Regency Bicentennial:   Publication of Mansfield Park

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.


About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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24 Responses to Regency Bicentennial:   Publication of Mansfield Park

  1. The most engaging character is Fanny’s brother who has about 6 lines… I confess Fanny makes my HAIR bleed with irritation, and most of her ghastly siblings remind me of too many kids from the wrong end of council estates. Reading it was a struggle. However, she did at least continue her theme highlighting slavery in ‘Emma’ which is full of clues and satires to reveal Miss Austen’s views. In terms of plot bunnies, the discussion of MP could be an interesting conversation between characters in a plot, to cement the like feelings on social issues between heroine and hero, or leading to a disgraceful scene if a quarrel arises between a couple of protagonists regarding the same.
    I shouldn’t mind, actually, developing Susan, Fanny’s next sister [having already stolen William Price as a naval hero]. I should re-read it. Maybe I can avoid throwing at the wall too often when I get irritated by Fanny.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I did like William Price, but I thought the most interesting character in the story was Mary Crawford. She is not a particularly nice person, but she is not a pathetic little marshmallow, like Fanny. I definitely enjoyed her machinations to get what she wanted. She was a very intelligent and determined woman, if somewhat selfish.


      • Good point; and in a way, an intelligent woman almost had to employ machinations not to be marginalised in the period. I wonder if being a bit selfish was almost a survival mechanism… I love the description ‘pathetic little marshmallow’; so apt. Squishy-soft and too sweet but not in a good way. Mind, maybe nearly losing Edmund might have forged her in fire; toasted marshmallows are much nicer, especially with the crunch of a biscuit when they’ve been made into s’mores.

        • Kathryn Kane says:

          MMMmmm!!! S’mores!!!! YUM!!!!!!!!!!!!! 😉

          Perhaps a “toasted” Fanny would be more pleasant, but unfortunately, Austen closes the novel as they begin their wedded life, so we never get to see her as a married woman. One hopes she displayed a bit more backbone and spunk as a minister’s wife.


  2. This is a very good introduction to MP. I remember reading it as a teenager (I was stuck on a long train ride with little else to read) expecting it to be another P&P and being extremely disappointed. Now I find it in some ways her most interesting novel. In the duality between Fanny and Mary Crawford, we seem to glimpse the counterpoint between Jane Austen’s own worldly wit and the moral seriousness she usually keeps hidden. For a student of the period it is also a book richer than Austen’s other works in mundane but fascinating details of daily life, for instance the description of the dreadful housekeeping at the Prices’ house in Portsmouth, or Mrs. Grant’s efforts to keep her gourmand husband happy (and what a chore that is in the country, between green geese gone bad and tasteless apricots).

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Thank you for stopping by and I am glad you liked the post.

      I think you are spot on that Mansfield Park is a let-down when read expecting another Pride and Prejudice, but it does provide a wonderful glimpse into the daily life of both the poor at Portsmouth and the newly rich at Mansfield Park during the early years of the Regency. I have always wondered if any of the characters are based on people Austen actually knew. I suspect that at least a few of them are, which also provides some interesting character types from that time.

      If I were stuck on a desert island and could only have one book, my choice would P&P. But as a rich source of insights into daily life in the Regency, across classes, MP is more valuable.



  3. Mansfield Park is easier for me to read when I do it with the eye of a sociologist. In this novel, we as 21st century people are offered the rare chance to be introduced to an unknown social class around 1800 through Fanny. She is our eyes; she is experiencing and judging for us.
    Nevertheless the novel will continue to be disliked by most and liked by some. This could also be true for a plot-bunny: If a novel is set in after May 1814, one can easily have hero and heroine argue about Mansfield Park’s heroine, or discuss if the authoress did do the topic of slavery justice or not. The hero may sneer at shy Fanny and get himself into hot water with the lady he adores, as she feels for Fanny and her situation.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      An excellent plot bunny! I do think there were a number of women who did sympathize with Fanny, since they are also shy and retiring, but being so, they may not have been willing to support her to others. From the reviews and other comments about the book that I have read online, there are some women who strongly identify with Fanny, because she is so much like them. But they are too shy to say so, except in an anonymous setting like the net. However, I can see where a woman who can empathize with Fanny might well be driven to say so, particularly to the man she hopes to marry. That could be quite an enlightening conversation in terms of character development for both of them.

      I did run across one review in which Fanny was given low marks because the reviewer thought she caved to the materialism of Mansfield Park, after she had spent time back in Portsmouth with her family. That reviewer felt that her willingness to return to Mansfield Park and its comforts was a betrayal of her own family for the serenity and regularity of her adopted home. An interesting take on the story.

      A very good suggestion, to read Mansfield Park with the mind-set of a sociologist, it makes the book valuable to the reader without the let-down of what is a rather dull romance.

      Thanks for stopping by.



  4. helenajust says:

    Mansfield Park is not one of my favourites, either, but I agree that it is revealing in how it deals with a number of issues. I agree that Mary Crawford is the most interesting character, and I think she and her brother are intended as another example of how exposure to poor morals in one’s formative years can lead to amoral behaviour.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I have wondered if the Crawfords’ relationship to the Reverend Grant was a conscious use of irony by Jane Austen, making two of the most selfish and amoral characters part of the family of a clergyman? Although Dr. Grant was no shining example of morality, to be sure, since he seems to have lived to eat and apparently had little interest in the spiritual life of his parishioners. By making the Crawfords relatives of the local parson Austen has provided them with an irreproachable introduction to the Bertram family, until they ultimately betray their true selves.



  5. skrizzolo says:

    Great post, Kat! I’ve always loved Mansfield Park, and I don’t find Fanny particularly tedious. Rather, she seems earnest, thoughtful, and deserving of her eventual happiness. Not every novel needs to have sparkling wit, it seems to me. I suppose I can appreciate other kinds of human beings, and I enjoy the triumph of the underdog.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I am glad to know there are those who do enjoy Mansfield Park, and even Fanny Price. Though it is not my favorite Austen novel, I would hate to think Austen’s efforts were not appreciated by anyone, because it is a well-written story. You are not alone, as I have heard privately from several people who also enjoy it.

      I first read Mansfield Park in high school, not long after reading Pride and Prejudice, which almost certainly colored my opinion. Also, the women’s movement was just coming into its own, so I not only expected, but wanted another strong-minded heroine like Lizzy Bennet. My expectations, my youth and the times conspired to cast Fanny into a rather pejorative light for me. I read MP again, several years later, when I was less interested in the romance and found her more put-upon than anything else, but I did admire her faith and perseverance.

      Thanks for sharing your insights!



  6. skrizzolo says:

    Thank YOU for offering this wonderful resource for Regency novelists. I have acknowledged this site in my mystery novel, due out in November. Best wishes!

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Congratulations on your upcoming novel. I wish you much success!

      In case you do not know, I have a standing offer for any Regency author who uses any of the information posted here to post a comment to the article they found useful which includes a link to their book(s). You are welcome to post a link to your new book, once it is available, in a comment to any article which features historical information you used for your story.



  7. skrizzolo says:

    No, I didn’t know that, so thanks for letting me know. And thank you for your good wishes!

  8. pennymarvel says:

    I like Fanny. I really do. I don’t like Mary Crawford. She is not only selfish, she wishes a young man to die so the man she wants can have enough money for her to make a marriage worthwile. This is not spunky or witty. It’s cruel. It’s what turns Edmund off. “Probably your brother dies, then we can marry.”
    Fanny has a backbone. As a poor relation she needs to choose her battles, and she does. The one thing she will not do is to enter a marriage that would make her life misarable.She does not like to be poor, or return to her family. (Not all poor people are paragons of virtue, not all of anything are something.) But she does not want a husband who behaves like Mr. Crawford. Who can blame her? She SAW what he did with her cousins.
    And that is the one benefit she has over Lizzy Bennet (with whom, unfortunatly, I can identify more.) She has no predjudices. She looks at people, really looks at them, observes unobserved, assumes change in character IS possible, but unwilling to “lead” them (Why should she? She isn’t their mother or next opinion-to-follow-blindly. SHE doesen’t want to change people). And after she built a careful opinion, she acts on it. Yes, she DOES, only rarely. As I mentioned: Someone in her position must chose ones battles.
    I even like the afterthought. It is so true. You can overcome a first love and find a better one. Even what feels to be “eternal” can fade. This is human nature. It may not be romantic. But it is love, none the less.

    • Nice impassioned argument on Fanny’s behalf; and I’ll re-read her with that in mind

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Thank you for taking the time to post such a thoughtful and reasoned comment about Fanny. Though I probably sound like my grandmother, I am surprised, but quite heartened to discover that there are still those today who do appreciate a steady, thoughtful character. Based on my experience with our current culture, I thought only the rowdy, outrageous people were admired.

      For the record, I don’t like Mary Crawford, either. I just find her one of the most interesting characters in Mansfield Park because she is the source of much of the drama in the story. Without Mary Crawford to spice things up, and create a moral dilemma by her materialistic attitude, the story would drag, especially after Fanny leaves for Portsmouth. By creating the character of Mary, Austen has provided a perfect foil for quiet, unselfish Fanny. In real life, Fanny would probably be a much better friend and companion than would Mary, but on the page, it is Mary who sparks a number of dramatic situations in the story. And, in the end, most of us read novels to escape the steady routine of our daily lives, so we want to encounter characters who are very different from us within the pages of those novels.



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