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.