Throughout Mansfield Park, Austen explores the complex relationship between manners and morality. Austen’s view of manners is difficult to identify, in part because Austen’s characters do not clearly define what they mean when they refer to “manners.” The meaning of manners in the book seems to be somewhat fluid, sometimes referring to knowledge of etiquette, sometimes to general politeness, sometimes to modesty, or gratitude, or pleasantness of personality, or social grace. Looked at more generally, the concept of manners in Mansfield Park refers to a series of expectations of a character’s social conduct.
At the book’s beginning, good manners, though highly valued at Mansfield Park, do not seem to correspond to good morals. For example, although Mrs. Norris and Sir Thomas congratulate themselves on their supposed moral goodness when they take Fanny in, Austen damningly portrays their “kindness” as a way to make them feel and look generous rather than actual generosity for Fanny’s benefit. Fanny’s initial arrival at Mansfield Park reveals this dissonance, when ten-year old Fanny expresses intense anxiety and fear about her new home. Rather than recognizing Fanny’s unhappiness and trying to make her more comfortable, Mrs. Norris remarks that Fanny’s response is ungrateful and rude. Mrs. Norris then continually uses the idea of good manners, and Fanny’s failure to show them, as an excuse to criticize and demean her. From the very first chapters of Mansfield Park, then, Austen betrays the discrepancy between good manners and genuine morality.
As Fanny grows older, unlike the other characters, she does not deviate from her strong set of moral principles, even when it means that she appears ill mannered or contrarian. Throughout the novel, whenever Fanny resists something that contradicts her moral compass but that other people approve of, Mrs. Norris harshly reminds Fanny that she should be grateful to her uncle for providing for her and so do whatever the Bertrams want. For example, when Fanny refuses to act in the play because the text’s questionable moral undertones, despite the fact that all the other young people are taking part, Mrs. Norris harangues her for her refusal. As for Fanny, she recognizes when other characters mask their immorality with good manners. Early on, she disdains Mary Crawford’s behavior when Mary speaks ungratefully and disrespectfully of her uncle the Admiral, identifying Mary’s comments, which Edmund waves off as mere affectation, as indicative of bad character. Moreover, Fanny refuses to marry Henry, despite everyone else’s support, because she believes that, despite his charm and superficial kindness, he does not have good values—an impulse that turns out to be correct.
Curiously, it’s Fanny’s strict sense of propriety, which the novel seems to suggest is Fanny’s best character trait, that makes Fanny such an unlikeable protagonist to many readers (Austen’s own mother referred to Fanny as “insipid”). If this unlikeability is intentional, it may be Austen’s way of emphasizing that Fanny will not compromise on her morality for the sake of being liked by anyone— not even the reader.
As the novel progresses, Fanny begins to be explicitly frustrated by good manners, which so often hide immorality, and which often keep her from connecting with other people. At Mansfield, the rules of society prevent her from, for example, joining in social events above her class, or comforting Julia after Henry’s rejection. By the time Fanny goes to visit Portsmouth towards the end of the book, she looks forward to relief from the strict rules of manners. The narrator, after describing how her sisters did not greet her with proper manners when she arrives, states, “But manner Fanny did not want. Would they but love her, she should be satisfied.”
However, as Fanny spends more time at her childhood home, she begins to see that their looser understanding of manners does not necessarily correlate to genuine morality or closer relationships. Fanny, in fact, starts to see the value of good manners, and longs for the quietness and respect of a household where manners are valued. She fails to develop meaningful relationships with her mother and most of her siblings despite the lack of structure and behavioral expectations in the house. While at Mansfield manners don’t necessarily result in morality or human connection, neither does the lack of manners at Portsmouth. Ultimately, when Fanny returns to Mansfield Park, she is happy to rejoin a household where manners are appreciated.
By the book’s end, Fanny has elevated herself to an equal place in the Bertram household, and her own volition in choosing a moral path is more respected. Through this exploration of Fanny’s developing sense of the relationship between manners and morality, Austen expresses her criticism of 19th century obsession with manners. Ultimately, the novel seems to indicate that, although good manners do not necessarily correspond to good morals, neither does their absence. Through Fanny, who moves beyond overly strict rules of manners while maintaining her commitment to treating others well, the novel suggests following one’s own moral compass, in spite of social expectations, is essential to being a good person.
Manners vs. Morality ThemeTracker
Manners vs. Morality 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.
Manners as well as appearance are…so totally different…A girl not out has always the same sort of dress: a close bonnet, for instance; looks very demure, and never says a word… The most objectionable part is, that the alteration of manners on being introduced into company is frequently too sudden. They sometimes pass in such very little time from reserve to quite the opposite— to confidence!
“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.”
He was going…—He might talk of necessity, but she knew his independence.—The hand which had so pressed hers to his heart!—The hand and the heart were alike motionless and passive now!...She had not long to endure what arose from listening to language, which his actions contradicted, or to bury the tumult of her feelings under the restraint of society… and the farewell visit, as it then became openly acknowledged, was a very short one.
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.
Having…a general prevailing desire of recommending herself to [Sir Thomas], [Mary] took an opportunity of stepping aside to say something agreeable of Fanny.
His reading was capital, and her pleasure in good reading extreme. To good reading, however, she had been long used; her uncle read well— her cousins all—Edmund very well; but in Mr. Crawford’s reading there was a variety of excellence beyond what she had ever met with…His acting had first taught Fanny what pleasure a play might give, and his reading brought all his acting before her again.
Fanny was in the narrow entrance-passage of the house, and in her mother’s arms, who met her there with looks of true kindness, and with features which Fanny loved the more, because they brought her aunt Bertram’s before her, and there were her two sisters…both glad to see her in their way, though with no advantage of manner in receiving her. But manner Fanny did not want. Would they but love her, she should be satisfied.
She could think of nothing but Mansfield…Every thing where she now was in full contrast to it. The elegance, propriety, regularity, harmony, and perhaps, above all, the peace and tranquillity of Mansfield, were brought to her remembrance every hour of the day, by the prevalence of everything opposite to them here… If tenderness could be ever supposed wanting, good sense and good breeding supplied its place…Here everybody was noisy, every voice was loud…The doors were in constant banging, the stairs were never at rest, nothing was done without a clatter, nobody sat still, and nobody could command attention when they spoke.
We have all a better guide in ourselves, if we would attend to it, than any other person can be.