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Mansfield Park

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1814

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Summary and Study Guide


Mansfield Park (1814) is the third novel by English novelist Jane Austen (1775-1817). Set in Regency-era England, Mansfield Park is a bildungsroman, charting the life of Fanny Price from childhood to adulthood. At the age of 10, Fanny is sent from her poverty-stricken home to live with her wealthy uncle and aunt, Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram. The narrative follows the protagonist’s struggles adjusting to life at Mansfield Park, her moral challenges, and her secret love for her cousin Edmund. The text explores the themes of Stability Versus Change, Virtue and Vice, and Love, Money, and Marriage.

Austen completed six novels during her relatively short lifetime: Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814), Emma (1815), Northanger Abbey (1817), and Persuasion (1818). Northanger Abbey and Persuasion were both published posthumously. Austen also penned the epistolary novella Lady Susan (1871), which was also published posthumously. Austen’s fiction is renowned for its wit, social commentary, and insightful observations on human nature. The author’s continued popularity is reflected in the numerous film and television adaptations of her works.

This guide refers to the 1985 Penguin paperback edition of Mansfield Park.

Content Warning: The source material features references to colonial exploitation and enslavement.

Plot Summary

Fanny Price is raised in a poor, working-class family in the English coastal city of Portsmouth. Although Fanny’s mother came from an affluent family, she married a poor, drunken sailor, resulting in insufficient income for her many children. At the age of 10, Fanny is sent to live with her mother’s sister, who married a wealthy landowner, Sir Thomas Bertram. Sir Thomas’s estate, Mansfield Park, is in Northamptonshire. While Fanny has never experienced such luxurious surroundings, she is homesick. Her elder cousins, Tom, Maria, and Julia, look down on her and are encouraged to do so by Fanny’s other aunt, the sister of Lady Bertram, Mrs. Norris. Due to Lady Bertram’s neglect of her children, Mrs. Norris is a surrogate parent to the younger Bertrams and spends most of her time at Mansfield Park. Only Edmund, Sir Thomas’s younger son, is kind to Fanny and takes the time to educate her.

Sir Thomas is called away to his plantation in Antigua, taking his wayward eldest son, Tom, with him. As Fanny turns 18, Henry and Mary Crawford arrive in the neighborhood. Having formerly lived in London, the brother and sister are staying with their relative, Mrs. Grant, who is married to the local clergyman. The Crawfords are a lively and charming pair with few moral scruples. Julia and Maria both fall in love with Henry Crawford. However, Maria is already engaged to a rich but unintelligent man named Mr. Rushworth. Henry flirts with both sisters, causing conflict between them. Fanny, who is in love with Edmund, also suffers as she observes his attraction to Mary. Mary has feelings for Edmund but is scornful of his intention to become a clergyman. She intends to marry a man of wealth and status. Romantic tensions come to a climax on a group visit to Mr. Rushworth’s estate, Sotherton. Maria and Henry slip off alone together, making Julia and Mr. Rushworth jealous. Mary and Edmund also become closer during the excursion.

Tom returns to Mansfield Park, leaving Sir Thomas in Antigua. When his friend, Mr. Yates, visits, the household is enthused by the idea of amateur theatricals and decides to stage the play Lovers’ Vows. Fanny and Edmund disapprove due to the play’s provocative content and their certainty that Sir Thomas would not like it. However, Edmund is finally persuaded to take the role of Mary’s lover. Meanwhile, Maria and Henry frequently rehearse intimate scenes together. Maria is convinced Henry will propose and behaves dismissively toward Mr. Rushworth. However, the rehearsals come to a halt with the unexpected return of Sir Thomas. Henry promptly departs, and Maria marries Mr. Rushworth. The newlyweds go to London with Julia.

In the absence of the Bertram sisters, Fanny gains more importance in the household, and Sir Thomas throws a ball in her honor. Henry Crawford returns and decides to make Fanny fall in love with him. He ensures Fanny feels indebted to him by securing a naval promotion for her favorite brother, William. Nevertheless, Fanny rejects his marriage proposal. Sir Thomas knows nothing of Henry’s true nature and is angry with Fanny for declining the eligible bachelor. He sends her back to Portsmouth to remind her of her humble origins.

Fanny is horrified by the chaos and vulgarity of the Price household. Henry continues to woo her, and she begins to believe that his character has significantly improved. However, before Fanny can change her mind, she learns that Maria has left Mr. Rushworth for Henry. Soon after, Julia also causes a scandal by eloping with Mr. Yates.

Fanny returns to Mansfield Park, and Sir Thomas acknowledges her as a daughter, admitting she is the only family member to have behaved consistently well. When Henry and Maria separate, Sir Thomas refuses to receive his eldest daughter at Mansfield Park. Mrs. Norris leaves to live with her favorite niece abroad.

In the aftermath of Maria and Henry’s affair, Mary suggests the adulterous couple should have been more discreet. Disgusted by Mary’s failure to condemn the adultery, Edmund breaks off his courtship. Initially devastated, he soon recognizes Fanny as his perfect life partner. Edmund and Fanny marry and move to Mansfield Parsonage with Susan, Fanny’s favorite sister.

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By Jane Austen