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Religion in Mansfield Park
What Mary Crawford shows us about Austen's view of piety
If you’re new to this Substack, one of the things I’m offering subscribers in 2023 is A Year with Jane. We’re reading through Austen’s six novels this year and Mansfield Park is our read for May and June.
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Mansfield Park is considered Austen’s most slow-moving novel, but in my re-reading I’m struck by how much happens in the first few chapters.
We meet our diffident protagonist, Fanny Price, who is transplanted from her family to the grand Mansfield Park estate of her cousins, the Bertrams.
We meet harsh Sir Thomas and lethargic Lady Bertram and their foolish son Tom, kind son Edmund, and entitled daughters Maria and Julia.
Mr. Norris dies leaving Aunt Norris a widow and the Grants take over the living (the salary for an Anglican vicar for a particular parish church) and move in. And then there’s a huge shift: Sir Thomas and Tom sail to Antigua and Henry and Mary Crawford enter the neighborhood.
Lookin’ sharp and ready to be a bad influence.
And of course, bumbling, rich Mr. Rushworth is ready to join the family.
What a chump. What a glorious chump.
So if you’re reading this novel for the first time, you have a lot of characters to keep up with. And a lot has happened. But Austen offers some significant nudges to tip you off to the fact that you’re dealing with a lot of flawed characters.
Maria and Julia make fun of their scared little cousin for having had a poor education.
Mary rides Edmund’s horse long past time (even though Fanny needs to ride daily for her health) and she doesn’t even pretend to be sorry.
Lady Bertram makes fragile Fanny pick roses and then walk in the hot sun—and then Mrs. Norris chastises her for laying on the sofa due to a headache. (What monsters!)
Edmund is the only character who makes any effort to make Fanny happy and shows any sympathy for her difficult situation. And yet even Edmund is not flawless—against his better judgement he is completely bamboozled by Mary Crawford’s allurements.
But in addition to Mary’s undisguised selfishness, there’s another glaring red flag about her: her attitude toward religion. Mary and Henry have been raised by their aunt and uncle (who had a very unhappy marriage). The uncle was a philanderer and didn’t attempt to offer his niece and nephew a moral education. Their view of religion is that it’s a boring burden that interferes with the pleasures of life.
Edmund first realizes this when they visit the chapel of Mr. Rushworth’s home of Sotherton. Like Mansfield Park, Sotherton is a place with the trappings of respectability with no real moral foundation. (We’ll discuss more about why Mansfield is such a white-washed tomb next week.) Prayers in the chapel are a thing of the past and Mary quips, “Every generation has its improvements.” On the same day she learns that Edmund is intent on taking holy orders and she is shocked to discover that he seems to have a genuine religious devotion. To Mary, the clergy are simply younger sons who could make a living no other way—the idea that people choose religious life out of an authentic desire to serve God does not fit into her worldview.
Modern readers often forget that Austen was the daughter of a clergyman, had brothers who were Anglican priests, and participated in corporate worship. She wrote prayers which points to personal devotional practice. While she is often critical of bad clergymen in her novels (Mr. Collins and Mr. Elton), being a priest isn’t their sin—she criticizes them for being bad priests and hypocrites. She also writes of virtuous clergymen—including our Edmund Bertram.
While Mary Crawford is undeniably compelling and charming, Austen seeks to show us that we should be wary of such charm and that we should pity Mary for her bad upbringing. But I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself! There’s still a lot of story to go.
Week of May 7th:
Gather your books. There are many editions out there, so just grab what’s on your shelf or at the local library. And if you enjoy audiobooks, this is an excellent novel to enjoy with a great narrator. My favorite for this novel is Juliet Stevenson’s audiobook version. Grab Jane Austen’s Genius Guide to Life from Ave Maria Press (use STEWART20 for 20% off) or from Amazon.
If you didn’t start reading with us in January, you may want to catch up by reading the Introduction and Chapters 1-3 of Jane Austen’s Genius Guide to Life to set the stage.
Week of May 14th:
Chapters 1-9 of Mansfield Park
Week of May 21st:
Chapters 10-18 of Mansfield Park
Week of May 28th:
Chapters 19-24 of Mansfield Park
Week of June 4th:
Chapters 25-31 of Mansfield Park
Week of June 11th:
Chapters 32-40 of Mansfield Park
Week of June 18th:
Chapters 41-48 of Mansfield Park
Week of June 25th:
Chapter 4 of Jane Austen’s Genius Guide to Life
TBA: Zoom Discussion with special guests.
On the reading schedule I have suggested reading the chapter about Mansfield Park after finishing the novel. This is because as a reader I hate spoilers. But if you’ve already read the novel or are familiar with the story and want a resource to help you dive deeper as you re-read it, feel free to read Chapter 4 of Jane Austen’s Genius Guide to Life first.
I’ll be sending out weekly reflections and discussion questions to consider as you read. If you want to read faster or slower, go for it. This is fun, not homework.
If you know someone who would enjoy reading Austen with us for our Year of Jane, please share this post with him/her!
And I postponed our live Zoom on Emma because one of our special guests has had two unexpected deaths in her extended family (please keep her in your prayers). I’ll be in touch about that event when we’re ready to reschedule.
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Looking forward to discussing Mansfield Park with you!
(Editor of Word on Fire Spark, Author, Former Podcaster)