Mansfield Park

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Themes and Colors
Money and Marriage Theme Icon
Manners vs. Morality Theme Icon
Letters and Character Theme Icon
The Country vs. the City Theme Icon
Inheritance and Meritocracy Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Mansfield Park, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Letters and Character Theme Icon

As the plot of Mansfield Park unfolds, Austen draws attention to what her characters say and how they say it. Mansfield Park is bursting with commentary on language, and Austen repeatedly highlights how characters express themselves verbally— particularly through letters. Letters hold a place of supreme importance in the story, often serving as plot catalysts or revealing essential information. For example, Mrs. Norris’s letter to Mrs. Price, in which she asks her to send Fanny to Mansfield, triggers the events of entire novel. Likewise, later letters alert characters to new developments in other parts of London, to characters’ impending arrivals, and to alarming news. It is through letters that the characters and the reader receive news of Sir Thomas’s journeys in Antigua, that Fanny hears of William’s overseas adventures, and that Fanny learns of Tom’s sickness and Julia’s elopement while she is in Portsmouth.

Letters also have a complex relationship with character in Mansfield Park, and at various points in the novel, people suggest that letters might reveal essential truths of character and identity. At one point, Mary Crawford, bemoaning the shortness of the letters Henry writes to her, suggests that brothers only write in a “manly” style, curtly and to the point. In doing so, she essentially asserts that writing might reveal an essential difference in gender. To go a step further, this also implies that letters could be used as proof of identity or character— that by parsing letters, readers may be able to reveal the writers identity.

Letters do often serve as evidence of changing emotional states or even changing character within the novel. When Mary’s letters arrive less and less frequently, Fanny worries that Mary is growing uninterested in their friendship. Conversely, Fanny begins to entertain the possibility of Henry’s love being genuine, and of his character having changed, because of letters. Henrys professions of love in speech are insufficient— she only begins to warm to him when he shows her the letters securing William’s promotion, and as she reads Mary’s letters describing Henry’s obsessive love. Furthermore, letters themselves can even change a character’s identity. For example, William is made a lieutenant—which is to say, his identity and role in society is changed—through the writing of letters. Henrys letters secure William’s promotion, and an official letter makes his promotion real.

However, even as the novel suggests that letters might reveal character or serve as proof of it, Austen, always contrary, also undermines those very ideas. For instance, Fanny immediately challenges Mary’s idea that there is a “manly” style of letter writing when she indicates that her own brother, William, writes her very long, intimate letters. Likewise, while the letter from Mrs. Norris to Mrs. Price at the book’s beginning supposedly rejuvenates their relationship, it seems to have in fact done little to end their estrangement, considering that Mrs. Norris later has the opportunity to visit Mrs. Price but declines.

In other words, Austen suggests that while letters give the appearance of providing insight into the sender’s character, they might in fact, sometimes, be false evidence and should be treated with skepticism. For example, Mary’s letter to Fanny stating that the rumor about Maria and Henry running off together is false ends up being patently untrue. And indeed, Henry’s professed devotion to Fanny and insistence that he has changed is revealed to be hollow, since Henry later runs off with Maria. Ultimately, Austen challenges the wisdom of blind faith in written words (a bold move for a writer), and instead privileges patterns of actions in assessing another person’s character. Rather than seeing letters as windows into character, she shows that letters are unreliable as evidence, and that letter-writing is as much a performance as a window into the letter-writer’s soul.

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Letters and Character Quotes in Mansfield Park

Below you will find the important quotes in Mansfield Park related to the theme of Letters and Character.
Chapter 6 Quotes

What strange creatures brothers are! You would not write to each other but upon the most urgent necessity in the world; and when obliged to take up the pen…it is done in the fewest possible words. You have but one style among you…‘Dear Mary, I am just arrived. Bath seems full, and everything as usual. Yours sincerely.’ That is the true manly style; that is a complete brother’s letter.

Related Characters: Mary Crawford (speaker), Fanny Price, Henry Crawford
Page Number: 40
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quote, Mary, prompted by Edmund’s comment that he does not intend to write to Tom any time soon, discusses her frustration with how the men in her life write letters. She implies they are emotionally closed off in their letters, only writing to convey necessary, practical information, and that their style is curt, calling it a “truly manly style.”

Mary’s belief that all men write in the same “truly manly style” suggests that masculine identity is fixed, and that it corresponds to a brief, unemotional writing style. Mary’s belief collapses the differences between men, essentializing masculinity as callous and unsuited for written expression. This idea, when taken further, suggests that a reader could decode a letter writer’s identity (gender identity, certainly, and potentially other aspects of identity as well) by parsing a letter’s language. In other words, Mary’s viewpoint suggests that a reader can use letters to reveal some essential truth about the writer, that letters are reliable proof of identity and character. This assumption is interrogated throughout the book.

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Chapter 27 Quotes

Two lines more prized had never fallen from the pen of the most distinguished author— never more completely blessed the researches of the fondest biographer. The enthusiasm of a woman’s love is even beyond the biographer’s. To her, the handwriting itself, independent of anything it may convey, is a blessedness. Never were such characters cut by any other human being as Edmund’s commonest handwriting gave! This specimen, written in haste as it was, had not a fault; and there was a felicity in the flow of the first four words, in the arrangement of “My very dear Fanny,” which she could have looked at for ever.

Related Characters: Fanny Price, Edmund Bertram
Related Symbols: Gold Chains
Page Number: 179
Explanation and Analysis:

Fanny, having walked into the East Room, encounters Edmund writing her a note to leave along with the gold chain he bought for her. After Fanny explains how Mary has also given her a chain, they discuss the matter and then Edmund leaves. Fanny, once he is gone, admires the letter he was writing her.

This quote clearly displays the intensity of Fanny’s love for Edmund, as she obsesses over Edmund’s handwriting. When Fanny says that the two lines Edmund wrote are more prized than the work of the “most distinguished author,” her focus on authorship speaks to her preoccupation with the writer rather than what has been written. Edmund’s note is not exactly poetry, just a message to indicate that the chain is for her, with the affectionate opening “my very dear Fanny.” Still, for Fanny, the authorship of the letter is the important part. This quote shows how authorship can overshadow content or style in letters and perhaps even writing in general.

To Fanny, the letter, even more so than the actual gift of the gold chain, is proof that Edmund cares about her. She refers to the note as a “specimen,” as if her study is a search for scientific truth. This instance is one of many examples in the book of letters being viewed as evidentiary material.

Chapter 31 Quotes

She took the letters as he gave them. The first was from the Admiral to inform his nephew…of his having succeeded in the object he had undertaken, the promotion of young Price…Sir Charles was much delighted in having such an opportunity of proving his regard for Admiral Crawford, and…William Price’s commission as second Lieutenant of H.M. sloop Thrush… was spreading joy through a wide circle of great people.

Related Characters: Fanny Price, William Price, Henry Crawford, The Admiral
Page Number: 202-203
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote describes Fanny reading the letters that made William a lieutenant, thanks to Henry’s uncle, the Admiral. The letters both prove that William was made lieutenant, and also that Henry catalyzed the promotion itself. The letters also show Henry’s large network and social influence, which helped to secure the promotion.

The use of Henry’s social connections, primarily the result of his social class, to obtain William’s promotion has troubling implications for Austen’s meritocratic themes in the book. Although William is frequently held up as the self-made man, William obtained his post in the navy thanks to Sir Thomas’s help, and now has received his promotion thanks to Henry. The fact that William needs to use his rich, upper class connections to secure his positions suggests that even situations that seem meritocratic are often based on preexisting, underlying structures of wealth and class.

Chapter 46 Quotes

She dared not indulge in the hope of the paragraph being false. Miss Crawford’s letter, which she had read so often as to make every line her own, was in frightful conformity with it. Her eager defence of her brother, her hope of its being hushed up, her evident agitation, were all of a piece with something very bad; and if there was a woman of character in existence, who could treat as a trifle this sin of the first magnitude, who could try to gloss it over, and desire to have it unpunished, she could believe Miss Crawford to be the woman!

Related Characters: Fanny Price, Henry Crawford, Mary Crawford
Page Number: 299
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quote, Fanny has just read the newspaper article about Maria and Henry’s affair, and she is trying to imagine that it might not be true. However, when Fanny thinks of Mary’s letter to her, she sees the letter as proof that the transgression did occur.

The intention of Mary’s letter—to smooth over the damage done by Henry— fails completely, and even undermines Mary’s purpose as Fanny cross-references the letter and the newspaper article. Fanny analyzes Mary’s tone and style using what she knows about Mary and her emotional reactions to determine that Mary is lying. Rather than serving as proof that the affair is just a rumor, Mary’s letter does the opposite, showing how using letters as proof of truth can backfire, and that Fanny has never really trusted Mary as a morally upright friend.