By Devoney Looser, Arizona State University
In Mansfield Park, after introducing Miss Maria Ward, who married Sir Thomas Bertram for money and comfort, the narrator tells about the fate of the other two Ward sisters. Ward is a name of significance, calling up the idea of dependence on others for financial protection. Although the Ward sisters aren’t poor, they don’t all marry with the same level of economic success.
The Ward Sisters
The eldest sister—called by tradition Miss Ward, without a first name, to indicate she’s the oldest—marries less well than her captivating sister Maria, now Lady Bertram. The eldest Miss Ward marries a clergyman, Mr. Norris. Mr. Norris has his own good luck in marrying Miss Ward. His new brother-in-law, Sir Thomas Bertram, provides Mr. Norris with a regular income. Sir Thomas has it in his power to give a clergyman a job for life—called a “living”—in the parish. So Mr. and Mrs. Norris move into the parsonage near the great house. With that, two of the three Ward sisters became neighbors.
The third sister was the rebel. Miss Frances Ward married to disoblige her family, choosing a “lieutenant of marines, without education, fortune,” or connections. He’s a low-level military officer without any of the qualities necessary to rise through the ranks. Adding to his troubles, he’s become disabled. He can’t work in most middle-class trades, which require one to be able-bodied. He’s also shown to be a vulgar drunkard, disqualifying him from our easy pity.
Miss Frances Ward’s unsanctioned marriage severs her relationship with her family. During this estrangement, she has nine children. Lady Bertram has four. Mrs. Norris is childless. One might read things into these numbers, about the fruitfulness of each marriage, or simply about good or bad luck. But this difference also exacerbates the Prices’ financial need. That’s what prompts the family’s reconciliation with wealthier relatives.
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Mrs. Norris and Fanny Price
Eldest sister Mrs. Norris is shown to be a cruel, righteous busybody. She suggests that the Mansfield Park families should adopt one of the Prices’ children, to demonstrate their supposed charitableness. That act might secure a better future for one of the nine children. This kind of quasi-adoption by the wealthy may seem a strange thing to do, but it wasn’t unheard of then in real life. One of Austen’s own brothers, Edward, was informally adopted by a wealthy childless couple, the Knights. He became their heir.
Heroine Fanny Price isn’t brought into the Bertram family on such advantageous terms. Sir Thomas at first thinks that Mrs. Norris, being childless, must be looking for a young female companion. He suspects that’s why his sister-in-law is making the suggestion to take in a child from among the large brood of her poor, estranged sister. But Mrs. Norris later makes it clear that she wants no addition to her household. When niece Fanny arrives, Mrs. Norris says the girl should live in the great house, with her young cousins. So Sir Thomas accedes to Mrs. Norris’s wishes.
Mrs. Norris also tells Sir Thomas exactly where in his own house he should put Fanny. She suggests the white attic, not far from his daughters, Maria and Julia Bertram, but also close by the housemaids. Fanny is identified by her place within this place. It’s just one of many ways that she’s marked out as different from her cousins—not quite a daughter and not quite a servant.
Fate of Fanny Price
Fanny is treated as a sort of Cinderella figure—as a lesser stepsister. As the narrator tells us, “Nobody meant to be unkind, but nobody put themselves out of their way to secure her comfort.” Fanny is not made to feel at home at Mansfield Park.
Fanny tacitly accepts her position and does her work without complaint. But one of the remarkable things about Mansfield Park is that shy, timid Fanny turns out to be the novel’s moral compass. Despite her so-called vulgar family of origin, Fanny chooses best what’s right and good. A vulgar family wasn’t seen then as a likely breeding ground for good morality. Fanny proves that stereotype wrong. Still, what changes the course of her life is being brought to live in gentility at Mansfield Park.
The Estate as a Character
Critics have long suggested that Mansfield Park, the estate, functions almost as a character in the novel. Some of the associations of the word Mansfield are literary.
French novelist Sophie Cottin wrote a novel translated into English in the early 1800s as Amelia Mansfield. It was marketed as an upright antidote to immoral books. Its story describes conflict among siblings and cousins, particularly a niece invited by her wealthy uncle to serve as his companion. There are many structural similarities in it to Austen’s novel, that may suggest an inspirational connection.
Yet the name Mansfield was just as important, and perhaps more important, for historical associations, too, as a real-life surname. The most famous Mansfield was William Murray, first Earl of Mansfield, who became Lord Chief Justice Mansfield. He’d become a household name, as a legal reformer, 20 years before Austen was born.
One of Lord Mansfield’s most significant legal decisions came in 1772, when he ruled that slavery had no legal basis in England. It hadn’t been established as common law or by legislation. Therefore, Mansfield said, any slave who stepped foot onto English soil was free.
Lord Mansfield was also a great believer in religious toleration. He once famously said that his desire was “to disturb no man for conscience’s sake”. Conscience, too, is a very important word in Mansfield Park.
So there are significant historical as well as literary connections in Austen’s choice of the word Mansfield to center her novel. All signs point to the name Mansfield being used to raise questions about gender, labor, servitude, slavery, and conscience.
Common Questions about Character Significance in Jane Austen’s ‘Mansfield Park’
The eldest sister in Mansfield Park is called by tradition Miss Ward, without a first name, to indicate she’s the oldest.
Mrs. Norris suggests that the Mansfield Park families should adopt one of the Prices’ children, to demonstrate their supposed charitableness. And so the heroine Fanny Price is brought to Mansfield Park.
French novelist Sophie Cottin wrote a novel translated into English in the early 1800s as Amelia Mansfield. There are many structural similarities in it to Austen’s novel, that may suggest an inspirational connection.