2003 JASNA Essay Contest First Place Winner Graduate Division
Ashley L. Combest
Greenville, MS

Definition and Redefinition: Finding a Home in Mansfield Park

Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park is a novel obsessed with home and family.  It begins a story of one family, three sisters, and quickly expands to a story of three families, the Bertrams, the Prices, and the Norrises.  Family upon family is added, each one growing, expanding, and moving until the novel is crowded with characters and estates.  An obsession with movement creates an overall feeling of displacement and confusion.  Fanny Price is moved from Portsmouth to Mansfield and then back to Portsmouth and back to Mansfield. She occupies several houses, Mansfield, Thornton Lacey, the parsonage, and almost Mrs. Norris’ house.  Julia and Maria Bertram, the Crawfords, the Grants, Susan Price, even Mrs. Norris experience a move.  The only constant is Mansfield Park itself with its immovable Lady Bertram and pug.  More positively, Mansfield becomes a visual representation of family.  The novel’s title, more an abstraction than a reference to place, attempts to define “home,” an idea in the novel not contained by place. 

In Mansfield Park, what defines home becomes the essential question for Fanny Price.  The estate as a reflection of self is a prominent theme in the novel.  Henry Crawford’s suggestions for improving Thornton Lacey would raise it “above a mere Parsonage House” by “giv[ing] it a higher character[.] … From being the mere gentleman’s residence, it becomes … the residence of a man of education, taste, modern manners, good connections” (219-20).  Crawford’s improvements would give the house “such an air as to make its owner be set down as the great land-holder of the parish” (220).  Edmund refuses to let his identity be consumed, asserting that Henry’s plan will not be “put in practice” (219).  A “gentleman’s residence” is “comfortable” and fitting (219).  For the homeless Fanny, self is not defined.  With no home, she has no self.  She must, therefore, grow into Mansfield Park before asserting selfhood.  As Fanny defines and redefines “home,” she is able to define herself and ultimately fit into Mansfield Park and the family it represents.

At her arrival, Mansfield Park is clearly no home to Fanny.  Displaced from her home in Portsmouth, Fanny is almost a not-Fanny.  The initial description of her is marked by negation.  There is “not … much in her first appearance” though “nothing to disgust” (9).  She has “no glow of complexion, nor any other striking beauty” (9).  She is “awkward” but “not vulgar” (9).  The negatives (not, nothing, no, nor) reduce Fanny to nothingness.  The modifiers, too, are diminutive.  Though Fanny is not much younger than Julia and Maria, she is described as “just ten years old” and “small of her age” (9).  She is “timid,” “shy,” “shrinking from notice” (9), all words that reflect deficiency.  The Miss Bertrams feed off of this diminishment, “increasing from their cousin’s shyness” (10).  Fanny’s self threatens to dissolve altogether.  After meeting the Bertrams and seeing the display of a “remarkably fine family,” who were “all at home” (10), Fanny finds herself “longing for the home she had left” (10).  Fanny’s “longing” contrasts with the Bertrams being “at home” (10), in a double sense.  This juxtaposition emphasizes the home-family-self completeness of the Bertrams while revealing its absence in Fanny, who has no home, family, or self at this point.

The largeness of the house contrasted with the smallness of Fanny reinforces the idea of displacement and, therefore, insignificance.  Fanny finds the house overwhelming; its

grandeur … astonished, but could not console her.  The rooms were too large for her to move in with ease; whatever she touched she expected to injure, and she crept about in constant terror of something or other; often retreating towards her own chamber to cry. (12)

The words “injure,” “crept,” “constant terror,” “retreat,” and “cry” (12) set up a minimal existence for Fanny, a completely unassertive victimized self.  This minimal self is often unnamed, being described as “little girl” and “my dear little cousin” (12).  Edmund, however, does refer to her affectionately as “my dear little Fanny” but still includes a reference to her smallness with the adjective “little” (12).  Her cousins often reflect “on her size” (11), and diminutive words are continually attributed to her:  “shyness,” “ignorance,” “despondence,” and “sunk” (12).  Fanny’s discomfort at Mansfield reflects her diminished self.

However, as Mansfield increases in attachment to Fanny, her selfhood increases, though the change occurs slowly.  With the threat of being removed to Mrs. Norris’ White house, Fanny begins to recognize Mansfield as home, though not exactly home.  Fanny is merely “fixed at Mansfield Park” but is “learning to transfer in its favour much of her attachment to her former home” (17).  She grows up there “not unhappily”—a more positive negative (17).  Fanny clings to Mansfield saying, “I love this house and everything in it” but still considers herself not “important” (22).  Her identity is only loosely defined, but she begins to grow.  She now thinks and speaks though willing to believe Edmund right “rather than [her]self” (23).  She considers the self-home dilemma even if it confuses her:  “Here, I know I am of [no consequence], and yet I love the place so well” (23).  She understands and communicates a relationship between home and self though her language signifies importance and place.  Edmund rightly tells Fanny it is “the place” she “will not quit” (23).  She focuses on the place, the house, the things in it, on the material instead of the abstraction.  Melissa Edmundson finds Fanny’s ability to “connect materialistically” precursor to an emotional connection (3). These connections establish Fanny’s identity.

Through her family relationships, Fanny adapts to Mansfield.  She recalls her early fear of horseback riding and describes it in her former victim-like terms.  She “used to dread riding”:  It gave her “terrors;” she “trembled” whenever her uncle mentioned it (23).  But she moves beyond this victimized language to a more rational language when she recalls Edmund’s pains “to reason and persuade” her out of fear (23).  As Fanny adapts to life at Mansfield, she literally fills more space by moving into the East room.  The East room reinforces self.  She contemplates there what she “ought to do,” whether she were “right” (137).  As self increases, her significance in the family increases.  Edmund asks her “advice and opinion” (138).  As Edmunson explains, Fanny’s occupation of the room shows she “occupies more space” in the Bertram family.

The family evaluates and reinforces her identity.  On his return Sir Thomas notices her maturity.  He still calls her “little Fanny” (159) but then moves beyond this diminutive, calling her “his dear Fanny, . . . observing with decided pleasure how much she was grown!” (159-60).  Sir Thomas approves her growth, thinking her “very pretty” (177) and is quite pleased with her “transplantation to Mansfield” (250).  Fanny, in turn, starts to lose her former dread of Sir Thomas and begins to understand him, explaining, “The repose of his own family-circle is all he wants” (177).  As a result of approval, Fanny’s worth to the family “increase[s]”:  “it was impossible for her not to be looked at, more thought of and attended to, than she had ever been before; and ‘where is Fanny?’ became no uncommon question, even without her being wanted for anyone’s convenience” (184).  Fanny gains selfhood by understanding her relationship to others.

This new self or identity Fanny has discovered is contested by the family after Henry’s proposal.  The family now becomes her antagonist.  Leroy W. Smith explains, “The patriarchal system .  . . works to stifle the potential selfhood of Fanny Price” (145).  She reverts to her gothic victim identity and is once again frightened by her uncle.  She hears “a heavy step, an unusual step in that part of the house; it was her uncle’s; . . . she had trembled at it as often, and began to tremble again, at the idea of his coming up to speak to her” (282).  Sir Thomas questions her self-knowledge:  “I am half inclined to think, Fanny, that you do not quite know your own feelings” (286).  His rejection—“You do not owe me the duty of a child”—excludes her from the family, making clear that she is not his daughter (289).  Even Edmund’s—“This is not like yourself, your rational self”—questions her identity (315).  Thomas R. Edwards Jr. argues a theme of manipulating existences and notes an extreme example in Mrs. Norris’ “attempt virtually to become Fanny” (94).  Mrs. Norris threatens to consume her altogether, admonishing Fanny through negation:  “Depend upon it, it is not you that are wanted; depend upon it it is me; . . . I am sure; Sir Thomas wants me” (294).  These verbal affronts attempt to strip Fanny of her identity.

For Fanny, the uprooting to Portsmouth becomes a crucial evaluation of home and self.  Her arrival there parallels her earlier arrival at Mansfield when she had no home or self.  As Kenneth L. Moler relates, placing Fanny in Portsmouth reinforces her “growth” (189).  Extending Moler’s argument, Fanny has literally outgrown Portsmouth.  Unlike the largeness of Mansfield, Portsmouth is characterized by its smallness.  Fanny immediately remarks the “narrow entrance-passage of the house” and the “small” parlor (343).  She notices the “smallness of the house” (347), “the thinness of the walls” (348), and every thing being “so close to her” (348).  She believes herself “at home.  But alas! it was not such a home, she had not such a welcome” (348).  Being initially ignored at Mansfield, Fanny is here “undistinguished” and “unthought of” (345).  She rejects Portsmouth as home, noting its “deficiencies” (359).  Fanny’s mother uses the word “little” constantly, saying in one paragraph “Poor little Betsey,” “little thought it would be,” “Poor little soul,” “Poor little dear,” and “little people” (352).  Portsmouth is a world of children.  Though once small and insignificant at Mansfield, Fanny is now older, and the smallness of Portsmouth is not attributed to her.

At Portsmouth home and self are realized.  In “exile” (358) Fanny “yearn[s]” for Mansfield with “intense desire”:

When she had been coming to Portsmouth, she had loved to call it home, had been fond of saying that she was going home; the word had been very dear to her; and so it still was, but it must be applied to Mansfield.  That was now the home.  Portsmouth was Portsmouth; Mansfield was home. (392)

This realization is not only an understanding of Mansfield, but also of self.  She comes to understand Mansfield by understanding her place in it.  What she essentially finds is her role, a way of fitting into the family that does not diminish her.  She truly desires to be “of service to every creature in the house” (393).  She likes that she has “been of use to all,” taking pride in “supporting the spirits” of her aunt, “keeping her from the evil of solitude” and from “restlessness” (394).  When Fanny returns to Mansfield and fills her former place beside Lady Bertram, she is changed.  She is “devoted to her aunt,” and though she returns “to every former office,” she does so “with more than former zeal” (409).  She realizes that she fits into Mansfield Park, not as a servant, but as a daughter.  Marriage to Edmund only reinforces her legitimacy.  Sir Thomas finds Fanny “indeed the daughter that he wanted” (431).

A coming together of families at the end resolves the chaotic expansion of the novel, which rests its last sentence “within the view and patronage of Mansfield Park” (432).  Julia and Maria, the Grants, the Crawfords, even Mrs. Norris have all left Mansfield.  Only the Prices remain:  William, Susan, and Fanny, who becomes a Bertram by name at last.  Though the Prices have in some ways supplanted the Bertrams, Fanny’s oxymoronic title, Fanny Bertram, works to dissolve any differences.  What we are left with is simply one family very much at home in Mansfield Park.

Works Cited

Austen, Jane. Mansfield Park. New York: Oxford UP, 1990.

Edmundson, Melissa. “A Space for Fanny: The Significance of Her Rooms in Mansfield Park. Persuasions On-line 23.1 (2002).

Edwards Jr., Thomas R. “The Difficult Beauty of Mansfield Park.” Critics on Jane Austen. Ed. Judith O’Neill. Readings in Literary Criticism 5. Coral Gables, FL: U of Miami P, 1970. 90-96.

Moler, Kenneth L. “Miss Price All Alone: Metaphors of Distance in Mansfield Park.” Studies in the Novel 17 (1985): 189-93.

Smith, Leroy W. “Mansfield Park: The Revolt of the ‘Feminine’ Woman.” Jane Austen in a Social Context. Ed. David Monaghan. Totowa, NJ: Barnes and Noble, 1981. 143-58.