Every time I start to read Mansfield Park, I can’t help but wonder what a prequel to the story would be like. We do not meet Fanny for a few chapters, and the beginning of Chapter One reaches back thirty years to the marriage Miss Maria Ward to Sir Thomas Bertram.
About thirty years ago Miss Maria Ward, of Huntingdon, with only seven thousand pounds, had the good luck to captivate Sir Thomas Bertram, of Mansfield Park, in the county of Northampton, and to be thereby raised to the rank of a baronet’s lady, with all the comforts and consequences of an handsome house and large income.
The elder Wards aren’t mentioned, only an uncle who was a lawyer. Was he their guardian? Rather than being proud of his niece’s “accomplishment,” he is amazed that she managed to marry him when she had less than ten thousand pounds. Could this be an early reference to a recurring thing of untrustworthy and overbearing uncles? Mary Crawford has one in the admiral. Fanny has one with Sir Thomas.
Next, we are told of the marriages of Miss Ward, who becomes Mrs. Norris, and Miss Frances Ward who became Mrs. Price. Austen tells us that there are not enough rich men as there are pretty girls in the world. It’s written a bit tongue in cheek but must certainly be the truth.
Mr. Elton in Emma married a woman worth ten thousand pounds. With Miss Ward’s money of seven thousand pounds and the living from Sir Thomas, the Norris family had nearly one thousand pounds a year. We know they never had children and so they had almost Mr. Bennet’s income and yet Mrs. Norris seems to think that’s always insufficient. Additionally, she was already the eldest sister, and it took her another six years to find a husband. Was she too picky? Had she wanted to marry better and relied on Sir Thomas to help her find a better match? Hmm…that seems a bit like Mary Crawford.
Miss Frances married “to disoblige her family.” She seems to have eloped as she was able to hide the intent to marry a poor marine lieutenant until the deed was done. Much like Julia Bertram’s elopement, the elopement itself doesn’t cause much scandal. Compare this with Lydia Bennet’s elopement with Wickham or Maria’s elopement with Henry Crawford. Despite being romantic enough to not care about what her family thought about her marriage, it seems both Miss Frances and Mr. Price had the honest intention actually to marry. I wonder what drove her to such a plan.
Then, the sisters had a falling out. Mrs. Norris wrote a letter telling Mrs. Price all about her faults. Well, it should be no surprise what type of person she is for the rest of the novel. Mrs. Price, in turn, is angry and resentful. The poor Bertrams are stuck in the middle.
I’ve always thought it was interesting that Sir Thomas was willing to try to help Mr. Price. Apparently, Mrs. Price’s answer to her sister contained things which insulted Sir Thomas’ pride. It does not say that she insulted him directly, but perhaps she did. Now, did Sir Thomas give up in relief or did he try to coax Mrs. Norris into giving way? Did his conscience ever prick him that he should try to do more?
Mrs. Norris is able to tell the Bertrams each time Mrs. Price has a new baby. Pre-Facebook days that is a fascinating ability for “lurking” for a woman who seems to hate her sister. What regrets did Mrs. Norris have about the falling out? She must have felt something since she orchestrated bringing Fanny to Mansfield Park. And yet, the text tells us she had no real affection for her sister. She seems to have gloried merely in the possibility that she would receive credit for the idea. She always seems to arrange things so she comes out on top. I would compare that to Mary Crawford, but it seems more likely to be as foolishly thought out as Maria’s schemes.
What do you make of the Miss Wards? Do you see any parallels between them and the trio of cousins (Maria, Julia, and Fanny) or with Mary Crawford? That might be the topic for the next Mansfield Monday.