Though the exact date of publication is not known for certain, two hundred years ago, probably sometime in the month of May, Jane Austen’s third novel, Mansfield Park, was published. Though it was her third novel to go to press, Mansfield Park is Jane Austen’s first mature novel. Unlike either Sense and Sensibility or Pride and Prejudice, it was not a revision of a novel written when she was a young woman. Nor was it focused primarily on romance. In fact, it might well be the least romantic novel Jane Austen ever wrote.
Mansfield Park makes its debut …
Based on writings left by Cassandra Austen, Jane’s sister, we know that Jane began work on Mansfield Park in February of 1811 and she completed the manuscript in the early summer of 1813. The book was begun two years after Jane, Cassandra and their mother had settled in to Chawton Cottage, in Hampshire. Jane loved the quiet rural life they enjoyed at Chawton and there she was able to once again concentrate on her writing. Most Austen scholars believe that she probably wrote various parts of Mansfield Park while she was revising two of her earlier novels, Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice for publication.
Both Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice were written when Austen was in her late teens and early twenties. As might be expected of a young woman just on the cusp adulthood, both of those novels are focused on the romances of the young heroines in the tales. But Austen did not begin Mansfield Park until she was in her mid-thirties, and her view of the world had altered in the intervening years. Mansfield Park was not a light, frothy comedy of manners. Nor was the heroine an out-going, independent, or vivacious young woman as had been the Austen heroines who preceded her. Rather, in this novel, Austen puts much of the focus on important moral and social issues of the time. The budding romance between the hero and heroine does not take front and center in this story, it seems almost an afterthought. Nor are Fanny Price or Edmund Bertram, the heroine and hero, particularly riveting characters, especially when compared to Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy from her previous novel, Pride and Prejudice.
Mansfield Park was published by Thomas Edgeton, in three volumes, and sold for eighteen shillings in boards. Edgerton had also published Austen’s first two novels, Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice. He was aware that Mansfield Park was a departure from Austen’s earlier works, but the success of Pride and Prejudice gave him every expectation that this new novel, "By the Author of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice," would be equally successful. The moralists among Regency critics hailed the book’s wholesome moral values. However, many readers found Fanny a timid and tiresome heroine. Mrs. Austen herself is said to have found her "insipid." Edmund is probably the most lackluster of all Austen’s heros, a man whom many readers found priggish and pompous. While Fanny secretly carries a torch for him throughout, he spends most of the book mooning over Mary Crawford. Then, only in the final chapter, does he suddenly recover from his infatuation and propose to Fanny. But Austen can not even be bothered to show us Fanny’s ultimate triumph, she merely mentions it in passing as she brings the story to a close.
Like Austen’s other novels, there is a large measure of social satire in Mansfield Park, much of which is directed at Fanny’s aunts, Mrs. Bertram and Mrs. Norris. Mrs. Bertram is self-centered, vague and disinterested in everything and everyone about her, with the exception of her pet dogs. Mrs. Norris is officious, class-conscious and cheese-paring to the point of stealing from the Bertram household at every opportunity to reduce her own household expenses. In addition, Austen also explores the issues of the oppressive and inconsistent nature of feminine education and attempts to show the dangers of raising children without sound morals, consistent discipline or an enlightened attitude. Austen clearly intends Maria Bertram’s selfish and ruinous behavior to serve as an example of thoughtlessness and moral failure in that young lady’s parents.
Jane Austen also takes on one of the true evils of the era, slavery. Though slavery had been abolished in Britain by the Slave Trade Act of 1807, it was still legal in Britain’s colonies. Mr. Bertram, Fanny’s uncle, owns a plantation in Antigua, which is supported by slave labor. Austen does not vigorously decry the evils of slavery in her story, which has drawn harsh criticism from many in the modern day who do not understand the nuances of the Regency period. The fact that such a subject was even mentioned in a novel of the era was quite remarkable, and in her delicate, light-handed way, Austen draws public attention to this vile and evil practice which she herself abhorred, without alienating her readers.
Mansfield Park is the most complex and certainly the darkest in tone of all of Jane Austen’s novels. In it, she alludes to more contemporary issues of moment than she does in any of her other books. It is also the most overtly scandalous of her novels, due to the dreadful public scandal which Maria Bertram Rushworth’s extra-marital affair and elopement bring down upon the Bertram family. Though Lydia Bennet certainly behaved most scandalously with Mr. Wickham in Pride and Prejudice, the event takes place "off page." Thanks to the efforts of Mr. Darcy, it was fairly well hushed-up and never actually became public. Though Marianne Dashwood did make rather a cake of herself over Mr. Willoughby at the ball in Sense and Sensibility, it never became a full blown scandal which adversely affected her or her family. Maria Rushworth’s behaviour, on the other hand, was blatantly immoral and quickly became an on-dit in the London newspapers. There was no way to recover from such a lapse of decency and the young woman was forced to live abroad, with her unpleasant aunt, Mrs. Norris. A fate, Austen leads us to believe, which might well have been worse than death.
The romance between Fanny Price and Edmund Bertram in Mansfield Park is so subtle and lacking the sparkle of Austen’s previous romances that many readers, both those living during the Regency, as well as many today, have been quite disappointed with it, especially if they read it after Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility. One wonders if Thomas Edgerton, the publisher, had some premonition that Mansfield Park would not sell as well as Austen’s previous novels, since he only printed an initial run of 1250 copies. He also had it printed on less expensive paper than that used for Austen’s previous novels. Though there were no contemporary reviews of the book published during the Regency, there were a few discrete advertisements in some of the newspapers and Mansfield Park did sell. Many were sold to circulating libraries, most of which had probably subscribed to purchased them in advance of publication, probably based on the fact that this new book was by the same author as both Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice. However, sales to private individuals, mostly to those among the upper classes, were not as brisk as they had been for Pride and Prejudice. However, the first edition did sell out by November of 1814.
Jane Austen had hoped there would be a second edition of Mansfield Park in the new year, but for some reason, Edgerton did not publish a second edition. In fact, the second edition of Mansfield Park was not published until 1816, after John Murray had published her fourth novel, Emma. Numerous errors from the first edition were corrected and the second run of 750 copies was printed on a better quality paper, probably in February of 1816. But this second edition was published on commission and it did not sell well. The Mansfield Park publishing costs were therefore deducted from the income for Emma, thus resulting in little profit for the author from the last of the books which would be published in her lifetime.
Mansfield Park has never been the most popular of Austen’s novels among the majority of her readers, from its first publication during the Regency, right up to today. However, it was one of the four novels by Jane Austen which were published in her lifetime and it is her first work as an adult author. Though it is not an especially romantic tale, it does reveal a great deal about Austen’s attitudes toward religion, politics, women’s education, slavery, the oppression caused by the idealization of femininity and the responsible use of wealth. A reader who wishes to better understand Jane Austen, the author, rather than simply be entertained by her clever and witty characters, will find Mansfield Park a most enlightening book. And though Fanny and Edmund may not be the most engaging of Austen’s lead characters, they do come to a satisfying, if very quiet, happy ending. If you read Mansfield Park without expecting it to be Pride and Prejudice redux, you will find it well worth your while as an insight into the mind of the mature Jane Austen.