorn widow, unfit for anything, my spirits quite broken down," and Fanny's at just the age when girls are most irritating. These and similar protestations quickly wear Lady Bertram down and eventually persuade Sir Thomas everything Mrs. Norris does, she does for his family. She succeeds on three fronts: she has Sir Thomas's respect, she keeps control of her income (which depends largely on his generosity), and she gets to continue badgering Fanny while never having to care for her materially.

In Mansfield Park, how do Mrs. Norris, Edmund Bertram, Sir Thomas Bertram, and Maria Bertram assess James Rushworth as a prospect for marriage?

Because Lady Bertram cannot be bothered to help Maria in the marriage market, and Sir Thomas is out of the country, Mrs. Norris is more than happy to step in and find a suitable fiancé in James Rushworth, owner of a nearby estate much larger and wealthier than Mansfield Park. Because the narrator has already stated in Chapter 1, a man of "large fortune" is a desirable husband, Rushworth seems a good choice, and Mrs. Norris sees him as such. Her niece Maria is the family's "pride and delight ... perfectly faultless—an angel" and as such deserves to become mistress of a great estate. For Mrs. Norris, marriage into the Rushworth family boosts the Bertram family's reputation, and Sir Thomas agrees (by mail) that the alliance is "unquestionably advantageous." However, as he comes to know Rushworth and realizes his daughter will never be content with him, he is willing to allow Maria to break the engagement, opening the door for gossip but preventing a bad marriage. For Maria, Rushworth is not a man or husband so much as the promise of a large income to spend as she likes and the means to her "prime object," a second home in the fashionable part of London from which she can entertain as an admired hostess. Like his father, Edmund hesitates at the idea of Maria's marrying only for wealth. He sees little compatibility between his lively, proud sister and Rushworth who, despite his wealth, is "a very stupid fellow" whom Maria can neither like nor love.

What attitudes toward marriage do Mary Crawford and Henry Crawford reveal in Chapter 5 of Mansfield Park?

Henry and Mary Crawford are somewhat cynical about marriage, though in different ways. Henry has the confidence, even swagger, of a young man secure in his wealth and happy in his bachelorhood. In Chapter 4, Mary describes her brother as the "most horrible flirt" (not a compliment in the novel's time) whom only a very clever woman could trick into marriage, and Henry is in no hurry to marry. He enjoys his powerful effect on young women and treats this effect casually, pretending to be guided by Mrs. Grant but refusing to acknowledge the social risks. Thus, he dismisses the danger of flirting with Maria because engaged women are safe, already settled and therefore no longer playing the marriage game. Mary has the more cynical attitude toward marriage. Marriage is a con, a dupe, she says, that drives people to hide their true natures behind the mask of social expectations. Married people inevitably get "taken in." Mary reveals her attitude toward marriage to Edmund as well, as they walk together. Despite her misgivings, Mary quickly assesses Tom, heir to Mansfield Park, as a good catch and seeks information. Who is on the marriage market? Who are her rivals—who is "out" and who is not? Mary approaches the marriage game strategically, with no concern for friendship or suitability. Like Maria in her engagement to James Rushworth, Mary looks to secure not a mate but a fine home and in doing so ultimately considers marriage a transaction, or business deal.

In Chapter 6 of Mansfield Park, how is Fanny Price characterized when she speaks after a long silence?

The talkative Crawfords and Bertrams socialize happily for several days as Fanny Price, readers assume, observes quietly in the background, as is her way. But when James Rushworth comes to dinner, Fanny, usually out of her depth given the fashionable conversation topics, is moved to speak—twice. The first time she speaks, she objects to Rushworth's plan to remove a row of mature trees to improve the view at his estate. "What a pity!" she exclaims, adding a line of poetry, but because she speaks quietly, it is not clear whether anyone but Edmund hears. And he dismisses her comment as of no account. Fanny expresses a desire to see Sotherton before the trees are removed. A bit later, Fanny speaks again, this time to defend brothers, and specifically William, from Mary's criticism that brothers often ignore their sisters. She actually blushes in anger or shame at the implied criticism. In both cases, Fanny makes it clear that, although she does not often speak, she listens closely and follows the conversation easily. She reveals a sensitive as well as a sentimental heart. For Fanny, practical considerations cannot outweigh the beauty of an avenue of trees; and she overreacts to Mary's laughing assessment of Henry's letter-writing, as if Mary had personally attacked William. Fanny is young. She is not a sophisticated conversation partner as London-trained Mary is, and she does not mask her thoughts in a socially polite manner. That she speaks from her heart endears her to Edmund, but readers also see an almost childlike inability to negotiate the courting scene—a flaw that may make her vulnerable.

How does Fanny Price's willingness to excuse the shabby treatment she endures in Chapter 7 of Mansfield Park affect readers' views of her?

Usually honest with herself, Fanny Price explains away not only others' poor treatment of her but also her own feelings of hurt and anger. Fanny's mare symbolizes Edmund Bertram's kindness and regard for her, so when he drafts the horse for Mary's use, and when that use lasts longer and longer, Fanny suffers, excluded from her exercise time and from his kindness. Yet she does not say this or, given what the narrator reveals about her thoughts, even think it. Instead, she worries about the mare's fatigue. When Mary offers her nonapology for keeping the mare too long, she subtly insults Fanny's stamina, and Edmund thoughtlessly suggests Fanny has nothing to do but wait her turn. Yet Fanny notes only how kind Edmund is to teach Mary to ride. When Edmund gives Fanny the option of refusing the mare for a long ride, Fanny does not have the courage to take it, telling the lie that she'd rather stay home. Later, when Lady Bertram and Mrs. Norris overwork Fanny in the heat and then blame her for the headache she gets, Fanny attempts to hide in the shadowy corner of the room. She seems unable to defend herself, perhaps because she relies on Edmund to defend her. And he does, scolding his elders and regretting his own actions. The narrator admits that despite her rationalizations, Fanny had been "struggling against discontent and envy," terrible faults, according to Mrs. Norris. Fanny is naturally timid, but readers may wonder whether she is too dependent on Edmund and too easily manipulated by anyone who wants something from her.

What do Mary Crawford's and Fanny Price's thoughts during the ride to Sotherton in Chapter 8 of Mansfield Park imply about the two women?

The two young women react differently to most sights along the way to Sotherton. Fanny Price, attuned for years now to the Northampton landscape, notes with pleasure little details—how the soil differs from here to there, for example—and enjoys seeing cottages, crops, and cows in the little villages that surround and support Mansfield Park. Her appreciation for the countryside speaks to her feelings of belonging. She would be lost in London, readers conclude. Mary Crawford, on the other hand, is accustomed to city sights. Small differences in leaf density do not register with her; she does not know how to observe "inanimate nature." But she is trained in observing people, gathering information from gestures and tossed-off words. She has "talents for the light and lively," while Fanny enjoys sitting quietly with her thoughts. On one subject, however, Fanny and Mary unwittingly agree. They both want to catch any glimpse they can of Edmund Bertram as he rides nearby.

In Chapter 9 of Mansfield Park, what do the condition and furnishings of Sotherton suggest about how the Rushworths view and use wealth?

The tour that bores Mary Crawford and fascinates Fanny Price takes them from one ornate room in Sotherton to another. The house, the narrator tartly reports, is "amply furnished in the taste of fifty years back," with carved, gilded wood and glossy marble. Its many rooms—enough to run up taxes and employ a large staff—are well appointed but empty. The whole house is nearly empty, in fact, except for staff and the family portraits, whose history Mrs. Rushworth married into, memorized, and now reports with pride. As the visitors tour the estate, she tells stories of the family's connections to powerful people of the past. When the group comes to the simple but elegant chapel, Mrs. Rushworth again speaks of the past, when the family and staff prayed together twice daily. But now the chapel, like most of the house, is silent, empty, a mere ornament. Sotherton and all its opulence houses two people, Mrs. Rushworth and her son (not including employees, who do not count). It is a huge, ornate, empty, old building doing nothing—a place to pile wealth but not to do anything with it. It is a contrast to Mansfield Park with its more modern home, busy with family comings and goings, and headed by Sir Thomas, who manages his wealth for the benefit of many. Sotherton needs a master and mistress willing and able to bring it to life again.

In Chapter 10 of Mansfield Park, what roles does Fanny Price play as she sits on the bench and must participate in a series of encounters?

Fanny Price's shifting company in Chapter 10, as she rests on the bench on Sotherton's grounds, provides a comic moment in the plot, while also foreshadowing the catastrophe to come later in the novel. Fanny observes and attempts to help as subsets of the young people come and go. First, she listens to Mary Crawford and Edmund Bertram's happy banter as they stroll away, at the end of the previous chapter, to see sights she hoped to visit. Then Maria Bertram, James Rushworth, and Henry Crawford—the troubled triangle—approach, and Fanny listens anxiously to Henry and Maria talk circles around poor Rushworth, flirting around the subject of improving the grounds. Henry manipulates Rushworth into making the long walk back to the house for a key to enter the forested grounds, supposedly so they can climb a hill to get a better view but really to walk on alone with Maria. Fanny becomes agitated counselor now, warning Maria she will harm her dress, her health, and, by implication, her reputation if she walks alone with Henry. Maria walks anyway. Next comes Julia Bertram, in pursuit of Henry and determined to get past the gate despite Fanny's urging her to wait for Rushworth and the key. Finally, Rushworth himself arrives and sits, dejected and perplexed, next to Fanny, who plays the role of comforter. They agree in their suspicion of the Crawfords and in their feeling that Maria is behaving badly by leaving her fiancé behind. When Rushworth decides to pursue Maria, Fanny is left alone on the bench again. Maria, when she found Fanny earlier, exclaims, "how ill you have been used ...!" before proceeding to use Fanny for her own purposes. Maria is correct, but the encounters on the bench reveal Fanny's sympathetic nature and proper morals.

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