Marriage as a Dubious Goal in Mansfield Park

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Jane Austen’s 1814 novel Mansfield Park begins and ends with the topic of marriage. In this regard it seems to fit into the genre of the courtship novel, a form popular in the eighteenth century in which the plot is driven by the heroine’s difficulties in attracting an offer from the proper suitor. According to Katherine Sobba Green, the courtship novel “detailed a young woman’s entrance into society, the problems arising from that situation, her courtship, and finally her choice (almost always fortunate) among suitors” (2). Often the heroine and her eventual husband are kept apart initially by misunderstanding, by the hero’s misguided attraction to another, by financial obstacles, or by family objections.¹ The overcoming of these problems, with the marriage of the newly united couple, forms the happy ending anticipated by readers. Sometimes, as in a Shakespearean comedy, there are multiple marriages happily celebrated; this is the case, for example, in Austen’s own Pride and Prejudice.

Despite the fact that Mansfield Park ends with the marriage of the heroine, Fanny Price, to the man whom she has set her heart on, her cousin Edmund Bertram, the novel expresses a strong degree of ambivalence toward the pursuit and achievement of marriage, especially for women. For Fanny, marriage may be a matter of the heart, but for other characters in the novel, marriage—or the desire for marriage—is precipitated by, among other things, vanity, financial considerations, boredom, the desire to “disoblige” one’s family (Austen, Mansfield Park 5) or simply to escape from it, and social and parental pressure to form a suitable match. And, although readers are meant to understand that Fanny’s desire for Edmund is based not on financial ambition but on her “fond attachment” to him (75), the narrator makes sure that we are also aware of the poverty that Fanny has escaped by being adopted into her uncle’s household as a child. When Fanny angers her uncle, Sir Thomas Bertram, by refusing an offer of marriage from the wealthy Henry Crawford, he sends her back to visit her struggling family in Portsmouth. It is plain to the reader, and seemingly to Fanny as well, that she faces a difficult, dreary, and perhaps dangerous life without either an advantageous match or the continued protection and support of her uncle, neither of which, at this moment in the plot, she can take for granted.

If marriage can have the effect of saving a woman from economic hardship, it also can have the opposite effect. The novel’s note of warning about marriage is sounded in the first few sentences, with the comparative history of the three Ward sisters of Huntingdon (Fanny Price’s two aunts and her mother), beginning about “thirty years ago,” when the eldest sister, Maria, although possessing an income of “only seven thousand pounds, 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” (5). From the beginning, readers learn the factors influencing the marriage market for the daughters of respectable country families in late-eighteenth-century England. A woman was expected to bring a dowry to a marriage—and the higher the better. As Elizabeth Bergen Brophy explains, “Depending on the circumstances dowries ranged from vast fortunes and estates—especially if the bride were the sole heir of the family—to a few hundred pounds (or less), enough to help the young couple stock a farm or set up as tradespeople” (99). Maria Ward’s £7,000 is, perhaps, not a vast fortune (her own uncle, “the lawyer,” comments that she is about “three thousand pounds short of any equitable claim” to the marriage [Austen, Mansfield Park 5]), but it certainly represents a level of wealth well beyond that possessed by Jane Austen’s family. Austen’s family belonged to a class that the historian David Spring has called the “pseudo-gentry” (qtd. in Copeland 132): “a group of upper professional families living in the country—clergymen or barristers, for example, or officers in the army and navy” (Copeland 132).

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Young women in Jane Austen’s immediate circle could command nowhere near Maria Ward’s £7,000, as one of Austen’s letters makes clear. Writing to her sister, Cassandra, about a young woman they know who is about to be married, Austen remarks, “Miss Lodge has only 800£ of her own, & it is not supposed that her Father can give her much, therefore the good offices of the Neighbourhood will be highly acceptable” (“To Cassandra Austen” 27). Even Miss Lodge’s £800 was beyond the reach of either Jane or Cassandra Austen; their father was a clergyman who could not afford to provide dowries for his two daughters (Tomalin 80, 119). With the situation of the Austen sisters in mind, the statement of Maria Ward’s uncle on the smallness of Maria’s fortune sounds ironic.

Maria Ward has something besides money, though: she has luck and, as we are given to understand, beauty. Money, luck, and beauty, then, seem to be the factors determining whether a gentleman’s daughter will make a marriage that will improve her own station in life and bring credit to her family. We can deduce that the future Lady Bertram was beautiful as a young woman from the information that some of the family’s “acquaintance” consider the two younger sisters “quite as handsome as Miss Maria” (Austen, Mansfield Park 5). We also know Lady Bertram takes great stock in her beauty because she feels affronted that Mrs. Grant, the wife of the new parson who comes to live at Mansfield Park when Fanny is fifteen, has managed to secure a good match without the benefit of being “handsome” (31). Further, rather narcissistically, Lady Bertram takes credit for how lovely Fanny looks at her first ball: not only does she remark that she, Lady Bertram, has been thoughtful enough to send her own maidservant to help Fanny dress (unfortunately too late to do anything for her), but, speaking to Fanny with “extraordinary animation... she added ‘Humph—We certainly are a handsome family’” (251, 307).

If the two younger Ward sisters are (at least according to some) as beautiful as their eldest sister, they seem not to possess the same luck as she. The middle sister, the future Aunt Norris, marries a clergyman who has a connection to her brother-in-law, and the two come to live at the parsonage on the grounds of Mansfield Park. The narrator comments, “Mr. and Mrs. Norris began their career of conjugal felicity with very little less than a thousand a year” (5). The overt point of the sentence is that, with a thousand a year to live on, Mrs. Norris, who prides herself on managing money, did not do so badly after all, even if her match is not as brilliant as her elder sister’s. The reference to “conjugal felicity,” however, can only be meant ironically here: as the novel’s story unfolds, we learn that Mrs. Norris’s personality is one that banishes all felicity from those around her. She is intrusive, meddlesome, stingy, self-aggrandizing, and unkind to the niece whom she campaigned to bring to Mansfield Park. Although we do not hear any further mention of Mr. Norris until he dies, we can hardly imagine that the marriage of these two was a happy one.

Frances Ward, the third Ward sister and the future Mrs. Price, makes the worst match of all. Marrying, as the narrator tells us, “to disoblige her family,” she chooses a “Lieutenant of Marines, without education, fortune, or connections” (5). This choice leads directly to the life of poverty and squalor that leads her, eleven years later, to ask for help from her wealthier sisters, from whom she has been estranged since her marriage: “A large and still increasing family, an husband disabled for active service, but not the less equal to company and good liquor, and a very small income to supply their wants, made her eager to regain the friends she had so carelessly sacrificed” (6). When her eldest daughter, Fanny Price, who benefited from the help Mrs. Price sought from her sisters, returns to Portsmouth for a visit after almost a decade at Mansfield Park, she is shocked by the conditions of her family’s home: it is noisy, small, dirty, and ill-ordered, with children running about unsupervised, an overwhelmed mother, and a drunken and inattentive father. All of this, the narrator makes clear, is the result of Mrs. Price’s “imprudent marriage” (362).

With the history of the three Ward sisters, then, Jane Austen demonstrates the devastating effect a bad choice in marriage can have on a woman’s life during an era when women had very few economic options other than marriage. Mrs. Price’s marriage not only dooms her to a life of hardship and difficulty, but it lowers her social standing, and it also creates a distance between her and her sisters that is never overcome, even after there is communication between the families once again. As the narrator remarks, reporting on Mrs. Price’s lack of any real sorrow over the news of her nephew Tom’s dangerous illness, “So long divided, and so differently situated, the ties of blood were little more than nothing” (397).

Readers can sympathize with Fanny Price in her quest to marry for love, as the heroine of a courtship novel should. Fanny rejects Henry Crawford’s offer of marriage because she neither loves nor respects him. Her uncle’s astounded and enraged reaction to her refusal grieves her not only because his anger is terrifying to her but because she feels that, as a “good man,” her uncle should understand and feel “how wretched, and how unpardonable, how hopeless and how wicked it was, to marry without affection” (299). Fanny will eventually be rewarded for her steadfastness and moral virtue; she will get to marry the man that she does respect and love, and she will be more than satisfied to share with him the modest income of a clergyman.

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