7.6/101 Votes Alchetron
Country United Kingdom
Publication date July 1814
Publisher Thomas Egerton
Originally published 1814
|Characters Fanny Price, Henry Crawford, Mary Crawford, Edmund Bertram, Thomas Bertram, Mr. Rushworth, Sir Thomas Bertram|
Adaptations Mansfield Park (1999), Mansfield Park (2007), Mansfield Park (1983)
Similar Works by Jane Austen, Novels, Classical Studies books
Mansfield Park is the third published novel by Jane Austen, first published in 1814. The novel tells the story of Fanny Price starting when her overburdened family sends her at age 10 to live in the household of her wealthy aunt and uncle, through to her marriage.
- Mansfield park full audiobook
- Plot summary
- Themes and symbols
- Development of the novel
- General literary criticism
- Literary reception
The novel was first published by Thomas Egerton. A second edition was published in 1816 by John Murray, still within Austen's lifetime. The novel did not receive any critical attention when it was initially published; the first particular notice was in 1821, in a positive review of each of the published novels by Jane Austen.
The critical reception from the late 20th century onward has been controversial. Paula Byrne, writing in the 21st century, found this to be one of Austen's best novels, and called it pioneering for being about meritocracy. However, Mansfield Park is perhaps Austen's most controversial novel due to its brief mention of the British slave trade, and the fact that Fanny's uncle and benefactor, Sir Thomas, owns a plantation in the West Indies. Some critics characterize Thomas's trip to Antigua as nothing more than an excuse for his long absence. The late Edward Said criticized the novel for failing to clearly criticize Sir Thomas's profiteering in the West Indies.
Two notable film versions of the novel were released: Frances O'Connor starring in the lead role in the 1999 version co-starring Jonny Lee Miller and followed by Billie Piper starring in the 2007 version for ITV1 co-starring Blake Ritson.
Mansfield park full audiobook
Frances "Fanny" Price, at age 10, is sent from her family home to live with her uncle and aunt in the country in Northhamptonshire. It is a jolting change, from the elder sister of many, to the youngest at the estate of Sir Thomas Bertram, husband of her mother’s older sister. Her cousin Edmund finds her alone one day and helps her. She wants to write to her older brother William. Edmund provides the writing materials, the first kindness to her in this new family. Her cousins are Julia, age 12, Maria, age 13, Edmund, age 15 and Tom age 17. Her aunt is kind but her uncle frightens her with his authoritative demeanor. Fanny’s mother has another sister, Mrs Norris. She is the wife of the clergyman at Mansfield parsonage. Mrs Norris has no children and takes a great interest in her nieces and nephews. Mrs Norris keeps up a strict difference between her Bertram nieces and lowly Fanny. Sir Thomas helps the sons of the Price family find occupations as they are old enough. William joins the Navy as a midshipman not long after Fanny is at Mansfield Park. He visits them once before going to sea, and writes to his sister.
Five years after Fanny arrives, Aunt Norris is widowed and moves into a cottage of her own. Her visits to Mansfield Park increase, as does her mistreatment of Fanny. Tom Bertram incurs a large debt and to pay it, Sir Thomas sells the living of the parsonage, freed up by the death of Uncle Norris, to clergyman Dr Grant.
When Fanny is 16, Sir Thomas leaves to deal with problems on his plantation in Antigua. He takes Tom along and trusts to Aunt Norris for the others. Mrs Norris takes on the task of finding a husband for Maria and finds James Rushworth, with income of ₤12,000 a year, but weak-willed and stupid. Maria accepts his marriage proposal, subject to Sir Thomas's approval on his return. After a year in Antigua, Sir Thomas sends Tom home to Mansfield Park.
When Fanny is 17, the fashionable, wealthy, and worldly Henry Crawford and his sister, Mary Crawford, arrive at the parsonage to stay with Mrs Grant, their half-sister. The arrival of the Crawfords enlivens life in Mansfield and sparks romantic entanglements. Mary and Edmund begin to form an attachment. She is disappointed to learn that Edmund will be a clergyman. Fanny fears that Mary's charms and attractions have blinded Edmund to her flaws. On a visit to Mr Rushworth's estate Sotherton, Henry deliberately plays with the affections of both Maria and Julia. Maria believes Henry is falling in love with her and treats Mr Rushworth dismissively, provoking his jealousy. Fanny observes this while Aunt Norris, blinded by her own self-importance and Edmund, infatuated with Mary, fail to perceive the various flirtations.
Encouraged by Tom and his friend Mr Yates, the young people decide to put on an amateur performance of the play Lovers' Vows. Edmund objects, believing Sir Thomas would disapprove and feeling that the subject matter of the play is inappropriate for his sisters. Edmund reluctantly agrees to take on the role of Anhalt, the lover of the character played by Mary Crawford. The play provides a pretext for Henry and Maria to flirt in public. Fanny observes this, but again Aunt Norris, caught up in the excitement of staging a play, does not.
Sir Thomas arrives home earlier than expected, while all are in the midst of rehearsal. He stops the theatricals. Henry, from whom Maria had imminently expected a marriage proposal, instead takes his leave, and she is not pleased. She goes ahead with marriage to Rushworth, with her father's permission. They honeymoon in Brighton and then settle in London, taking Julia with them. Fanny's improved appearance and gentle disposition endear her to Sir Thomas. With Maria and Julia gone, Fanny and Mary Crawford visit often.
Henry returns to Mansfield parsonage, intending to entertain himself by making Fanny fall in love with him. He does not succeed but falls in love with Fanny himself. To further his suit, he uses his family connections to help Fanny's brother William gain promotion as a naval lieutenant, to her great joy and gratitude. When Henry proposes marriage, Fanny however, rejects him out of hand. Sir Thomas is astonished at her refusal. He reproaches her for ingratitude, and encourages Henry to persevere.
To bring Fanny to her senses, Sir Thomas sends her for a visit to her parents in Portsmouth, hoping that the contrast will awaken her to the value of Henry's offer. She sets off with William and sees him in his first berth as a commissioned officer. At Portsmouth, she develops a firm bond with her younger sister Susan, but is taken aback by the contrast between her dissolute surroundings — noise, chaos, unpalatable food, crude conversation, and filth everywhere — and the harmonious environment at Mansfield. Henry visits her there. Although Fanny still refuses him, her attitude begins to soften, particularly as Edmund and Mary seem to be moving toward an engagement.
Henry leaves for London, and shortly afterward, Fanny learns that scandal has enveloped him and Maria. The two meet at a party and rekindle their flirtation, which leads to an affair. An indiscreet servant makes the affair public and the story is in the newspapers. Maria runs away with Henry. Mr Rushworth sues Maria for divorce, and the proud Bertram family is devastated. Tom has fallen gravely ill as a result of his dissolute lifestyle, and Julia, fearing her father's anger for concealing Maria's affair, has eloped with Tom's friend Mr Yates.
Edmund takes Fanny and Susan to Mansfield Park. A repentant Sir Thomas realises that Fanny was right to reject Henry's proposal and now regards her as his own daughter. During an emotional meeting with Mary Crawford, Edmund discovers that Mary does not condemn Henry and Maria's adultery, and regrets only that it was discovered. Her view is to cover it up and blames Fanny for failing to accept Henry right away. Edmund is devastated to discover her true principles. He breaks off the relationship and returns to Mansfield Park.
Edmund slowly gets over his love for Mary. Then he comes to realise how important Fanny is to him. He declares his love for her, and they are married and eventually move to Mansfield parsonage, in the circle of those they love best. Tom recovers from his illness, a steadier and better man for it, and Julia's husband, Mr Yates, proves to be a respectable husband. Henry Crawford refuses to marry Maria. Her shame gives her no options, so her father sets her up in a house with Aunt Norris, out of his sight. Mary Crawford moves in with her sister, hoping for a husband.
Themes and symbols
The world of the novel draws heavily upon the symbolic meaning of locations and events. The first critic to raise this aspect was Virginia Woolf.
For instance, the ha-ha in Sotherton Court is a boundary which some will cross, while others will not, thus indicating the future moral transgressions of Maria Bertram and Henry Crawford. Later on in the novel, the theatricals (based upon Lovers' Vows) in which the company is involved at the request of Tom Bertram (with the exception of Fanny Price) is further indication of real life future behaviour.
The game of speculation has been viewed as a symbol by Penny Gay, who quotes David Selwyn saying the card game was a "metaphor for the game Mary Crawford is playing, with Edmund as stake".
The theme of country versus city symbolises that which is natural and life-renewing over against the artificial and corrupting effects of society. In the stargazing scene in Book I, the starlight symbolises one's capacity to transcend selfish preoccupations and the suffering they cause, over against the candlelight, suggesting small-minded concerns. Another theme of the novel was need to uphold traditional English values and religion against the atheist values of the French Revolution. The character of Mary Crawford whose "French" irreverence had caused her to cease attending church is unfavorably contrasted with Fanny Price's "English" sobriety and faith leads her to proclaim that church services should continue as "It was a valuable part of former times. There is something in a chapel and chaplain so much in character with a great house, with one's idea of what such a household should be!". Austen presents the Church of England as a force for stability that holds together family, customs and English traditions in contrast to Crawford whose lack of interest in religion makes her an alien and disruptive force in the English countryside.
Development of the novel
At least part of the novel may have been autobiographical. In 1802, the Reverend Harris Bigg Wither of the Church of England proposed marriage to Austen, which she declined. The reaction of her family is not known as after Jane's death in 1817, her letters from the year 1802 were burned by her family, but it is likely that her father who was anxious to get his daughter married off so that he would cease to have to support her would have been one of great disapproval. In Mansfield Park, Sir Thomas Bertram harshly lectures Fanny Price for refusing the marriage proposal of Henry Crawford, telling her she was being disgracefully selfish in not marrying a man she did not love, but who would have brought great material advantages. The novel ends with Price being vindicated in rejecting Crawford as supremely unsuitable husband material. Austen's sister Cassandra Austen wanted the novel to end with Price marrying Crawford, and this dispute is one of the few known between the sisters. The English studies professor John Halperin also noted that Austen's mother loved all of her novels except Mansfield Park, which he suggests may have been in part because of the similarities between Sir Thomas and her husband. Another additional autobiographical influence might be Austen's brother, Charles Austen who served as a Royal Navy officer during the Napoleonic wars. In the novel, Fanny's brother William joins the Royal Navy as an officer, whose ship, the HMS Thrush is sited right next to the HMS Cleopatra at Spithead. Captain Austen commanded the HMS Cleopatra during her cruise in North American waters to hunt French ships from September 1810 to June 1811, and assuming that the same HMS Cleopatra that had just arrived back in Spithead in the novel is the same HMS Cleopatra commanded by Captain Austen would date the main's events of the novel to 1810-1811. Likewise, the gift that William gives Fanny of an amber cross echoes the gift of a topaz cross given by Captain Austen to his sister Jane before he set sail to the Royal Navy's North America station based in Halifax and Bermuda.
General literary criticism
The story contains much social satire, targeted particularly at the two aunts. A major debate concerns whatever the character of Price is meant to be ironic, a parody of the wholesome heroines that were so popular in Regency novels. William H. Magee wrote in 1966 that "irony pervades if (it) does not dominate the presentation of Fanny Price." By contrast, Andrew Wright argued in 1968 that Price "is presented straight-forwardly, without any contradiction of any kind". Lionel Trilling maintained that Austen created Price as "irony directed against irony itself". By contrast, the American English professor Nina Auerbach argued that Price was a genteel version of the a popular archetype of the Romantic age; the monster who by the sheer act of existing does not and cannot ever fit into society. In Auebrach's interpretation of Price, she has more in common with the monster created by Victor Frankenstein in Mary Shelly's novel Frankenstein than she does with any of the other Austen heroines or the brooding character Hamlet, who was very popular with Romantic audiences. Auerbrach wrote that about that there is "...something horrible about her that deprives the imagination of its appetite for ordinary life and compels it toward the deformed, the dispossessed." Auerbach argues that Price defines herself in a negative sense, by refusing to involve herself in anything enjoyable or pleasant such as not acting in the play Lovers’ Vows or eating food only because she has to (and even then eating induces only nausea in her) a stern, priggish woman who watches the world around her in silent disapproval, a character who sums herself up in the line: "Madam, I know not seems". Auerbach sums Price "As a woman who belongs only where she is not, Fanny is a more indigestible figure than the wistful Victorian orphans for whom embracing their kin is a secular salvation. In the tenacity with which she adheres to an identity validated by no family, home, or love, she repudiates the vulnerability of the waif to the unlovable toughness of the authentic transplant. Repelling the conventional female endowments of love and home, Fanny passes from the isolation of the outcast to that of the conqueror, aligning her rather with the Romantic hero than with the heroine of romance: her solitude is her condition, not a state from which the comedy will save her....The mobility and malleability of Mansfield Park is a dark realization of an essentially Romantic vision, of which Fanny Price represents both the horror and the best hope. Only in Mansfield Park does Jane Austen force us to experience the discomfort of a Romantic universe presided over by the potent charm of a heroine who was not made to be loved."
The American literacy critic Harold Bloom called Fanny Price "...a co-descendant, together with Locke's association-menaced will, of the English Protestant emphasis upon the will's autonomy". In this regard, Bloom argued that paradoxically it was Price's lack of will to dominate that causes her will to triumph in the end as her struggle just to be herself causes her to exercise enough moral influence to make her triumphant in the end. Blood argued that Mansfield Park was a Romantic book, not in the High Romantic sense as practiced by the second generation Romantics, but during the quieter sense by the first generation Romantics who appreciated the sense of sublime quiet to be found in the countryside. The British writer C. S. Lewis condemned Price under the grounds "But into Fanny, Jane Austen, to counterbalance her apparent insignificance, has put really nothing except rectitude of mind, neither passion, nor physical courage, nor wit, nor resource". Bloom argued that through Lewis was correct on all these points, but he missed the importance of Price's will to be herself as a casual agent in the plot.
The American scholar John Halperin called Mansfield Park the "most eccentric" of all Austen's novels and her greatest failure, attacking the book for what he called an inane heroine, a pompous hero, a ponderous plot and "viperish satire". Halperin called the Bertram family appalling characters full of self-righteousness, debauchery and greed, as their own financial advantage seems to be their only interest. Halperin observed that when Sir Thomas leaves for Antigua, only Price is sad to see him go, for which she is rewarded by being told she is still immature. Halperin argued that the problem with the novel was the scenes set in Portsmouth are much more interesting than those in Mansfield Park, and Austen having portrayed the people living in Mansfield Park as greedy, selfish and materialistic for most of the novel, then presents life at Mansfield Park in idealised terms in the last chapters.
The American scholar Thomas Edwards wrote Mansfield Park is generally considered the most difficult of Austen's novels with even the fans praising only the "technical success" of the novel. Edwards argued that Mansfield Park is the most "beautiful" of Austen's novels, full of loving descriptions of the bucolic English countryside, and full of double entendres, when Henry and Maria get lost in the park at Sotherton Court park, leading Maria to complain about being trapped behind a "gate" that "gives me a feeling of restraint and hardship" to which Mr. Rushworth does take too long to find a "key" for, and asks for Henry to get "large" if only it were not "prohibited" , to which he replies "Prohibited! Nonsense!" a dialogue that seems to be as much about sex as about being trapped in the park. Edwards argues that it is the phlegmatic character of Edmund that saves him from falling for the sexual advances of Mary as he is simply too stolid and dim to grasp her double entendres, an aspect of his character that makes him unappealing to a modern audience. Edwards argues that there were more shades of grey to Mansfield Park than Austen's other novels, which again for those today who crave a Manichean worldview find off-putting. Edwards argues that in various subtle ways, Austen makes such points as the dangers imposed by meddling as the mean-spirited Mrs. Norris, who lacking any reason to love herself, takes to humiliating and hurting Fanny, as Austen suggests that her sadism is a result of lack of self-esteem. At one point, the novel implies that Mrs. Norris, who seems to only live for Sir Thomas's approval, upon seeing his liking for Fanny wants in a "moment of madness" to assume Fanny's identity. More broadly, Edwards argued that a lack of freedom motivated much of the novel's plot as besides for Mrs. Norris, Tom Bertram bullies others and whose fiscal extravagance takes away half of Edmund's income and Sir Thomas who had reduced Lady Bertram down to a semi-comatose state and his denial of freedom to his children caused them to lose moral judgement.
Most significantly, the desire to dominate others is what motivates the Crawfords. Henry Crawford is attracted to Fanny Price because he cannot fathom her mind, and is obsessed with "knowing" her, to destroy her identity and remake her into his own image of what he wants her to be, making him in many respects in Edwards's viewpoint the most monstrous of Austen's villains as he wants to erase Fanny's identity just to please his own vanity. Mary Crawford is likewise in her relations with Edmund is not prepared to accept him as he is, but only to remade into her own image of what a man should be. Edwards argued Austen could had easily titled Mansfield Park Conscience and Consciousness as the novel's main conflict is the struggle between conscience, what people really feel in their souls, and consciousness, which understood at the time to mean "having one's thoughts and attention unduly centered in one's own personality". The climactic struggle of the novel is Henry's efforts to win Fanny so he could impose his will on her, to remake her as he would like her to be, and Fanny's efforts to maintain her identity. Even when Henry tries to please Fanny as when renounces acting and discusses Shakespeare, he is still acting as he keeps a careful watch on Fanny's reaction, measuring his every word and the reaction on her face. Edwards wrote that the theatrical aspect of Henry, the man who is always acting can be seen in the way in which he considers careers in the Church of England and the Royal Navy after encounters with Edmund and William respectively, a man who has no identity of his own and who constantly reinvents himself.
Edwards argued that the adolescents of Mansfield Park are in many ways still children, and the danger of Lover's Vows is that the amateur actors cannot distinguish between acting and life, a point grasped by Mary who says "What gentleman among you am I to have the pleasure of making love to?". In this regard, the danger of the Crawfords is that they are always acting, and for them, Lover's Vows is a way to win Edmund and Maria, as both the Betrams come to understand. Edwards argues that Mansfield Park is considered difficult today because "There is little charm to these children, whose dominant emotion seems to be malice...only Fanny has full consciousness in the better sense, sympathetic understanding of what others feel." For example, when Edmund agrees to act in Lover's Vows, Tom and Maria only feel "glee" at the thought of the would be clergyman acting in an improper play, Maria enjoys seeing the discomfort on Julia's face when she acts with Henry, and Mary tells Fanny to marry Henry to "pay off the debts of one's sex" and to have a "triumph" at the expense of her brother. Through Price is the most likeable character in the novel, even she has been made flawed by Austen as her morality is "limited". Edwards called Price the "most human" of all the Austen heroines as she sometimes has negative emotions as when she tells Edmund that Mary wanted to marry him because she knew Tom was dying, and feels "gaiety" at his pain. Likewise, Edwards argued that Edmund was the "most believable" of Austen's heroes precisely he has "limitations", and there is "much here to respect" about Edmund, a prodding, if honest and good hearted man. Edwards noted that even when Edmund saw Mary for the last time, it is implied he was still sad to "close the door" on her forever. Edwards argued that both Edmund and Fanny are flawed characters who are perfect for each other for that very reason. Edwards concluded "Fanny and Edmund learn less, but that is the point; for once we are to consider people, who like most people, have no superabundance of wit and charm and wisdom are to get along in the world. They get along, quite simply, by avoiding what they cannot understand."
The insincerity of Crawford's feelings towards Price is demonstrated when he runs off with newly married Mrs. Maria Rushworth (nee Bertram), which exposes his callous, amoral nature and also conveniently destroys Edmund Bertram's relationship with Mary Crawford, making it possible for Price and Bertram to marry. Furthermore, the fact the scandal is reported in the newspapers further adds to the misery of the Bertrams and the fact that Henry takes Maria away from the community, thereby depriving the Betrams of a family member shows his selfish, egoistical character. The Canadian scholar Eleanor Ty wrote Austen, like Charlotte Turner Smith before her used "...disgraceful affairs to show the inconstancy and unsteadiness of the suitors. The rash, unthinking act of going off with a married woman becomes the irrevocable step that divides these incompatible suitors from the heroines". Ty suggested that Austen was inspired in her means of exposing Henry Crawford as not a gentleman by Smith's 1788 novel Emmeline, arguing there was a literacy tradition of women writers borrowing from each other's work, and that Austen was not as hostile towards Smith as often portrayed.
Austen has often criticized by writers such as Charlotte Brontë, Mark Twain and Elizabeth Barrett Browning for an excessive gentility and a lack of Sturm und Drang, but the Canadian scholar Juliet McMaster wrote "In our heart of hearts...don't we know that a full reading of a Jane Austen novel is a very moving experience, as well as an intellectually delectable one?" McMastern noted that Austen often used understatement to convey dramatic emotions in her novels where here characters feel powerful emotions while engaging in apparently banal behavior and dialogue. As an example of her thesis, McMaster used the expedition into the "little wilderness" of the Sotherton park, where Mary Crawford, Edmund Bertram and Fanny Price debated the merits of an ecclesiastical vs. a legal career. McMaster noted through the exchanges are light-hearted, the issues are serious as Edmund is asking Mary to love him for who he is while she indicates she will only marry him if he pursues a more lucrative career in the law. To subtly press her point, Austen provided conscious echoes in her description of the Sotherton Court park with its "sepentining" pathways of the Wandering Wood where the Redcrosse Knight gets lost in The Faerie Queene. Just as the Redcrosse Knight, the novice knight who symbolizes both England and Christian faith is lost within the dangerous and confusing Wandering Wood where he nearly abandons his true love Una for the seductive witch Duessa, so too is Edmund, the would-be Church of England minister is lost within the moral maze of Sotherton park. Later, when Fanny indicates that she is tired, and Edmund takes her arm to provide support and Mary extends him her arm, he expresses his amazement at how light her arm is. McMaster commented that the scene bears no resemblance to anything written by Austen's critic D. H. Lawrence who provided loving descriptions of what he called "That exquisite and immortal moment of a man's entry into the woman of his desire", but she argues that Edmund "...registers, and within the bounds of polite converse, expresses the trill he feels at this physical contact with Mary".. In this regard, McMaster wrote that the common criticism that it is unbelievable how Edmund transfers his affections from Mary to Fanny so quickly is not warranted as the "subsurface movement" of the novel had been "Edumund's unconscious courtship of Fanny, which is concurrent with his deliberate courtship of Mary".
The American scholar Stuart Tave noted that a major theme of Austen's novel is propriety, as she both mocks those who cling outwardly to propriety, often in a self-righteous manner without understanding what it really means and praises those who really live up to it. Those who really understand propriety in Austen's novel take into account both the feelings of others and drew the appropriate conclusions. Tave argued that the play Lover's Vows is a test of the character's commitment to propriety. The priggish Mrs. Norris sees herself as the guardian of propriety and is trusted by Sir Thomas before he leaves for Antigua to uphold propriety, a task she fails at completely by letting Lover's Vows be put on. Edmund objects to the play, as he knows it violates propriety in some way, but he fails to make the point, as bases his objections in specific matters rather the universal one of propriety. Only Fanny understands this point as she knows that playing the characters will also impact on the amateur actors, but she is not strong enough to persuade the others of her viewpoint. As the rehearsals continued, Fanny could clearly see the sexual tension and attraction between Edmund and Mary as they play the part of the two lovers, which fills her with misery and jealously. Tave wrote about Price and the play: "Excluded from the gaiety and busy employment of others, alone, sad, insignificant, seeing Mrs. Grant promoted to consequence and honor because Mrs. Grant accepted the character she herself refused, Fanny is in some danger of envying her. What distinguishes Fanny here, and throughout, is that she is capable of thought and recovery, and in this instance, reflection brings better feelings, showing her that even if she could have received the greatest respect she would never have been easy. It would have been easier to join a scheme, which considering only her uncle, she must condemn altogether". Finally, Tave suggests that when Sir Thomas shuts down Lover's Vows, this demonstrates the hypocrisy and myopic character of Sir Thomas as he is content to destroy the set and props without considering just what had led his children into putting on Lover's Vows in the first place as he is only concerned with the external aspects of people, not what really drives them.
The American scholar Alistair Duckworth noted that a recurring theme in Austen’s novels is the condition of the estates mirror those of their owners, with the fine condition of Pemberley being a testament to Mr. Darcy’s good character for example. In this regard, Duckworth noted the subject of improving the landscape keeps coming up in Mansfield Park with the landscape improver Humphry Repton being mocked for his theories, and Henry Crawford being a keen enthusiast for improving the landscape. Duckworth argued Austen took the motif of landscaping as a symbol of the human condition from Edmund Burke’s 1790 book The Reflections of the Revolution in France, where the condition of the estate is often a metaphor for society. Burke made a distinction between beneficial "improvements" to society, writing "A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation", and malign "innovations" and "alterations" to society, which were to be abhorred as they meant the destruction of all that had come before. Austen believed that estates, like society were in need of improvements from time to time, but the sort of changes advocated by Repton were "innovations" and "alterations" that would destroy the "whole original fabric" of the estate as she has Price say, just the French Revolution was in Austen’s view an entirely destructive force that sought to wipe out all that had come before. Austen's sister-in-law was Eliza de Feullide, a French aristocrat whose first husband, the Comte de Feullide, had been guillotined in Paris and who fled to Britain, where she married Henry Austen in 1797. The account of the execution of the Comte de Feullide as related by her sister-in-law left Austen with an intense dread and horror of the French Revolution that lasted for the rest of her life. The run-down condition of Sotherton Court exposes the danger of atrophy as Rushworth had neglected his estate, leading Price to complain "There is nothing awful here, nothing melancholy, nothing grand" as there should be. Later, when Henry Crawford suggests destroying the grounds of Thornton Lacy to create something new, his plans are rejected by Edmund Bertram who insists the estate needs some improvements here and there, but he wishes to preserve in the main what has been created over the centuries. In Austen’s world, the true mark of a man worth marrying is a man who keeps his estate well maintained with a respect for tradition, and so Bertram’s reformist conservatism marks him out as a hero.
The British scholar Margaret Kirkham argued that Austen was a feminist writer who liked complexity, humor, and in presenting puzzles for her readers, and many have missed the feminist irony of the character of Price. Kirkham argued that Austen was a feminist in the sense she believed that women were equally endowed with reason and common sense with men, and the ideal marriage should be between two people who love each other. Kirkham argued that Mansfield Park was an attack upon the Swiss writer Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s 1762 book Emile, or On Education and those influenced by him, which depicted the ideal woman as fragile, submissive, and physically weaker than men. At the beginning of the novel, Price with her constant illnesses, timid disposition, submissiveness, and fragility conforms outwardly to Rousseau’s ideal woman, and she is miserable for it. Kirkham wrote that Price, through her reason and common sense is able to triumph in the end, which contradicts the prevailing ideal of femininity in Regency England. In the 1772 court case Somerset v Stewart, where slavery was declared by the Lord Justice Mansfield to be illegal in the United Kingdom (through not the British Empire), in a much quoted line, one of the lawyers for James Somerset, the slave demanding his freedom had said "English air is too pure for slaves to breath", citing a ruling from a court case in 1569 freeing a Russian slave brought to England. Throughout the novel, Austen makes repeated references to the refreshing, wholesome quality of English air, an subtle attack upon Sir Thomas who owes slaves on his planation in Antigua and treats Price in the earlier parts of the novel like a slave, yet enjoys the English air, oblivious to the ironies involved. Austen was an avid abolitionist who often read anti-slavery books, and it is likely she was familiar with Lord Mansfield's ruling about that anyone who breathed English air was free and could never be a slave.
The Canadian scholar David Monaghan wrote Mansfield Park is like all of Austen's novels a conservative novel, meant to celebrate the ordered society of Regency England with the carefully maintained rows of trees at Mansfield Park being a symbol of the organic principles which formed the basis of English society with its "consideration of times and seasons" and the proper values of "elegance, propriety, regularity, harmony". The principle flaw with both Sir Thomas and Rushworth is their inability to live up to the standards of the English gentry, leaving "landed society...ripe for corruption". The Crawfords from London represent the money-grubbing, vulgar middle class who are the antithesis of Austen's rural ideal, from a world "everything is to be got with money" and where impersonal "crowds" have replaced "peace and tranquility" as the social benchmarks. Only Price is aware of the value of the old manners and in Austen's world manners make for morals, and thus it falls to her to defend the English idyllic society, despite the fact she is in many ways unequipped for the task.
Monaghan argued the main conflict in the novel is Price’s struggle to assert herself and save the values represented by Mansfield Park from corruption. In the first part of the novel Price is passive, a character generally ignored by the other characters. In the conversation about the value of improvement to a estate, Price’s conservatism emerges when she objects to Rushworth’s plans to destroy the trees at Sotherton as she values what has emerged naturally over the centuries. The materialist Mary Crawford says she is willing to accept any improvements money can buy just as long she does not have to look at the work while Henry is only interested in the work of improvement, not the finished product, which reflects their bad sense of time; Henry lives in the present, Mary thinks only of the future and only Fanny can think of the past, present and the future. At the visit to Sotherton, only Price is able to appreciate the charm of this great house, “built in Elizabeth’s time”, despite its neglected condition, as a symbol of traditions going far back in time while everyone dismisses Sotherton as “a dismal old prison”. When Edmund chooses to go into the “serpentine course” in the woods with Mary and abandons Price, this reflects her general powerlessness against Mary’s charm.
The play Lover’s Vows marks the novel’s turning point as despite her dislike for a play that “combines political radicalism and sexual permissiveness”, Price reluctantly takes part as she sees the importance of being socially involved to influence society for the better. Previously lost in a world of books, Price sees she must stand up to win the love she craves from Edmund. It is this change in personality, seen by Sir Thomas, who now appreciates Price’s moral qualities, who allows Price a dinner with the Grants and provides her with a carriage that befits a lady, despite the efforts of Mrs. Norris to sabotage Price’s social coming out. When Henry Crawford complains of how Lover's Vows was shut down by Sir Thomas, Price firmly expresses her disapproval of his attitude, which makes Crawford to pay attention to her for the first time. Reflecting her new social prestige, Price is given the honor of opening the ball at Mansfield Park.
In the third part, Price is forced to be inactive again, to see if Crawford is worthy of her or not; at the same time, Price knows she can best serve the Bertrams by refusing to marry Crawford despite their pressure on her to give in. When Price does become active again when she loses interest in her needlework to allow her eyes to be locked with Crawford’s, she nearly loses Edmund who is convinced she does not love him. When Crawford comes to court Price at Portsmouth, despite being impressed to a certain extent by him, by remaining inactive, she demands of Crawford more perseverance and moral commitment than what he is capable of, which causes the superficial Crawford to soon lose interest in her. And in this way, Price marries Edmund and upholds the values which she chernises.
The American scholar Susan Morgan called Mansfield Park the most difficult of all Austen’s novels as it features the most weakest of all of Austen’s heroines who ends up the most beloved member of the Bertram family. Morgan argue that to understand the novel properly requires understanding of the capacity for characters to change or not to change. Mary Crawford, while possessing some good qualities and having much charm and vivacity is ultimately doomed by her superficiality, materialism and an inability to change. A telling example of Mary’s character occurs when says "Look, where I will, I see that it is so; and I feel that it must be", as she assumes that what she sees before her is all that will ever be, and the possibility of anything else existing does not occur to her. Through not devoid of kindness, Mary has a strong competitive streak that leads her to see love as a game where one party conquers and controls the other, which coupled with her cynicism and narcissism makes her insensitive towards the feelings of others, as she insists that Edmund abandons his clerical career merely it is not prestigious enough for her and her inability to appreciate improvements, as she likes things whole and lacks the discernment to value change in one's moral character and the hard work necessary to bring it about. Price by contrast is unique amongst the Austen heroines in that her story begins when she is 10 and traces her story up to the age 17. When Price is sent to Mansfield Park, her tears at leaving the only home she has ever known, shows her awareness of the past, of who she is and was, and her wish to maintain her identity. Morgan wrote through Price is a flawed heroine, she possesses "…the energy, open to us all, to struggle against selfishness, toward self-knowledge, and that generosity of mind which should illuminate our view of the people around us.". Austen also suggests change can be either for the worse or the better as Price almost succumbs to Henry Crawford’s charm and apparent reformation of character, even though she knows deep down that he is by nature malleable and undependable because he does not feel very much, and therefore whatever his passions are now will be easily replaced. Morgan argued that Price’s principle virtue is that of" growing worth", her ability to understand the world around her, to use her reason, to care about others, to change yet remain true to herself.
Marking 200 years after this novel was published, Paula Byrne, author of a biography of Jane Austen, wrote a perspective on it, a novel she loves, while aware that Mansfield Park is not generally viewed as she sees it. The subtitle to Byrne's article was "Ignore its uptight reputation – Mansfield Park, published 200 years ago this month, seethes with sex and explores England’s murkiest corners". The title of the novel and the family estate may well reflect Lord Mansfield, whose decision as Lord Chief Justice in a court case led to the end of slavery in Britain itself, and the name of Aunt Norris may be drawn from Robert Norris, the opposite of the judge, as Norris was "an infamous slave trader and a byword for pro-slavery sympathies." Sir Thomas Bertram's home, Mansfield Park, was "a newly built property, a house erected on the proceeds of the British slave trade." It is not an old structure like the one belonging to Rushworth, or the estate homes described in other of Austen's novels, like Pemberley in Pride and Prejudice or Domwell Abbey in Emma. Byrne finds this novel bold in its humour, containing "Austen’s filthiest joke, when she makes a pun about sodomy in the Navy: “My home at my uncle’s brought me acquainted with a circle of admirals. Of Rears and Vices, I saw enough. Now, do not be suspecting me of a pun, I entreat.”" She posits that the heroine Fanny Price is "the filter through which we view the mesmerising Crawfords", the Londoners who bring their lively, seductive ways to the countryside. She finds this novel to be "pioneering because it is a novel about meritocracy." The novel is an exploration of the role of parents in raising their children and forming their moral characters, as shown by Sir Thomas in his changing view of his niece: he first feels that she is not on the same level as his daughters, but at the end, he acknowledges her advantages in starting from hardship in her parents' home, recognizing his failings in guiding his own daughters. "At the centre of the book is a displaced child with an unshakeable conscience. A true heroine."
In chapter 21, the slave trade is briefly mentioned as a failed topic of conversation upon the return of Sir Thomas Bertram to his home and family. Austen does not mention the Slave Trade Act 1807, which abolished the slave trade, though not slavery, in the British Empire. The Act passed four years before she started the novel and was the culmination of a long campaign by abolitionists, notably William Wilberforce. Slavery was not abolished in the British Empire until 1833. The death rate on the slave plantations in the Caribbean was so high owing to yellow fever and malaria that abolitionists believed that abolishing the slave trade would be enough to end slavery in the West Indies as the plantation owners would not be able to stay in business without fresh importations of slaves from Africa. Additionally slaves were considered property, and the abolitionists believed correctly that Parliament was far more likely to vote to abolish the slave trade rather than slavery. Austen herself was an abolitionist who in a letter to her sister Cassandra about about the anti-slavery books of Thomas Clarkson that "I am as much in love with the author as ever I was with Clarkson". Slaves were purchased from African kings by European slavers in exchange for European goods, taken to the West Indies on the infamous "Middle Passage", and after selling their slaves, the slavers then loaded their ships up with sugar to take back to Europe, completing the Triangular trade.
The American literary critic Edward Said implicated the novel in his 1993 book Culture and Imperialism in western culture's casual acceptance of the material benefits of slavery and imperialism (a connection already made by Vladimir Nabokov in his Lectures on Literature, delivered in the 1940s although not published until 1980), citing Austen's failure to mention that the estate of Mansfield Park was made possible only through slave labour. Said was relentless in his attacks against Austen, depicting her as a racist and supporter of slavery whose books should be condemned rather than celebrated. Said's thesis that Austen wrote Mansfield Park to glorify slavery is a popular one with the editor of a Penguin edition of Mansfield Park writing in the introduction that Said had established Mansfield Park “as part of the structure of an expanding imperialist venture". At another point, however, Said seems to have acknowledged that Jane Austen disapproved of slavery:
"All the evidence says that even the most routine aspects of holding slaves on a West Indian sugar plantation were cruel stuff. And everything we know about Jane Austen and her values is at odds with the cruelty of slavery. Fanny Price reminds her cousin that after asking Sir Thomas about the slave trade, "there was such a dead silence" as to suggest that one world could not be connected with the other since there simply is no common language for both. That is true."
Said argued in Culture and Imperalism that there were widespread ideas about Britain and the rest of the world in the 19th century that tended to glorify "our world" by devaluing the world of others. Said maintained that the contradiction between the warm, humanist world of Britain that was best exampled by Austen's idealised, bucolic English countryside vs. the brutal and rapacious exploitation of other people's countries in the British Empire depended upon a certain geographical understanding of morality with one what would be impermissible at home being all too permissible in the colonies of the British Empire. Said stated that this spatial way of understanding the world turns up with "inert regularity" in British literature from the 16th century onward, and formed a "vital part" of British national identity. Said argued that Austen embraced and promoted this spatial understanding of the world in Mansfield Park. Said argued that the play that is about to put on, which Price disapproves of, reflected the opposition between the "indecent" culture of France as represented by the lewd play vs. the "decent" culture of English domesticity as represented by Price. Likewise, Said argued that without the paterfamilias of Sir Thomas to provide the order necessary to underpin English domesticity, his family falls apart with the young people engaging in flirtatious behavior and the indecent play Lover's Vows about to put on. Said maintained that when Sir Thomas returned from his plantation in Antigua, which he tended to as a good master, he likewise restores order to Mansfield Park. Said argued that the reader is left with no doubt that Sir Thomas was also able to restore order at his slave plantation in Antigua just as he did upon his return to Mansfield Park, and that Austen created the character of Sir Thomas as the archetypal good master just as competent at running his estate in the English countryside as was in exploiting his slaves in the West Indies. Said admitted Austen does not talk much in the book about the slave plantation owed by Sir Thomas, but he contended that Austen wrote in such a manner she expected the reader to "assume" that the Bertram family's wealth was due to profits produced by the sugar worked by their African slaves, which he argued reflected Austen's assumption that this was just the natural order of the world. Said wrote that Austen was "not a neutral" writer, but instead a "politically charged" writer who depicted the "world out there" as a both a place of no great significance and a place that provided the wealth that supported the Bertram family, which he argued reflected a thoroughly imperialistic understanding of the world. Said stated that because the Bertrams owned their wealth to a slave plantation in Antigua, that Austen wrote the novel to glorify those families who become so rich in the 18th and early 19th centuries thanks to their investments in the sugar plantations of the West Indies.
The Japanese scholar Hidetada Mukai wrote Austen never gave the precise wealth of the Bertram family, but it is mentioned that Mr. Rushworth has an annual income of £12, 000 pounds and the Bertrams live on less than that. Hidetda noted that Mansfield Park is described in the novel as a modern house, and Sir Thomas wants Maria to marry Mr. Rushworth to improve the social prestige of his family, suggesting that the Bertrams are a nouveau riche family whose income depends on the plantation in Antigua. The abolition of the slave trade in 1807 did indeed, as the abolitionists had hoped, imposed serious strain on the plantations of the British West Indies as without new slaves from Africa to replace the ones who had died of yellow fever and malaria, it become more difficult to turn a profit owning to labor shortages, and Austen may have been referring to this crisis on the Caribbean plantations when Sir Thomas leaves for Antigua for two years to deal with unspecified problems on his plantation. Hidetada pointed that when Sir Thomas returns after his two year absence in Antigua, none of his children are happy to see him again, suggesting that Sir Thomas is an oppressive father, and that Austen made him a slave master with his plantation in Antigua as an way of indicating that. Hidetada further argued that Austen made Sir Thomas a slave master as an feminist attack on the patriarchal society of Regency England, noting that the way in which Sir Thomas treats woman, including his own daughters and as well as Price, as disposable commodities to be traded and bartered for to his own advantage is parallel with his treatment of his slaves who are exploited to support his lifestyle. Hidetada also noted that Sir Thomas talks much about his time in the West Indies, but when Price asks him about his slaves, she is greeted with "dead silence", suggesting Sir Thomas cannot speak of something that he knows in his heart to be wrong.
Said's thesis that Austen was an apologist for slavery and wrote Mansfield Park as an justification of slavery received much attention when the 1999 film version of Mansfield Park by the Canadian director Patricia Rozema presented the Bertram family as morally corrupt and degenerate because Sir Thomas owned slaves in the West Indies and by implication the entire British elite, adding in a scene that was not in the book where Price hears terrible cries from a ship off the coast and learns that the ship is a slave ship bringing in its human cargo to Portsmouth. The Australian historian Keith Windschuttle criticised Rozema for this scene, noting that slaves were carried from Africa to the Caribbean on the infamous “Middle Passage” and that slave ships would not had operating off the British coast. British slave ships traveled to West Africa, especially the ominously named Slave Coast in what is now modern Nigeria, where the slavers bartered goods like guns to in exchange for slaves. There were other regions in West Africa where slavering was also an important economic activity. The Ashanti were a fierce warrior people living in what called the Gold Coast by the Europeans and is today modern Ghana who regularly enslaved fellow Africans to sell to the Europeans in order to obtain guns and other European products, to fight their wars in order to enslave even more Africans. The slaves were then carried on the slave ships on the "Middle Passage" to the West Indies. After selling the slaves, the ships returned to Britain loaded with sugar and tobacco, completing the Triangular trade. Thus, Windschuttle maintained that Rozema had a very poor understanding of both history and geography to have slave ships operating in the English Channel ca. 1800, and that Austen would never had made such mistakes. The case of Somerset v Stewart in 1772 had declared slavery illegal within the United Kingdom (but not the rest of the British Empire) and that any slave who entered the United Kingdom was free. The case made it pointless for someone to import slaves into Britain around 1800 as the slaves would have been freed if they had landed. Windschuttle further argued that a major part of the plot of Mansfield Park was the disintegration of Sir Thomas Bertram's family after he goes away on an extended business trip. Since Austen set Mansfield Park in England ca. 1810, she needed a reason to have Bertram away on an extended trip, and since Britain is a small country and the Napoleonic Wars were raging in Europe, she had Bertram visit a slave plantation he owned in Antigua. Thus, Windschutte maintained that contra Said Austen made Bertram a plantation owner not because she was a racist who supported slavery (which Austen was in fact opposed to), but rather because she needed a believable reason to have Bertram away from Mansfield Park for a lengthy period of time.
Gabrielle White criticised Said's condemnation of Jane Austen and western culture, maintaining that Austen and other writers, including Samuel Johnson and Edmund Burke, opposed slavery and helped make its eventual abolition possible. Claire Tomalin, following literary critic Brian Southam, claims that Fanny, usually so timid, questions her uncle about the slave trade and receives no answer, suggesting that her vision of the trade's immorality is clearer than his. However, Ellen Moody has challenged Southam's interpretation, arguing that Fanny's uncle would not have been "pleased" (as the text suggests) to be questioned on the subject if Southam's reading of the scene were correct. Windschuttle in an article criticizing Said's thesis wrote: “The idea that, because Jane Austen presents one plantation-owning character, of whom heroine, plot and author all plainly disapprove, she thereby becomes a handmaiden of imperialism and slavery, is to misunderstand both the novel and the biography of its author, who was an ardent opponent of the slave trade”. Likewise, the British author Ibn Warraq accused Said of a “most egregious misreading” of Mansfield Park and condemned him for a “lazy and unwarranted reading of Jane Austen”, arguing that Said had completely distorted Mansfield Park to give Austen views that she did not hold to score political points. Warraq argued that because Said was attempting to prove in Culture and Imperialism that the Western civilization was rotten to the core and that all Westerners had been always been evil, racist imperialists from the beginning of the West right up to the present that he was prejudiced against Austen in a way that totally unfair and lacked even a “coherent thesis” against Austen.
While Mansfield Park was ignored by reviewers at first publication, it was a great success with the public. The first printing "sold out within six months" and in 1816 she had a second printing which also sold out. Austen's earnings on this novel were larger than for any of her other novels published in her lifetime. This novel received its first positive critical review in 1821, in a review of all of Jane Austen's published novels by Richard Whately, who specifically noted the character of Fanny Price. Regency critics praised the novel's wholesome morality; Jane Austen's mother thought Fanny "insipid", though other unpublished private reviewers liked the character, as Jane Austen collected comments by those in her social circle about Fanny Price.
In the late 20th century, Mansfield Park raised controversy among reviewers. In 1974, the American literacy critic Joel Weinsheimer wrote that Mansfield Park was of all the Austen novels "...perhaps the most profound; certainly it is the most problematic". Many modern readers find it difficult to sympathise with Fanny's timidity and her disapproval of the theatricals difficult, finding her "priggish, passive, naive and hard to like." They reject the idea made explicit in the final chapter that she is a better person for the relative privations of her childhood. Other critics point out that she is a complex personality, perceptive yet given to wishful thinking, and that she shows courage and grows in self-esteem during the latter part of the story. Austen biographer Claire Tomalin, who is generally critical of Fanny, argues that "it is in rejecting obedience in favour of the higher dictate of remaining true to her own conscience that Fanny rises to her moment of heroism." But Tomalin reflects the ambivalence that many readers feel towards Fanny when she also writes: "More is made of Fanny Price's faith, which gives her the courage to resist what she thinks is wrong; it also makes her intolerant of sinners, whom she is ready to cast aside."
Margaret Kirkham in her essay titled "Feminist Irony and the Priceless Heroine of Mansfield Park" has commented directly on the positions of both Rousseau and Wollstonecraft regarding the type of feminism Austen explores in the depiction of Fanny Price. For Kirkham, these two views are highly contrasting with Rousseau portraying the role of women as limited by "feminine" frailties which, counter-intuitively, Rousseau encourages women to exaggerate in order to affectionately manipulate their effect on men as he states in his book Emile: "So far from being ashamed of their weakness, they glory in it; their tender muscles make no resistance; they affect to be incapable of lifting the smallest burdens, and would blush to be thought robust and strong." Wollstonecraft for her part agreed with Austen's perspective contrary to both Rousseau and his followers in this regard such as Fordyce whom Kirkham criticizes stating: "I know not any comment that can be made seriously on this curious passage (from Fordyce and Rousseau), and I could produce many similar ones; and some so very sentimental, that I have heard rational men used the word indecent when they mentioned them with disgust." Kirkham, siding with Austen, was critical of the "feminine" frailties school represented by Rousseau and Fordyce.