Jane Austen authored several novels in the course of her literary career but according to critics, Mansfield Park is by far her most relevant work of literature. One critic observes that most of Austen’s books are characteristically “vulgar in tone, sterile in invention, imprisoned in the wretched conventions of English culture, and without genius” (Butler 225).
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In Mansfield Park, Jane Austen abandons her usual subject of the English elite and concentrates on a timid and shy heroine who is caught between the worlds of poverty and affluence. The main theme in Mansfield Park is social growth and how a person’s status affects this type of escalation. Jane Austen was a literary icon who covered a crucial literary period that fell between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This era is of importance to literature because it is marked by Victorian and romantic elements.
Austen lived in Regency England and Mansfield Park covers events that are specific to England’s lifestyles in the period between 1780 and 1832. Social status in Mansfield Park is an important aspect and it is often linked to other factors such as living conditions and familial connections. Throughout Austen’s book, the themes of distinction and discrimination go hand in hand with the social statuses of most characters in respect to their places of living and societal connotations.
The novel tracks the events surrounding the life of the main character Fanny Price. Fanny Price is forced to move from her poor homestead and live with her aunt’s affluent family. Fanny’s new family consists of Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram. The family has two daughters and two sons. The main character finds herself being caught up between her own convictions and the expectations that come from her affiliation with the wealthy Bertram family. Austen bases her entire book on the social situation of four families: The Bertrams, The Crawfords, The Prices, and The Rushworths.
Family affiliations are a source of the big differences in social status that apply to various characters within the book. The main character, Fanny Price, is in the middle of the social situation that dominates Austen’s book. Fanny is from a humble family and she is rarely interested in keeping up appearances. Fanny grew up in a family where the main objective was survival. Her introduction to a family whose main preoccupation is social status leads to a big jolt in lifestyle for her. The narrator presents Fanny as a timid and shy girl who keeps a low profile.
This type of distinction can only be traced back to Fanny’s social status. Fanny’s father is a disabled sailor who has problems with alcohol. Consequently, Fanny grew up in a home that had little connections to affluence. This fact is evident through a comparison of all the young girls who are residing at the Bertrams’ household. While Maria and Julia are concerned with their ability to find rich suitors, Fanny is at home with her newly found living arrangements. Austen’s book revolves around the themes of social status, marriage, and societal expectations.
Fanny is a constant target of discrimination from several members of the Bertram family and this treatment can be traced to her social status. The most avid of Fanny’s tormentors is Mrs. Norris, the woman who is in charge of straightening out the Bertram household. Although the narrator does not explicitly reveal why Mrs. Norris discriminates against Fanny, it is clear that the estate’s caretaker considers Fanny to be an unnecessary addition to the Bertram family. In the rural society of Austen’s era, a household was as important as its participants were.
Sir Thomas alludes to the social distinction between Fanny and other family members when he notes that “the distinction proper to be made between the girls as they grow up” (Austen 10). Therefore, in the Bertram household Mrs. Norris was more likely to be considered the outsider because her connection to the family was more distant. It is also apparent that Mrs. Norris does not look forward to a time when Fanny Price will become a bona fide member of the Bertram family.
However, this sentiment originates from Sir Thomas Bertram who from the start of Fanny’s visit noted that the new girl needs to “remember that she is not a Miss Bertram…their rank, fortune, rights, and expectations will always be different” (Austen 10). On the other hand, most of the Bertram family equates Fanny’s social standing with that of Mrs. Norris. For instance, when it is Mrs. Norris’ time to leave, the Bertrams’ patriarch notes that Fanny should follow her because she will be “exactly where she ought…(to be with her)” (Austen 20).
The connection between the social statuses of both Fanny and Mrs. Norris is subject to various forms of discrimination between themselves and the rest of the Bertram family. Consequently, Mrs. Norris is constantly bothered by the fact that Fanny keeps forgetting that her social status is and will always be beneath that of the Bertrams. Furthermore, Mrs. Norris is of the opinion that all people should be contented with what they have in life and they should act in accordance with their social standing. According to Mrs. Norris, that is how individuals earn respect.
It is interesting to note that Mrs. Norris had engineered the plan to have Fanny live with the Bertram family. Nevertheless, Mrs. Norris was of the view that Fanny did not have the right social standing to make her a suitable suitor for the Bertram boys. At one point, Mrs. Norris vehemently declares that a union between Fanny and Sir Thomas’ sons was “the least likely thing to happen…it is morally impossible” (Austen 7).
Mrs. Norris’ assertions about the impossibility of a union between Fanny and the Bertrams are not based on her judgment of Fanny’s character but they are solely based on the girl’s social background. Further investigation into the issue reveals that Mrs. Norris is fond of making herself feel good at the expense of other people. The scheme to have the timid and shy Fanny move into the Bertram household is an example of the tactics that Mrs. Norris uses to make herself feel good.
The discrimination that Mrs. Norris directs towards Fanny is cleverly disguised as a benevolent and charitable act. Mrs. Norris uses Fanny’s low social class to make herself feel valuable because she is unable to compete with Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram’s affluence. This fact is evident because while Mrs. Norris addresses the Bertrams in a respectful manner, her language towards Fanny is often course and disrespectful. Mrs. Norris treats Fanny in this manner even though the guest is courteous and respectful towards everyone in the Bertram household.
The discrimination that was directly connected to social status in Mansfield Park was not confined to family members but it also affected potential marriage suitors. Marriage suitors in Fanny’s society were easily dismissed on the grounds that they did not have the ‘right’ social status. The ability to marry the right suitor is clearly overstated by the narrator. At the beginning of the book, the narrator notes that “Miss Maria…with only seven thousand pounds, had the good luck to captivate Sir Thomas Bertram…and to be raised to the rank of baronet’s lady, with all the consequences of a handsome house and large income” (Austen 1).
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Marriage partners in Austen’s society were the cause of both distinction and discrimination. Everything that Lady Bertram has accumulated until this point including wealth and social status can be traced back to her ability to marry Sir Thomas. This initial perception about marriage partners and social status is manifested throughout Austen’s book. Both male and female members of the Mansfield’s society seek a mate who can enable them to acquire or maintain their social status.
Failure to achieve this goal can subject citizens to either discrimination or distinction. The first victim of marriage-related discrimination is Mr. Price, Fanny’s father. Throughout the book, remarks about how Fanny’s mother married beneath her social class are evident. Consequently, there is a great distinction between Fanny’s mother and her sister, Lady Bertram, who is married to a rich man. This distinction is captured with social titles. Whereas Fanny’s mother is referred to as Mrs. Price, her sister is given the title of Lady Bertram. The Bertram girls are very aware of the discrimination that comes with being married to a poor man (Butler 226). Consequently, both Maria and Julia do all that is in their power to ensure that they do not marry men of low social status.
Mr. Rushworth is only able to impress Maria because he is wealthy. On the other hand, Maria agrees to become engaged to Rushworth even though she considers him to be a ‘boring person’. The discrimination that is related to the choice of a marriage partner also drives Mary to hop from one Bertram son to the other. Mary recognizes the prestige that comes with being a Bertram and she approaches Tom with the sole intention of becoming a Bertram. When this union does not work out, Mary reacts by moving on to Tom’s younger brother Edmund. Social status as a result of marriage unions was an inescapable aspect of life in the eighteenth century English society (Davidson 250).
Distinction and the ability to assert one’s status are two scenarios that are often repeated in Austen’s book. Achievement of distinction through self-possession is an important component of the plot in Mansfield Park. Fanny and Mary find themselves at the opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to the distinction that is achieved through self-possession. The narrator indicates that Fanny’s “heart and judgment were equally against Edmund’s decision” (Austen 87). On the other hand, Mary’s views about personal status are not guided by judgment but by opinions about wealth.
Mary confesses that she “often thinks of Mr. Rushworth’s property and independence and wishes them in other hands, but (she) never thinks of him” (Austen 92). According to Mary, self-possession cannot exist without the ability to perceive other forms of possession. However, fanny uses the feelings of her heart when making personal judgments in respect to self-possession. While Fanny’s ability to ‘possess’ her best qualities leads to a happy ending, Mary loses the distinction she sought to gain by asserting her social status.
In one instance, Fanny is not sure about her decision to refuse Mr. Crawfords’ proposal. The narrator notes that Fanny “begun to feel undecided as to what she ought to do…she walked round the room, her doubts were increasing….was she right in refusing what was so warmly asked…so strongly wished for?” (Austen 137). Consequently, Fanny goes through her youth with minimal contradictions concerning her character. In another instance Fanny uses self-awareness to resist peer pressure by telling her detractors that “it is not that I am afraid…but I really cannot act” (Austen 131).
The concept of self-awareness appears foreign to most of the other young characters in Mansfield Park. For instance, Maria, Julia, and Mary appear to be only aware of their social expectations. In Mary’s case, her quest of marrying a rich man and living an affluent life becomes the hallmark of her self-awareness. Therefore, Mary is unable to decipher that Tom is not interested in her and she does not realize that Edmund is a viable suitor. There is no single moment of self-awareness in Mary’s life.
Her pursuit of an ‘acceptable’ social status becomes the only determinant of Mary’s actions. At one point, Mary Crawford tells Fanny that “it is everybody’s duty to do as well for themselves as they can” (Austen 263). Nevertheless, Mary’s idea of finding success for oneself involves achieving superficial milestones such as marrying a rich man at whatever cost.
Social status in Mansfield Park can also be analyzed using the distinctions that are made in regard to a person’s place of living. Throughout the novel, Austen uses the distinctions between life in the countryside and the city to demarcate social standings. For example, the narrator notes that Fanny considered Mansfield Park as a place where “there could be neither wickedness nor sorrow…if the sublimity of nature (as witnessed in the countryside) was more attended to” (Austen 80).
The distinction between places of living is also a major cause of discrimination amongst the characters who are affiliated to the city on one side, and those who are rooted in the countryside on the other. The distinction that comes from a person’s place of living is also a source of conflict for both Fanny and her relatives. For instance, shortly after Fanny arrives at the Bertrams’ residence, her cousins quickly categorize her as ‘stupid’ because of her timid mannerisms. On the other hand, Fanny was perplexed by the mannerisms of Mansfield’s residents and their effects on the lives of people in the countryside.
Most of the characters in Mansfield Park are in agreement with the sentiment that “we do not look in our great cities for our best morality” (Austen 103). In Mansfield, people from the city are considered immoral, unmotivated, and largely close-minded. Consequently, the narrator does not address the situation in the city as openly as she talks about the countryside. Consequently, this form of distinction makes talk about the city to appear as a taboo in Mansfield Park. The reader only learns about the specifics of the city life through the conversations that Maria and Julia have concerning their desire to visit London.
People who hail from the city are “pitied (because) they have not been given a taste from nature early in life” (Austen 49). None of the main characters in Mansfield Park has deep inner considerations about the city and the reader is only expected to ‘overhear’ how various people think about the city. The narrator implies that the city is inhospitable to morality and good manners.
Therefore, the readers can make clear discriminations concerning the quality of life that can be provided by either the city or the countryside. The countryside of eighteenth century England was a place of “honesty and virtue, without vice, but it was later corrupted by the city, and became a place where improvement of character was necessary and virtue was questionable” (Ferguson 120).
The distinctions between country and city life are also revealed in a conversation between Mary Crawford and Edmund Bertram. During this conversation, Mary remarks that “the metropolis, [she] imagines, is a pretty fair sample of the rest” (Austen 66). Mary’s considerations about the superiority of city life are a testament of her oblivion and ignorance when it comes to the moral fabric of the society.
Edmund replies to Mary’s curiosity by telling her that morality is most likely upheld in the countryside; “we do not look in great cities for our best morality…it is not there, that respectable people of any denomination can do most good” (Austen 66). Both Mary and Edmund are weary of the city but for different reasons. Mary is afraid of the city’s glamour while Edmund is of the view that morality cannot thrive in the city. The connection between social statuses and places of living is a distinction that has been carried from the eighteenth century English society up to the modern times.
The modern society has similar distinctions when it comes to morality, and urban and rural-based livelihoods. The Mansfield’s residents who have traveled reveal the distinctions that accompany the quality of life in various locations. Mansfield Park introduces Fanny to new social practices.
For example, Fanny’s role as a woman in Mansfield Park is solidified by new social practices such as “coming out to the society” and acting “quiet and modest” as a girl (Austen 36). Consequently, upon Fanny’s return to Portsmouth, she sees things differently and even advises her sister to change her mannerisms. Interestingly, Fanny’s hometown is discriminated against owing to its lack of affluence.
Therefore, Fanny’s return to her hometown is considered as a punishment because of her refusal to accept a marriage proposal from a rich man. When Fanny refuses her sure entry to an enviable social class by turning down Henry’s marriage proposal, she is sent back to Portsmouth “a place of poverty and negative experiences” (Davidson 244). Discrimination against places of living also extends to their residents. However, it appears that even though Fanny has lived in Mansfield for the most part of her life, she is unable to shake-off her Portsmouth identity.
Prior to Fanny’s repatriation to her hometown of Portsmouth, she is not allowed to forget that she is a stranger to the lifestyle and social class of Mansfield Park. Various people including Mrs. Norris take it upon themselves to remind Fanny that she is not part of Mansfield Park. Mrs. Norris reminds Fanny that “these are fine times for you, but you must not be always walking from one room to the other” (Austen 84). On another occasion, Mrs. Norris accuses Fanny of lying around in a sofa and implies that she does not have the right to do so owing to her lowly social status (Austen 52).
At the Bertram household, Fanny assumes the hybrid position of servant and family member. In addition, Fanny does not aspire to be a bona fide member of the Bertram household. In essence, the Mansfield society does not take kindly to the encroachment of ‘outsiders’. The distinction between Fanny and the Bertram girls is further expounded by the fact that they are allowed to be idle while she is not.
Fanny is reminded that “people are never respected when they step out of their proper sphere” (Austen 59). It is evident that Fanny is discriminated against by members of the Bertram household due to her humble origins (Ferguson 118). For instance, all the family members freely interfere with Fanny’s choice of marital partner. This form of interference is not witnessed when Maria, Julia, and Mary are choosing their husbands.
Almost everything that happens in Mansfield Park revolves around the social statuses of various characters, and how these ranks are manifested through actions and personal feelings. The narrator surgically pinpoints how social class is both a cause and an effect of distinction and discrimination in Mansfield Park. Fanny is the most common target of distinction and discrimination in the book. Discrimination is directed towards Fanny because she comes from a poor town and her parents have no considerable financial power.
It is an unspoken declaration in Mansfield Park that “a large income is the best recipe for happiness” (Austen 110). Consequently, the characters who do not pass the economic status threshold are often discriminated against. This discrimination is mostly apparent when the young people of Mansfield Park are choosing their marriage partners.
Places of origin and the distinctions between rural and urban settings are also grounds for discrimination. Each character is assigned a social status that prompts other characters and readers to make subsequent distinctions and discriminations. The distinction between the Bertrams and the Prices revolves around the elements of order and disorder in the two households. On the other hand, several characters are discriminated upon as a result of their past, current, and future social statuses.
Austen, Jane. Mansfield park, New York: Archipoche, 2007. Print.
Butler, Marilyn. Jane Austen and the war of ideas.New York: Oxford City Press, 1990. Print.
Davidson, Jenny. “A Modest Question about Mansfield Park.” Eighteenth-Century Fiction 16.2 (2004): 245-264. Print.
Ferguson, Moira. “Mansfield Park: Slavery, Colonialism, and Gender.” Oxford Literary Review 13.1 (2001): 118-139. Print.