Life at Mansfield Park may, on the surface, look like a ‘succession of busy nothings.’ We might be forgiven for nodding off like Lady Bertram, as a bunch of wealthy people engage in trivial pursuits in order to escape boredom for a while. That’s how Henry Crawford comes up with a scheme to make Fanny Price fall in love with him, only to find out that his own heart is not as indifferent as he thought. As she turns him down, Sir Thomas suggests she should experience once more how the poorer half lives, so that she may learn to appreciate ‘the value of a good income’ and a comfortable home. Thus, unusually enough for an Austen novel, we get a chance to see for ourselves.
In chapter 1 we’re told that her mother wedded
a Lieutenant of Marines, without education, fortune, or connexions … Sir Thomas Bertram had interest, which, from principle as well as pride–from a general wish of doing right, and a desire of seeing all that were connected with him in situations of respectability, he would have been glad to exert for the advantage of Lady Bertram’s sister; but her husband’s profession was such as no interest could reach.
The novel was written between 1811 and 1813. Fanny is eighteen by the time the main action takes place, and was nine when Mrs Norris proposed that her niece should be raised at Mansfield Park, her parents having then been married for eleven years. They must have taken their vows, therefore, between 1791 and 1793, the year in which Revolutionary France declared war on Britain, which had enjoyed peace since the end of the American War in 1783. As a result of Mr Pitt’s policies, only 16,000 sailors remained in the navy, as opposed to the 110,000 enrolled when the Treaty of Paris was signed, acknowledging the independence of the former colonies. This would explain why Lt. Price was beyond help at the moment. An ‘absolute breach between the sisters’ prevented his brother-in-law from exercising his influence on his behalf when hostilities broke out again.
Armed conflict might have provided opportunity for ‘action with a superior force’ or sharing in prize money. But eleven years later the Bertrams learn that Fanny’s father has become ‘disabled for active service’. He must have been receiving ‘a very small income’ from the Chatham Chest, a fund financed by compulsory deductions from seamen’s pay that was merged in 1803 with a similar scheme run by the Greenwich Hospital. Whatever his impairment, we see him walking, kicking away portmanteaus as well as band-boxes, and reading the paper. And we can hear him shout. In Persuasion Captain Harville, a little lame and frail as a consequence of a severe wound,
had contrived excellent accommodations, and fashioned very pretty shelves, for a tolerable collection of well-bound volumes, the property of Captain Benwick … a mind of usefulness and ingenuity seemed to furnish him with constant employment … He drew, he varnished, he carpentered, he glued; he made toys for the children; he fashioned new netting-needles and pins with improvements; and if everything else was done, sat down to his large fishing-net at one corner of the room.
Had Mr Price been more industrious, he might have made himself serviceable around the house. We know, for instance, that they’re short of chairs, and their table has been vandalised by his sons. He might even have found a way of supplementing his narrow means.
Assuming his wife’s dowry had been equal to Lady Bertram’s, it would have yielded about £350 a year. The Dashwood sisters and their mother lived on 500, so the Prices wouldn’t have been so poor at first, though they wouldn’t have made enough to keep nine children.
They could have done much worse. Having been made a Lieutenant in 1796, the Austens’ former neighbour Earle Harwood married Sarah Scott the following year. On 19 December 1798, Jane informs Cassandra: ‘Earle has got the appointment to a Prison ship at Portsmouth, which he has been for some time desirous of having; & he & his wife are to live on board for the future.’
Mrs Price’s contrition, despondency and poverty bring about a reconciliation, and the Bertrams send money and advice. They undertake to bring up her undernourished eldest daughter and Sir Thomas assists ‘liberally in the education and disposal of her sons.’ William joins the navy, and, by the time Fanny comes back to Portsmouth, one of their brothers works as a clerk in London, his uncle having presumably paid for his apprenticeship. Another is a midshipman on an Indiaman, i.e. a merchant ship engaged in the Eastern trade, something his mother already had in mind when she wrote her apologetic missive to her Northamptonshire relatives. A girl having passed away, only five children remain, of whom one is about to ‘begin his career of seamanship’ on board the Thrush. The two youngest boys would attend the Portsmouth Grammar School, which opened in 1750 and was originally free.
Their house, like most people’s, would have been rented. They don’t, however, share it with others, or sublet any rooms or floors. Even though, coming from Mansfield Park, Fanny finds it small, it doesn’t look as overcrowded as other contemporary urban dwellings. The walls are thin, which would point to the poor construction resulting from the rapid expansion of towns and cities.
The Prices have two servants, of whom the upper maid looks slovenly enough. Though she’s loud, impudent, and lazy, her mistress believes that, were she to dismiss her, she would only get someone worse. Labour was relatively cheap, and even Miss Benn, the Austens’ impoverished Chawton neighbour, had a maid. Yet not everybody could afford domestic help, as Jane reports in October 1798:
Earle & his wife live in the most private manner imaginable at Portsmouth, without keeping a servant of any kind. – What a prodigious innate love of virtue she must have, to marry under such circumstances!
Mrs Price is not a good manager: she’s ‘dissatisfied with her servants, without skill to make them better, and whether helping, or reprimanding, or indulging them, without any power of engaging their respect.’ We get the impression that Rebecca’s cooking might have improved, if only she’d been properly trained: ‘We are very much disposed to like our new maid,’ Austen writes to her sister, ‘she knows nothing of a dairy, to be sure, which, in our family, is rather against her, but she is to be taught it all.’
Fanny’s youngest brothers are ‘ragged and dirty,’ while her mother looks ‘slatternly’ and ‘shabby’. Nor can her father be taken ‘for a model in dress.’ Still, they go to Church ‘in their cleanest skins and best attire.’ Mr Price cordially invites Henry Crawford to share their mutton on a Saturday, but their everyday fare seems less appetising. Fanny is put off by ‘Rebecca’s puddings and Rebecca’s hashes, brought to table … with such accompaniments of half-cleaned plates, and not half-cleaned knives and forks.’
Sitting in she sunlit parlour, she noticed
stains and dirt that might otherwise have slept … In a cloud of moving dust … her eyes could only wander from the walls, marked by her father’s head, to the table cut and notched by her brothers, where stood the tea-board never thoroughly cleaned, the cups and saucers wiped in streaks, the milk a mixture of motes floating in thin blue, and the bread and butter growing every minute more greasy than even Rebecca’s hands had first produced it … Her mother lamented over the ragged carpet as usual, … and wished Rebecca would mend it.
On the one hand, Fanny’s perceptions have been partly coloured by her upbringing: ‘After being nursed up at Mansfield, it was too late in the day to be hardened at Portsmouth.’ On the other hand, the ‘noise, disorder, and impropriety’ could at least have been reduced if only her parents had been more diligent and resourceful. Mr Price only cared for liquor and the company of his navy mates.
He did not want abilities but he had no curiosity, and no information beyond his profession; he read only the newspaper and the navy-list; he talked only of the dockyard, the harbour, Spithead, and the Motherbank.
I’m not sure this is a fair criticism. Had he been more successful, even snobbish Emma Woodhouse would have found it quite natural:
How much his business engrosses him already is very plain from the circumstance of his forgetting to inquire for the book you recommended. He was a great deal too full of the market to think of any thing else—which is just as it should be, for a thriving man. What has he to do with books? And I have no doubt that he will thrive, and be a very rich man in time—and his being illiterate and coarse need not disturb us.
Unfortunately, we can’t acquit Mr Price of other charges:
He swore and he drank, he was dirty and gross. She had never been able to recall anything approaching to tenderness in his former treatment of herself. There had remained only a general impression of roughness and loudness; and now he scarcely ever noticed her, but to make her the object of a coarse joke.
His wife’s personality didn’t help:
She was a manager by necessity, without any of Mrs Norris’s inclination for it, or any of her activity. Her disposition was naturally easy and indolent, like Lady Bertram’s; and a situation of similar affluence and do-nothingness would have been much more suited to her capacity than the exertions and self-denials of the one which her imprudent marriage had placed her in. She might have made just as good a woman of consequence as Lady Bertram, but Mrs Norris would have been a more respectable mother of nine children on a small income.
And, of course, having spent nine years in the countryside, our heroine would find the physical atmosphere of a Regency town oppressive:
It was sad to Fanny to lose all the pleasures of spring … To be losing such pleasures was no trifle; to be losing them, because she was in the midst of closeness and noise, to have confinement, bad air, bad smells, substituted for liberty, freshness, fragrance, and verdure, was infinitely worse.
The first piped water supply in Portsmouth was installed in 1811, but only the middle and upper classes could afford the connection. Sewage ran down the gutters into the moat. The filth and stench would have been unbearable to someone not used to it. Personal hygiene would usually have meant washing your hands, face and neck. Few people bathed at the time, even among the well-off. But in a small urban house close proximity would have made body odour more conspicuous. There would have been no space or facilities for the frequent cleaning of crockery, cutlery, or clothes.
A ‘sad fire’ is burning in the parlour when Fanny arrives. There’s enough coal to build it up, it seems, but the household is not well organised. She’ll soon find out there is no fire at all in the ‘scantily furnished’ room she is to share with Susan. For the time being she sits ‘undistinguished in the dusk,’ as her father calls out for a candle. When it’s brought in, he places it in front of the borrowed newspaper he’s about to read, as his ‘bewildered, broken, sorrowful’ daughter watches in silence – a chiaroscuro of selfishness and rejection. Ignored and unnoticed, she’s as much of an outsider at her parents’ home as she was at Mansfield Park. There would have been plenty of beeswax candles there. Mr Price’s would have been a tallow one with a rather unpleasant smell. Still poorer people lit rushlights or just gathered by the hearth.
The Prices are not so badly off as we might have expected. They’re relatively well-fed and, except for Mr Price’s alcohol addiction and unspecified disability, seem healthy enough. Four of the children have started their professional careers and two attend school. Their house is small, but at least they’re not squeezed together in some damp, stuffy attic or cellar. Used to much higher living standards and having surprisingly forgotten what it was like during the first nine years of her life, Fanny is shocked. The local girls think she puts on airs.
The Portsmouth household is far from ideal, but its shortcomings stem chiefly from neglect, inefficiency, inadequate parenting, improper behaviour, and bad habits, playing against a background of urban pollution and overcrowding. The connection appears almost inevitable. Though ‘early hardship’ may have its advantages, ‘domestic happiness’ is associated with ‘country pleasures’. As Edmund Bertram puts it, ‘We do not look in great cities for our best morality.’
Jane Austen’s novels quoted from www.mollands.net
Adkins, Roy and Lesley. (2014). Jane Austen’s England. Daily Life in the Georgian and Regency Periods. New York: Penguin Books.
Austen, Jane. (1996). Mansfield Park. Ed. with an Introduction and Notes by Kathryn Sutherland. London: Penguin Books.
Lambert, Tim. A Brief History of Portsmouth, England. Retrieved from http://www.localhistories.org/portsmouth.html
Le Faye, Deirdre, ed. (2011). Jane Austen Letters. Oxford: OUP.
Records of Royal Greenwich Hospital, and the Chatham Chest. Retrieved from http://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/r/C725
Thomas, B.C. (1990). Portsmouth in Jane Austen’s Time. Persuasions, 12. Retrieved from http://www.jasna.org/persuasions/printed/number12/thomas.htm