In Volume 3 of Mansfield Park, Sir Thomas decides to try a “medicinal project upon his niece’s understanding, which he must consider as at present diseased.” Living at Mansfield has, he believes, “disordered” Fanny Price’s “powers of comparing and judging,” and he sends her “home” to Portsmouth to be cured. This fall, Sara Malton is going to write about that passage – but today, Katie Davis explores a different “medicinal project” earlier in the novel, when Mrs. Grant proposes to Mary Crawford that Mansfield Park is the “cure,” rather than the cause of disease.
Katie is a Postdoctoral Fellow in Western Heritage at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisconsin. She earned her Ph.D. in Literature from the University of Dallas in 2013, where she wrote a dissertation on Jane Austen’s Persuasion under the direction of Theresa Kenney (who’s writing about Tom and Edmund for my “Invitation to Mansfield Park” series). Katie is looking forward to celebrating the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mansfield Park with fellow Janeites at the JASNA AGM in Montreal this coming October, and I am, too. Registration opened yesterday, and Elaine Bander says more than 500 people have registered so far! Katie’s conference paper is entitled “Charles Pasley’s Essay and the ‘Governing Winds’ of Mansfield Park.” If you’re a JASNA member, you may have seen her essay on “Austen’s ‘Providence’ in Persuasion” in Persuasions 35, which arrived in my mailbox last week.
[Mrs. Grant to Mary Crawford] “You are as bad as your brother, Mary; but we will cure you both. Mansfield shall cure you both – and without any taking in. Stay with us and we will cure you.”
– From Mansfield Park, Chapter 5 (New York: Norton, 1998)
When Mrs. Grant tells Mary and Henry Crawford that Mansfield might cure them, she suggests that their view of marriage is faulty. Mary has argued that all marriages involve one or the other of the spouses being “taken in.” Mrs. Grant rightly identifies the problem with Mary’s point of view: she has a corrupt imagination, and this imagination is leading her to form a one-sided, “evil” (meaning something like cynical in this case) opinion about marriage.
Mrs. Grant’s suggestion that Henry might be “cured” ultimately by marrying Julia Bertram (Chapter 4) shows that she does not know as much as we do – thanks to the narrator – about the imperfections of the Mansfield Park family. Julia is not as bad as Maria, but neither sister is equipped to bring about the “cure” Mrs. Grant hopes for.
More importantly, neither Mary nor Henry is interested in what Mrs. Grant proposes: “The Crawfords, without wanting to be cured, were very willing to stay. Mary was satisfied with the parsonage as a present home, and Henry equally ready to lengthen his visit” (Chapter 5).
This brief passage in Chapter 5 calls our attention to a few of the central questions of Austen’s novel: to what extent can the opinions and habits of fully-formed adults be changed – or “cured” – by entering into community with people whose opinions and habits are, in crucial ways, totally different? What is required for such a transformation? Through this little exchange between Mrs. Grant and the Crawfords, Austen proposes that the will – corrupt or wholesome – is very real and extremely powerful. If Henry and Mary do not wish to be moved by their new friends, no amount of hoping on Mrs. Grant’s part will bring about the “cure.”
In the end, Mansfield does for Mary what Mrs. Grant wanted it to do: Mary’s time there does eventually “cure” her, but not in the way that Mrs. Grant had expected:
Mrs. Grant, with a temper to love and be loved, must have gone [from Mansfield to London for Dr. Grant’s new position] with some regret, from the scenes and people she had been used to; but the same happiness of disposition must in any place and any society, secure her a great deal to enjoy, and she had again a home to offer Mary; and Mary had had enough of her own friends, enough of vanity, ambition, love, and disappointment in the course of the last half year, to be in need of the true kindness of her sister’s heart, and the rational tranquility of her ways. . . . Mary, though perfectly resolved against ever attaching herself to a younger brother again, was long in finding . . . any one who could satisfy the better taste she had acquired at Mansfield, whose character and manners could authorise a hope of the domestic happiness she had there learnt to estimate, or put Edmund Bertram sufficiently out of her head. (Chapter 48; Vol. 3, Ch. 17)
“[L]ong in finding” is better than the turn Persuasion’s narrator gives Elizabeth Elliot, to whom “no one of proper condition has since presented himself” (Vol. II, Ch. 24). Ultimately, it is love – Mrs. Grant’s enduring love and affection for Mary, and belatedly, Edmund’s good-hearted, thorny, thwarted love for Mary – that effects the change in Mary. Mary will never be satisfied with anything less once she has encountered this type of love at Mansfield. Austen enacts the theme of felix culpa here: Mary’s “evil” imagination could only be transformed by something as powerful as a broken heart, but thanks to that heartache, she has hope, eventually, of the “domestic happiness” that Mrs. Grant wanted for her all along.
To read more about all the posts in this series, visit An Invitation to Mansfield Park.