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 writer’s 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. Henry’s 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. Henry’s 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.
Letters and Character ThemeTracker
Letters and Character Quotes in Mansfield Park
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.
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.
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.
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!