Home ›   |   Publications ›   |   Persuasions On-Line ›   |   Volume 44 No 1 ›   |   What the Coachman Said: Servants and Servanthood in Mansfield Park

What the Coachman Said: Servants and Servanthood in Mansfield Park

“‘It is a pleasure to see a lady with such a heart for riding! . . . I never see one sit a horse better’” (MP 81).  Thus begins a singular speech in the Jane Austen canon, spoken by a serving-man, invoking fear and trembling, body and spirit.  Addressed to Fanny Price early in Mansfield Park, it foreshadows a tale of upheaval in England, the British empire, and the world.

Society in Mansfield Park is more than masters and servants.  The plot traces the trajectories of two intermediate characters:  Fanny, the humble poor relation of Sir Thomas Bertram, and her grasping, miserly aunt Norris.  Mrs. Norris engineers Fanny’s coming to Mansfield and installs her as a virtual household slave—part of Mrs. Norris’s own little empire.  As Fanny waxes, Mrs. Norris wanes.  The plot develops during Sir Thomas’s long absence from home to deal with “unfavorable circumstances” (MP 43) on his estate in Antigua, around the time the slave trade was outlawed in the empire (Wiltshire xliii).  His departure leaves a vacuum soon filled by his eldest son, Tom, and a friend, who want to put on an amateur theatrical.  This scheme is embraced and enabled by Mrs. Norris, along with Maria and Julia, the two spoiled daughters of Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram.  Mrs. Norris has promoted a hasty match for Maria to a rich fool, Mr. Rushworth.  Add to this cast Mary and Henry Crawford—wealthy, worldly siblings who have taken up residence in the parsonage. 

Fanny and Mary soon become rivals for Edmund, Sir Thomas’s second son and a clergyman-to-be.  After insisting that “‘Fanny must have a horse’” (41), Edmund borrows back the mare he lent her to introduce Mary to the pleasures of riding.  For one day, the two ladies share the mare equitably.  The next day, Mary deliberately overstays her lesson, leaving Fanny waiting alone for her turn.  Watching anxiously from a distant hilltop, she sees Mary in high spirits, urging the horse from a walk to a canter, and, riding alongside, then holding her hand, the hero she secretly loves (79).  Fanny sees the horse as a physical connection between Edmund and Mary, and the lesson as a rehearsal of her worst fear—their wedding night. 

Underscoring Fanny’s distress and her rival’s elan, Austen caps the episode with a striking commentary by a servant—the “steady old coachman” (78) who attends Fanny on her rides. 

“It is a pleasure to see a lady with such a good heart for riding!” said he.  “I never see one sit a horse better.  She did not seem to have a thought of fear.  Very different from you, Miss, when you first began, six years ago come next Easter.  Lord bless me!  How you did tremble when Sir Thomas first had you put on.”  (81) 

Servants are always present in Austen’s settings but rarely speak—and those who do are generally house servants, who converse more or less in the genteel style of their masters.  Wilcox is a different breed, having spent his working life in the stables.  His observations are frank, without particular regard for Fanny’s tender feelings.  He invokes God and Easter, the power of the resurrection in the coming of spring.  He uses the present tense to express his experience of all time:  “I never see one sit a horse better.”  He describes experience in bodily terms:  Fanny’s fear and trembling, Mary’s “heart for riding,” the way she can “sit a horse.”  Such language opens a new perspective on Mansfield Park.  It is horse sense, and it absolutely refutes critics who say Austen is blind to the English class structure, that she sees only “one class” of people (Williams 117). 

Somehow, though, the coachman’s speech falls on deaf ears.  Even scholars writing about the role of servants in Mansfield Park ignore it.  In “Seen but Not Heard,” Judith Terry devotes a full paragraph to Wilcox’s place of honor in the household but makes no mention of his full-paragraph speech (110).  It slips by, likely, because Austen’s readers—then and now—are actively not interested in the servant’s point of view.  As Sarah Dredge notes, “the genteel central characters in Austen’s work mark that gentility by maintaining the illusion that servants neither see nor hear the private conversations and actions that drive the plots and development of character.”  Austen’s readers identify with the central characters and maintain that same illusion.  The narrator of Mansfield Park says that the coachman was watching Mary ride with “an interest almost equal” to Fanny’s (81).  But the illusion that servants see nothing overrides even this explicit contradiction. 

Still, Fanny hears Wilcox’s honest assessment of her rival.  And more servants enter the narrative at other critical points.  When Fanny rejects Henry Crawford’s offer of marriage, a shocked Sir Thomas sends his butler, Baddeley, to arrange a private chat with her.  Mrs. Norris objects, insisting Sir Thomas must be wanting her, not Fanny.  Baddeley cuts her dead, in precise English—“‘No Ma’am, it is Miss Price, I am certain of its being Miss Price,’” accompanied by a sardonic “half smile” (375).  This is a singular instance of a servant in an Austen work showing disrespect to a family member.  Mrs. Norris, however, is a special case, and Austen makes it clear in what follows that she is not advocating any change in the social order. 

Sir Thomas sends Fanny to visit her family of origin, thinking a reminder of her poverty will persuade her to accept Henry.  Arriving at the Prices’ rented home in Portsmouth, Fanny and her brother William are met at the door by “a trollopy-looking maid-servant,” shouting out the naval news (435).  Rebecca the maid speaks first and loudest in the Price household and performs her duties as she pleases, leaving the rest to the family.  Fanny has no aversion to work, but the inversion of class order shocks her to the core.1  Casting off her timidity, she begins to act and speak on her own behalf—joining a library and making an apprentice of her younger sister Susan, to teach her the ordered ways of Mansfield Park.  And, while softening a bit on the eager-to-please Henry Crawford, she continues to resist his marriage offer. 

Fanny is vindicated, by the speech of a servant.  A lady’s maid in London—to Mrs. Rushworth, senior—serves up the denouement, exposing the affair between Henry and Mrs. Rushworth, junior, the former Maria Bertram.  This serving-woman “had exposure in her power, and, supported by her mistress, was not to be silenced” (521).  The story lands in the newspaper, and Fanny reads it in Portsmouth—her first word of the scandal that will undo all the Crawfords’ designs on Mansfield Park, Edmund, and herself (509ff). 

Break Graphic true to size

Servanthood is not a sub-theme in Mansfield Park.  It is the moral core of Austen’s family faith (Shields 72ff) and, in this, her most religious work, the point of the story.  The work unfolds in concentric, sometimes contradictory layers, all of which stress the role of servanthood.  Mansfield Park itself is a seat of English culture and Anglican ethics—a country estate where class distinctions are preserved, but servants are respected, most conspicuously by Sir Thomas, who trusts the old coachman to ride out with his niece and refers to the chief carpenter as “‘my friend Christopher Jackson’” (215).  Sir Thomas’s expression serves to counteract a particularly vicious attack by Mrs. Norris on the Jackson family.  During the theater-construction project, she all but accuses Jackson’s son of stealing scraps of lumber—mocking the ten-year-old’s appearance and speech (“‘he could not no how do without them’”) and calling the Jacksons “‘very encroaching . . .—just the sort of people to get all they can’” (167).  Mrs. Norris is clearly projecting her own “‘spunging’” (123) ways onto a servant she sees as a rival for Sir Thomas’s trust.2

In honoring his master carpenter, Sir Thomas embraces the broad social conservatism put forth by Edmund Burke in his Reflections of the Revolution in France.  Burke defends the class structure of English society but will not “confine power, authority, and distinction to blood, and names, and titles.”  Wherever wisdom and virtue are found, he says, “they have the passport of heaven to human place and honor” (76). 

Beyond England, Mansfield Park is an artifact of the British empire, dependent on overseas possessions and slave labor for its economic sustenance.  British historians in the twenty-first century have documented the intimate ties between various estates and their West Indian possessions, even relating the art collections, furniture, and romantic landscaping of some “great houses” to slavery motifs (Dresser 14).  Austen slips in a reference to the farmlands of Mansfield Park as Sir Thomas’s “nearest plantations” (223). 

In Edward Said’s influential view, the English novel and the empire were co-dependent, with the novelistic enterprise designed to keep the empire “more or less in place” (74).  He describes Britain’s colonies functioning “more or less like the servants in grand households and in novels, whose work is taken for granted, but rarely studied” (63).  Still, every reference to Antigua in the book points to an unstable empire, in a crisis that both enables and parallels the domestic unraveling of Mansfield Park.  Following Said’s theory, if things are set right in the empire, there should be some correlative change in the novel.  Austen is stingy with facts about Sir Thomas’s mission in Antigua.  But he returns a changed man, with an altered sense of whom to love and trust.  Entering his own house, he seeks “no confidant but the butler” and follows Baddeley into the drawing room (210).  Reunited with wife and children, he looks around for his niece, the girl he has housed in an unheated room near the servants:  “‘Why do not I see my little Fanny?’” (208). 

Fanny’s worth in the family rises beginning with Sir Thomas’s return and continues with his discovery of the theater scheme.  As Edmund tells his father, “‘Fanny is the only one who has judged rightly throughout’” (219).  Following Marilyn Butler’s lead, many critics have connected Fanny’s moral compass to the progressive evangelical wing of the Anglican Church in the early nineteenth century (Sutherland xxxiii).  Butler characterizes it as a powerful upper-middle class reform movement whose goal was to “fortify middle-class life by arming it from within” (285).  Evangelicals led the moral and political struggle against slavery (Coffey 111ff) and, simultaneously, a spiritual resistance against the “worldliness, triviality, and irresponsibility” of the Regency aristocracy (Butler 284).  Their concept of the “Good Life” was realized in Fanny—“visibly Christian, humble, contemplative and serviceable” (243). 

The novel’s highest layer of meaning is also its thinnest—a Christian allegory, in which characters represent fixed ideas; sin is cast out from Mansfield Park, and virtue and wisdom restored.  Shawn Normandin makes the point that even in Austen’s time, allegory was an old-fashioned genre, out of place in a modern psychological novel.  He sees the marriage of Edmund and Fanny as an “allegorical imposition that rewards Anglican rectitude and chides Crawfordian trespass” (606).  However, neither “rectitude” nor “trespass” appears in the text of Mansfield Park; Austen’s moral code is not rule-bound.  By contrast, “principle” occurs twenty-three times, in various forms—typically referring to character and morals (De Rose and McGuire 907).  A more faithful reading might see Fanny and Edmund living the Christian principle of servanthood—as in Paul’s letter to the Philippians:  “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.  Look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others” (New Oxford Bible, Phil. 2.3–4).3 

Servants “look to the interests of others” all their lives.  They are the artists, artisans, and professionals who make the refined life of the “great house” possible—with skills their masters can only marvel at.  Fanny’s first ball is “built upon the late acquisition of a violin player in the servants’ hall” (137).  Before he has the theater set torn down, Sir Thomas makes sure to praise Christopher Jackson’s ingenuity in building it (215).  And in volume 3, Austen plays up the afternoon tea-service as if it were a ceremony of church or state:  “[t]he solemn procession, headed by Baddely, of tea-board, urn, and cake-bearers (398).” 

Sir Thomas eventually comes to regret his daughters’ lack of service to others, the stress on “elegance and accomplishments” in his plan of education: 

He feared that principle, active principle, had been wanting, that they had never been properly taught to govern their inclinations and tempers, by that sense of duty which can alone suffice.  They had been instructed theoretically in their religion, but never required to bring it into daily practice. . . . [A]nd of the necessity of self-denial and humility they had never heard. . . . Wretchedly did he feel . . . he had brought up his daughters, without their understanding their first duties.  (536, italics added).4 

Servanthood is defined by duty, and in Mansfield Park Austen presents servants as the moral backbone of society.  The novel exalts dutiful servants of all ranks—the steadiness of the coachman, the change in Tom from a libertine to a son “useful to his father” (534), and the progress of Fanny Price from a household slave to the conscience of a country estate. 

If there is an imperial correlative, it runs through Sir Thomas’s transformation from a cold businessman to a patriarch who suffers for his sins.  His journey may be taken as a symbol of the gradual, sluggish awakening of English culture—over the course of Jane Austen’s whole life—to its first duties, and to all peoples.



1As William sails off to fight the French at sea, the “trollopy-looking” maid-servant’s domestic coup (and her inedible desserts) can, with a little imagination, be read as a travesty on the French revolution. 

2Thanks to the reviewer of this essay, Jan Fergus, for a deeper perspective on this episode. 

3In the King James version the Austen family would have known: “Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves.  Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others” (The Holy Bible). 

4Duty may not seem a leading concept of the Romantic era, but Austen’s contemporary William Wordsworth praised it as the “Stern Daughter of the Voice of God,” an essential check on “chance-desires,” in his “Ode to Duty,” published in 1807.

Works Cited
  • Austen, Jane.  Mansfield Park.  Ed. John Wiltshire.  Cambridge: CUP, 2005.
  • Burke, Edmund.  Reflections on the Revolution in France.  1790.  New York: Gateway/Regnery, 1962.
  • Butler, Marilyn.  Jane Austen and the War of Ideas.  New York: Oxford UP, 1975.
  • Coffey, John.  “Evangelicals, Slavery and the Slave Trade: From Whitefield to Wilberforce.”  The Anvil 24.2 (2007): 97–118.
  • De Rose, Peter L., and S. W. McGuire.  A Concordance to the Works of Jane Austen.  New York: Garland, 1982.
  • Dredge, Sarah.  “‘Was There a Servant . . . Who Did Not Know the Whole Story before the End of the Day?’ Upside-down Points of View in Austen.”  Persuasions On-Line 40.2 (2020).
  • Dresser, Madge, and Andrew Hann.  Slavery and The British Country House.  Swindon, UK: English Heritage, 2014.
  • The Holy Bible: Old and New Testaments.  Philadelphia: Holman, 1881.
  • The New Oxford Annotated Bible.  New Revised Standard Version.  New York: Oxford UP, 1991.
  • Normandin, Shawn.  “Symbol, Allegory, and Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park.”  Studies in Philology 116 (2019): 589–616.
  • Said, Edward.  Culture and Imperialism.  London: Chatto, 1993.
  • Shields, Carol. Jane Austen.  New York: Penguin, 2001.
  • Sutherland, Kathryn.  Introduction.  Mansfield Park.  London, Penguin, 2003. vii–xxxvii.
  • Terry, Judith.  “Seen But Not Heard: Servants in Jane Austen’s England.”  Persuasions 10 (1988): 104–16.
  • Williams, Raymond.  The Country and the City.  New York: Oxford UP, 1973.
  • Wiltshire, John.  Introduction.  Mansfield Park.  Cambridge: CUP, 2005.  xxv–lxxxiv.
‹ Back to Publication