PERSUASIONS ON-LINE V.30, NO.1 (Winter 2009)

Inherited and Living Variables: The Choices of Sisters and Brothers in Mansfield Park



Marcia McClintock Folsom


Marcia McClintock Folsom (email: is Professor of Literature and Chair of Humanities and Writing at Wheelock College in Boston.  She is the editor of Approaches to Teaching Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Approaches to Teaching Austen’s Emma.  Her writing on Austen has been published in Persuasions and Persuasions On-Line, and she has spoken at national and regional JASNA meetings.


In Mansfield Park, Austen examines the relations among sisters and brothers with extraordinary inventiveness.  Numerous sibling pairs and groups—the three Ward sisters on the first pages of the novel, the Bertram brothers and Bertram sisters, the Crawford brother and sister, their half-sister and brother-in-law, the brother and sister pair of William and Fanny Price, and later the Price sisters, Fanny and Susan—all demonstrate the remarkable richness of Austen’s imagination in generating sibling groups, and in sorting through the effects of birth order, temperament, and habit on the choices her characters make.  In this novel, with its experimental spirit, leisurely pace, and interest in contingency, Austen also gave herself room to explore the “living variables” that influence her characters’ decisions.1


Austen specifies the birth order of several of these sets of siblings and, sometimes directly and sometimes by implication, suggests its importance in creating personality.  Also in many places, Austen uses the words “temperament” or “temper” to explain behavior.  Although she shows the power of family to influence character, Austen makes clear that that power that is limited by a child’s inherent temperament, or what she sometimes calls “disposition.”  For example, the narrator says that living “in incessant noise,” as Fanny has to do in Portsmouth, is to a “temper, delicate and nervous like Fanny’s, an evil which no . . . elegance or harmony could have entirely atoned for” (391).

Austen seems also to have been interested in “habit,” patterns of behavior that characters establish in childhood and youth and that are sanctioned by family or friends.  At two important moments in Volume Three, Edmund Bertram uses the word “habit” to explain actions:  for one example, in telling Fanny about his final interview with Mary Crawford, he says that he saw in her, “‘half a sense of shame—but habit, habit carried it’” (458).  The narrator, too, uses the word “habit” and “habitual” in many passages throughout the text, suggesting the writer’s interest in the relation between habitual behavior and deliberate choice in this novel.  For example, she says about Henry Crawford that while he was absent a fortnight from Mansfield, there should have been “sufficient leisure . . . to have convinced the gentleman that he ought to keep longer away, had he been more in the habit of examining his own motives” (114).

My argument is that in Mansfield Park, Austen analyzes a variety of factors that create personality—birth order, temperament, and habit, as well as adult influences on young people—to examine the forces that underlie her characters’ choices and behavior.  But also, I think that Austen still shows that even though these influences are formative, crucial decisions are not predestined—not even by the novelist.  The experiences that characters have during the course of the novel open up to them new possibilities, new feelings, and new ways of thinking.  In their interactions, the characters affect each other and alter what is possible.  The presence and behavior of Fanny Price, for example, have an impact on the Crawfords, which makes alternative decisions conceivable to them and to the reader.  Scenes, conversations, and activities during novel are the living variables that move various characters to feel possibilities that are not dictated by their habits or their temperaments.  Choice is real:  the writer seems to insist that the lives of almost all the characters could have turned out differently.

At one point Austen explicitly comments on the relation between siblings.  The reunion of William and Fanny Price, with fraternal love “in all its prime and freshness,” provides the occasion.  When William visits Mansfield after seven years at sea, he and his sister Fanny “retrace[ ] with the fondest recollection” the pains and pleasures of “their earliest years” (234-35).  This reunion invites the narrator to pause and to make the surprising comment that the “even the conjugal tie is beneath the fraternal.  Children of the same family, the same blood, with the same first associations and habits, have some means of enjoyment in their power, which no subsequent connection can supply” (235).  Departing from the narrative to make this observation, Austen uses language that suggests she may be writing partly about herself and Cassandra, or herself and her own brothers—maybe Henry, maybe Frank.  But she immediately admits the opposite possibility:  sometimes a “long and unnatural estrangement” may sever these “precious remains of the earliest attachments.”  “Too often, alas! it is so.—Fraternal love, sometimes almost every thing, is at others worse than nothing.  But with William and Fanny Price, it was still a sentiment in all its prime and freshness” (235).


Let me begin with the Ward sisters.  Using the work of Frank Sulloway on the effects of birth order on personality, Peter Graham has mapped out the logic of many sibling positions in Austen’s life and work.  He explains the three Ward sisters’ development as adults, using their birth order, temperaments, and the consequences of their marriage choices on their personalities.  As Graham says, “Although they began life with the same social position, the same private fortune, and, if Huntingdon’s taste is to be relied on, the same degree of beauty, the Ward sisters must have begun with distinct personalities” (72).2  The eldest, Mrs. Norris, he says, “displays classic firstborn traits of a strong will and an inclination to manage things” (Graham 72).  The second born, Maria Ward who becomes Lady Bertram, is “a woman of very tranquil feelings, and a temper remarkably easy and indolent” (MP 4), and, as Graham remarks, she is “a memorable example of how disposition, birth order, marital choice, and family dynamics can converge to exaggerate a character’s innate tendency” (73).  Finally, Graham observes, “Miss Frances Ward, the youngest sister, offers abundant evidence in favor of Sulloway’s observation that later-born siblings are likeliest to rebel” (73).

Thus, fascinatingly, on the very first two pages of the novel, as Austen introduces this trio of siblings, she implies that their birth order influences their personalities.  It is especially interesting that Austen shows birth order having such a powerful effect on sisters, even though they do not have the external pressure to differentiate themselves that the practice of primogeniture places on brothers.  At the end of the novel, in Mrs. Price’s indifference to the troubles of Lady Bertram, and the putative but equal unconcern that Lady Bertram would have felt if “[t]hree or four Prices” had been “swept away” (428), Austen dramatizes the failure of “fraternal love.” The “long and unnatural estrangement” (235) between the second and third Ward sisters has made them care nothing for each other.  Echoing her earlier language, the narrator comments about them, “So long divided, and so differently situated, the ties of blood were little more than nothing” (428).



In early chapters of Mansfield Park, in introducing the Bertram brothers, Austen indicates the powerful effect of birth order on male children.  She first dramatizes the kindness and gentleness of Edmund, the younger brother, in his rescue of the crying Fanny on the stairway and his conversation with her.  “‘Let us walk out in the park, and you shall tell me all about your brothers and sisters,’” he says to her (15).  In contrast, the narrator merely summarizes the character of Tom, the elder brother, in a few sentences.  “He was just entering into life, full of spirits, and with all the liberal dispositions of an eldest son, who feels born only for expense and enjoyment.  His kindness to his little cousin was consistent with his situation and rights; he made her some very pretty presents, and laughed at her” (17-18).  Austen emphasizes the difference between the brothers by showing Edmund in action and conversation, and by using the language of privilege and irresponsibility for Tom:  “eldest,” “born only for expense and enjoyment,” and “his situation and rights.”

Their father’s endorsement of primogeniture is clear even as Sir Thomas scolds Tom for the extravagance that he tells Tom has “‘robbed Edmund for ten, twenty, thirty years, perhaps for life, of more than half the income which ought to be his’” (23) because Sir Thomas must sell the Mansfield living in order to pay Tom’s debts.  Although Sir Thomas tries to make Tom blush for his extravagance, Tom tries to escape the scolding as soon as possible, and his adolescent reasoning reveals his essential irresponsibility.  He thinks, “1st, that he had not been half so much in debt as some of his friends; 2ndly, that his father had made a most tiresome piece of work of it; and 3dly, that the future incumbent, whoever he might be, would, in all probability, die very soon” (24).  As Ruth Perry comments, the pattern of the “somewhat dissipated older brother and the more responsible younger brother,” found here in Tom and Edmund Bertram, is a pattern in eighteenth-century fiction, and, she adds in a footnote, the “social disparity between brothers, the effects of primogeniture on the first and second son[s] of a baronet, is evident in the way Mary Crawford distinguishes between them as prizes in the marriage market” (151 and fn. 21).



The two Bertram sisters, Maria, the older, and Julia, the younger, are at first not strongly differentiated.  The two sisters, presented initially as both “too much used to company and praise, to have any thing like natural shyness,” are at twelve and thirteen, “decidedly handsome” and “well-grown and forward of their age” (12-13).  But as Fanny’s stay at Mansfield lengthens into years, Maria and Julia become distinct characters, and the effects of their birth order, temperaments, habits, and adult influences all serve to create differences in their personalities.  Following the pattern of their two older brothers, Maria, the firstborn daughter, becomes the more morally endangered, and her feelings are “more confused and indistinct.  She did not want to see or understand” as Mr. Crawford begins to flirt with her (44).  Julia gradually learns to withdraw from her sister’s entanglements.  During the debates about the theatricals, Mrs. Norris surrenders to the arguments of “her eldest nephew and niece, who were all-powerful with her” (129).  As the favorite of Mrs. Norris, Maria is further led astray in self-consequence.  Maria’s temperament is passionate and her habits are strongly self-assertive.  Because she is the oldest, she feels first the pressure to get married.

Austen describes with brutal directness the reasoning behind Maria’s decision to marry Mr. James Rushworth, who is apparently an only child and dear to his mother:  “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, as well as ensure her the house in town, which was now a prime object, it became, by the same rule of moral obligation, her evident duty to marry Mr. Rushworth if she could” (38-39).  The language of “duty” and “moral obligation” ironically suggests desperate urgency in her situation.  Maria’s cynical contrast of her father’s income with Mr. Rushworth’s and her pressing desire to escape rural boredom to a freer life in London motivate her precipitous decision to “marry Mr. Rushworth if she could.”


But despite the crude calculation in her decision to marry, Maria is a character who feels deeply, suffers, and struggles against the consequences of her decision.  Even the obtuse Sir Thomas can see Maria’s feelings about Mr. Rushworth:  “She could not, did not like him” (200).  When the Crawfords first arrive at Mansfield, Henry is pleased that Maria is already engaged to Mr. Rushworth because, as he says, “‘All is safe with a lady engaged; no harm can be done’” (45).  But even though Maria is engaged, during her encounters with Henry at Mansfield and Sotherton, she falls in love with him.  It is not true that “all is safe with a lady engaged” or that “no harm can be done.”

During the theatricals, when Henry decides to flirt only with Maria, the two sisters, formerly best friends, are divided by their competition for Henry.  No one but Fanny understands Julia’s hurt feelings.  The narrator analyzes what happens when the fraternal—or sisterly—bond is broken.

Julia did suffer. . . . though it escaped the notice of many of her own family. . . . She had loved, she did love still, and she had all the suffering which a warm temper and a high spirit were likely to endure under the disappointment of a dear, though irrational hope, with a strong sense of ill-usage. . . . The sister with whom she used to be on easy terms, was now become her greatest enemy. . . . With no material fault of temper . . . to prevent their being very good friends while their interests were the same, the sisters, under such a trial as this, had not affection or principle enough to make them merciful or just, to give them honour or compassion.  (162-63)

The abstract nouns that capture what is absent in the relation between the two sisters—“affection,” “principle,” “honour,” and “compassion”—are echoed in the final chapter when Sir Thomas tries to understand what has gone wrong “in the education of his daughters” (463).  Neither Julia nor Maria is “merciful or just” to the other, and this failure of sisterly love echoes failures of sisterly love among the Ward sisters.  When Julia flounces angrily out of the play, she excited “small compassion in any except Fanny, who had been a quiet auditor of the whole, and who could not think of her as under the agitations of jealousy, without great pity” (136).  “Julia made no communication, and Fanny took no liberties.  They were two solitary sufferers, or connected only by Fanny’s consciousness” (163).


A moment that could lead to a different outcome for Maria offers itself after Sir Thomas returns from the West Indies.  Maria fervently hopes that Henry will extricate her from her engagement.  She watches “with delight and agitation the introduction of the man she loved to her father” (192), but Henry leaves without making the expected declaration. At his departure, “the agony of her mind was severe,” but she “bur[ies] the tumult of her feelings under the restraint of society” (193).  His departure makes it possible for the sisters to reconcile, and for Julia “even [to] pity her sister” (194).  And then, “Henry Crawford was gone—gone from the house, and within two hours afterwards from the parish; and so ended all the hopes his selfish vanity had raised in Maria and Julia Bertram” (193-94).  The narrator uses strong language for the “acute suffering” (192) of both sisters, sympathetically measuring the vulnerability of unmarried women to the anguish of disappointed passion.  At the end, when Henry reverts to his old habits, and once again renews “the sort of familiar intercourse—of gallantry—of flirtation” that had won Maria’s heart in the first place, he “put[s] himself in the power of feelings on her side, more strong than he had supposed.—She loved him” (468).  Maria’s unappeased longing for Henry leads to the scandal at the end.

In the last chapter of Mansfield Park, the narrator explains why Maria’s and Julia’s lives turned out so differently, and the reasons have to do with their birth order, temperaments, habits, and family influence.

That Julia escaped better than Maria was owing, in some measure, to a favourable difference of disposition and circumstance, but in a greater to her having been less the darling of that very aunt [Norris], less flattered, and less spoilt.  Her beauty and acquirements had held but a second place.  She had been always used to think herself a little inferior to Maria.  Her 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)

The effects of being first or second and the sisters’ innate temperaments are strengthened by the injudicious preference of the firstborn Mrs. Norris for the eldest Bertram daughter.  Mrs. Norris’s influence affects Maria’s and Julia’s life choices, choices that turn out to be fateful, though they are not inevitable.



Of all Austen’s heroines, Fanny Price is the one most compromised by physical weakness and temperamental shyness.  Her mother describes her as “somewhat delicate and puny” (11), the narrator says that she is “exceedingly timid and shy” (12), and that she has “a frame and temper, delicate and nervous” (391).  In Fanny, Austen imagined a shy and repressed child with a strongly emotional temperament, attempting something different, and perhaps more ambitious, than creating another lively Elizabeth Bennet.

Fanny’s birth position in her large family is directly presented.  She is a second child after the first-born son, who is just a year old when Fanny is born.  After Fanny, Mrs. Price has two more sons.  As a child, Fanny seems to have been overlooked in a marine lieutenant’s household where boys were highly valued.  The narrator says that Fanny “had never been able to recal anything approaching to tenderness” in her father’s treatment of her, and that for Fanny’s mother, “[H]er daughters never had been much to her” (389).  In the absence of maternal love, Fanny relies on William, his parents’ favorite, as her deepest attachment.  William is Fanny’s “advocate with her mother (of whom he was the darling) in every distress” (15).  When Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram offer to have Fanny to come and live with them, Mrs. Price lets her daughter go apparently without regret, only “surprised that a girl should be fixed on, when she had so many fine boys” (11).  It is only William who tells her that, “‘he should miss her very much indeed’” (16).  Suddenly removed from her original home, Fanny, whose “feelings were very acute,” is grieved by “the separation from every body she had been used to” (14).  She desperately misses “the brothers and sisters among whom she had always been important as play-fellow, instructress, and nurse” (14).  But of all these siblings, “It was William whom she talked of most and wanted most to see.  William, the eldest, a year older than herself, her constant companion and friend” (15).  The bond between these two, established in early childhood, sustains Fanny during the seven years they are apart, and it retains all its “freshness” when they reunite in their late teens.

Even though Sir Thomas raises the possibility of “cousins in love, &c.” (6) in the novel’s first chapter, suggesting how much he would disapprove of having either of his sons marry their cousin, Fanny’s feeling for her brotherly cousin Edmund changes from sisterly affection to ardent love before she is eighteen.  Understanding her uncle’s implicit prohibition, Fanny treasures in secret her feeling for Edmund, though throughout most of the novel, Edmund is still giving Fanny “the kind smile of an affectionate brother” (222).


One of the earliest critics of Jane Austen’s writing, Richard Whately, a young clergyman, in 1821 wrote this exceptionally perceptive comment on Austen’s creation of Fanny Price, a comment cited by John Wiltshire:  “Fanny is, however, armed against Mr. Crawford by a stronger feeling than even her disapprobation; by a vehement attachment to Edmund.  The silence in which this passion is cherished—the slender hopes and enjoyment by which it is fed—the restlessness and jealousy with which it fills a mind naturally, active, contented and unsuspicious—the manner in which it tinges every event and every recollection, are painted with a vividness of which we can scarcely conceive anyone but a female, and we should add, a female writing from recollection, capable” (66).  Far more perceptive about Fanny than many later critics who found her self-righteous, virtuous, prim, and dull, Whately grasped the intensity of Fanny’s feelings and he speculated provocatively on the possibility that the writer herself must have understood these feelings from experience.

Fanny’s secret, her tenaciously held love for Edmund, offers a complex variant on the relations between brothers and sisters.  The silent passion that Whately observed in Fanny, the “restlessness and jealousy” it arouses in her, and the necessity of concealing it from everyone, as Wiltshire notes, are emotions “funded by primary psychological urgencies” (65).  There are similarities between Fanny’s love of Edmund and her love for her brother William, “the two most beloved of her heart” (271).  Glenda Hudson notes that, “Fanny’s heart is divided between her real brother William and her cousin Edmund, with whom she also has a sibling relationship” (37).  But until the end of the novel, Fanny’s secret love for Edmund is necessarily unlike her “unchecked, equal, fearless intercourse with [her] brother and friend” William (234).  It is only in the last chapter that Fanny at last can tell Edmund the “whole delightful and astonishing truth,” that he had been for “so long the beloved of such a heart.”  But his happiness cannot be compared to Fanny’s.  “Let no one presume to give the feelings of a young woman on receiving the assurance of that affection of which she has scarcely allowed herself to entertain a hope” (471).  As Hudson points out—using Austen’s own language celebrating sibling love—“Not until the end of the novel is the fraternal affection of Fanny and Edmund transformed into conjugal love” (40), and Hudson shows that Austen approves of this transformation.

How does Fanny make her decisions?  Fanny’s mostly silent observation of the Crawfords and the Bertrams in Volume One create her strong interpretation of the Crawfords as careless of the feelings of others.  In these scenes when she observes Henry with the Bertram sisters, she establishes her understanding of his motives.  The drama of her emotional life becomes public in the scenes in Volume Three when she resists everyone’s pressure on her to accept Henry’s proposal.  Because she cannot reveal her love for Edmund, her refusal of Henry is incomprehensible to everyone.  The scenes when Fanny must find the strength to resist every one close to her begin when Henry himself urgently and passionately proposes to her, after he tells her that he has arranged for her brother William’s promotion.  Sir Thomas tells Fanny about Henry’s proposal and his approval of the match.  His long diatribe when Fanny tells him that she has refused Henry is the most emotionally strenuous conversation in the series, ending with his most hurtful accusation of “‘ingratitude’” (319).  Fanny’s aunt Bertram tells Fanny it is “‘every young woman’s duty to accept such a very unexceptionable offer as this’” (333).  The pressure continues in the scene in the Mansfield drawing room when Henry reads Shakespeare aloud and Edmund watches Fanny’s response.  Edmund, too, pleads with Fanny to accept Henry:  “‘He will make you happy, Fanny’” (351).  Even Mary Crawford comes to scold her and get her to explain.

Fanny’s resistance to Henry Crawford is dramatized in all these scenes of dialogue and narration, and the pressure on her is unremitting.  Austen portrays Fanny, with “[h]er habits of ready submission” (357), as tested to the limit by the angry pressure of her uncle, the “formidable” pressure of Mary Crawford (356), and the affectionate pressure of her imperceptive cousin, Edmund.  Austen’s full presentation of each person’s speeches and of Fanny’s feelings as she hears and replies to them suggests that these scenes are where the writer’s deepest interests lie.  Sarah Emsley observes that the two scenes of Fanny’s confrontations with Sir Thomas and with Edmund, with their “intensely serious dialogue about serious moral questions[,] are at the heart of the plot of Mansfield Park” (7).  The last chapter, with its cursory presentation of Edmund’s courtship and its silence about the words of his proposal, has been criticized for its casual treatment of the novel’s resolution.  But essential action in the novel, a part that apparently deeply interested the writer, was in these scenes of unrelenting pressure on Fanny while she is always trying to figure out how to act, how to respond, and how to preserve her integrity and her secret.



It is with the brother-sister pair of Henry and Mary Crawford, and their effect on the plot of the novel, that Austen is most boldly experimental.  Mrs. Grant, in contrast to some other sisters, generously treasures her half-sister Mary’s beauty, believes in her half-brother Henry’s good nature, and welcomes them both to the parsonage.  The relation between Mary and Henry Crawford seems to be just as rooted in the memories of “first associations and habits” as that of William and Fanny Price.  Although the narrative does not say which one is the elder, it seems to be Henry, who has already attained his majority and improved his estate at Everingham, though the sister and brother seem to be close in age.

As newcomers into the plot, the Crawfords’ pasts are at first somewhat hidden from the residents of Mansfield and the reader, but narrator allows us to perceive something of their temperaments and their habits at the time when they arrive at the Grants.  We hear that Henry does not want to settle down at his estate in Norfolk in order to give Mary a home.  “To any thing like a permanence of abode, or limitation of society, Henry Crawford had, unluckily, a great dislike” (41).  Edmund remarks that Mary “‘does not like his unsettled habits’” (116).  All of Mary’s London sojourns are now at the houses of friends.  Coming to stay with Mrs. Grant, Mary is apprehensive.  She worries about whether she will like “her sister’s style of living and tone of society,” and whether living in the country will be lively enough for her.  Mrs. Grant shares this worry:  “her chief anxiety was lest Mansfield should not satisfy the habits of a young woman who had been mostly used to London” (41).

Despite Mary’s misgivings, friendships among the young Crawfords and Bertrams develop in the absence of Sir Thomas.  Mary expects to like the eldest Bertram brother best (“[s]he knew it was her way” [47]), but as she grasps Tom Bertram’s indifference to her, she begins to appreciate Edmund, and “he began to be agreeable to her.”  She finds a charm “in his sincerity, his steadiness, his integrity, which Miss Crawford might be equal to feel, though not equal to discuss with herself.  She did not think very much about it, however” (65).  In contrast to Fanny, who retreats to the East Room to discuss her feelings with herself, Mary habitually resists the opportunity to reflect.  However, in her conversations with Henry, Mary’s attachment to her brother and affectionate interest in his schemes provide evidence of her warmth.  Moreover, Henry’s friendship with his sister Mary seems to be a source of his insight into women’s feelings, and that knowledge, allied with his intelligence and wit, makes his flirtations charismatic.


Austen’s experiment in plotting involves possible and apparently real changes in both Crawfords.  Mrs. Grant suggests, “‘[W]e will cure you both.  Mansfield shall cure you both’” (47).  When Mary and Henry first arrive at the Grants, “without wanting to be cured,” their conversations are lively and amusing.  But both sister and brother exhibit a kind of worldly selfishness.  Mary’s mercenary talk about marriage and about inevitable marital disappointment suggests that Mary, like Maria Bertram, has absorbed the implied values of the adults in their lives—values that urge marrying for a large income, a good house, and a position.3  Henry has apparently absorbed his uncle’s cynicism about all women—that there is not one in the world who can be faithful.  His joking comments on matrimony as “‘Heaven’s last best gift’” (43), and what Mary tells their sister about Henry’s reckless flirtations with women who are, like the Bertram sisters, “‘handsome, clever, and encouraging’” indicate his enjoyment of casual sexual power (115).

Mary tells Mrs. Grant that in London, Henry was “‘the most horrible flirt than can be imagined.  If your Miss Bertrams do not like to have their hearts broke, let them avoid Henry’” (43).  This warning seems peppy and innocuous to the reader at first; later, the reader might remember it as ominous.  Similarly ominous, when Mrs. Grant comments to Mary, “‘I rather wonder Julia is not in love with Henry,’” the narrator says that Mary replies “coldly”:  “‘I dare say she is. . . . I imagine both sisters are’” (161).  Mary adds, equally coldly, “‘I would not give much for Mr. Rushworth’s chance, if Henry stept in before the articles were signed’” (162).  Mary’s appraisal of the Bertram sisters’ susceptibility to Henry’s familiar charm marks her heartless cynicism early in the novel.

Henry Crawford’s role through the brilliant first volume of the novel, in the Sotherton outing and the five chapters presenting the young people’s efforts to put on a play at Mansfield, is only one part of the complex presentation of many characters in these chapters.  But Henry’s flirtation first with both the Bertram sisters and later just with Maria reveals his enjoyment of playing with attractive women who respond to his sophisticated gallantry and pose of vulnerability.  “[H]e began with no object but of making them like him.  He did not want them to die of love; but with sense and temper which ought to have made him judge and feel better, he allowed himself great latitude on such points” (45).  The narrator’s words, “ought to have made him judge and feel better,” imply a moral judgment, but the amusing final clause, “he allowed himself great latitude on such points,” captures Henry’s own insouciant way of reasoning.

After Maria Bertram has married Mr. Rushworth in her bitter disappointment that Henry did not propose to her, Henry chillingly tells his sister that he “‘cannot be satisfied without Fanny Price, without making a small hole in Fanny Price’s heart’” (229).  Mary chides him, saying that it is only because Fanny resists him that Henry finds her attractive, and she generously adds about Fanny that she does not want Henry to “‘plunge her deep, for she is as good a little creature as ever lived, and has a great deal of feeling’” (231).  Henry replies, “‘I only want her to look kindly on me, to give me smiles as well as blushes, to keep a chair for me by herself wherever we are, and be all animation when I take it and talk to her; to think as I think, be interested in all my possessions and pleasures, try to keep me longer at Mansfield, and feel when I go away that she shall be never happy again.  I want nothing more.’”  “‘Moderation itself,’” cries Mary, as she backs down, and leaves Fanny to her “fate” (231).  Henry’s lively description of young women’s responses to him is funny, perceptive, and heartless.

It is in tracing changes in the feelings of Henry and Fanny that Austen works out her most daring experiment in constructing an alternative plot.  The narrator explains directly the reason Fanny is able to resist Henry’s attack:  “Fanny’s heart [was] guarded in a way unsuspected by Miss Crawford.”  Though Henry would have had to overcome Fanny’s “ill opinion of him,” he might have been able to do it “had not her affection been engaged elsewhere” (231).  Austen has constructed her portrait of Fanny’s inner life as based on an ardent though secret attachment that she does not want to give up.  Nonetheless, “[w]ith all the security which love of another and disesteem of him could give to the peace of mind he was attacking, his continued attentions,” become more gentle and delicate in response to her personality, and they force her to be “civil to him in return” (231-32).  In such passages, Austen carefully explains the subtle alterations in feeling and response that occur when these dynamically conceived characters, Henry and Fanny, interact and force each one to revise perceptions in light of changing behavior.


Fanny at first judges Henry’s intentions correctly, as demonstrating only the same irresponsible flirtatious interest in her as he had shown in both Julia and Maria.  “It was impossible for her to be insensible of Mr. Crawford’s change of manners. . . . He evidently tried to please her—he was gallant—he was attentive—he was something like what he had been to her cousins:  he wanted, she supposed, to cheat her of her tranquillity as he had cheated them” (260).  Because Fanny has attentively watched Julia’s jealousy of her sister, and understood Maria’s desperate hope that Henry would propose and enable her to escape her hated engagement, the shy Fanny vigorously resists Henry’s advances.  She later tells his sister, “‘I had not, Miss Crawford, been an inattentive observer of what was passing between him and some part of this family in the summer and autumn.  I was quiet, but I was not blind.  I could not but see that Mr. Crawford allowed himself in gallantries which did mean nothing’” (363).  Fanny’s language here echoes the narrator’s own in characterizing Henry as “allowing himself” to act in a way that he does not mean.

Mary admits it.  “‘Ah! I cannot deny it.  He has now and then been a sad flirt, and cared very little for the havock he might be making in young ladies’ affections.  I have often scolded him for it, but it is his only fault.’”  Fanny’s reply indicates how seriously she regards these gallantries, and the resolution of the plot suggests how seriously Austen herself may have taken them.  Fanny says, “‘I cannot think well of a man who sports with any woman’s feelings; and there may often be a great deal more suffered than a stander-by can judge of’” (363).  There is, in fact, a great deal more suffered than Henry expected, for he believes that women are incapable of enduring attachment.

The consequence for Henry is that at first, Fanny regards him as “the Mr. Crawford who, as the clandestine, insidious, treacherous admirer of Maria Bertram, had been her abhorrence, whom she had hated to see or to speak to, in whom she could believe no good quality to exist” (327-28).  This powerful language indicates how horrified Fanny is at the thought of Henry as her suitor.  She deplores the “want of delicacy and regard for others which had formerly so struck and disgusted her,” and finds him “selfish and ungenerous” (328-29).  She thinks there is a “gross want of feeling and humanity where his own pleasure was concerned” (329).  She cannot forget how he behaved in the summer and fall.

The brilliant plotting of Mansfield Park leads both Mary and Henry Crawford through a process that changes them in similar ways and greatly complicates the problem of resolving the plot.  William Deresiewicz, looking at changes in the two Crawfords, asks, “What has happened in the ten chapters since the trick with the necklace?”  He answers, “Mary has discovered what it means to have a heart, and her brother, who had sought only to make a hole in Fanny’s, has discovered it, too” (83).  The changes that Mary goes through at Mansfield, leading her to love Edmund and to feel great affection for Fanny, she expresses in her farewell visit to Fanny in the East Room:  “‘Good, gentle Fanny! . . . I feel it quite impossible to do any thing but love you . . . You all have so much more heart among you, than one finds in the world at large’” (359).  But these changes are cut short by her return to London.  As Wiltshire says, without “the interplay of feeling” that happens when Mary and Fanny are together, in Fanny’s eyes, “Mary can be plausibly degraded to the mercenary London flirt that Fanny’s jealous fancy has always imagined her ‘really’ to be” (103).  Her letters to Fanny confirm Fanny’s view.  However, in Edmund’s report of his final interview with Mary, it is clear that some of Mary’s changed feelings still retain their power even in London.  Edmund recounts that he could detect Mary’s struggle to decide how to respond to his indignation:  “‘I saw a mixture of many feelings—a great, though short struggle—half a wish of yielding to truths, half a sense of shame—but habit, habit carried it’” (458).  Edmund’s observation of Mary’s mixed feelings indicates that Mary could have made a different decision, but that at that moment, decides to go with her old ways.


However, Henry’s changes are sustained through the visit to Portsmouth.  His exquisite courtesy to Fanny and her parents in Portsmouth opens the real possibility of Fanny’s marriage to him.  Even Fanny perceives it.  Thinking about how wonderful it would be for her sister Susan to have a different home than the Price household in Portsmouth, Fanny reflects, “had it been possible for her to return Mr. Crawford’s regard, the probability of his being very far from objecting to such a measure [as bringing Susan to live with them at Everingham], would have been the greatest increase of all her own comforts.  She thought he was really good-tempered, and could fancy his entering into a plan of that sort, most pleasantly” (419).  One way to explain what happens in the plot of Mansfield Park here is to say that “Henry got away from Jane Austen,” but there is another way to explain it.  Fanny has so deeply influenced Henry that he has really changed into a man whom Fanny could love and whom the reader can imagine she will marry.  As the narrator says in the last chapter, “His affection [for Fanny] had already done something.  Her influence over him had already given him some influence over her” (467).  Even back in London, Henry has the chance to choose “his own happy destiny” with Fanny:  the narrator says that “[h]ad he done as he intended, and as he knew he ought, by going down to Everingham” he would have missed the encounter with Maria Rushworth.  The phrase, “as he knew he ought,” makes clear that a different decision was open in his mind.  Henry’s old habits, his deference to his sister’s wishes, his curiosity and vanity overcome the living variable of his new desire to remain connected to Fanny.  His contrary impulse is quelled by the old patterns in “a mind unused to make any sacrifice to right” (467).  Habit, habit, carried it.

In having Sir Thomas decide to send Fanny to Portsmouth, Austen allows a character the chance to direct the plot of her novel.  The narrator explains that “his prime motive in sending her away” was to make her “heartily sick of home before her visit ended”; he foresees that “a little abstinence from the elegancies and luxuries of Mansfield Park, would bring her mind into a sober state, and incline her to a juster estimate of the value of that home . . . of which she had the offer” (369).  He considers that, “Her Father’s house would, in all probability, teach her the value of a good income; and he trusted that she would be the wiser and happier woman, all her life, for the experiment he had devised” (369).  The experiment is not just one devised by Sir Thomas:  the experiment is Austen’s in giving Sir Thomas a hand in writing the plot.

The Portsmouth household richly fulfills Sir Thomas’s intention to make Fanny appalled and disappointed.  Henry’s altered behavior makes it conceivable to Fanny that she could marry him.  Her long stay in Portsmouth even strains Fanny’s connection to Edmund.  She is puzzled and hurt by Edmund’s long silence, his failure to write to her.  When he finally does write, his letter so plainly reveals his continuing obsession with Mary Crawford, his vacillation, weakness, and ignorance of Fanny’s feelings, that she is roused into indignation.  “She was almost vexed into displeasure, and anger, against Edmund,” and she exclaims to her absent cousin, “‘Oh! write, write [to Mary].  Finish it at once. . . . Fix, commit, condemn yourself’” (424).  Fanny’s anger at Edmund, Henry’s solicitude and improved behavior, the disappointments of the Price household, all suggest that the narrative could be heading toward the marriage of Fanny Price to Henry Crawford after the marriage of Edmund and Mary.



The plot of Mansfield Park thus seems to open the door to alternative outcomes in the lives of some sisters and brothers in the novel, and to illustrate Austen’s belief in the contingency of characters’ choices as well as the openness of her novel to a different ending.  Certainly, the possibility of a genuine change in behavior and thinking is what she offers in the reform that makes Tom Bertram a better man after his illness.  Presumably, it is the generous—and forgiving—care that Edmund gives him during his painfully slow recovery that enables the elder brother to overcome his dissipated habits, so explicitly dramatized in the first volume.  Change is possible:  “He had suffered, and he had learnt to think. . . . He became what he ought to be, . . . not living merely for himself” (462).  Surprisingly, in the last chapter, the narrator explicitly states how each life might have turned out differently.  This sense of contingency is one of the ways that Mansfield Park reflects a change in Austen’s writing and a new narrative daring in actually presenting the logic of alternative possibilities.

Some readers feel disappointed that Austen did not have Edmund and Mary Crawford end up together or have Fanny and Henry marry.  They feel that Austen derailed that desirable outcome with an implausible seduction that takes place off-stage in order to make her plot come out the way she wanted it to.  But perhaps, rather than saying that Austen denied readers a desirable ending, it might be more respectful of her ambition to say that Austen, with astounding virtuosity, set up competing narratives with the one she wrote, and repeatedly indicated that the lives of her characters might have turned out differently.  In creating these narratives in Mansfield Park, Austen pondered the power of childhood patterns among sisters and brothers, adult influences on children, the consequences of birth order and cultural expectations, the relations between siblings, the power of habit, and the innate temperaments of individuals that lie behind life-shaping decisions.  But even though these influences are formative and powerful, the plot still suggests that because of the living variables of their interactions with each other, characters can change, and that crucial decisions are not predetermined, that what happens to people is not inevitable, and that even with strong personalities, there is always an authentic possibility of making choices.





1. The term, “living variable,” comes from an essay by Gillian Beer about George Eliot’s Middlemarch, in which she argues, “the reader is the living variable within the fictive world” (97).  This phrase also works well as a way to capture how Austen’s plot opens alternative possibilities to various characters in Mansfield Park.

2. The correction to the published version of this sentence is confirmed by email from Peter Graham.

3. Mary expects to like the eldest Bertram brother best, but failing that, and discovering that she finds a “charm” (65) in Edmund, her vigorous attempts to make him give up his profession suggest that she would like to make a marriage of romantic attachment.  She is torn between her original view that “‘every body should marry as soon as they can do it to advantage’” (43), and a recognition that she could love Edmund.  Mary’s two opposing impulses resemble the division within Maria Bertram between her decision to marry Mr. Rushworth to secure “a larger income than her father’s” and a “house in town” (38), and her surprised discovery of her passionate feelings for Henry Crawford.  Fanny is not immune to the pressures that lead to mercenary marriage, but unlike Maria and Mary, Fanny strongly resists those pressures and holds out for a marriage based on her deepest feelings—hence, for her, a romantic marriage.



Works Cited


Austen, Jane.  The Works of Jane Austen.  Ed. R. W. Chapman.  3rd ed.  Oxford: OUP, 1933-67.

Beer, Gillian.  “Myth and the Single Consciousness: Middlemarch and The Lifted Veil.”  Ed. Ian Adam.  This Particular Web: Essays on Middlemarch.  Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1975.  91-115.

Deresiewicz, William.  Jane Austen and the Romantic Poets.  New York: Columbia UP, 2004.

Emsley, Sarah.  “The Tragic Action of Mansfield Park.”  Persuasions On-Line 28.1 (2007).

Graham, Peter.  Jane Austen and Charles Darwin: Naturalists and Novelists.  Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2008.

Hudson, Glenda A.  Sibling Love and Incest in Jane Austen’s Fiction.  New York: St. Martin’s, 1992.

Perry, Ruth.  Novel Relations: The Transformation of Kinship in English Literature and Culture 1748-1818.  Cambridge: CUP, 2004.

Wiltshire, John.  Jane Austen and the Body.  Cambridge: CUP, 1992.

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