PERSUASIONS ON-LINE V.35, NO.1 (Winter 2014)

“Assisting the Improvement of Her Mind”: Chapone’s Letters as Guide to Mansfield Park

Susan Allen Ford


Susan Allen Ford (email: is Professor of English and Writing Center Coordinator at Delta State University.  She is the author of the introduction to an edition of James Fordyce’s Sermons to Young Women published by Chawton House Press and is at work on a book on what Austen’s characters are reading.


Hester Muslo Chapone

from the first pages of the novel, the improvement of Fanny Price is a topic of discussion.  Though Sir Thomas expects to see “much to wish altered in her” (11) and Mrs. Norris faults her stupidity (21), Edmund’s care for her education marks the novel’s first use of the significant word improvement:  “his attentions were . . . of the highest importance in assisting the improvement of her mind” (24).  That phrase invokes Hester Mulso Chapone’s Letters on the Improvement of the Mind (1773), the second most frequently reprinted conduct book of the period (Humphreys 59; St. Clair 505).  Kathryn Sutherland states that “[i]ts premises, and its detailed curriculum, provide the ideological heart of Mansfield Park” (28).  Indeed, Chapone’s Letters provides specific standards against which to measure both generations of Mansfield women and also suggests the complex character of Austen’s novel.


The opening words of Mansfield Park—“About thirty years ago” (3)—introduce three young women educated in the world of the 1770s,1 a decade that saw the publication of eight editions of Letters on the Improvement of the Mind (Zuk 195-99).  The Library Catalog of Godmersham Park, the estate of Jane Austen’s brother Edward Knight, lists a 1773 edition.  Mrs. Chapone’s book was admired by Queen Charlotte, and it made part of the education of the Princess Royal (Humphreys 59).  Although Mary Wollstonecraft, in a chapter of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman entitled “Animadversions on Some of the Writers who have Rendered Women Objects of Pity, Bordering on Contempt,” analyzes Rousseau, Fordyce, and Gregory in scathing language, she commends Chapone:  “Mrs. Chapone’s Letters are written with such good sense, and unaffected humility, and contain so many useful observations, that I only mention them to pay the worthy writer this tribute of respect.  I cannot, it is true, always coincide in opinion with her; but I always respect her” (180).


Title page from the first edition of
Letters on the Improvement of the Mind (1773)

Originating as a series of letters written to her fifteen-year-old niece and revised for publication at the suggestion of the celebrated writer Elizabeth Montagu, Chapone’s work addresses the task of attaining moral agency through reading, reflection, and conversation.  “You . . . must soon act for yourself,” she tells her reader; “therefore it is high time to store your mind with those principles, which must direct your conduct and fix your character” (2).  Her emphasis is on choice rather than chance, and the responsible self faces a lifetime of learning and activity, of “seiz[ing] every opportunity of improvement”:


you must inform your understanding what you ought to believe, and to do.—You must correct and purify your heart; cherish and improve all its good affections; and continually mortify and subdue those that are evil.—You must form and govern your temper and manners, according to the laws of benevolence and justice; and qualify yourself, by all means in your power, for an useful and agreeable member of society.—All this you see is no light business, nor can it be performed without a sincere and earnest application of the mind, as to its great and constant object.  (5)


As Kathryn Steele points out, “two thirds of [Chapone’s] text . . . concerns itself with reading” (476):  the ten-letter set begins with the higher concerns: religion and the study of scripture (the first three letters) and, within that context, the regulation of the heart and affections (two letters), followed by the government of the temper.  Once the religious and moral principles have been articulated, she moves to domestic economy, and then to politeness and accomplishments (in which reading is again central), and finally to letters on geography and chronology and on the reading of history.


Although the bluestocking Chapone emphasizes the formation of the understanding as instrumental to the purification of the heart and the government of temper and manners, what appears to have struck the eldest Miss Ward most forcibly in her reading of Chapone is the chapter on Oeconomy.  One might imagine Miss Ward copying out the chapter’s opening words in a memoranda book such as Chapone recommends:  “Oeconomy is so important a part of a woman’s character, so necessary to her own happiness, and so essential to her performing properly the duties of a wife and of a mother, that it ought to have the precedence of all other accomplishments, and take its rank next to the first duties of life” (147).  For Mrs. Norris, of course, that economy moves from ranking next to the first duties to becoming that first duty.  Certainly she’s taken to heart the advice to “lay your plan considerably within your income” (150).  Though Chapone limits the “absolute duty to lay by something every year” to households “where there is a growing family,” Mrs. Norris seizes upon that rule—perhaps, as Chapone advises, to “provide for contingencies” but certainly not to “increase [her] funds for charity and generosity, which are in fact the true funds of pleasure” (150).  As Mrs. Norris prepares for widowhood at the White house, she excuses herself from taking in Fanny by the need to “‘live within my income’” or to “‘do rather more—to lay by a little at the end of the year’” (34).  Her sister’s placid response—“‘You always do, don’t you?’”—suggests how openly acknowledged are Mrs. Norris’s habits of saving.  Any habit of generosity, however, goes unremarked.


Characteristically, Mrs. Norris attempts to apply Chapone’s advice to others:  behind her censure of the housekeeping of “‘such an elegant lady as Mrs. Grant,’” of Dr. Grant’s “‘enormous great wide table,’” of Fanny’s habit of “‘putting [herself] forward,’” or of the “‘nonsense and folly of people’s stepping out of their rank and trying to appear above themselves’” (35, 257-58), we might hear Mrs. Chapone’s more tempered language:  “In your table—as in your dress, and in all other things, I wish you to aim at propriety and neatness—or, if your state demands it, elegance—rather than superfluous figure—To go beyond your sphere, either in dress, or in the appearance of your table, indicates a greater fault in your character than to be too much within it” (155).


Despite her study, however, Mrs. Norris seems to have missed the spirit of Chapone’s advice on domestic economy.  Chapone chides those employers who “consider only their own convenience” (164) and urges that “if, in your service, [servants] have any hardship to endure, let them see that you are concerned for the necessity of imposing it” (167)—a notion that Mrs. Norris echoes as she distracts Sir Thomas with the story of her attempt to prevent the “‘poor old coachman’” from driving her and Lady Bertram in the “‘frost and snow’” to visit Mrs. Rushworth and—more bathetically—with her tale of walking up Sandcroft Hill in order to save the horses, “‘those noble animals’” (MP 221-22).  In addition to the evidence throughout that Mrs. Norris is eager to detect error and presumption in servants, she here also violates Chapone’s rule to “avoid all parade and bustle” (159), just as on the afternoon of Sir Thomas’s return to Mansfield when she is “trying to be in a bustle without having any thing to bustle about, and labouring to be important where nothing was wanted but tranquillity and silence” (211).  Chapone reminds the readers that “the decent order of a house should be designed to promote the convenience and pleasure of those who are to be in it—and that, if it is converted into a cause of trouble and constraint, their husbands and guests would be happier without it.”  As if Mrs. Norris were within her vision, Mrs. Chapone adds:  “The love of fame, that universal passion, will sometimes shew itself on strangely insignificant subjects [soup, Sir Thomas?]; and a person, who acts for praise only, will always go beyond the mark in every thing” (159).


If Mrs. Norris only partially applies Chapone’s dicta on domestic economy, her two sisters are even less successful.  Mrs. Price, whom the narrator excuses with the thought that her “naturally easy and indolent” disposition would have been “more suited” to such “a situation of . . . affluence and do-nothing-ness” as that Lady Bertram has enjoyed (451), seems an anti-Mrs. Norris.  If Mrs. Norris converts order “into a cause of trouble and constraint,” Mrs. Price’s slatternly ways “greatly affect [her] appearance and character” (Chapone 158).  The “choice and proper regulation of servants” is “an essential part of both prudence and duty” (160).  Chapone’s comments about those “who continually change their servants and complain of perpetual ill-usage” (163) apply most specifically to Mrs. Price.  But her cautions against “frequent chiding” (162) and the need to “unite authority and kindness” (163) apply equally to the oldest and youngest of the Ward sisters.


It’s difficult to imagine Miss Maria Ward reading any book at all, much less one entitled Letters on the Improvement of the Mind.  Lady Bertram seems untouched by Chapone’s ideas though the question of her own conduct does at least penetrate her awareness.  In the atmosphere of “self-condemnation or undefined alarm” that greets Sir Thomas on his return from Antigua (205), Lady Bertram is confident that “her own time had been irreproachably spent” on carpet work and fringe (210).  Chapone acknowledges the usefulness of needle work as a stay against idleness and as a means of dressing economically, but she warns against giving “any of those hours . . . to it, which are needful to make your body strong and active by exercise, or your mind rational by reading” (156).  Can we envision an alternate universe inhabited by a fit and rational Lady Bertram?


More seriously, Chapone defines the essential domestic role of woman in ways that speak directly to the concerns of Mansfield Park.


A family, like a commonwealth, the more numerous and luxurious it becomes, the more difficult it is to govern it properly.—Though the great are placed above the little attentions and employments, to which a private gentlewoman must dedicate much of her time, they have a larger and more important sphere of action, in which if they are indolent and neglectful, the whole government of their house and fortune must fall into irregularity.  (160-61)


In the conduct book as well as in the novel, the family is a microcosm of the state in decline.  As Lady Bertram’s “remarkably easy and indolent” temper (4) provides no government at all, surrendering all agency to Mrs. Norris, Austen’s condition-of-England novel depicts the irregularity—the unruliness—of both family and culture.  And as the trip to Sotherton makes plain, such disorder is general: a necessary part of family management that Chapone “earnestly recommend[s]” is


family prayers, which are useful to all, but most particularly to servants—who, being constantly employed, are led to the neglect of private prayer and whose ignorance makes it very difficult for them to frame devotions for themselves. . . .—Even, in a political light, this practice is eligible, since the idea, which it will give them of your regularity and decency, if not counter-acted by other parts of your conduct, will probably increase their respect for you, and will be some restraint, at least on their outward behaviour, though it should fail of that inward influence, which in general may be hoped from it. (169-70)


The discussion of “the whole family assembling”—servants in the presence of the master and mistress, or not—as well as Mary Crawford’s flippant remark, “Every generation has its improvements” (101), seems to point directly back to Chapone.  For Fanny, such an idea is “a valuable part of former times,” an indication of what has been lost in the space of a generation.



If the reading of the older generation has been so partial and its observance of Chapone’s ideas so spotty, it’s not surprising that the younger women, whose education they’ve superintended, have also failed to improve in the ways that Chapone sets forth.  Miss Lee’s curriculum—with its emphasis on Heathen Mythology, geography, chronology, and the daily portion of history—might well be drawn from Chapone’s outlines (MP 20-21, 25).  Significantly there’s no mention of the scripture study that the Letters emphasizes.  For Chapone, the improvement of the mind and heart are linked, and it’s just this deficiency that Austen highlights through her use of the Letters.


From their introduction, the Miss Bertrams are defined in terms of their social value and outward actions.  Sir Thomas stresses their “‘rank, fortune, rights, and expectations’” (12) in contrast to those of his niece.  The sisters “exercise their memories, practise their duets, and grow tall and womanly; and their father saw them becoming in person, manner, and accomplishments, every thing that could satisfy his anxiety” (23).  Chapone characterizes accomplishments as “graces and acquirements, which may set [one’s] virtue in the most advantageous light—adorn her manners—and enlarge her understanding:—and this, not in the spirit of vanity, but in the innocent and laudable view of rendering herself more useful and pleasing to her fellow creatures, and consequently more acceptable to God” (174).  Even given this importance, the discussion of accomplishments is contextualized, following on the study of scripture, the understanding of the heart and affections, the government of the affections, and domestic economy.  The teaching provided by Mrs. Norris, “assist[ing] to form her nieces’ minds,” as it emphasizes the superiority outward attributes confer, enforces the pride of the Miss Bertrams and neglects “the less common acquirements of self-knowledge, generosity, and humility” (21-22)—or as Chapone puts it, “the essential virtues of Christianity— . . . piety, benevolence, meekness, humility, integrity, and purity” (174).


The perspectives provided by Chapone in Letters IV and V, “On the Regulation of the Heart and Affections,” are central to Austen’s construction of Maria and Julia Bertram.  These two chapters follow those discussing the first principles of religion and how to read scripture.  The New Testament, Chapone says, must be the subject of “constant study . . . all your life long” (42) because “the great end and intention of all its precepts [is] the improvement and regulation of the heart:—not the outward actions alone, but the inward affections, which give birth to them, are the subjects of those precepts” (62).


Although they first appear interchangeably (e.g., with no speech tag for one, and “added the other” for the second [MP 20-21]) and as a unit linked against Fanny’s solitariness, the sisters are first distinguished by Mrs. Norris’s plans for Maria (“‘the pride and delight of them all—perfectly faultless—an angel’” [45]) to marry Mr. Rushworth and Mrs. Grant’s for Henry to marry Julia (“‘a nice, handsome, good-humoured, accomplished girl’” [48-49]).  Chapone defines family friendships as those “made for us . . . by God himself,” who “has knit the bands of family love, by indispensable duties” (141-42).  The contest over Henry Crawford, however, defines as it separates the sisters.  Both are afflicted with pride and vanity—as Chapone remarks, “the vices opposite to humility [and] the sources of almost all the worst faults” (62); both nurse sullenness and resentment, which, Chapone predicts, “will, in time, become the ruling passion” (134).  As Chapone’s questions for the examination of sisterly relationships suggest, the nature of the heart and the quality of the bond it forms are inextricable.


Do you sincerely rejoice when your sister is enjoying pleasure or commendation, though you are at the same time in disagreeable or mortifying circumstances?—Do you delight to see her approved and beloved, even by those who do not pay you equal attention?—Are you afflicted and humbled, when she is found to be in fault, though you yourself are remarkably clear from the same offence?—If your heart assures you of the affirmative to these questions, then you may think yourself a kind sister, and a generous friend:  for you must observe, my dear that scarcely any creature is so depraved, as not to be capable of kind affections in some circumstances—We are all naturally benevolent, when no selfish interest interferes, and where no advantage is to be given up. . . . (76)


When Julia loses the competition for Henry, however, her “sore and angry” heart, just as Chapone warns, is “capable only of angry consolations”:


The sister with whom she was used to be on easy terms, was now become her greatest enemy; they were alienated from each other, and Julia was not superior to the hope of some distressing end to the attentions which were still carrying on there, some punishment to Maria for conduct so shameful. . . .With no material fault of temper, or difference of opinion, 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.  (MP 190)


When Henry Crawford withdraws and Maria is left to marry Mr. Rushworth, the sisters “gradually recover[ ] much of their former good understanding” (238).  The ironic limits of that “understanding”—a significant word for Chapone—are underscored by the remainder of the definition of their relationship:  they “were at least sufficiently friends to make each of them exceedingly glad to be with the other at such a time.  Some other companion than Mr. Rushworth was of the first consequence to his lady, and Julia was quite as eager for novelty and pleasure as Maria . . .” (238).  Chapone’s words bode ill for their relationships as they enter the world:  “If you are wanting here [i.e., in the family], do not fancy yourself qualified for friendship with others, but be assured, your heart is too narrow and selfish for so generous an affection” (85).


Though for Chapone, family relationships are a test for one’s ability to form friendship, in Mansfield Park the fraternal bond can expose friendship’s limits.  While the offer of a necklace makes a guilty Fanny feel that Mary Crawford’s kindness has “proved her a real friend” (301), at the preliminary revelation that the chain she has chosen was a gift from Henry, she suspects that “Miss Crawford, complaisant as a sister, [is] careless as a woman and a friend” (302).  Complaisant is a telling adjective, especially when Chapone’s definition of friendship is considered:


Remember that the end of true friendship is the good of its object, and the cultivation of virtue, in two hearts emulous of each other. . . . Nothing can be more contrary to this end than that mutual intercourse of flattery, which some call friendship.—A real friend will venture to displease me, rather than indulge my faulty inclinations, and thereby increase my natural frailties;—she will endeavor to make me acquainted with myself, and will put me upon guarding the weak parts of my character.  (86)


Mary’s sisterly complaisance fails such a duty to her brother just certainly as she fails in her relationships with Maria and Julia, or Mrs. Fraser or Lady Stornaway (“‘rather [her] most particular friend of the two’” though she has “‘not cared much for her these three years’” [415]), or perhaps even Fanny herself.


The choice of a friend, for Chapone, involves judgment based on experience, which her reader may not have yet attained.  She lists “the essential requisites in a friend”:  “a deep and sincere regard to religion” (87); a “due regard to reputation,” which includes modesty, prudence, and decorum (89); an understanding characterized by good sense (“a capacity for reasoning justly and discerning truly”) (91); and a good temper (93).  Chapone’s discussion of these qualities underscores Fanny’s concerns about Mary Crawford.


Chapone dismisses Mary Crawford’s most attractive feature—“the most dazzling genius, or the most engaging wit and humour” (91)—as a qualification for friendship:


What can one do with those who will not be answered with reason—and who, when you are endeavouring to convince or persuade them by serious argument, will parry the blow with a witty repartee, or a stroke of poignant raillery? . . . how trifling is the talent of diverting an idle hour, compared with true wisdom and prudence.  (91-92)


Austen might even have had this passage in mind in her construction of the Sotherton scene, as Edmund “reason[s] with [Mary], but in vain.  She would not calculate, she would not compare. She would only smile and assert.  The greatest degree of rational consistency could not have been more engaging” (112).  Unlike Edmund, Fanny, with Chapone’s cautions to guide her and proof against Mary’s erotic charm, is not seduced by Mary’s refusal to be dictated to by a watch.


More important to the novel, however, is the regard for religion necessary both in friendship and in marriage (which Chapone defines as “the highest kind of friendship” [103]).  In fact, her warning might almost serve as a preliminary character sketch of Mary Crawford:


The woman who thinks lightly of sacred things, or who is ever heard to speak of them with levity or indifference, cannot reasonably be expected to pay a more serious regard to the laws of friendship, or to be uniformly punctual in the performance of any of the duties of society:—take no such person to your bosom, however recommended by good humour, wit, or any qualification; nor let gaiety or thoughtlessness be deemed an excuse for offending in this important point. . . . In the liveliest hour of mirth, the innocent heart can dictate nothing but what is innocent:  it will immediately take alarm at the apprehension of doing wrong, and stop at once in the full career of youthful sprightliness, if reminded of the neglect or transgression of any duty.  (88-89)


Edmund’s initial excuse for Mary in the wilderness at Sotherton—“‘Your lively mind can hardly be serious even on serious subjects’” (102)—is succeeded by other, more tortuous attempts.  On the afternoon of the ball, his conversation with Fanny recurs to these excuses, carefully delaying predication and resisting recognition.


“I know her disposition to be as sweet and faultless as your own, but the influence of her former companions makes her seem, gives to her conversation, to her professed opinions, sometimes a tinge of wrong.  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!—for sometimes, Fanny, I own to you, it does appear more than manner; it appears as if the mind itself was tainted.”  (312)


The careful efforts of his language to disbelieve what Mary herself has professed ultimately win out as he credits himself with clarity of vision:  “‘you can bear me witness, Fanny, that I have never been blinded.  How many a time have we talked over her little errors!’” (313).



Measuring these two generations of characters against the standard that Letters on the Improvement of the Mind provides seems to indicate that Fanny Price, the novel’s reading heroine, will prove a model of thinking and feeling womanhood, of the outward actions as well as the inward affections.2  But like her fictional counterparts, Fanny Price does not always meet the standard of behavior that Chapone holds up.  For example, she is sorely tested, and often found wanting, by Chapone’s definition of generosity:


we cannot bear to suspect ourselves of base and ungenerous feelings, therefore we let them work without attending to them, or we endeavor to find out some better motive for those actions, which really flow from envy and malignity.—Before you flatter yourself that you are a generous benevolent person, take care to examine, whether you are really glad of every advantage and excellence, which your friends and companions possess, though they are such as you are yourself defective in.  (75)


Fanny’s jealousy of the attention Edmund pays to Mary during her riding lesson, for example, is carefully expressed to herself as a concern for his effort—


She could not but think indeed that Mr. Crawford might as well have saved him the trouble.


as a judgment against Henry Crawford—


Mr. Crawford, with all his boasted good-nature, and all his coachmanship, probably knew nothing of the matter, and had no active kindness in comparison of Edmund.


and concern for the horse—


She began to think it rather hard upon the mare to have such double duty; if she were forgotten the poor mare should be remembered.(79)


These are feelings culpable enough that Fanny worries about “appearing rude and impatient” and walks to meet Edmund and Miss Crawford “with a great anxiety to avoid the suspicion” (80).  More egregiously, in her love for Edmund, Fanny violates her duty, failing to “preserve her heart free and open to receive the just recommendation of [her] parents”; nor does she prove “wise and modest enough to withdraw from temptation” (112).


Such failures humanize what might have seemed too much of a pattern heroine, especially given the judgment meted out to the other characters.  But in small ways and large, she enacts Chapone’s principles:  she dresses with neatness and propriety, conceals her tears as long as possible, tries to prevent her infirmities from inconveniencing others, exhibits a “ready compliance” (143) at home, behaves with “respectful and earnest attention” to the conversation around her” (180), attends to the sublimity of nature, reads widely and talks (at least with Edmund) about that reading, attempts to learn when others point out her faults, examines the motives of her behavior, and struggles against what Chapone calls “every evil propensity of [the] heart” (78).


Austen’s most reading heroine—whose education through reading is tagged with the phrase “improvement of [the] mind”—seems to exemplify Chapone’s challenge to her readers to undertake a program of lifelong learning.  In order to “render [her reader] a fit companion for persons of sense and knowledge” (191), the Letters prescribes “a competent share of reading, well chosen and properly regulated” (187), from a variety of genres:  scripture, natural history, poetry (including Shakespeare and Milton), and moral essays (like those in the Rambler).  She recommends “the greatest care . . . in the choice of those fictitious stories, that so enchant the mind . . . [and] inflame the passions of youth” (204-05).  It’s interesting that though Fanny is well read in poetry and can fall into a “‘wondering strain’” (MP 244) that appears to owe much to the reading of natural history (or of Chapone [201-02]), she does not appear to be a reader of novels.  Chapone also places particular stress on the reading of history, which will “entertain and improve” as well as “form and strengthen [the] judgment” (192-93), and the allied areas of chronology and geography.  She assures her reader that “a taste for history will grow and improve by reading” so that “your curiosity cannot fail to be awakened” (251-52).  It’s interesting—given Fanny’s reading about Macartney’s embassy to China and her question to Sir Thomas about the slave trade—that Chapone’s recommendations carry into the history of the British Empire, including the East and West Indies.


In her analysis of Chapone’s Letters on the Improvement of the Mind, Kathryn Steele suggests that Chapone’s text expands intellectual opportunities for women readers “within a supervisory, woman-centered community of readers”—“within the bounds of appropriate female thinking and reading” (475).  She argues that Chapone “invests her reader with an individual authority applicable in the moment of reading, but not in the construction of an individual interpretation” (482).  Freedom and agency are inscribed within the limits of an external authority.  This kind of limitation on freedom, independence, and action seems allied to the disappointment some readers feel in Fanny Price as heroine characterized by an allegiance to inherited moral tradition and a discomfort with rebellion that result in a seemingly passive approach to the world.  In fact, Fanny is remarkable in her lack of involvement in or impact upon the plot of the novel in which she’s the heroine.


Although Chapone does emphasize her reader’s participation in the community—her participation in conversation, her contributions to domestic happiness—she also highlights the interior struggle necessary in the improvement of the understanding and the heart.  Though she speaks of a “passive courage” characteristic of women (73), the language in which she depicts the work of governing the passions is anything but passive.  She defines the virtue of simplicity or singleness of heart as a “strict honesty towards ourselves and others” (70).  Achieving that honesty is the product of action and interior movement:  “How necessary it is, frequently thus to enter into ourselves, and search out our spirit, will appear, if we consider how much the human heart is prone to insincerity, and how often, from being first led by vanity into attempts to impose upon others, we come at last to impose on ourselves” (69).  Such is the active and courageous reflection that Fanny exhibits, as when she questions her motives for refusing to act in Lovers’ Vows, or when she considers whether she has misjudged Mary Crawford.3  Mansfield Park is, to a large degree, the story of Fanny’s internal agon, and she certainly never achieves a total victory in the struggle over her passions.  Chapone allows for the difficulty of “mak[ing] a perfect conquest over yourself at once” but urges the power that comes from the struggle:  “if you are so unhappy as to yield to your infirmity, . . . do not let this discourage you from renewing your efforts.—Your mind will gain strength from the contest, and your internal enemy will by degrees be forced to give ground” (137).  Although seeming to sum up the hardy dispositions of William and Susan and the other boisterous Prices, the narrator’s commendation of “the advantages of early hardship and discipline, and the consciousness of being born to struggle and endure” (547) might as well refer to the interior struggles of Fanny herself.



But why should Jane Austen have returned to Chapone’s Letters on the Improvement of the Mind, a text that she’d used in Pride and Prejudice?  While I’ve argued that Austen’s use of Fordyce and Chapone in Pride and Prejudice seems to be the structural residue of the novel’s gestation in the 1790s (Ford), I can’t make a similar claim for Mansfield Park.  Perhaps, however, the revisions to Pride and Prejudice, as well as the increased attention to Chapone as the first decade of the new century drew to a close, brought her to the forefront of Jane Austen’s consciousness.  Consider:  In 1807, The Posthumous Works of Mrs. Chapone published for the first time three letters (written around 1751 and privately circulated) to Samuel Richardson from Miss Hester Mulso, arguing against the assertion of his novel Clarissa that a parental command to marry requires filial obedience.  In 1810, The Anti-Chapone—a parodic conduct book in the style of Love and Freindship—appeared.  Both texts seem to have been in Austen’s mind as she wrote Mansfield Park.


The letters from the 22-year-old Miss Mulso challenge Clarissa’s feeling of guilt at her father’s curse and Richardson’s implied endorsement of the parental right to compel filial duty in his command that she marry Solmes—arguments and language that Austen picks up to develop Fanny’s resistance to Sir Thomas and Edmund.  Mulso argues that “neither reason nor religion condemn her” (2:33):  “Had she not a right to disclaim an authority which was made use of, not according to its true end, to promote her happiness, but to make her miserable?” (32).  (In his response, Richardson apparently objected to what Austen’s narrator calls that “great black word miserable” [MP 369, 403]—a word that Fanny uses and that Mulso feels compelled to change to unhappiness [2:63].)  Mulso acknowledges the claims of duty, gratitude, obligation—claims also felt as formidable by Fanny Price; like Clarissa, she only insists on the power of a negative:  “it never entered into my mind to suppose a child at liberty to dispose of herself in marriage, without the consent of her parents” (2:56).  Further, she objects that “parents are sometimes the less qualified to judge of the real good and happiness of their children for being so much older than they, for having lost the tenderness and sensibility of their hearts, without adding much to the strength and capacity of their heads” (2:65).  Fanny’s reflections on Sir Thomas reveal a similar reservation:  “he who had married a daughter to Mr. Rushworth.  Romantic delicacy was certainly not to be expected from him” (382).


Austen evidently picks up the language of these letters as part of the characterization of Sir Thomas’s relationship with his daughters.  To counter some of Mulso’s arguments, Richardson evidently cites scripture, including “shew not thyself cheerful towards thy daughters.”  Mulso challenges such a caution, even questioning the translation:


If the parent will not shew himself cheerful before his daughters, of course they will not dare to be cheerful before him.  They will therefore shun and fly from his presence, and never think themselves happy but when they are out of his sight; for who can be easy under perpetual restraint?  They will be so far from considering him as their best friend, from opening their hearts to him, and trusting him with their most secret wishes and designs, that they will not dare to declare any one sentiment or opinion before him, and he will be more a stranger to their minds than any one person of their acquaintance.  How then shall his counsel direct them, his experience inform them, or his virtue mend their hearts? (2:119-20)


Austen seizes upon and divides this characterization, placing it in the early chapters of her novel.


Sir Thomas did not know what was wanting, because, though a truly anxious father, he was not outwardly affectionate, and the reserve of his manner repressed all the flow of their spirits before him. (22)

Their father was no object of love to them, he had never seemed the friend of their pleasures, and his absence was unhappily most welcome.  They were relieved by it from all restraint; . . . they felt themselves immediately at their own disposal, and to have every indulgence within their reach.  (37)


While Austen presents a more sympathetic portrait of the father here and a more critical view of the daughters, the family dynamic she presents is exactly what Mulso has warned against.


In this correspondence with Richardson, Mulso makes a gendered argument about a woman’s rights in marriage, an argument that Austen again seizes upon:


But, dear Sir, will not less than an absolute aversion be sufficient to give a woman a liberty to refuse an engagement which puts the happiness of her whole life so much in the power of another, that nothing less than a perfect esteem should induce her to place so great a trust in his hands?  And whatever may be the reason of a woman’s dislike to a man, if she does dislike him, has she not a right to refuse to marry him?  For my own part, I think, if ever I marry, I ought to give the man I marry a sincere preference to all other men; and I should think myself at liberty to reject any man to whom I could not give such a preference.  (2:136)


Compare Fanny’s statement of her own rights:


“I should have thought,” said Fanny, after a pause of recollection and exertion, “that every woman must have felt the possibility of a man’s not being approved, not being loved by some one of her sex, at least, let him be ever so generally agreeable.  Let him have all the perfections in the world, I think it ought not to be set down as certain, that a man must be acceptable to every woman he may happen to like himself. . . . How then was I to be—to be in love with him the moment he said he was with me?  How was I to have an attachment at his service, as soon as it was asked for?  His sisters should consider me as well as him.” (408)


Though I wouldn’t argue that Mulso, whom Richardson called a “little spitfire,” is a model for Fanny, her statement of right and liberty seems to lie beneath Fanny’s claims for “every woman” and—finally—for herself.


This anxiety about rights and liberties was, apparently, timely.  In the preface to The Posthumous Works, Mrs. Chapone’s family expresses ambivalence about printing her correspondence with Richardson “on account of its having been suggested that the sentiments contained in these letters were not adapted to an age in which parental authority and filial obedience are so much relaxed as in the present” (1:vi).  Both Sir Thomas and Mrs. Norris are concerned about the spirit of independence abroad.  Sir Thomas, of course, rebukes Fanny for “‘willfulness of temper, self-conceit, and every tendency to that independence of spirit, which prevails so much in modern days, even in young women, and which in young women is offensive and disgusting beyond all common offense’” (367).


In The Anti-Chapone, or Grandmothers in the Wrong, “Aunt Lorincia” (an anagram for Ironical [Eaton 247]), advises her seven-year-old niece that her parents’ desire to inculcate “virtue, morality, and decorum” shows an ignorance of the world.  Her advice:  “let your grand study be display. . . . You must strike the eye, astonish the ear, captivate the senses, and fascinate the soul” (6).  Specific areas of study include learning to drive a coach (8), the harp, heathen mythology (especially as it can require the drawing of naked bodies) (14-16), and private theatricals.4  She also recommends her young niece not to worry if she’s tempted to commit adultery:


do not imagine that you will be scorned or rejected by all society, and be doomed to sigh in solitude severe,—O No! those are the highly ridiculous ways of old.  If . . . you are but rich, titled, and handsome, you may rely upon it you will be received into society, or at least society will go to you, if you will but study to attract and allure, by giving balls, concerts, or masquerades.  (25-26)


Mary Crawford’s plan for Maria to “‘recover her footing in society’” involves just such a prescription:  “‘with good dinners, and large parties, there will always be those who will be glad of her acquaintance; and there is, undoubtedly, more liberality and candour on those points than formerly’” (528).


Mansfield Park, then, further complicates the way we understand Austen’s relationship to conduct literature.  Far from rejecting it, or even satirizing it, here she uses Chapone’s Letters on the Improvement of the Mind as a model against which behavior is measured.  Chapone’s advice is peculiarly suited to Mansfield Park’s peculiar heroine as it promotes the struggles of the reasoning and feeling self within inherited frameworks.  Her letters to her “dear papa Richardson,” playfully signed by “His ever obliged / And affectionate child,” frame her challenge, her “disobedience,” within the context of paternal authority.  In similar fashion, Austen’s most intellectually active heroine challenges the values of the patriarch while remaining loyally subject to his rule.  Fanny exercises only the power of no, resisting Sir Thomas’s pressure to marry against her heart but waiting for his word to return to Mansfield.  Her reward, coming through narrative gift, as she patiently endures, is forever to remain “within the view and patronage of Mansfield Park” (548).





1. Ellen Moody’s calendar for the novel argues that its central dramatic action occurs between 1807 and 1809 and that “[a]bout thirty years ago” puts the captivation of Sir Thomas in the years 1779-1781.  If Miss Maria Ward were about eighteen, then she would have been born between 1761 and 1763.  Let Miss Ward be as much as four years older:  her date of birth then would be as early as 1757.  Chapone’s conduct book is first published in 1773, at the time, according to this calculation, when Miss Ward might have been as old as sixteen and her sisters some years younger, just moving toward adulthood, and just the age to be able to read and profit by this very popular text.


2. Barbara Eaton also suggests the connection between the image of womanhood recommended by Chapone’s Letters and Fanny Price:  she “embraces filial duty, is a good listener, reads voraciously to assuage her loneliness, disapproves of flattery and ostentation, values true friendship, respects and understands natural forces” (175).


3. John Wiltshire remarks, “The Enlightenment stress on self-knowledge as a goal, and the Protestant requirement of self-examination, converge and pervade Mansfield Park more than any other of Jane Austen’s novels” (80).


4. In this slender book, two words linked for readers of Austen’s next novel meet in the space of one line:  “Do they [contemporary women] not most courageously sit in the barouches, &c. while the Caro Sposo practises the art of driving his family and servants, with four in hand? and from the proximity of situation the husband can receive, occasionally, the kindest counsel from this wife, who may have had part of her education on the box” (21-22).



Works Cited


The Anti-Chapone, or Grandmothers in the Wrong: Proved by Incontestible Facts, in a Letter from Aunt Lorincia, in Town, to Her Young Niece in the Country.  Salisbury, 1810.

Austen, Jane.  Jane Austen’s Letters.  Ed. Deirdre Le Faye.  3rd ed.  Oxford: OUP, 1997.

_____.  Mansfield Park.  Ed. John Wiltshire.  Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2005.

Chapone, Hester.  Letters on the Improvement of the Mind: Addressed to a Young Lady.  2 vols.  Dublin. 1773.  Facsimile.  Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2014.

_____.  The Posthumous Works of Mrs. Chapone. Containing her Correspondence with Mr. Richardson.  2 vols.  London: Murray, 1807.

Eaton, Barbara.  Yes Papa! Mrs. Chapone and the Bluestocking Circle.  London: Boutle, 2012.

Ford, Susan Allen.  “Mr. Collins Interrupted: Reading Fordyce’s Sermons with Pride and Prejudice.”  Persuasions On-Line 34.1 (Win. 2013).

Humphreys, Jennett.  “Hester Chapone.”  Dictionary of National Biography.  London, 1885-1900.  Vol. 10.  58-59.

Library Catalog Godmersham Park 1818.  [Godmersham, Kent: 1818.]

Moody, Ellen.  “A Calendar for Mansfield Park.”  3 July 2012.  Ellen Moody’s Website.  6 Oct. 2014.

St. Clair, William.  “Women: The Evidence of the Advice Books.”  The Godwins and the Shelleys: The Biography of a Family.  London: Faber, 1989.  504-11.

Steele, Kathryn L.  “Hester Mulso Chapone and the Problem of the Individual Reader.”  The Eighteenth Century 53 (2012): 473-91.

Straight, Julie.  “Religious Controversy in Hester Chapone’s Letters on the Improvement of the Mind.”  Nineteenth-Century Contexts 27 (2005): 315-34.

Sutherland, Kathryn.  “Writings on Education and Conduct: Arguments for Female Improvement.”  Women and Literature in Britain 1700-1800.  Ed. Vivien Jones.  Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000.  25-45.

Wiltshire, John.  The Hidden Jane Austen.  Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2014.

Wollstonecraft, Mary.  A Vindication of the Rights of Men and A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.  Ed. Janet Todd.  Oxford: OUP, 1993.

Zuk, Rhoda, ed.  Catherine Talbot and Hester Chapone.  Vol. 3 of Bluestocking Feminism: Writings of the Bluestocking Circle, 1738-1785.  London: Pickering, 1999.


Back to Persuasions On-Line Table of Contents

Return to Home Page