PERSUASIONS ON-LINE V.27, NO.1 (Winter 2006)
Mansfield Park as Greenhouse: “The Effect of Education” in Mansfield Park

Mary M. Chan


Mary M. Chan (email: is a doctoral student at the University of Alberta.  Her dissertation research examines domestic interiors and the gendered subject in eighteenth-century novels.  Her article “Insignificant Dwarves and Scotch Giants: Height, Perception, and Power in Jane Austen” appeared in Persuasions 26 (2004).


Discussing his ever-ambivalent feelings towards Mary Crawford, Edmund Bertram blames her sometimes-inappropriate remarks on “‘the influence of her former companions’” (269):


“She does not think evil, but she speaks it—speaks it in playfulness—and though I know it to be playfulness, it grieves me to the soul.”

“The effect of education,” said Fanny gently.

Edmund could not but agree to it.  “Yes, that uncle and aunt!  They have injured the finest mind!”  (269)


What is “the effect of education”?  How do questions of education and change work their way through what is arguably Jane Austen’s most frustrating novel?  This paper will explore the effect of informal education, particularly the formation of habits and the parallel themes of improvement and illness in Mansfield Park.  Ultimately, the resistance to change demonstrated by the novel’s heroine undermines the discourse of transformation that runs through the novel, indicating that change, though possible, is not likely to occur.



A clear difference is established between formal and informal education in Mansfield Park.  Formal education is presented as inadequate, as a checklist that accomplished young ladies such as the Miss Bertrams must complete.  Though young Fanny Price can “read, work, and write” (18), she has not been taught more, and her cousins Maria and Julia duly report her educational shortcomings to their mother and aunt.  Truth be told, the Bertram daughters should hardly be proud of their own education, which greatly consists of rote learning:  they are able to recite “‘the Roman emperors as low as Severus; besides a great deal of the Heathen Mythology, and all the Metals, Semi-Metals, Planets, and distinguished philosophers’” (18-19).  In addition to learning useless, inapplicable information, the Bertram daughters believe that education is finite.  Though they have many things to learn, their formal education magically ends when they turn seventeen (19).


Informal education, though, is a trickier beast. When Fanny suggests that Mary Crawford’s behavior is “‘[t]he effect of education,’” she does not mean that Mary went to an unaccredited finishing school.  As Edmund’s response of blaming Admiral and Mrs. Crawford suggests, Fanny is referring to informal—that is, non-formal—education, the type of learning undergone day-to-day.  It is a term that encompasses, and in fact is defined by, the development of moral character:  “‘I know her disposition to be as sweet and faultless as your own,’” Edmund tells Fanny, “‘but the influence of her former companions makes her seem, gives to her conversation, to her professed opinions, sometimes a tinge of wrong’” (269).  Informal education is less explicit than formal education.  Edmund’s use of the words “influence” and “tinge” is highly suggestive:  informal education can be insidious; bad influences, ubiquitous.


The formation of moral character is clearly separated from the process of formal education.  Sir Thomas Bertram uses both meanings of the term education as he laments his daughters’ upbringing at the novel’s end.  In terms of moral education, Sir Thomas takes some of the responsibility himself, not being fully able to escape “the conviction of his own errors in the education of his daughters” (463).  Part of his error was acting too severely to counteract the influence of the indulgent Mrs. Norris:  he “clearly saw that he had but increased the evil, by teaching them to repress their spirits in his presence, as to make their real disposition unknown to him” (463, my italics).  In this context, the word “teaching” relates to the informal process by which the Bertram daughters learned how to behave under their father’s eye.  Moreover, the connection between the concepts of “disposition” and informal education mirrors Edmund’s earlier use of the word to denote essential character.  Further, in the same passage, Sir Thomas outlines how his daughters’ informal education has fallen short of the ideal:


He feared that principle, active principle, had been wanting, that they had never been properly taught to govern their inclinations and tempers, by that sense of duty which can alone suffice.  They had been instructed theoretically in their religion, but never required to bring it into daily practice.  To be distinguished for elegance and accomplishments—the authorised object of their youth—could have had no useful influence that way, no moral effect on the mind.  He had meant them to be good, but his cares had been directed to the understanding and manners, not the disposition.  (463, my italics)


In addition to repeating the key word “disposition,” this passage clearly distinguishes between formal education (theoretical instruction) and informal education that has a “moral effect on the mind.”


Like formal education, informal education relies on repetition (analogous to rote learning) and the development of habits.  Repeated actions and concepts are internalized and then manifested externally through habits.  Characters in Mansfield Park are obsessed with each others’ habits:  Mrs. Grant does not like her brother Henry’s “‘unsettled habits’” (116), the Honourable John Yates has “not much to recommend him beyond habits of fashion and expense” (121), and Susan Price has not developed “[t]he early habit of reading” (419).  Fanny wonders whether Mary’s “return to her London habits” (417) will keep her from Edmund, and Edmund worries that “‘the influence of the fashionable world,’” that is, “‘the habits of wealth’” (421), will make Mary realize that she cannot give up that lifestyle to marry him.


The importance of habits in Mansfield Park lies not in the process of their acquisition, but in the possibility of de-acquisition.  From minor hopes of improvement (Mr. Rushworth) to major ones (Henry and Mary Crawford), questions about improvement and change run throughout the novel.  Trying to decode character by analyzing habits is difficult because habits are ingrained, learned behaviors that appear innate and unchangeable even though they are acquired.  This rule is the paradox of habits: we are not born with them, but past a certain point, we might as well have been.


Habits, then, are important in Mansfield Park because they are treated as indicators of the possessor’s moral fibre, as barometers of character.  Their ambiguity, though, encourages misreadings or gives rise to unrealistic hopes for change, as evidenced by Edmund’s ambivalence toward Mary Crawford.  He blames any ill-bred remarks upon her upbringing or casts her behavior in a positive light.  Star-gazing with Fanny, he praises Mary’s good humor and “‘how readily she falls in with the inclination of others! joining them the moment she is asked’” (112) though that obliging nature will later cause her to fall back into her London habits.  Edmund then stops short and reminds himself of her faults:  “‘What a pity,’ he added, after an instant’s reflection, ‘that she should have been in such hands!’” (112).



Two contradictory themes in the novel address the questions of habits and change, and by examining them we can better understand fundamental change in Mansfield Park.  The first is the oft-discussed theme of improvement, that is, the renovation and landscaping of estates and grounds.  The fashion for making improvements in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was a culmination of a century-long obsession with architecture and gardens in England.  As scholars such as Richard Quaintance and Gerry Brenner observe, improvement in Mansfield Park takes on greater valences of meaning as characters seek to improve, among other things, their social status, financial well-being, and even personal happiness.


What, then, of the intersection of habits and improvements in Mansfield Park?  Both assume a certain amount of agency; an external force (free will on one hand, creativity and physical labor on the other) is exerted upon nature to produce change.  Both concern the development of different types of nature (human and natural) and in both the change is hoped to be for the better.  Moreover, neither is easily accomplished.  In the novel, improvements of grounds and estates seem straight forward until one realizes how complex the proposed changes are.  Renovating Sotherton’s Elizabethan-era house and even a portion of its 700 acres of land would be a monumental undertaking.  Henry Crawford estimates that his proposed improvements to Thornton Lacey, including turning the house around so that it would face east instead of north, would provide enough work “‘for five summers at least before the place is live-able’” (241) and could be accomplished for “‘the expenditure of a few hundreds a year’” (243), notwithstanding Edmund’s annual salary of £700.


In addition to being complicated work, improvements in the novel are also imaginary.  For all the conversation about improvement in the novel, not much of it actually occurs.  If it were to be undertaken, it would be a messy, drawn-out process.  Mary Crawford understands how unromantic improvements are, recalling the renovation of her uncle’s cottage that caused her to “‘consider improvements in hand as the greatest of nuisances. . . . [F]or three months we were all dirt and confusion’” (57).  We never see any such dirt and confusion over the course of the novel.  Discussion of improvements, such as those to Thornton Lacey, is hypothetical, a point emphasized by the card game played during the conversation:  Speculation.


One important context in which to consider improvements and character is the architectural concept of “convenience.”  As explained by Simon Varey in his book Space and the Eighteenth-Century English Novel, convenience is the concept that “a house should represent the status of its owner, by its site, size, and ornaments” (20).  Framed in a more political way, convenience argues for “an exterior that should express the purpose of a building and the social status of its inhabitant” (156).  In terms of architecture, it means that a capital city’s parliament building should look appropriately dignified, and a humble cottage should not strive for grandeur.  Varey argues that the concept of architectural convenience is also applicable to characterization in novels; character is architectural in that external appearances are assumed (sometimes wrongly) to be expressions of internal character.  In the world of Austen’s novels, the best example of convenience occurs in Pride and Prejudice, as Elizabeth Bennet compares Darcy and Wickham:  “‘One has got all the goodness, and the other all the appearance of it’” (PP 225). Moreover, architecture is closely tied to character.  In addition to expressing a person’s social status, a house is also an extension of personality.  Drawing again from Pride and Prejudice, we can compare ostentatious Rosings Park and its overbearing occupant against tasteful, elegant Pemberley and its desirable owner.


Architecture and character, then, are intrinsically related.  Henry Crawford’s proposed changes to Thornton Lacey are the epitome of convenience.  One change Henry suggests is clearing away the farm-yard and then planting it up to “‘shut out the blacksmith’s shop’” (242).  Removing an indicator that the occupant makes a living from manual labor is key to elevating the house and therefore also the owner:  “‘You talk of giving it the air of a gentleman’s residence.  That will be done, by the removal of the farm-yard, for independent of that terrible nuisance, I never saw a house of the kind which had in itself so much the air of a gentleman’s residence . . .’” (243).  The principles of convenience are at work in Henry’s description of the effects of his changes on the house itself.  Henry believes that by making his changes, Edmund would “‘give it a higher character.  You may raise it to a place.  From being the mere gentleman’s residence, it becomes, by judicious improvement, the residence of a man of education, taste, modern manners, good connections’” (243-44).


Henry clearly believes that a house should reflect its owner, but the reflection is distorted and reality is elided since Thornton Lacey is to be Edmund’s residence only after he is ordained. While Edmund is indeed a “‘man of education, taste, modern manners, good connections,’” Thornton Lacey cannot be a gentleman’s residence without first being a parsonage.  When Sir Thomas reminds them of this cold, hard fact, Mary Crawford can no longer “shut out the church, sink the clergyman, and see only the respectable, elegant, modernized, and occasional residence of a man of independent fortune” (248).  For Mary, making over the house also means making over the man.


Which is more difficult—improving an estate or improving a human being?  While it is tempting to draw a direct parallel between estate improvement and the improvement of character, we must resist.  Though nature is difficult to remold, it is still possible, as evidenced by the off-stage improvements at Henry Crawford’s Everingham and Rushworth’s friend Smith’s Compton (53).  People, however, are more resistant.  In fact, they require even more intensive treatment, as demonstrated by the other important transformation theme of the novel:  illness.


In certain respects, the illness theme opposes the improvement theme.  Agency does not lie within the subject but comes rather from external forces (a virus or, conversely, medication).  Many characters in the Mansfield Park are figuratively sick, often as a result of a poor informal education.  Discussing marriage with her half-siblings, the Crawfords, Mrs. Grant notes that their cynical attitude towards marriage will not last at Mansfield:  “‘Mansfield shall cure you both—and without any taking in.  Stay with us and we will cure you’” (47).  Mary’s and Henry’s antipathy towards marriage is presented as the result of a bad education on Hill Street, the home of their uncle and late aunt.  Mary tells her sister that “‘the admiral’s lessons have quite spoiled’” her brother (43) while Mrs. Grant notes that Mary has “‘been in a bad school for matrimony, in Hill Street’” (46).  Mansfield Park is filled with many instances where negative influences are represented as contagions or infections.  Mrs. Grant clearly believes that negative attitudes can be cured, and Sir Thomas is not worried that young Fanny’s disposition will contaminate his daughters, for though the Bertrams should be prepared to find ignorance, ill manners and mean opinions, “‘these are not incurable faults’” (10).


The use of the language of curing and illness to describe the effects of a bad education suggests that bad habits can take root and become such a part of a person that measures more drastic than those undertaken in mere improvement are necessary.  Improvements (such as the improvement of the mind by reading) occur in people (or on properties) that are neutral or receptive to cultivation.  Though Edmund improves Fanny’s mind by recommending books, there is no mention of improving either Maria’s or Julia’s minds.  But the metaphor of illness suggests that stronger measures are required to change character.  Bad education leads to the development of bad habits, which in turn require curing.  A distinction is also drawn between whether behavior or character is diseased.  Speaking of Mary Crawford, Edmund frets that “‘it does appear more than manner; it appears as if the mind itself was tainted’” (269).  The word “tainted” suggests infection or rot, and the division of the character into mind and manner reflects the architectural model of internal character and external appearance.  When character is conceptualized as internal and external (as Mary’s is by Edmund), it is often difficult to know which is the “real” or “true” character, or whether there even is a true character.  Who is the “real” Mary?  Is it the one who is “almost purely governed” by “really good feelings” (147)?  Or is it the Mary who writes in a letter to Fanny that all the world would be better off if Tom dies and Edmund becomes the next Bertram baronet (434)?



So far, I have discussed the importance of education, particularly the negative effects of bad, informal education upon susceptible young minds.  We have seen how the dual themes of improvement and illness complicate the question of whether a person can permanently change for the better, with the improvement of houses echoing the attempted improvement of character, and illness metaphors illustrating how difficult breaking the effects of inadequate upbringing can be.  At this point, I turn my attention to the novel’s heroine, whose very passivity and resistance place her at odds with the discourse of change and transformation that runs through the novel.


Fanny Price is a science experiment—in a way.  Though never intended as such, she is the prize plant in Mansfield Park, my titular metaphorical greenhouse.  Fanny herself is frequently referred to in language associated with growth.  Watching Fanny dance at the ball, Sir Thomas “was proud of his niece, and without attributing all her personal beauty, as Mrs. Norris seemed to do, to her transplantation to Mansfield, he was pleased with himself for having supplied every thing else;—education and manners she owed to him” (276, my italics).  Fanny is a transplant, one who is bred up with her cousins (7).  Indeed, physically, Fanny blooms.  Her physical growth is remarked upon by Sir Thomas (178), by Edmund (198) and finally by Henry Crawford, who notes that she “‘must be grown two inches, at least, since October’” (230).


Yet I am concerned not with physical growth, but rather with moral growth of character.  Attempts to force change occur several times in the novel, most significantly when Sir Thomas sends Fanny to Portsmouth believing she will reconsider Henry Crawford’s marriage proposal upon being deprived of Mansfield Park’s luxuries.  His reasoning in this case emphasizes the illness theme rather than the theme of improvements:  “It was a medicinal project upon his niece’s understanding, which he must consider as at present diseased. . . . [H]e trusted that she would be the wiser and happier woman, all her life, for the experiment he had devised” (369).  Sir Thomas clearly believes that the trip will have curative properties, but his logic is flawed.  Sending Fanny away from Mansfield Park will certainly make her miss it—but she misses the peace and order, not the luxuries of a fine meal (she’ll settle for biscuits).  And, of course, missing Mansfield Park does not necessarily lead to wanting to marry Henry Crawford.


That Fanny does not change her mind about marrying Henry is no surprise when we consider how much Fanny is defined by her habits.  Significantly, in a novel filled with talk of improvements and changing character, the heroine remains for the most part unchanged.  From the time that the novel’s action picks up (I treat the childhood chapters as antecedent action), Fanny Price undergoes a series of tests that crystallizes her character without fundamentally changing it.  At seventeen, Fanny essentially is as she ever will be.  Fanny’s status as a creature of habit is particularly noted in her conversation with Edmund regarding Henry Crawford’s marriage proposal.  Edmund employs the imagery of a military siege to describe Henry’s battle for Fanny’s heart, telling her that “‘the man who means to make you love him (you having due notice of his intentions), must have very up-hill work, for there are all your early attachments, and habits, in battle array’” (347).  Edmund recognizes that Fanny is “‘of all human creatures the one, over whom habit had most power, and novelty least’” (354), yet fails to realize that habit is not why Fanny refused Henry.  For Edmund, Fanny’s habits are so ingrained that it would take an army to change her mind.


Unlike other Austen heroines such as Elizabeth Bennet and Emma Woodhouse, Fanny does not experience a major epiphany that significantly alters her character.  The development of Fanny’s character is gradual and indicated by subtle signs such as her slow taking-over of the East room.  Her unchanged character is indicated by her similar reactions to moments of extreme stress found at the beginning, middle, and end of the novel.  In Volume I, when heatedly pressured to act in Lovers’ Vows, she initially refuses “with a most frightened look” (145) and is “shocked” (145).  As her protests go unheeded, she grows “more and more red from excessive agitation” (146).  Fanny is again startled to the point of being frightened in Volume II when Miss Crawford offers the choice of any chain in her case to Fanny.  She “start[s] back at first with a look of horror at the proposal” (258).  Fanny’s immaturity is more evident after Edmund leaves the East room, having started a quick note to her about his own present of a chain.  Fanny seizes the scrap of paper he had begun writing on and locks it away with the chain “as the dearest part of the gift” (265).  The overwrought behavior continues, with the narrator describing Fanny’s rhapsodic feelings about the interrupted note, including the style of Edmund’s handwriting:  “This specimen, written in haste as it was, had not a fault; and there was a felicity in the flow of the first four words, in the arrangement of ‘My very dear Fanny,’ which she could have looked at for ever” (265).  Indeed.


Finally, Fanny’s reaction to Maria and Henry’s running away together at the novel’s end is equally—if not more—melodramatic.  Despite having steadily refused Henry Crawford’s marriage proposal, having suffered Edmund’s confidences about Mary Crawford, and having endured living in the crude surroundings of Portsmouth for several months, Fanny demonstrates no sign of worldly maturity.  Instead, she is at her hyperbolic height, spending a sleepless night passing from “feelings of sickness to shudderings of horror; and from hot fits of fever to cold. . . . [I]t was too horrible a confusion of guilt, too gross a complication of evil, for human nature, not in a state of utter barbarism, to be capable of!” (441).  She concludes that the resultant suffering would be so unbearable that “the greatest blessing to every one of kindred with Mrs. Rushworth would be instant annihilation” (442).  It is enough to become physically ill because of terrible news, but to wish that all involved would collectively implode is too much.  To apply and extend the plant metaphor one more time, Fanny is most certainly a delicate hothouse flower, not a hearty desert cactus.


To give Fanny Price credit where credit is due, her moral judgment is consistently sound.  She refuses to act in Lovers’ Vows and to marry Henry Crawford because she believes that to do either would be wrong, and her instincts are proven correct.  Fanny’s steadfastness in adhering to her morals is admirable, the positive side to the lack of change we observe in her character.  What is considered obstinacy one day is constancy the next.  But if, as Sir Thomas notes to himself, he provided her with only an education and manners, where did the morals come from?  From Edmund, whose attraction to Mary Crawford blinds him to her faults?  From Portsmouth, home to a slatternly mother, coarse father, and noisy, peevish siblings?  Did Fanny Price spring from her mother’s womb equipped with a fully-formed moral compass?  In other words, is Fanny Price’s moral character not a product of any education—formal or informal—at all?


The answer can be found in the novel, which, Sir Thomas-like, conducts an experiment using three sets of sisters, comparing how their upbringings affected moral development, and examining where and why characters diverge.  We know that the Bertram sisters grew up together and were educated together by Miss Lee in the school room.  But while the married Maria runs away with Henry Crawford, Julia elopes with Yates not to further hurt her father, but as a rash attempt to escape his wrath (466-67).  The differences between Julia and Maria are fundamental, pertaining to disposition:  Julia’s “temper was naturally the easiest of the two, her feelings, though quick, were more controulable; and education had not given her so very hurtful a degree of self-consequence” (466).  Julia escapes Maria’s fate “owing, in some measure, to a favourable difference of disposition and circumstance” (466).  The phrase “disposition and circumstance” suggests that a combination of nature and nurture, that old cliché, is responsible for the difference between these sisters.


A more intriguing comparison is that between the married Ward sisters, that is, Mrs. Price, Mrs. Norris, and Lady Bertram.  Despite presumably growing up together in the same household and receiving the same education (both formal and informal), the sisters develop markedly distinct dispositions:


Of her two sisters, Mrs. Price very much more resembled Lady Bertram than Mrs. Norris.  She was a manager by necessity, without any of Mrs. Norris’s inclination for it, or any of her activity.  Her disposition was naturally easy and indolent, like Lady Bertram’s; and a situation of similar affluence and do-nothing-ness would have been much more suited to her capacity, than the exertions and self-denials of the one, which her imprudent marriage had placed her in.  She might have made just as good a woman of consequence as Lady Bertram, but Mrs. Norris would have been a more respectable mother of nine children, on a small income.  (390)


This fascinating passage demonstrates that at least from the time that they married, the dispositions of the Ward sisters did not change even as circumstances did.  Mrs. Price, similar in disposition to Lady Bertram, does not become more like the efficient, economic Mrs. Norris as her brood grows and her management skills are taxed.  That the narrator suggests that Mrs. Norris would make a better home economist and therefore more respected mother than Mrs. Price is a poor testament to Mrs. Price’s administration and parenting skills.  Overall, this passage suggests that at a certain point in life—adulthood—one’s disposition is so set that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to change it.


            And then there’s the question of Fanny and fourteen-year-old Susan Price.  While the Bertram and Price sisters grew up together, these sisters did not.  Fanny from age ten was raised in the material comforts of Mansfield Park while Susan was left to deal with a home that lacked good sense and good role models.  Despite her upbringing, Susan has “an innate taste for the genteel and well-appointed” (419), often begging Fanny to talk about Mansfield Park.  In fact, even though the sisters have different dispositions (it takes Fanny two weeks to understand Susan’s [395]), with Susan being the more forward and active, neither is suited to Portsmouth:  “Poor Susan was very little better fitted for home than her elder sister” (419).  Susan is of particular interest because hers is a disposition-in-progress that needs guidance.  Fanny regrets that she would leave Susan behind when she returns to Mansfield:  “That a girl so capable of being made, every thing good, should be left in such hands, distressed her more and more” (419).  Unlike anyone else in the novel, Susan Price possesses a disposition that can still be formed.  Susan’s malleability is borne out by how quickly she advances once she arrives at Mansfield Park, becoming an even better companion than Fanny:  “With quickness in understanding the tempers of those she had to deal with, and no natural timidity to restrain any consequent wishes, she was soon welcome, and useful to all; and after Fanny’s removal, succeeded so naturally to her influence over the hourly comfort of her aunt, as gradually to become, perhaps, the most beloved of the two” (472-73).


            What, then, do we learn from this examination of the three sets of sisters?  First of all, as in the case of the Bertram sisters, an identical formal education does not necessarily produce identical dispositions, and neither does the same informal education.  Sometimes differences lie in the question of degrees—Julia was “less flattered, and less spoilt” by her aunt (466).  Secondly, dispositions are formed when subjects (such as Susan Price) are young, and once formed, they seldom change.  Mrs. Price fails to become more efficient despite years of living in a materially-disadvantaged situation; Lady Bertram’s indolence is cultivated but not created by Mansfield Park; Mrs. Norris continues to bustle about even though her lifestyle (financially self-sufficient with no children to support) allows her time to relax.  And finally, as for the question of where Fanny’s moral compass comes from, it is important to note that Susan also seems to have an innate sense of what is proper and what is not.  Even though they possess different dispositions, both sisters understand why the Price household is poorly run and how to improve upon it, though Susan is the one with the nerve to act upon that impulse.  Despite not having lived in the same house for eight years, Fanny and Susan both possess a natural understanding of what is right and wrong, an understanding that can be shaped by education, but that does not owe its origin to it.



In conclusion, I return to the central question of whether a person can permanently change for the better in Mansfield Park.  The answer, it seems, is a qualified no.  It is not that the novel is against change (there is a wistful hopefulness about Henry Crawford’s potential reformation) but that change is difficult to effect.  The difficulty is evident in the improvement (or rather, absence of improvement) theme, as well as in the heroine’s lack of character development.  Change is possible only if the subject is still young and malleable, as in the case of Susan Price.  Disposition, that key concept, is formed early and, once formed, is difficult to alter.  But while the inability to change disposition can be detrimental (e. g., in Mrs. Price), sometimes having the right disposition is a saving grace.  The advantage of possessing a good disposition is most evident when we examine the change in the one character who actually, literally falls ill:  Tom Bertram.  His recovery is both physical and moral:  Tom “gradually regained his health, without regaining the thoughtlessness and selfishness of his previous habits” (462).  His is the ultimate transformation; Tom is the clichéd changed man.  Yet Austen does not write in mere clichés. Something else is at work here:


He had suffered, and he had learnt to think, two advantages that he had never known before; and the self-reproach arising from the deplorable event in Wimpole Street [Maria’s running away with Henry], to which he felt himself accessary by all the dangerous intimacy of his unjustifiable theatre, made an impression on his mind which, at the age of six-and-twenty, with no want of sense, or good companions, was durable in its happy effects.  (462)


Falling sick is not the direct cause of Tom’s transformation; rather, the cause is the time and the suffering that results from being sick, something he has never experienced.  Crucially, the period of reflection is productive because there is “no want of sense” (462).  It turns out that Tom has always had sense; he just has never used it.  Tom Bertram’s recovery, a dramatic act that punctuates the novel’s ending, is thus not a change in internal disposition, but rather a change of external behavior.  In terms of character, then, the event that seems like the most drastic change in the novel is actually no change at all.



Works Cited


Austen, Jane.  The Works of Jane Austen.  Ed. R.W. Chapman.  3rd ed.  6 vols.  Oxford: OUP, 1934.

Brenner, Gerry.  Mansfield Park: Reading for Improvement.”  Studies in the Novel 7 (1975): 24-32.

Quaintance, Richard.  “Humphry Repton, ‘any Mr. Repton,’ and the ‘Improvement’ Metonym in Mansfield Park.”  Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture 27 (1998): 365-84.

Varey, Simon.  Space and the Eighteenth-Century English Novel.  Cambridge: CUP, 1990.

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