Throughout Mansfield Park, issues of inheritance and meritocracy recur as Austen explores how characters’ different positions in families and society affect their incomes. Austen models the inheritance system in the novel on that of real-world England in the early 1800s, when inheritance worked through the system of male primogeniture, meaning that a father’s entire fortune goes to his first born son. Often, childless uncles’ would set aside money for younger male children. Otherwise, younger sons could not legally inherit their fathers’ estates, unless their older brothers died before their fathers. The purpose of this system was to ensure that family estates remained intact.
In the world of Mansfield Park, the implications of this system can be seen immediately in how it affects marriage—due to the rules of inheritance, women cannot inherit, and so must marry rich men in order to lead lives of luxury. Moreover, in the Bertram family, Austen gives the reader two sons: Tom, who is older, and a younger son Edmund. Tom, although set to inherit all of his father’s fortune and his title, clearly is wildly irresponsible with money. Tom struggles with a gambling problem and prefers parties to managing estates. His debts are so enormous that the family must use money that Edmund’s uncle Mr. Norris set aside for him to pay them off. Sir Thomas tries to tell Tom he should be ashamed of to steal Edmund’s fortune like that, but Tom, who has grown up feeling that he is entitled to do what he wants, is unabashed. Tom clearly has not done anything to deserve his fortune (and, in fact, has shown that he would likely run the estate into the ground). However, according to law, Tom must inherit his father’s assets and his title.
Edmund, meanwhile, who has grown up knowing his whole life that he would not have a fortune of his own, shows himself to be much more responsible and obedient than Tom. Not only is Edmund not a drinker or gambler, but he also strives to please his father and make him proud of him. Edmund, who becomes a minister, speaks passionately about his career, showing not only his commitment to hard work, but also his inclination toward moral behavior and righteousness. By contrasting the two brothers, Austen clearly implies that Edmund would be a more deserving heir to Sir Thomas’s estate. Their juxtaposition, then, ironically highlights how ineffectively the system of inheritance works. Though the system is intended to keep fortunes intact, Tom would almost certainly squander his fortune to nothing, whereas if Edmund could be allowed to inherit, Sir Thomas could rest easy knowing that the estate will be preserved.
Austen’s implied challenge to the inheritance system becomes more interesting when considered in conjunction with the middle and lower class characters in the book. Fundamentally, Austen’s implicit judgment that the inheritance system should be more meritocratic leads to the question of inheritance in general: if characters’ wealth and social status should not be determined by their birth order, should their wealth be determined by their birth at all? In order words, why should Maria, who is vain and vapid but the daughter of a baronet, be considered of a higher social status than Fanny, who is smart and morally righteous, but the daughter of a naval officer?
Sir Thomas himself thinks something along these lines in the final few pages of the novel, and even goes a step further, when he compares how his own children have turned out to Fanny, William, and Susan. As he thinks about the Price children’s virtues, Sir Thomas acknowledges “the advantage of early hardship and discipline, and the consciousness of being born to struggle and endure.” Essentially, Sir Thomas thinks not only that his own children are no more deserving than the Price children, but also that there may be some spiritual or personal benefits to having the mentality that you must work for your livelihood and your luxuries. Placed conspicuously as the novel’s conclusion, Austen champions the merit of middle class people over the indulgence of the upper class, foreshadowing a common theme in later 19th century literature. In this way, Austen uses her mocking critique of the inheritance system to subtly undermine perceptions of class, valuing meritocracy over aristocracy.
Inheritance and Meritocracy ThemeTracker
Inheritance and Meritocracy Quotes in Mansfield Park
There will be some difficulty in our way, Mrs. Norris…as to the distinction proper to be made between the girls as they grow up… how, without depressing her spirits too far, to make her remember that she is not a Miss Bertram… they cannot be equals. Their rank, fortune, rights, and expectations will always be different.
“I am quite ashamed of you, Fanny, to make such a difficulty of obliging your cousins in a trifle of this sort— so kind as they are to you! Take the part with a good grace, and let us hear no more of the matter, I entreat.”
“Do not urge her, madam,” said Edmund…
“I am not going to urge her,” replied Mrs. Norris sharply; “but I shall think her a very obstinate, ungrateful girl, if she does not do what her aunt and cousins wish her— very ungrateful, indeed, considering who and what she is.”
Fanny saw and pitied much of this in Julia; but there was no outward fellowship between them. Julia made no communication, and Fanny took no liberties. They were two solitary sufferers, or connected only by Fanny’s consciousness.
“I am so glad your eldest cousin is gone that he may be Mr. Bertram again. There is something in the sound of Mr. Edmund Bertram so formal, so pitiful, so younger-brother-like, that I detest it.”
“How differently we feel!” cried Fanny. “To me, the sound of Mr. Bertram is so cold and nothing-meaning–so entirely without warmth or character!–It just stands for a gentleman, and that’s all.”
[Henry Crawford] longed to have been at sea, and seen and done and suffered much. His heart was warmed, his fancy fired, and he felt the highest respect for [William] who, before he was twenty, had gone through such bodily hardships, and given such proofs of mind. The glory of heroism, of usefulness, of exertion, of endurance, made his own habits of selfish indulgence appear in shameful contrast; and he wished he had been a William Price, distinguishing himself and working his way to fortune and consequence with so much self-respect and happy ardour, instead of what he was!
Yes, that uncle and aunt! They have injured the finest mind; for sometimes, Fanny, I own to you, it does appear more than manner: it appears as if the mind itself was tainted.
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.
In [Susan’s] usefulness, in Fanny’s excellence, in William’s continued good conduct and rising fame, and in the general well-doing and success of the other members of the family…Sir Thomas saw repeated, and forever repeated reason to rejoice in what he had done for them all, and acknowledge the advantages of early hardship and discipline, and the consciousness of being born to struggle and endure.