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

Mansfield Park vs. Sotherton Court: Social Status and the Slave Trade

Sarah Parry


Sarah Parry (email: is the Learning and Visitor Manager at Chawton House Library in Hampshire, where she has worked for eleven years.  Her main research interest is the history of the English country house.


the greatest social difference in Mansfield Park is that between the Bertram estate and the Price home in Portsmouth, but the social differences between Mansfield Park and Sotherton Court are also striking.  These two fictional estates are not of equal social standing.  While Sotherton Court and the many generations of the Rushworth family represent a period of house building and ownership firmly fixed in feudal society, Mansfield Park is the residence of a man of commerce who makes money through his estates in Antigua.  These differences were also present in the hierarchy of real estates and families, and Jane Austen’s contemporary readers would have been aware of how to “read” these two estates.


When Fanny, Mary Crawford, and Edmund discuss Sotherton, Mary remarks that Sotherton seems to be “‘an old place, and a place of some grandeur.  In any particular style of building?’” (56).  Edmund tells her, “‘The house was built in Elizabeth’s time, and is a large, regular, brick building—heavy, but respectable looking, and has many good rooms.  It is ill placed.  It stands in one of the lowest spots of the park; in that respect, unfavourable for improvement’” (56).


Sotherton Court—featuring a house that is Elizabethan rather than of modern neoclassical design—is not part of the “new money” world of commerce.  Edmund’s description provides significant details that suggest the status of the Rushworth estate.  Sotherton is a brick building.  During the Tudor period, brick was an expensive and high-status building material.  But this description also reveals that the Tudor house has escaped the fate of many Elizabethan and Jacobean houses that were either refaced or demolished by a new owner to make way for modern, eighteenth-century houses.


Other details highlight the importance and longevity of the estate as it has remained in the Rushworth family.  At Sotherton the park—a term in use since the medieval period to refer to a deer park and indicating high status through royal connections—would probably have been the remains of a deer park that Mr. Rushworth is now considering modernizing.  During the journey to visit Sotherton Court, there are hints of the importance of this estate within the area in which it is situated, and these connections become clearer as the party draws nearer its destination.  Maria Bertram meticulously points out all the property and places connected to the Sotherton estate:  there are “‘woods that belong[ ] to Sotherton’” and property “‘on each side of the road’” belonging to Mr. Rushworth (81).  As the party draws closer to the house, Maria makes sure that Mary Crawford is left in no doubt of the extent of the Rushworth influence and money.  She points out the smoother roads, the grandeur of the church spire, the “‘tidy-looking’” parsonage (82)—Mr. Rushworth would have the power to offer the living.  There is also the steward’s house—belonging to the man responsible for the running of the estate on behalf of the Rushworths—and alms-houses indicating that the Rushworths, as landowners, are aware of their charitable duties to the people living on the estate.


But there are also dissonant signals.  Maria remarks, “‘Those cottages are really a disgrace’” (82)—a hint that the Rushworths are beginning to fall behind in their duties and of the possibility that the family wealth might be declining.  Indeed, the Rushworths may even believe that an alliance to the family of Bertram through marriage will link them to a large, new fortune.  Maria Bertram’s marriage to Mr Rushworth is as much about trade as her father’s visit to Antigua.


The Sotherton estate proclaims inherited wealth, rather than money earned in the modern world of commerce, and strong family ties to the local area.  This connection is underlined by the information that the journey ends with “their approach to the capital freehold mansion, and ancient manorial residence of the family, with all its rights of Court-Leet and Court-Baron” (82).  Court Leet was the court of a manor that dealt mainly with the administration of the estate and also straightforward, minor matters of law and order.  Court Baron was also a manorial court but “dealt with the transfer of copyhold land” (Hey 118).  These courts had their roots in the medieval systems of local governance by the lord of the manor, and the reference to them provides more evidence of Sotherton Court’s long history.


Further evidence of those roots is the history of the family of Rushworth.  The visit to Sotherton includes a tour of the house by Mrs. Rushworth:  “Of pictures there were abundance, and some few good, but the larger part were family portraits, no longer any thing to any body but Mrs. Rushworth, who had been at great pains to learn all that the housekeeper could teach, and was now almost equally well qualified to shew the house” (84-85).  The large collection of family portraits, the names of whose sitters have disappeared into long forgotten Rushworth family history, is a visual record of the family’s deep roots with the estate and surrounding area.  Their zenith may have passed:  Mrs. Rushworth “relate[s]” tales “of the family in former times, its rise and grandeur, regal visits and loyal efforts” (85).


By including an “old money” estate in Mansfield Park, Jane Austen sets up a clear contrast to the “new money” estate indicated in the novel’s title.  In the opening paragraph readers learn that Miss Maria Ward “had the good luck to captivate Sir Thomas Bertram, of Mansfield Park, in the county of Northampton, and to be thereby raised to the rank of a baronet’s lady, with all the comforts and consequences of an handsome house and large income” (3).  A baronetcy was a hereditary rank created by James I in 1611 as a way of making money (“Baronetcy”), so Sir Thomas’s title is not as steeped in history as the family stories and deeds of the Rushworth’s.


Although there is little information about the house or estate in these opening lines, Mary Crawford’s consideration of Tom Bertram as potential husband material provides more detail:


Miss Crawford soon felt, that he and his situation might do.  She looked about her with due consideration, and found almost every thing in his favour, a park, a real park five miles round, a spacious modern-built house, so well placed and well screened as to deserve to be in any collection of engravings of gentlemen’s seats in the kingdom, and wanting only to be completely new furnished.  (48)


In contrast to Edmund Bertram’s description of Sotherton, which highlights the antiquity of this estate the most striking element of Mary Crawford’s description of Mansfield Park is that it is a “modern-built house.”  Her fashionable, London background has made her aware of not only money but also differences in social status.  In considering Tom Bertram as a possible husband, she clearly weighs up the advantages of the Mansfield Park estate with a cool head and a business-like attitude.  The “engravings of gentlemen’s seats in the kingdom” refers to publications such as Views of the Seats of Noblemen and Gentlemen, in England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland. From Drawings by J. P Neale.1  Inclusion in that collection would be another marker of status.


There are also important clues in the very name of Mansfield Park.  The name of Sir Thomas Bertram’s estate includes the word “Park.”  While originally referring to a deer park, the preserve of a monarch, by the mid-eighteenth century “Park” had also taken on another meaning.  The ambition of some newly rich estate owners to create new houses also extended to the surrounding landscapes.  Fashionable landscape gardening in the style of Lancelot “Capability” Brown and, later, Humphrey Repton turned estate landscapes, which until then had been predominantly working environments, into acres of remodelled parkland and pleasure gardens.  The term “park” became popular as a description for many improved estates and was sometimes used when renaming such estates bought and fashioned by men who had made vast fortunes and were now rewarding themselves with new country houses.


Many scholars have commented, of course, on the importance of the name “Mansfield” and its use by Austen.  Recently Christine Kenyon Jones and Paula Byrne have reminded us how recognizable the name “Mansfield” would have been to contemporary readers because of Lord Mansfield, the Lord Chief Justice and a major figure in the campaign to abolish slavery.  Jones and Byrne both make the point that it could not have been coincidence that the name “Mansfield” was used by Austen as the name of Sir Thomas’s English estate (Byrne 216).  The name “Mansfield Park” connects the estate directly to the slave trade, a connection underscored because Sir Thomas Bertram’s wealth comes directly from his property in Antigua.  So all the clues suggest that Mansfield Park is an estate occupied by new money—money dependent upon the slave trade.


Mansfield Park, on Sir Thomas’s return from Antigua, a brief glimpse of the slave trade is seen through Fanny Price’s eyes when she says to Edmund, “‘Did not you hear me ask him about the slave trade last night?’”  It is a moment that jars, and Fanny continues, “‘there was such a dead silence!’” (198).  Fanny’s reference seems to be an intrusion into the world of Mansfield Park and its veneer of ease, elegance, and privilege.


But by the beginning of the eighteenth century fortunes, dependent on the slave trade, were being made through sugar.  The influence of the slave trade eventually filtered into everyday life, such as housekeeping and recipe books.  One example is Elizabeth Raffald’s The Experienced English Housekeeper (1769, with twelve editions by 1799).  It was written for wealthy, high-status households with the money and staff to furnish large-scale entertaining.  The book offers lavish directions for making temples and pagodas of sugar to decorate a dinner table (189).  By the end of the eighteenth century the Knight family at Chawton also felt some of this influence, as is evident from The Knight Family Cookbook.  Among recipes for bread pudding and herb pudding is one “To preserve green-lemons as they do in Barbadose” (136).2  Was this a recipe passed on by a friend or relative of the Knights, or perhaps it was a popular recipe of the time?  In either case, it evokes the slave trade not only in name but also in content:  it requires two pounds of sugar.  These two recipes show the growing influence of the industrialization and increasing production of sugar as it became a cheaper and more accessible commodity, moving from a high status food stuff that the rich would use for creating decorations for their dining tables and to show off their wealth to a method of preserving used behind the scenes in the kitchens of the gentry.  The world of commerce, which, directly or indirectly, included the slave trade, was felt everywhere.


In chapter one of Mansfield Park, Mrs Price writes to her sister, Lady Bertram, and wonders about the possibilities of her son, William, being “useful to Sir Thomas in the concerns of his West Indian property?”  She also enquires of Sir Thomas “how could a boy be sent out to the East?” (5).  Mrs. Price’s request refers to the East India Company, founded in 1600 by Royal Charter from Queen Elizabeth I to the “Company and Merchants of London trading with the East Indies” (“Britain and the Slave Trade”).  For nearly two hundred years the East India Company expanded its powerful business empire.  It was also substantially involved in the slave trade via both its East African trade and also the slave trade on the west coast of Africa.  This aspect of the trade took people into slavery, sending them to outposts of the East India Company in South and East Africa, India and Asia (“Britain and the Slave Trade”).


In the world of commerce, the slave trade was not a phenomenon of “new” money, but it was one of the vehicles, particularly in the eighteenth century, for men of lowly backgrounds to become wealthy.  This movement of new wealth represented by the East India Company fed into the rise of the middle classes throughout the eighteenth century at such a pace that within a generation or two family fortunes could be made and lost.  This new wealth shifted society away from what had still, essentially, been a feudal society to one in which wealth and status could be newly acquired through trade.  The old money families, like the Rushworths, could trace their lineage back many generations in the same area or areas, usually attached to the same estate or estates.  They had accumulated wealth through inheritance, built on money that had often been initially secured through posts and influence at Court or from the monarch and through marriages to heiresses, which brought further wealth and status.  Over the course of the century, however, power was shifting from old money to new money.


The growth of the commercial world, built on the slave trade in all its forms, was reflected throughout the eighteenth century in the style and grandeur of country house building.  Even today it is possible to visit eighteenth and early nineteenth-century country houses without necessarily being aware that their creation was often made possible through vast fortunes derived from the transatlantic slave trade and other commercial activities.


Harewood House, by J. P. Neale, from Views of the Seats of
Noblemen and Gentlemen, in England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland

A well-known example of a high-status estate with strong connections to the slave trade and the eighteenth-century world of commerce is Harewood House in Yorkshire, commissioned by Edwin Lascelles in the 1750s.  The Lascelles family—connected, as Laurie Kaplan has demonstrated, to the social world of Mansfield Park—originally came from minor Yorkshire gentry.  Throughout the eighteenth century their commercial ventures grew.  They became London merchants, and they ran part of the administrative systems of Barbados (Smith).  Their involvement in the transatlantic slave trade made them extremely wealthy, ensuring that no expense was spared in the building of their new estate.  Harewood House was designed by the Yorkshire architect John Carr, many of whose clients were prosperous west Yorkshire merchants wanting to reward themselves with country houses (Wilson and Mackley 215).  Other contributors to the creation of Harewood House were furniture maker Thomas Chippendale and architect and designer Robert Adam.  Lancelot “Capability” Brown was employed to create the surrounding landscape.  The rumor circulating in London was that Edwin Lascelles was “seeking to build a £30,000 house—the best country house commission of the decade” (Wilson and Mackley 323).  Such a figure, even if only a rumor, still highlights the vast fortunes being made by families like the Lascelles, a name “connected with plantations, slavery, and corruption” (Kaplan 202).


The descriptions of the house of the Mansfield Park estate are sparse, like the family history of the owner, Sir Thomas Bertram.  There are no mentions of family portraits (except the profiles in the East room), no stories of royal visits or daring deeds during the English Civil War because there are no deep family connections to the estate behind this façade.  By the end of the eighteenth century and the early years of the nineteenth, the style of living represented by Sotherton, with the term “household” referring to the family and servants, had fallen from favor.  Perhaps the newly rich of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries viewed their houses as trophies to be admired from afar, with walls surrounding the estate keeping the owner remote from the locality and public access banned or, at least, limited.


By interpreting the Mansfield Park estate as being representative of new money and the Sotherton Court estate as representative of old money, the clashes between the cultures and attitudes of the inhabitants begin to come into sharper focus.  The Mansfield Park family has wealth, the Sotherton Court family social status.  Each needs to ally itself with the advantages of the other.  The apparent grandeur of Mansfield Park is only superficial and transitory, created through the profits of the slave trade although the family, other than Fanny, may prefer to forget this fact.  Sir Thomas also seems to lack the deeply embedded family connections going back many generations at the estate, binding him to the locality and its people.  Sir Thomas Bertram may have a title, but it is the Rushworths who have the evidence of family portraits, of Court Leet, and of Court Baron connecting them to an older, feudal world.


Even today, interpreting historic houses that were built using money made through the slave trade raises strong feelings.  In 2007 Harewood House confronted the truth of the building of the house and acknowledged that appalling suffering was a part of the history of the estate.  To mark the bicentenary of the end of the slave trade in Britain, Harewood House served as a venue for a celebration of Caribbean culture, including a display of African art (“Harewood House Plays Host”).  Historic house interpretation has finally started to acknowledge the basis of the wealth that created such houses.





1. John Preston Neale started his working life as a post office clerk, but he had a talent for architectural drawing.  Between 1812 and 1825 he published engravings of his drawings with brief descriptions of the estates.  At first, he published monthly by subscription; by the early 1820s he had published a six-volume set, which was followed by a second series of five volumes (“John Preston Neale”).


2. “The Knight Family Cookbook,” a manuscript of domestic recipes complied by the family, has an inscription written by the second Thomas Knight, who notes that he took the cookbook from Chawton and gave it to his sister, upon whose death he returned the manuscript to Chawton.



Works Cited


Austen, Jane.  Mansfield Park.  Ed. R. W. Chapman.  3rd ed.  Oxford: Oxford UP, 1934.

“The Baronetage.”  Debretts.  14 Aug. 2014

“Britain and the Slave Trade.”  The National Archives.  27 July 2014

Byrne, Paula.  The Real Jane Austen A Life in Small Things.  London:  HarperPress, 2013.

“Harewood House Plays Host to African Art.”  University of Leeds.  1 Nov. 2014

Hey, David.  The Oxford Companion to Local and Family History.  Oxford: Oxford UP, 1996.

“John Preston Neale.  Source/Data Page.”  Heatons, Antique Prints.  14 Aug. 2014

Jones, Christine Kenyon.  “Ambiguous Cousinship: Mansfield Park and the Mansfield Family.”  Persuasions On-Line 31.1 (Win. 2010).

Kaplan, Laurie.  “The Rushworths of Wimpole Street.”  Persuasions 33 (2011): 202-14.

The Knight Family Cookbook.  1793? Chawton House Library, Manuscripts KNI.  Chawton: Chawton House P, 2014.

Neale, J. P.  Views of the Seats of Noblemen and Gentlemen, in England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland.  From Drawings by J. P Neale.  2nd series.  Vol. 2.  London, 1825.

Raffald, Elizabeth.  The Experienced English Housekeeper, for the Use and Ease of Ladies, Housekeepers, Cooks, &c.  12th ed.  London, 1799.

Smith, Simon.  “Slavery and Harewood House.”  BBC.  22 Feb. 2007.

Wilson, Richard, and Mackley, Alan.  Creating Paradise: The Building of the English Country House 1660-1880.  London: Hambledon, 2000.


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