Austen opens her novel with the stories of the marriages of the three Ward sisters. One had the “good luck” to marry Sir Thomas Bertram, thus enjoying a large income and becoming Lady Bertram. Another sister became Mrs. Norris when she married Reverend Mr. Norris, who earned only a small income. The last sister became Mrs. Price, deigning to marry a naval lieutenant and disgracing her family in doing so.
For the Ward sisters, marriage determines everything from their wealth to their names. Austen attributes Lady Bertram’s marriage to Sir Bertram to luck rather than love (and the fact that it’s “good” luck is entirely based on his money), showing how marriage, although so important in shaping women’s lives, is often the result of chance rather than merit, choice, or emotion.
Mrs. Price’s unsuitable marriage angers her sisters, and resulted in a long period of total estrangement between them, which continues easily and uninterrupted for eleven years. Finally, Mrs. Price writes her sisters a letter, worrying about her inability to provide for all of her offspring. Mrs. Price asks if Sir Thomas can help her oldest boy, William, find a job.
The fact that Mrs. Price’s marriage is what drives Lady Bertram and Mrs. Norris away from their sister shows how marriage (and the “manners” associated with what is an appropriate or inappropriate marriage) strains and dismantles female relationships that might otherwise provide support to women in difficult situations.
The letter establishes friendlier terms between the sisters, and they send Mrs. Price baby linens, advice, money, and letters. Mrs. Norris decides that someone should take care of Mrs. Price’s oldest daughter and thus relieve Mrs. Price of the expense of raising her.
The importance of letters in the novel is clear from the very first chapter, when this letter from Mrs. Price to Lady Bertram catalyzes the plot, and improves the relationships between the Ward sisters.
Sir Thomas, however, is not so keen on this plan, recognizing the commitment and investment it would require. Mrs. Norris, however, implies that she would bear the brunt of the burden, suggesting that Sir Thomas would play only a small part in the arrangement.
At first Mrs. Norris appears to be kind and altruistic. Here, Austen sets up the irony that she reveals later, when it turns out that Mrs. Norris does not intend to take Fanny in whatsoever.
Mrs. Norris also guesses that Sir Thomas might be worried about a romantic affair between one of his sons and their cousin. Mrs. Norris insists that raising the children together lessens the chances of a romantic relationship. They discuss the importance of distinguishing between the Bertram children and the lower class Price child during her upbringing, so she does not think herself “a Miss Bertram.” After a little more back-and-forth, Sir Thomas agrees to the arrangement.
Sir Thomas and Mrs. Norris’s desire to ensure that neither Tom nor Edmund fall in love with Fanny stems not from a taboo against cousins marrying cousins (which was still social acceptable in Austen’s day), but from the sense that Fanny would not be of a high enough social class to be a good match for one of her cousins. This conversation reads as rather heartless, and shows how manners and societal expectations can lead to unkindness in some situations.
The narrator describes Mrs. Norris’s self-righteous flakiness and miserliness, discussing how she often makes plans to be generous and then foists the expense upon someone else. Indeed, Mrs. Norris reneges on her promise to be the child’s main caretaker, and the girl ends up living with the Bertrams in their attic room.
Austen shows the reader how Mrs. Norris manipulates Sir Thomas, leading him to believe that she will take care of Fanny when, in fact, she has no intention of doing so. Mrs. Norris exemplifies the dissonance between polite appearance of righteousness and genuine goodness.
Mrs. Norris writes to Mrs. Price the next day, and arranges to have her servant, Nanny, fetch the daughter: Fanny Price. Mrs. Price accepts the offer and attests to her daughter’s good graces, writing that she hopes the child, who is delicate, will benefit from the difference in environment. The narrator notes that, “poor woman,” Mrs. Price likely thought many of her children would benefit from a “change of air.”
When Mrs. Price writes that Fanny’s health will benefit from a change of air, Austen codes the city environment as unhealthy compared to the countryside (and also reveals that Fanny is frail or sickly in some way). That many of Mrs. Price’s children would benefit from a “change in air” suggests that the difference in air pollution is significant.