2002 JASNA Essay Contest First Place Winner High School Division
Alexandra M. Baird
Toronto, ON

The Apt Scholar: Concepts of Women’s Education in Mansfield Park

In Mansfield Park, Jane Austen presents three different kinds of formal education for women. Two of these have the ultimate goal of marriage, while the third is, possibly, as close to a gentleman’s education as a woman’s could be. Although there is some overlapping of these three types, each one is, basically, embodied in one of the major female characters—Maria Bertram, Mary Crawford, and Fanny Price—to show the follies and the triumphs of each. Unlucky Maria’s education teaches her next to nothing, and Mary’s has no true substance below the bright surface. The timid, mousy Fanny Price, however, may be partly in debt to her progressive education for the happiness that she earns at the end of the novel.

In Austen’s world, a girl’s education was almost inseparable from her home life. What she learned and, consequently, her conduct, was often a reflection of what her household was like, and this is certainly true of Maria and Mary.

Maria, brought up by a distant father, an indolent mother, and an indulgent aunt, doesn’t learn until too late that selfish actions can bring disastrous consequences. (What is said for Maria in the subject of education is, of course, also true for Julia—however, for the sake of brevity, and as Maria is the more prominent character of the two, she is the model of comparison in this essay.) Sir Thomas regrets his neglect of his daughters’ moral education after Maria’s character is exposed:

He had meant them to be good, but his cares had been directed to the understanding and manners, not the disposition; and of the necessity of self-denial and humility, he feared they had never heard from any lips that could profit them. (463)

Her father married for beauty, and her mother for convenience, so Maria has no idealistic view of true love in marriage until Henry Crawford’s attentions give her a hope that is cruelly crushed. She is spoiled by the absence of her parents—when she runs away with Henry, she attempts to keep it a secret, as a little girl might hide her misbehavior.

Mary, who was mostly raised in the more daring London, has difficulty subduing her urban easiness to the more conservative countryside. The indulgence she received from her aunt is of a more openly permissive type than Maria’s, as may be concluded from her unguarded speech.

Since Fanny doesn’t consider Mansfield Park her real home, she does not grow up to be selfish like Maria, despite their shared classroom. Also, her separation from her family in Portsmouth allows her to idealize them, so she does not cling to her family’s lower class (relative) coarseness; she doesn’t remember much more about her family than her closeness to William (15), and that her younger siblings looked up to her (14). Because of her mind, which is at once stubborn and naïve, she is free from the negative influences of either place.

For each of the young women discussed, formal education further reinforces the effects of home life. For Maria, an education is a requirement that a young woman must possess for social reasons, and not an aid for daily life. This may be concluded from her response, given at the age of thirteen, to Mrs. Norris’ reminder that there is yet more for her to learn: “Yes, I know there is, till I am seventeen” (19). It doesn’t occur to Maria, either at thirteen or at twenty-one, to see education as a chance for self-improvement, or an expansion of her view of the world. She also fails to consider that learning may continue beyond the age of seventeen. When Maria can say she has been taught by a governess, her transformation from a mere gentleman’s daughter to an accomplished gentleman’s daughter who is eligible for an advantageous marriage is complete. Her education is proof of her social status, and it ensures a continuation of her privileged way of life.

Maria’s education consists mainly of geography, history, and music. She has little to no use for geography, and her map-assembling sparks no discernible interest. History is mostly taught by rote:

“How long ago it is, aunt, since we used to repeat the chronological order of the kings of England, with the dates of their accession, and most of the principal events of their reigns!”

“Yes,” added the other; “and of the Roman emperors as low as Severus…”

Although the bare facts may be etched into her memory, she has no understanding of the causes and effects of historical events. Music and art are present in Maria’s education, but do not give her much pleasure in her adulthood—it is no more than a social grace. She plays when asked by her father to do so (191), and for an impromptu glee when all the young people (including Henry Crawford, who might be an influence) are assembled at the Park (108); but like her interests in transparencies and Mr. Rushworth,  her enthusiasm for music is not sustained. It may be said, that the only practical use that she makes of her education is to contemptuously distinguish herself and Julia from their backwards cousin.

What Mary Crawford was taught in the years before she came to the Park is somewhat of a mystery. She is very accomplished musically, is a brilliant conversationalist, and probably reads extensively, as she is able to quote and parody Hawkins Browne’s “An Ode to Tabacco,” which she identifies as being an imitation of Alexander Pope’s poetry (161). Since Mary is so naturally clever, it is difficult to determine where her inherent talents end and the traces of her formal education begin. It is even conceivable that her aunt spoiled her to the extent of neglecting to provide an education—however, if that is the case, Mary’s self-teaching still yields more knowledge and resource than Maria’s years with a governess.

Mary herself says that “varnish and gilding hide many stains” (434), and this is true both in her moral character and in her education. When Fanny, speaking of the improving of estate grounds, says that she would be interested in seeing the progress of the alterations, Mary replies, “Ay—you have been brought up to it. It was no part of my education…” (57). Mary is as indifferent to the intricacies of a human mind as she is to garden renovation. She appreciates the beauty of a finished product, and she appreciates the good qualities in Edmund and Fanny—however, she can’t appreciate the convictions that propel Edmund towards the clergy (92), nor can she see that Fanny’s refusal to marry Henry is anything more than coyness. Mary knows how to be pleasant and amiable, and how to charm those around her with her wit, her harp, and her feminine grace. Yet like Maria’s understanding of English history, her view of why people do the things they do is woefully nearsighted.

Fanny Price is thought by many readers to be old-fashioned and prudish in her opinions on morality; however, some of the arguments supporting this view are more aptly applied to the case that Fanny is wiser and better educated than those around her, and is better able to predict the probable outcomes of situations. She quickly sees Mary’s materialism and Henry’s womanizing when everyone else is blind to their faults. She and Edmund both foresee disaster in the acting scheme;  however,  Edmund excuses himself into taking part, because his greatest fear is of breeding familiarity with a near stranger, while Fanny’s fear—which is realized—is that of the flirtations between Henry and Maria, and Edmund and Mary, intensifying.

While she is naturally shy, her education does help her gain some self-confidence. Edmund, who is perhaps more involved in her education than Miss Lee, not only explains her lessons and teaches her the constellations, but recognizes and encourages her natural kindness and sensitivity; he is moved both by her sadness in being separated from her family, and her grief in losing her friend, the old gray pony. His kindness to her on these, and on other occasions, gives her an incentive to exercise her own sense of right, which perhaps saves her from the bitterness that a less appreciated girl might fall into in her situation.

Fanny’s education, guided by Edmund, is one that plays to her strengths. Had she been slated to be as fine a lady as Maria or Julia, this might not have been possible. Fanny has little to no inclination towards music or art, but what she does want to learn, she takes very seriously; at eighteen, by which age Maria has fully abandoned the schoolroom, Fanny continues to feed her curiosity by reading Lord Macartney’s accounts of China (a first hand source, unlike Miss Lee’s lessons by rote). She also displays her inquisitiveness when Sir Thomas returns, by asking him about the slave trade—a bold step, but still a small one, towards conquering her social anxiety.

Fanny’s formal education, and her training in patience and kindness, finally unite during her stay in Portsmouth, with happy results. She gathers the courage she needs to become a source of change in her family’s household, buying a knife for Becky to end a squabble (396), and, more notably, providing a much needed role model for Susan. Susan doesn’t relish reading as Fanny does, but Fanny tailors her lessons to suit Susan’s lesser intellect (418-9). She instructs Susan with the care and patience that Edmund has shown to her. While Fanny loses the idealized concept of her family that she had clung to for many years, she takes Susan for what she is, and brings out the best in her.

Fanny fares the best of the three characters discussed, by being true to herself, and by being considerate of others. She receives what is due to her, as a classical hero does—she is torn away from her rightful place as eldest sister, to be thrust into a lowly position where she must prove herself worthy before returning to her first home. There, she finds things have changed for the worst, but helps set things right before riding away to a new life of domestic felicity. The way Fanny was brought up, her moral and formal education, are akin to tools and amulets carried by mythical heroes—they may not always be obvious, but they are a source of strength and comfort in the hero’s times of need.

Works Cited

Austen, Jane. Mansfield Park. 1814. London: Oxford University Press, 1966.