Jane Austin's Mansfield Park brings to light the intricacies of family relations, including the inevitable closer of marriage as a fixture, a glue that may bind two people yet not necessarily bring them together. Austin's work contains little black humor as hers was not a writing of the Victorian era. Dickens and the Bronte Sisters in particular are heralders of the hysterically dark, as what should make one weep, causes the opposite in an ever droll mocking of humanity. Austin's wit is as blunt as it is sophisticated and all of her subjects are drawn from her world view of life as part of the lower end of the upper class.
According to the system rankings at the time (Napoleonic Era) there was upper upper class, upper class, lower upper class, upper middle class, middle class, lower middle class and then the poor. Money and marriage are of utmost consideration for the upper classes, or at least in the world of Austin they are, and matches were based on a combination of income, education, beauty, family backing and naturally occurring preference. Austin is blunt about her world, beginning Mansfield Park with, "About thirty years ago, Miss Maria Ward, of Huntingdon, with only seven thousand pounds, had the good luck to capture Sir Thomas Bertram of Mansfield Park, in the country of Northampton, and to be thereby raised to the rank of a baronet's lady, with all the comforts and consequences of a handsome house and large income."
Miss Ward, became Lady Bertram and her two sisters, Miss Ward (why her first name is the same as her last, I don't know) and Miss Frances in being of equally fine make as their positively starred sibling, were thought to do just as well as she in meeting with conjugal felicity but such was not to be of final merit. For "there certainly are not so many men of large fortune in the world, as there are pretty women to deserve them."
Miss Ward to become Mrs. Norris, married a friend of Sir Thomas Bertram, who retained a limited fortune of just under a thousand pounds, awkwardly due to money being given to him by Sir Bertram to live at Mansfield. Frances, fared yet worse, "by fixing on a Lieutenant of Marines, without education, fortune or connexions." Sir Bertram was willing to grant a portion of his expansive income to aid in the comfortability of France's station; "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." And so Frances became Mrs. Price.
But as the years went by Mrs. Price's prolonged sensibility of pride and independence began to wane as her husband was discharged from active service, his income to qualify for equitable merit, yet continued with his social mores and penchant for liquor, with an ever expanding array of children to clothe and feed. Upon her ninth laying in, Mrs. Price decided, it was of no use to hold grudges as every contact was of an estimatable sort at this point in juncture.
A letter was dispatched to the Bertrams. Money, baby linens and letters were sent in turn. But it grew upon Mrs. Norris's conscious and curiosity that her sister should be so over burdened. Mrs. Norris strongly proposed that perhaps it would be of aid to take on Mrs. Price's eldest daughter as a ward of constant merit. Her novelty is backed by Lady Bertram who wishes for "the child" to be sent for immediately.
Sir Bertram doubted the proposal on the grounds that any ward, not brought up in exacting estimation among the social politics of immediate family would perhaps be best left within her original home. His argument is countered by a notion of Mrs. Norris's that it is better to have a daughter of Mrs. Price's at Mansfield, for then her growing up in poverty could only possibly cause Sir Bertram's own sons to fall in love with her, so it would be of increased positive venue to have her raised in wealth, to be considered a sister rather than maintain the charm of the cinderella cousin. Thus, it was agreed upon a child of Mrs. Price should be in the keeping of Mansfield Park. Mrs. Norris wrote to her sister of the matter, and was received by agreeable understanding that a daughter of hers would do well with a change of air though she was surprised at the choice of a girl. Interesting too, that Mrs. Norris should so breach upon the consideration of keeping a ward considering she and her husband were essentially indebted to Sir Bertram, by means of equivalent nature, themselves.
Fanny Price, aged ten, made her journey to Northampton and was met by Mrs. Norris to become the down trodden niece of Lady Bertram and her sister, who was without children. Fanny met her cousins, Julia of 12 years, and Maria who was just between the two in age. There are also, Edmund and Tom, the latter being of 17 years with Edmund, also in his teens but younger.
Fanny, rather than being exulted by the change of scene is despondent, for missing her siblings, her former household role as caretaker, and the familiarity as well as comfort of withholding a certain class and rank simply because one does not know of any other stance in life. Fanny is not as educated as her cousins and Lady Bertram is met with a fair barrage of comments, "Dear Mamma, only think, my cousin cannot tell the principal rivers in Russia - or she never heard of Asia Minor - or she does not know the difference between water-colors and crayons! - How strange! - Did you ever hear anything so stupid?"
And Lady Bertram with her ever present pug, reproves her daughters by telling them that no one should be as quick to learn as themselves, so they must learn the art of patience. Fanny, though of no prodigious make, is not nearly so stupid as her cousins would convey and is finely bright as she is. Edmund is Fanny's sole source of protection, by gently cultivating her interests in books and providing her a horse for exercise. It was decided by the aunts that Fanny can ride her cousins' horses when they were not using them, which they always were but Fanny was rescued from this delineation of rules, when Edmund simply stated, "Fanny must have a horse."
Fanny grows up to be the acknowledged lesser of the family, though unlike Jane Eyre she does not go out into the world as a governess. Her world is one of leisure that is temporarily broken when Sir Bertram, to the relief of the family, must journey away for business. Without the master head over seeing the household in direct right Edmund, Julia, Maria and neighbors begin the voyage of a play. Who is to take part of what role becomes the main political dynamic. Fanny, whose beaten down sensibilities are overly stringent at times, is horrified by the lax morals a play should bring to the household. Edmund, on the other hand, enjoys every moment of his employment. Sir Bertram returns before the play is quite done and all theatrical activities cease upon his arrival.
Fanny remains as part of the estate to eventually marry Edmund, though his first choice was the vivacious and blunt, Mary Crawford, of very distant relation. And she does so not first without breaking at least one heart, of qualified and perfectly passionate merit.
By Sarah Bahl
Larivière, Charles-Philippe. Portrait of Eugene Pamela Lariviere. c. 1804-1824. Louvre, Paris.