Published in 1814, Jane Austen’s novel Mansfield Park won immediate success with the public and has been avidly read since then although it is not as famous as Pride and Prejudice or Emma. However, this book is not to be brushed aside for within its pages is a battleground for many literary, social, and ethical issues. The novel focuses on the character of Fanny Price and her experiences in midst of two opposing societies- the society of the Bertrams or Mansfield Park and the society of the Crawfords or London. Both societies are defined by differing morals or ideals and hence make this novel an excellent novel for discussing the transition from the Romantic era to the Victorian era.
First, dear reader, let us consider Austen’s depiction or description of the Bertram or Mansfield society. In a word, the society or ideals of Mansfield are Victorian in nature and are most undoubtedly puritan and patriarchal. The greatest model of the values is seen in the character and actions of Sir Thomas Bertram. He is the patriarch of the family, all blessings and cursing stems from his nod. Throughout the course of Jane Austen’s novels, her subjects are always drawn from the upper middle class echelon of English social class. Her knowledge of the lifestyle of the landed gentry, as expounded in her novels, is very superior and accurate due to her own upbringing in the class of the landed gentry. Her parents came from significant gentry families and she was educated very well at home. Sir Thomas Bertram, therefore, is the stereotypical master of a landed family. The decision to adopt or ward Fanny falls on his responsibility ( Austen 8). His behavior as a father is also stereotypical of what we now think of Victorian men, “Sir Thomas did not know what was wanting, because, though truly an anxious father, he was not outwardly affectionate, and the reserve of his manner repressed all the flow of their spirits before him” (Austen 19). However, Sir Thomas’ greatest rendering of Victorian ideals in the novel is evident in his morals. As Suzanne Hesse writes in her article “The Victorian Ideal: Male Characters in Jane Eyre and Villette”, “The ideal Victorian male should have certain characteristics such as honor, loyalty, intelligence, moral uprightness and it does not hurt to have a good income” (1). Sir Thomas exhibits these ideals beautifully in his behavior towards the Crawfords and their experience with his children, particularly in the event of playacting, and his own “gentlemanly” conduct toward Fanny when he returns from Antigua. The play that the Crawford choose to enact with the Bertrams is one that has prurient contexts, making this uncomfortable for someone who has great respect for modesty, respectability, decency, and prudishness. Sir Thomas’ desires are well known by Edmund and Fanny and for that reason, they try to dissuade the Crawfords from doing the play (Austen 127). Edmund explicitly states, “My father wished us, as school boys, to speak well, but he would never wish his grown up daughters to be acting plays. His sense of decorum is strict” (Austen 127). His sense of Victorian gentlemanly conduct is evidenced by his behavior to Fanny when he returns from Antigua. He “came forward with a kindness which astonished and penetrated her, calling her his dear Fanny, kissing her affectionately, and observing with decided pleasure how much she had grown! (Austen 178). His gentlemanly decorum to her is also witnessed in the ballroom scene when he suggests she enter the ballroom first (Austen 275). Such moral steadfastness and gentlemanly behavior makes him the primary example of the Mansfield values as the head of that family.
Opposite the Mansfield values are the values and characteristics of the Crawford family. Within the first few pages where the Crawfords come to leave with the Grants, small facets of their character can be surmised. Miss Crawford, after having seen one of the young Bertram men in town, begins to scheme to marry him. While this may indeed be natural to a young lady, her conduct and words whilst sharing her scheme with her siblings is one that is not unlike the young Bennet sisters from Austen’s pride and Prejudice. The Crawford sister’s conversation is one that is trivial and sarcastic (Austen 42-43). When the Crawfords and the Bertrams meet formally at last, the latter family, especially the girls, remark that Mary Crawford is “no comparison” and therefore they get along (Austen 44). The majority of the examples of the Crawford society is during the performance of “Lover’s Vows” and the whole downfall of various marriages toward the end of the book. Although the act of putting on a play was Tom bertram’s idea, his decision is seconded by the Crawfords and opposed by Edmund Bertram. During the course of picking parts for the play, Henry Crawford is described as making a slighting remark to Miss Julia Bertram, a very ungentlemanly act. In fact, his comment to her made her “distrust[ed] him. He was, perhaps, but at treacherous play with her” (Austen 135). His “treacherous” play continued with Julia Bertram, even though she was engaged to Mr. Rushworth, and was to the effect that Fanny understood the danger and Julia began to fall for him in jealousy (Austen 160). In addition to the flirtations of Henry Crawford, the play becomes an avenue for Mary Crawford to advance her desires for Edmund Bertram since her character falls in love with his ( Austen 163). The best examples of the Crawford society or values is seen in the event of the Rushworth’s divorce (due to an affair between Maria and Henry Crawford) and the elopement of Julia and Mr. Yates. They are decidedly marked by immorality and unfaithfulness, great taboos at the time. Moreover, their society is marked by apathy or disregard for any kind of ethics, especially in the case of Mary Crawford who dismisses the affair and claims “Henry is blameless, and in spite of a little moments etourderie thinks of nobody but you (Fanny)” (497). It can be seen that the Crawford society lacks ethical backbone and decorum.
Jane Austen’s comparison in the characterization of the two socities is more or less totally dependent on her audacious biting wit. The prescence of two or more items always leads to comparison and so Austen’s comparison of each society shall be explored. The society of the Bertrams is marked by relative peace; at least as far as the protagonist Fanny is concerned, until the Crawfords arrive. It is worthy to note that each society is equally judged by Austen in the novel, each has its faults which Austen is more than happy to point out. In the society of the Bertrams prior to the arrival of the Crawfords, the society is led by Sir Thomas who praised worthily in his responsibility of bringing up Fanny while Mrs. Norris is condemned for her mistreatment. Notice Austen’s biting wit, “Sir Thomas was fully resolved to be the real and consistent patron of the selected child, and Mrs. Norris had not the least intention of being at any expense whatever in her maintenance” (8). In addition to Mrs. Norris’ condescending portrayal, lady Bertram receives buffets from her creator due to her own behavior and description that she sits on a couch all day long with her pug. Tom Bertram is the only male Bertram to be condemned by Austen due to his choice of a play and behavior amongst his friends when he goes to Newmarket and becomes ill (426). Of course his sisters receive no better due to their interaction with the Crawfords when one elopes and the other has an affair (435-437). Due to these exceptions to the rule, Mansfield Park is a society marked by masculine dominance whose morals values are carried out by Sir Thomas, Edmund Bertram, and even Fanny Price. In comparison, the Crawfords are first portrayed as no ill threat to Mansfield until love enters to playing field. While the Bertrams are quiet, reserved, and proper in all their affairs, the Crawfords are marked with indecency and selfishness as well as sarcasm as seen previously. Austen’s opinion of Henry and his sister, as espoused through the words or Fanny are summarized on page two hundred and sixty. It is interesting to note that once Tom Bertram has fallen into disfavor by his action at Newmarket, Austen puts Edmund and Fanny in his place as the heirs of Mansfield and hence heirs of the Mansfield values.
Societies are often upheld by their moral value system and when two different societies sparks fly. Mansfield Park is no different, the two societies, that of the Bertrams and that of the Crawfords, butt heads due to their different values systems which, interestingly enough, correspond with the comparison of the Victorian and Romantic eras. Austen, in her own pointed way, compares and sets each society head to head and the result is the conclusion of the novel. I noticed various similarities between this novel and other Austen novels, particularly Pride & Prejudice. The elopement of Lydia and Mr. Wickham and destruction of the moral status quo is practically the same in this novel and in Pride and Prejudice as well in Sense and Sensibility where we have an infiltrating male whose moral standards are below average. Such characters and their societies receive the full weight of Jane Austen’s wit often to their demise.
Austen, Jane. Mansfield Park. Compl. By R.W. Chapman. “The Novels of Jane Austen”. Vol 3. New York: Oxford University Press. 1934. Print.
Hesse, Suzanne. “The Victorian Ideal: Male Characters in Jane Eyre and Villette”. The Victorian Home. Web. 28 September 2010.