Jane Austen's Mansfield Park is a novel obsessed with home and family. It
begins a story of one family, three sisters, and quickly expands to a story of
three families, the Bertrams, the Prices, and the Norrises. Family upon family
is added, each one growing, expanding, and moving until the novel is crowded
with characters and estates. An obsession with movement creates an overall
feeling of displacement and confusion. Fanny Price is moved from Portsmouth to
Mansfield and then back to Portsmouth and back to Mansfield. She occupies
several houses, Mansfield, Thornton Lacey, the parsonage, and almost Mrs.
Norris' house. Julia and Maria Bertram, the Crawfords, the Grants, Susan Price,
even Mrs. Norris experience a move. The only constant is Mansfield Park itself
with its immovable Lady Bertram and pug. More positively, Mansfield becomes a
visual representation of family. The novel's title, more an abstraction than a
reference to place, attempts to define "home," an idea in the novel not
contained by place.
In Mansfield Park, what defines home becomes the essential question
for Fanny Price. The estate as a reflection of self is a prominent theme in the
novel. Henry Crawford's suggestions for improving Thornton Lacey would raise it
"above a mere Parsonage House" by "giv[ing] it a higher character[.]. . . From
being the mere gentleman's residence, it becomes . . . the residence of a man of
education, taste, modern manners, good connections" (219-20). Crawford's
improvements would give the house "such an air as to make its owner be set down
as the great land-holder of the parish" (220). Edmund refuses to let his
identity be consumed, asserting that Henry's plan will not be "put in practice"
(219). A "gentleman's residence" is "comfortable" and fitting (219). For the
homeless Fanny, self is not defined. With no home, she has no self. She must,
therefore, grow into Mansfield Park before asserting selfhood. As Fanny defines
and redefines "home," she is able to define herself and ultimately fit into
Mansfield Park and the family it represents.
At her arrival, Mansfield Park is clearly no home to Fanny.
Displaced from her home in Portsmouth, Fanny is almost a not-Fanny. The initial
description of her is marked by negation. There is "not . . . much in her first
appearance" though "nothing to disgust" (9). She has "no glow of complexion,
nor any other striking beauty" (9). She is "awkward" but "not vulgar" (9). The
negatives (not, nothing, no, nor) reduce Fanny to nothingness. The modifiers,
too, are diminutive. Though Fanny is not much younger than Julia and Maria, she
is described as "just ten years old" and "small of her age" (9). She is
"timid," "shy," "shrinking from notice"...