books, Fanny Price, Jane Austen, literature, Lyn Bennett, Mansfield Park, Mansfield Park 200th anniversary, Pride and Prejudice
Happy 200th anniversary to Mansfield Park, published on this day in 1814. Mansfield Park is not as famous as Jane Austen’s “darling child” Pride and Prejudice, but it’s still beloved, and the celebrations are just beginning. Please join us here every Friday this year as we read the novel together – open “Your Invitation to Mansfield Park” for more details.
I’m very happy to introduce Lyn Bennett’s guest post on the opening paragraph of Mansfield Park. Lyn is an Associate Professor at Dalhousie University, where she teaches classes in rhetoric, writing, and close reading. As well as Women Writing of Divinest Things (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 2004), she has published numerous articles on topics rhetorical and literary, from public discourse in Interregnum England, to interdisciplinarity in literary studies, to the critical reception of Edith Wharton. (Hooray for Edith Wharton!) Her current research focuses on medicine, illness, and the 17th-century writer, considering the work of non-medical writers as well as the physicians who gave discursive shape to the profession that would come to dominate medicine by century’s end. She is also an avid gardener who likes the country almost as much as Jane Austen.
About thirty years ago Miss Maria Ward, of Huntingdon, with only seven thousand pounds, had the good luck to captivate Sir Thomas Bertram, of Mansfield Park, in the county of Northampton, and to be thereby raised to the rank of a baronet’s lady, with all the comforts and consequences of an handsome house and large income. All Huntingdon exclaimed on the greatness of the match, and her uncle, the lawyer, himself, allowed her to be at least three thousand pounds short of any equitable claim to it. She had two sisters to be benefited by her elevation; and such of their acquaintance as thought Miss Ward and Miss Frances quite as handsome as Miss Maria, did not scruple to predict their marrying with almost equal advantage. But there certainly are not so many men of large fortune in the world as there are pretty women to deserve them. Miss Ward, at the end of half a dozen years, found herself obliged to be attached to the Rev. Mr. Norris, a friend of her brother-in-law, with scarcely any private fortune, and Miss Frances fared yet worse. Miss Ward’s match, indeed, when it came to the point, was not contemptible: Sir Thomas being happily able to give his friend an income in the living of Mansfield; and Mr. and Mrs. Norris began their career of conjugal felicity with very little less than a thousand a year. But Miss Frances married, in the common phrase, to disoblige her family, and by fixing on a lieutenant of marines, without education, fortune, or connexions, did it very thoroughly. She could hardly have made a more untoward choice. Sir Thomas Bertram had interest, which, from principle as well as pride—from a general wish of doing right, and a desire of seeing all that were connected with him in situations of respectability, he would have been glad to exert for the advantage of Lady Bertram’s sister; but her husband’s profession was such as no interest could reach; and before he had time to devise any other method of assisting them, an absolute breach between the sisters had taken place. It was the natural result of the conduct of each party, and such as a very imprudent marriage almost always produces. To save herself from useless remonstrance, Mrs. Price never wrote to her family on the subject till actually married. Lady Bertram, who was a woman of very tranquil feelings, and a temper remarkably easy and indolent, would have contented herself with merely giving up her sister, and thinking no more of the matter; but Mrs. Norris had a spirit of activity, which could not be satisfied till she had written a long and angry letter to Fanny, to point out the folly of her conduct, and threaten her with all its possible ill consequences. Mrs. Price, in her turn, was injured and angry; and an answer, which comprehended each sister in its bitterness, and bestowed such very disrespectful reflections on the pride of Sir Thomas as Mrs. Norris could not possibly keep to herself, put an end to all intercourse between them for a considerable period.
– From Mansfield Park, Chapter 1 (Kindle Edition)
Jane Austen’s third published novel doesn’t offer a platitudinous beginning like that so often quoted from her second. Begun while Austen was revising First Impressions to become Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park takes a different approach, opening with the comparatively tortuous “About thirty years ago, Miss Maria Ward, of Huntingdon, with only seven thousand pounds, had the good luck to captivate Sir Thomas Bertram, of Mansfield Park, in the county of Northampton, and to be thereby raised to the rank of a baronet’s lady, with all the comforts and consequences of an handsome house and large income.” Far from famous, Mansfield Park’s first line doesn’t offer the memorable simplicity of “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
Like Pride and Prejudice’s, however, Mansfield Park’s beginning focuses on the elder generation and not the novel’s young protagonist. Yet the opening prominence of Fanny Price’s aunt resists conceding to her any more agency, either formally or substantively, than the Bertram women are willing to grant to their dependent niece and cousin. On the contrary, the future Lady Bertram proves an ineffectual actor not only in the novel but also in an opening sentence whose subject, “Miss Maria Ward,” lies far from the main and therefore finite verb “had.” Interrupting actor and action, the adjectivals “of Huntingdon” and “with only seven thousand pounds” focus our attention not on subject or verb but on incidentals presented in linked yet separate prepositional phases that do more to delay than enliven.
The details of Miss Maria Ward’s origins (the place whose inhabitants all “exclaimed on the greatness of the match”) and her fortune (which, in case of readers who may be unaware of relative monetary values some thirty years earlier, is “only seven thousand pounds”) serve both to fashion the subject and to defer the sentence’s notably weak verb. What Miss Maria Ward “had,” we learn, is the mere “good luck to captivate” Sir Thomas Bertram, the sentence’s grammatical object who is defined also by place and fortune. The novel’s beginning makes clear that this match succeeded not through intrinsic worth of character or decisive action, but by luck and circumstance.
Of this we are reminded again as the sentence’s subject becomes the object raised “to the rank of a baronet’s lady.” Mansfield Park may begin by offering Miss Maria Ward as actor and subject, but the most important information conveyed is not what she does. As we soon find out, the married Lady Bertram does very little, and Miss Maria Ward is the passive recipient of “all the comforts and consequences” attached to her elevation as Sir Thomas’s wife. The future wife may be the sentence’s subject, but the man who was once the captivated object becomes, as husband, the implied agent of its climactic action.
Such grammatical and syntactic complexity is the hallmark of an introduction that traces a web of family relations not easily discerned. In form as well as content, Austen represents a complex social world in which a woman’s future depended on the match she made. Ideally, that match would raise a woman’s wealth or status (as with the lucky Miss Ward’s, whose union came about though she was “at least three thousand pounds short of any equitable claim”) while also recognizing norms and limitations (defiance of which, we discover, could produce frightening outcomes).
Making this point through a series of complex and multi-clausal sentences, the introduction describes the nuptial fates of the two other Ward sisters, one of whom made a marriage not stellar but at least “not contemptible,” and one who “fared yet worse.” Notably, the former came to her “not contemptible” union (understatedly expressed by what it is not) after a twelve-year drought on the marriage market, at which time she “found herself obliged to be attached to the Rev. Mr. Norris,” while the latter “fared yet worse” through an action of her own, the wilful “fixing on a lieutenant of marines” that led her “to disoblige her family” in becoming the downwardly mobile Mrs. Price.
Lacking her sister Lady Bertram’s “very tranquil feelings, and a temper remarkably easy and indolent” or the benefits granted to the Reverend and Mrs. Norris by Sir Thomas, who was “happily able to give his friend an income in the living of Mansfield,” Frances Price pays not only in name but also in consequence for her failure properly to recognize social codes inseparable from familial obligation. Neglected by the indolent Lady Bertram and chastised by the busy Mrs. Norris, “Mrs. Price, in her turn, was injured and angry,” having learned little and persistently defiant in a letter “which comprehended each sister in its bitterness, and bestowed such very disrespectful reflections on the pride of Sir Thomas.” The result is “an end to all intercourse between them for a considerable period,” and the end to an introduction that may be as deliberately distracting as it is verbose.
What her sisters fail to recognize as they variously ignore, ostracize, and condemn poor Mrs. Price is what the attentive reader should. Though overshadowed by the details of the family’s busy history, the sentiment is crystal clear: despite all of Huntingdon’s hopes, the narrator insists, “there certainly are not so many men of large fortune in the world as there are pretty women to deserve them.” Austen thus answers Pride and Prejudice’s famous first line with a platitude that proves ironic both within Mansfield Park and between it and the earlier novel. In a world that offered little to women outside of making an advantageous match, this may be the narrator’s and the novel’s most important point. Obscured yet available from its very beginning, then, is Mansfield Park’s vital lesson – that the simple clarity we later learn to associate with Fanny Price may offer truths we would do well to acknowledge.
Mary C. M. Phillips said:
Reblogged this on Caffeine Epiphanies and commented:
The celebration of the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mansfield Park starts today at SarahEmsley.com.
Excellent! The more the merrier.
Fascinating comparison on opening lines, and the outcome that matched them in both books. In P&P, with two brilliant marriages of the sisters, that left the two remaining unmarried Bennet sisters in an excellent position for more of the same…the numbers match up here…the odds were in their favor!…but the older wiser Mansfield Park points out that this does not reflect the real world. Thank you for highlighting that.
I wonder if Austen had been thinking about the subsequent fates of Mary and Kitty Bennet (or had been asked by many faithful readers) and ruefully had to admit that even ‘she’ could not conjure up, for those ‘pretty women… enough men of large fortune to deserve them’.
Thanks for this great opening post!
LikeLiked by 1 person
Thank you for reading and for your feedback. Your point about Mary and Kitty is intriguing, and my initial response would be that that may have been exactly the point Austen meant to make (ruefully or not). As entertaining as her work may be, she surely aimed to teach as well as delight. Great comment!
What a great antidote to those who still think that Austen is about romance! You so aptly explore the Austen world where society provides “little to women outside of making an advantageous match”.
Thank you. Yes, indeed, Austen is much more a realist than a romantic, and she works very hard to dispel fantasies of love and fortune. For her, marriage is an obligation that must be taken up cautiously and with crystal (not starry!)-eyed clarity.
Melinda Borrell said:
I love Fanny Price very much and think her escape was a very near thing. She could easily have been forgotten or have married the wrong man, thinking he had reformed. Her family, especially under Mrs. Norris’s advice, could have turned against her for not marrying Mr. Crawford, thus “causing” the social demise of Maria. That reason and justice win out is the happy ending that the very vulnerable and weak Fanny Price is lucky to garner. Wharton would not have allowed it, for sure!
Good point. Yes, Fanny may be lucky, at least in the timing of Crawford’s elopement with Maria. Though she does come close to making what would have been a terrible mistake, she dodges the Crawford bullet precisely because she held out for so long (despite the repeated nagging of Mrs. Norris and others). Fanny may be socially and economically vulnerable, but she’s certainly not weak in character. Thanks for your comment!
Pingback: Aggregatore #4 [5-11 maggio] | Austenismi
Something that strikes me in regards to the sentiment that “there certainly are not so many men of large fortune in the world as there are pretty women to deserve them” is that the men of largest fortune in Mansfield Park end up unattached by the end of the book. Mr. Rushworth (the wealthiest of all of Austen’s young gentlemen) is left by his wife; Tom Bertram is reformed but alone; Henry Crawford will never have his passion for Fanny requited. Here are several “men of large fortune” who are available but not morally desirable. In a related twist, the wealthiest woman in the book, Mary Crawford, is too morally weak to retain Edmund’s affection and yet mentally acute enough to be unhappy with all her alternatives. And Maria, the Bertram beauty, is socially radioactive after her adulterous affair with Henry. Large fortune and pretty faces don’t guarantee happiness in the world of Mansfield Park.
By contrast, the comic Julia makes a happy, if hasty, match with the middling Mr. Yates, and Fanny and Edmund find true fulfillment at the miserly rate of 700 pounds per annum.
Yours is a really interesting (and telling!) observation. I’m now thinking that Austen’s platitudinous rebuttal to the opening of P and P may be even more deeply ironic than I had noticed — which makes her critique even more biting. Thanks for sharing!
Thank you, and I should said how much I enjoyed your in-depth grammatical analysis of the first line of MP — commenting too late at night means that one often forgets to include the most essential points. I’m really looking forward to following this series.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Sarah Emsley said:
Fascinating point about the ending. I’m so glad you’re joining us for the series!
Pingback: Adopting Affection | Sarah Emsley
Pingback: The First Three Months of the Mansfield Park Party! | Sarah Emsley
Ellen Margolis said:
Am just at the point in my –th rereading of Mansfield Park where Fanny, visiting Portsmouth, is struck by the effects of time and care on her mother’s looks compared to her Aunt Bertram’s. Very much the extrapolation of that first paragraph. I am glad that Austen attended to that thread so thoughtfully right through to the later chapters. And I thoroughly enjoyed your analysis above!
LikeLiked by 1 person
Thank you for your comment, Ellen. The wonderful thing about Austen is that the more you look, the more there is to admire!
LikeLiked by 1 person
Pingback: Five Years! | Sarah Emsley
Don Shull said:
I just discovered this site after only a third reading over nearly fifty years. I was astonished that Austen lets us see things from the points of view of both Henry and Mary. Even more astonishing is the narrator’s claim that Henry would have sustained his moral improvement if he had married Fanny, and that she would have done so if Edmund and Mary had married. This seems to indicate that such a marriage would not have been the disaster I’d always assumed.
Pingback: Reading, Misreading, and the Plain Truth | Sarah Emsley
Donald Shull said:
I’m reading MP again. As a medievalist who learned the the reification of the concept “Love” is a cultural construct. Once people began distinguishing between “Real Love” at about the time of William IX of Poitou, we have not been able to quit. It is still commonplace to think it is important between “Real Love” and the pale imitation. People still ask themselves if what they feel is “really love.” And this time I notice that the narrator routinely uses the word “love” or the phrase “fall in love” for some clearly shallow relationships. All the pop books about relationships and all the marriage enrichment seminars would object to this use, I think.
Tali Avishay-Arbel said:
I am not sure about Henry’s possible reform, from the Author’s point of view. What are we told, about if he had persisted and not gone after Maria? “Would he have persevered, and uprightly, Fanny must have been his reward, and a reward very voluntarily bestowed, within a reasonable period from Edmund’s marrying Mary.
Had he done as he intended, and as he knew he ought, by going down to Everingham after his return from Portsmouth, he might have been deciding his own happy destiny.”
1. he would have succeeded in persuading Fanny to marry him
2. he would have been happy.
But does that mean that Fanny would have been happy? or that he would be reformed?
Mary gives a realistic description of Henry and Fanny’s future, if they had married: “It would have all ended in a regular standing flirtation, in yearly meetings at Sotherton and Everingham.”. Can anybody doubt that the yearly meetings would include Henry and Maria in bed together?