Throughout the book, characters in Mansfield Park move between their country homes at Mansfield and the surrounding property and cities like London and Portsmouth for business and for pleasure. Over the course of these travels, and through the characters’ discussions of these two different kinds of environments, Austen expresses a difference in how she and her characters view rural spaces versus how they see urban spaces, and how, although city-spaces are viewed as more sociable and cultured, certain types of knowledge are only accessible in the country.
Mansfield, which is in the country, is a place of quiet, tranquility, and health. It is at Mansfield that Fanny’s health improves, and that the young people practice invigorating sports like riding. Fanny frequently comments on the silence of Mansfield, and she and the other young people at Mansfield and its environs seem occasionally bored by the area’s sleepiness. Mary Crawford repeatedly says that she could not live in the country for a long time because she would miss the fast-paced fun of London, where she lived previously.
The city (be it London, Portsmouth, or elsewhere), meanwhile, is lively and intense, with constant stimulation and entertainment. Maria and Julia are thrilled to go to London, where there are more social engagements to be had. Mary’s time in London gives her a cultured, cosmopolitan air that is very charming, and she has the city to thank for her massive network and highly developed social graces. Fanny’s house in Portsmouth, similarly, is clamoring with her siblings’ noisy play, prompting her to seek out spaces of quiet.
Despite these benefits, however, the city is an imperfect place. For one thing, Austen shows that characters who have little exposure to country life also are ignorant about the way middle and lower class rural people live, and so come across as snobby and entitled. For example, at one point in the book Mary is trying to get her harp transported from London to the Parsonage, but cannot find a farmer to rent a cart from because it is harvest time. Mary is shocked that her money cannot convince them, and when she relates this story to Edmund, he is surprised that she is. Mary’s lack of awareness of harvest shows how little Mary understands about the people who are of a lower class than she is—a concerning fact, since the gentry’s wealth depends on their tenants. Henry, likewise, never knew his tenants before Fanny convinced him to meet with them. In a novel that entertains ideas of meritocracy as a viable alternative to aristocracy and gentry, utter removal from the lives of common people seems dangerously out of touch.
Austen also codes the city as a space of danger and vice. When the characters discuss London in Mansfield, they generally refer to it as a depraved place. When Mary, for example, suggests that preachers are morally corrupt, Edmund responds that she must be referring to the preachers in London.
And indeed, morally upright Fanny finds Portsmouth, where bad behavior reigns, to be considerably less enjoyable than Mansfield. Mr. Price’s alcoholism shadows Fanny’s view of Portsmouth as she observes how his problem heavily and negatively influences her family’s finances and dynamic. Moreover, it is in Portsmouth that Fanny, against her better judgment, begins to consider falling in love with Henry—a decision that, had it not been avoided, would have proved detrimental. Fanny’s health even suffers in the city, where it is harder for her to get exercise.
Ultimately, the city proves to be a thoroughly disastrous environment for the Bertram children. During his tenure in London, Tom takes a trip to the city of Newcastle and falls deathly ill after a night of rowdy drinking. He then needs to be brought back to Mansfield to recover. Likewise, it is in London that Maria and Julia make their terrible decisions to run away with Henry and Mr. Yates, respectively, ruining their reputations and gravely upsetting their family. Ultimately the damage that the family experiences in and around the city marks Austen’s clear preference country life. This preference is reinforced by the fact that the novel’s happy ending takes place in the country near Mansfield, where Edmund and Fanny settle.
The Country vs. the City ThemeTracker
The Country vs. the City Quotes in Mansfield Park
Guess my surprise, when I found that I had…offended all the farmers, all the labourers, all the hay in the parish…coming down with the true London maxim, that every thing is to be got with money, I was a little embarrassed at first by the sturdy independence of your country customs.
“How can two sermons a week… do all that you speak of? govern the conduct and fashion the manners of a large congregation for the rest of the week? One scarcely sees a clergyman out of his pulpit.”
“You are speaking of London, I am speaking of the nation at large.”
“The metropolis, I imagine, is a pretty fair sample of the rest.”
“Not, I should hope, of the proportion of virtue to vice throughout the kingdom. We do not look in great cities for our best morality.”
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.
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.