Three women. Three cultural messages. Three outcomes. In Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, characters Maria Bertram, Mary Crawford, and Fanny Price are all presented with societal messages about marriage, morality, and social position. For these women, heeding the culture’s view of marriage and class structure usually leads to ruin, while heeding its view of morality reaps rewards. Throughout the novel, each woman engages with these messages differently. In the end, it is each woman’s choice between positive messages and negative messages that shapes her development and determines her ultimate fate.
Much of the action in Mansfield Park stems from the prospect of marriage. Indeed, the novel’s very first lines recount the marriage of Maria Bertram’s mother, Miss Maria Ward:
About thirty years ago, Miss Maria Ward . . . had the good luck to captivate Sir Thomas Bertram, of Mansfield Park…and to be thereby raised to the rank of a baronet's lady, with all the comforts and consequences of a handsome house and a large income. (3)
This is the society that Maria Bertram is born into—a society in which marital “good luck” lies neither in love, nor in character, nor in principles. No, according to the culture, the primary prerequisite for a good marriage is wealth. For, when Austen wrote Mansfield Park, women possessed little means of earning money, and, thus, their principle strategy for attaining a fortune was to marry one (Sturrock).
Steeped in this mercenary view of marriage her entire life, Maria Bertram believes that marrying for money is not merely favorable but absolutely imperative (Sturrock). In chapter four, Austen declares,
Being now in her twenty-first year, Maria Bertram was beginning to think matrimony a duty; and as a marriage with Mr. Rushworth would give her the enjoyment of a larger income than her father's…by the same rule of moral obligation, her evident duty was to marry Mr. Rushworth if she could. (Austen 36, my italics)
Today, one rarely associates the phrases “duty” and “moral obligation” with a large income. However, money is so important to Maria that earning it is the primary--if not only--item on her moral code. Thus, when Maria meets Mr. Rushworth, her “moral obligation” is put to the test. Mr. Rushworth is a blundering, bungling, utterly “stupid fellow” (38) whom Maria “despise[s] (431). However, he earns a hefty “twelve thousand a year” (37), prompting Maria to swiftly swallow her “contempt of the man” and marry him (187).
Maria’s society not only imposes cultural messages about marriage but also about morality. As Karen Taylor points out, during Austen’s time, women were expected to be “spiritually pure,” “keepers of traditional values,” and “moral guardians of the family.” Throughout the novel, Maria utterly fails to live up to this standard. In fact, Maria only behaves decorously when her scrupulous father is at home, “repress[ing] [her] spirits in his presence so as to make [her] real disposition unknown to him” (Austen 30). For Maria, propriety is not internal but external, a mere mask to be worn around certain audiences. As Austen says, “Something must have been wanting within [Maria]” (430). Clearly, Maria’s most blatant act of immorality is her affair with Mr. Crawford. Indeed, even before Maria’s adulterous act, Austen paints a symbolic picture of the consequences of Maria’s wantonness (Toner 224). While at Southerton, the engaged Maria and unengaged Mr. Crawford cross over a locked gate to enter a vineyard (Austen 93-96). Here, their literal surmounting of the gate symbolizes their figurative circumventing of propriety and foreshadows their future illicit sexual affair (Toner 224). Significantly, Austen has placed spikes on the gate that come alarmingly close to tearing Maria’s gown (Austen 94), representing the inherent danger in the pursuit of impropriety. Maria should have recoiled at the spikes and heeded her culture’s dictates of morality. However, all Maria heeds is Mr. Crawford’s charms, and, thus, through the “gate” of sexual promiscuity she goes, first flirting and finally fornicating with Mr. Crawford (93-96, 434-35).
Another cultural dictate that Maria faces is that of societal position. In Austen’s time, class distinctions were rigid; the upper classes often looked down on the lower classes (Davies). As seen in her relationship with her cousin, Fanny Price, Maria fully embraces these rigid class distinctions. While Maria is the daughter of a prestigious gentleman, Fanny is the daughter of a lowly sailor (Austen 1-7). Thus, Maria views Fanny as merely an “occasionally acceptable companion” (17) to whom she should give “a generous present of some of [her] least valued toys” (13). Here, Austen’s satirical tone perfectly portrays Maria’s attitude: By giving Fanny her “least valued toys,” Maria thinksshe is being “generous” while, in reality, she is behaving selfishly and arrogantly, upholding the cruel class distinctions of her day.
Ironically, after all of her snubbing, Maria becomes the one who will be forever snubbed. Just as Austen prophesies, the spikes inherent in immorality ultimately ensnare Maria, as her affair leads to a fate worse than death—exile from society and eternal banishment with her cantankerous Aunt Norris (432). Unfortunately, Maria’s sense of superiority causes her to avoid friendship with Fanny Price, a steady, upright girl whose influence could have benefited her. Instead, Maria is influenced by her culture’s monetary idea of marriage, becoming a miserable wife (188) and, ultimately, a miserable adulteress (434-35). Clearly, then, Maria’s interaction with her society’s messages negatively impacts her life.
Mary Crawford is also steeped in her society’s mercenary conception of marriage. Like Maria, Mary touts that marrying for money is not just a preference but an obligation. “‘It is every body's duty to do as well for themselves [in marriage] as they can,’“ she declares (269, my italics). However, when Mary Crawford is presented with Edmund as a potential husband, she is forced to reconsider her “duty.” Indeed, Mary is genuinely attracted to Edmund—his “sincerity, his steadiness, his integrity . . . [please] her” (62). At the same time, though, Mary is infuriated with Edmund since he only aspires to be a clergyman, who will never be “very rich” (198). Throughout the novel, Mary struggles between her culture’s view of marriage and her own preference, sometimes determined to remain “indifferent” (212) toward Edmund, other times determined to marry him (427).
Mary not only vacillates between marrying for money and marrying for love, she also vacillates between morality and immorality. Unlike Maria, Mary seems to have a certain internal sense of propriety, for, as Austen points out, Mary is almost “purely governed” by “good feelings” (139). However, Mary often rebels against these “good feelings,” prompting Edmund to declare that she has a “corrupted, vitiated mind” (424). Indeed, Mary teeters dangerously on the brink of right and wrong as her good actions, such as her defense of Fanny against the abuses of the Bertrams (139), are constantly being followed by bad actions, such as her disparagement of the clergy (88-89). Ultimately, it is Mary’s culturally-induced monetary outlook, her belief that there is “nothing of consequence but money,” that thrusts her into impropriety (405). For example, at the end of the novel, Mary inappropriately states that the possible death of Edmund’s brother, Tom, would actually be a blessing since Tom’s “wealth” and “consequence” would “fall” into the “hands” of Edmund—her potential husband (403).
Mary is also confronted by her society’s perspective on social status. However, unlike Maria, Mary does not snub Fanny. Instead, Mary walks with Fanny, talks with Fanny, and even invites Fanny to listen to the harp (191). In fact, based on her treatment of Fanny, Mary does not seem to have absorbed her culture’s pompous perception of class categorizations. However, when interacting with Edmund Bertram, Mary displays a shockingly different and openly classist side of her character. For instance, when she discovers that Edmund wants to be a clergyman, Mary brusquely remarks that clergymen have little “‘influence and importance in society’” and that Edmund is “‘really fit for something better’” (88-89). What accounts for Mary’s simultaneously selfless and snobbish character? Because Mary is not directly affected by Fanny Price’s social status, Mary is willing to befriend Fanny. However, Edmund’s social status could greatly impact Mary since she is considering marrying him. And, according to Mary, a clergyman’s wife is “a situation” to which “she would never stoop” (212). Thus, Mary’s classism is thinly veiled, hidden during her interactions with Fanny but openly visible in matters concerning her own life.
In the end, Mary’s mercenary view of marriage, less than admirable morals, and disrespect of the clergy and lower classes all turn Edmund away in disgust (425-27). Therefore, Mary’s responses to each societal message negatively affect her life. However, Mary’s choices are far less ignominious than Maria’s, revealing that Mary is a more redeemable character. Thus, at the novel’s conclusion, Austen mercifully offers hope for wayward Mary, hinting that Mary may learn from her mistakes and even benefit from them in the long run (Wells). For, according to Austen, Mary has “acquired” a “better taste” from her experience at Mansfield and now longs, not for money, but for good “character and manners” in a potential husband (Austen 436).
Like Maria and Mary, Fanny Price is presented with a suitor: the charming, charismatic, and—most importantly—wealthy Mr. Crawford. When Lady Bertram discovers Mr. Crawford’s interest in Fanny, she promptly reminds Fanny of the financial “duty” of marriage: “‘[Y]ou must be aware, Fanny, that it is every young woman’s duty to accept such . . . [a fortunate] offer as this’” (308, my italics). However, unlike Lady Bertram, Maria, and Mary, Fanny rejects her culture’s monetary idea of marriage—Fanny Price cannot be bought for a “price.” Instead, Fanny examines men’s hearts, seeking certain principles before consenting to marriage. To Fanny, Mr. Crawford’s heart is an “abhorrence” (303); he is an incurably vain, flirtatious man who would only make her “‘miserable’” (296). Indeed, even before Mr. Crawford proposes, Jane Austen foreshadows that Fanny and Mr. Crawford are simply incompatible through her use of symbolism: Before a ball held in her honor, Fanny is given two chains (239-52). One chain is from Mr. Crawford; the other is from her true love, Edmund (239-244). Mr. Crawford’s chain is, by far, the showier of the two (242), representing the flashy personality and tremendous wealth he has to offer. However, his chain simply does not fit through Fanny’s pendant (252), symbolizing that, despite his charms and riches, Mr. Crawford is just not the right “fit” for Fanny. So, when faced with the prospect of marrying Mr. Crawford, Fanny agrees that “[s]he must do her duty”—not her “duty” to money but rather her “duty” to principles (306). Thus, Fanny rejects Mr. Crawford’s proposal and waits for the man whose chain is the right “fit”—Edmund Bertram.
Fanny is also faced with her society’s standard of morality. Unlike Maria, Fanny does not view propriety as a mere mask. No, for even when Fanny is pressured to behave immorally, she remains steadfast, demonstrating that, for her, morality is not superficial but internal. For instance, Fanny’s heart prompts her not to participate in her cousins’ theatrical performance, a play she dubs “improper for home representation” (130). Adamantly, Fanny’s cousins entreat her to act, but she resists, demonstrating her tremendous inner strength and morality. (137-38). It is this virtuousness, this “goodness of heart” (237), that compels Mr. Crawford to declare that Fanny has “some touches of the angel in [her]” (319).
Finally, throughout the novel, Fanny is bombarded with her culture’s view of societal position. Before Fanny even arrives at Mansfield Park, her aunt, Mrs. Norris, and her uncle, Sir Thomas, contrive a nearly impossible social status for her: Fanny is to be treated as just enough of a sister to avoid an inappropriate relationship with either Tom or Edmund but not enough of a sister to be considered the equal of the other two Bertram girls (6-7). Fanny’s actions throughout the novel demonstrate that she accepts this inferior position. For instance, Austen states that Fanny “ranks her own claims” so lowly that she actually believes that she does not deserve the comfort of riding home in a carriage (205). Further, during a ball that is held in her honor, Fanny is appalled that she must dance first and “open” the ball (256). She feels unworthy to be “placed above so many elegant young women,” and, thus, she is greatly distressed (257). For her, a joyous event has transformed into a doleful one because of her low view of herself.
In the end, then, Fanny’s feelings of social inadequacy cause her self-inflicted discomfort and anguish. Yet, other than her acceptance of her inferior position, Fanny’s interactions with her culture are far more beneficial than Maria’s and Mary’s. Fanny’s rejection of monetary marriage leads to her fortunate rejection of the unscrupulous Mr. Crawford (291). Further, Fanny’s acceptance of the moral norms of her time gains Sir Thomas’ favor, causing him to support Fanny and Edmund’s marriage and to admit that Fanny is “the daughter that he wanted” (438). That being said, Fanny’s story would have ended far differently if not for Austen’s intervention (Halls). For example, as the theatrical rehearsals continue, Fanny finally agrees to participate in the play (Austen 161). It is only Sir Thomas’ chance arrival that prevents Fanny from becoming more involved in the performance (162), and, thus, Austen uses Sir Thomas to save Fanny from moral culpability. Further, Austen clearly declares that, if Mr. Crawford had not run away with Maria, “Fanny must have been his reward” (434). Here, once again, Austen gently weaves the plot in Fanny’s favor so that Fanny can marry, not Mr. Crawford, but her true love, Edmund. Therefore, with the aid of Austen’s merciful pen, Fanny’s interaction with her society’s messages positively impacts her life.
Throughout Mansfield Park, Maria Bertram, Mary Crawford, and Fanny Price all engage with the societal messages about marriage, morality, and social status differently. Ultimately, it is this interaction with their culture that helps to shape both their development and their destinies. For these women, accepting society’s messages about marriage and class structure is often deleterious, while accepting its messages about morality is typically beneficial. Maria utterly fails in her approach toward her culture, leaving Austen no choice but to banish her. Mary also receives her society’s signals injudiciously, but she does have some redeeming qualities and displays great potential to right her wayward soul. Finally, Fanny comes closest to appropriately approaching her society’s messages, but it is only Austen’s beneficent construction of the plot that allows Fanny to marry her beloved Edmund Bertram in the end. Thus, through the interaction of character and culture, Austen creates Maria’s mournful, Mary’s hopeful, and Fanny’s fortunate future.