The guardianship of religion and morals: prayer and manners in Mansfield Park

Mrs Rushworth got ready to give her visitors a tour of Sotherton Court. She’d made sure she’d be almost as competent as her housekeeper – better than the Countess of Grantham in Downton Abbey, anyway. If the way in which she first approved of and then handled her son’s marriage is anything to go by, she was not a very clever woman. But on this occasion she was able to show the Bertrams and Crawfords around, and, except for the dating of the mahogany furnishings in the chapel, the information provided seems accurate enough. It would appear that kind of wood was not widely used in James II’s times, so it’s often been suggested that either the Rushworths were very wealthy or Jane Austen made a mistake. There might be yet another explanation: Mrs Rushworth probably didn’t get it right.

We may imagine the large, regular, red-brick Elizabethan house, built in a low spot, but with many handsome old-fashioned rooms. Fanny is disappointed in the chapel: she expected aisles, arches, inscriptions, and banners. Edmund reminds her they’re not in a castle or a monastery. As their hostess’s history lesson goes on, they learn it

‘was formerly in constant use both morning and evening. Prayers were always read in it by the domestic chaplain, within the memory of many; but the late Mr Rushworth left it off.’

‘Every generation has its improvements,’ said Miss Crawford, with a smile, to Edmund.

A wickedly good joke that falls flat. Neither Edmund nor his cousin have a sense of humour – or wit, come to that. Mary’s progress is their decline:

‘It is a pity,’ cried Fanny, ‘that the custom should have been discontinued. It was a valuable part of former times. There is something in a chapel and chaplain so much in character with a great house, with one’s ideas of what such a household should be! A whole family assembling regularly for the purpose of prayer is fine!’

I wonder where she got such ideas from. She’s eighteen now, having lived at Mansfield Park as a poor relation since she was ten. Her father is a former lieutenant of marines ‘without education, fortune, or connections.’ What does she know about great houses? The Bertrams don’t have a chaplain – or pray together, for that matter. Why shouldn’t the poor or the middle classes worship together? Miss Price must have read too many books. But Edmund and our heroine might later put down the Rushworths’ disgrace, at least partly, to the neglect of such religious practices – the mother-in-law falling out with her son’s wife, the latter’s sexual indiscretions, the snitching maid.

Their companion holds more earthly views:

‘Very fine indeed,’ said Miss Crawford, laughing. ‘It must do the heads of the family a great deal of good to force all the poor housemaids and footmen to leave business and pleasure, and say their prayers here twice a day, while they are inventing excuses themselves for staying away.’

‘That is hardly Fanny’s idea of a family assembling,’ said Edmund. ‘If the master and mistress do not attend themselves, there must be more harm than good in the custom.’

Illustration from

‘At any rate, it is safer to leave people to their own devices on such subjects. Everybody likes to go their own way–to chuse their own time and manner of devotion. The obligation of attendance, the formality, the restraint, the length of time–altogether it is a formidable thing, and what nobody likes; and if the good people who used to kneel and gape in that gallery could have foreseen that the time would ever come when men and women might lie another ten minutes in bed, when they woke with a headache, without danger of reprobation, because chapel was missed, they would have jumped with joy and envy. Cannot you imagine with what unwilling feelings the former belles of the house of Rushworth did many a time repair to this chapel? The young Mrs Eleanors and Mrs Bridgets–starched up into seeming piety, but with heads full of something very different–especially if the poor chaplain were not worth looking at–and, in those days, I fancy parsons were very inferior even to what they are now.’

She has a good point: inward devotion can hardly be imposed. The outward show of conformity, however, reinforces the status quo – all the more so if it’s compulsory. There is a family gallery, with ‘velvet cushions,’ as Mrs Rushworth indicates. The servants would have had their own place. Even the physical layout of the chapel would have reproduced the inequality ordained by God. And there’s no telling what the lower orders might pray for if not properly guided.

For a few moments she was unanswered. Fanny coloured and looked at Edmund, but felt too angry for speech; and he needed a little recollection before he could say, ‘Your lively mind can hardly be serious even on serious subjects. You have given us an amusing sketch, and human nature cannot say it was not so. We must all feel at times the difficulty of fixing our thoughts as we could wish; but if you are supposing it a frequent thing, that is to say, a weakness grown into a habit from neglect, what could be expected from the private devotions of such persons? Do you think the minds which are suffered, which are indulged in wanderings in a chapel, would be more collected in a closet?’

Mary has inadvertently hurt Fanny’s ‘religious’ sensibilities.  She may have been ill-advised to have spoken so lightly, but at least she’s honest. Though she may give her opinion too decidedly, as Lady Catherine would have put it, from the very beginning we know what she thinks.  Fanny is wise not to reply, but ‘faith’ is supposed to bring about peace of mind, not irritability – her insecurity and  her ‘nerves’ almost get the better of her here. Edmund has been personally affected too – he feels attracted to someone who obviously doesn’t share his views on what he sees as a major issue. He must pause …

After the Wimpole Street scandal breaks out, the difference becomes unbridgeable. With a mixture of playfulness and bitterness she calls him a ‘Methodist’, a term used disparagingly at the time to refer to Church of England Evangelicals:

‘A pretty good lecture, upon my word. Was it part of your last sermon? At this rate you will soon reform everybody at Mansfield and Thornton Lacey; and when I hear of you next, it may be as a celebrated preacher in some great society of Methodists, or as a missionary into foreign parts.’ She tried to speak carelessly, but she was not so careless as she wanted to appear.

We don’t see much emphasis on religious emotion, though – only Fanny’s ‘fervent prayers’ for Edmund’s happiness. What she means by that is not quite clear, as she doesn’t include Mary Crawford in them. There’s also Edmund’s heartfelt exclamation on learning that his cousin didn’t regret her brother’s inconstancy as much as he had feared:

‘Thank God,’ said he. ‘We were all disposed to wonder, but it seems to have been the merciful appointment of Providence that the heart which knew no guile should not suffer.’

William Wilberforce, by John Rising

Unlike Evangelicals, Edmund doesn’t object to pluralism. His position seems a bit contradictory, as, on the other hand, he shares his father’s belief that

a parish has wants and claims which can be known only by a clergyman constantly resident, and which no proxy can be capable of satisfying to the same extent. Edmund might, in the common phrase, do the duty of Thornton, that is, he might read prayers and preach, without giving up Mansfield Park: he might ride over every Sunday, to a house nominally inhabited, and go through divine service; he might be the clergyman of Thornton Lacey every seventh day, for three or four hours, if that would content him. But it will not. He knows that human nature needs more lessons than a weekly sermon can convey; and that if he does not live among his parishioners, and prove himself, by constant attention, their well-wisher and friend, he does very little either for their good or his own.

As Edmund himself puts it,

A fine preacher is followed and admired; but it is not in fine preaching only that a good clergyman will be useful in his parish and his neighbourhood, where the parish and neighbourhood are of a size capable of knowing his private character, and observing his general conduct

But when the Mansfield living becomes vacant on Dr Grant’s death, he has no qualms in accepting it, as he and his wife ‘want an increase of income.’ It had initially been meant for him, and it was only his brother’s profligacy that later forced Sir Thomas to sell the presentation, as we learn in chapter 3. According to him, it would have provided ‘more than half the income that ought to be his.’ It all sounds rather hypocritical, although, as Mr Wickham remarks, ‘we are none of us consistent.’

In 1787, William Wilberforce, a prominent member of the Evangelical group later known as the ‘Clapham Sect,’ wrote: ‘God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners.’ Edmund and Fanny seem interested in the former, as I discussed in an earlier post. I would only add here that perhaps he thinks his cousin’s influence on her uncle might lead to a gradual improvement in the living and working conditions of his slaves. Wilberforce’s ultimate goal, the abolition of slavery itself, was, however, a long way off, and in the meantime the inhabitants of Mansfield Park appear to enjoy the profits of unfree labour with a clear conscience.

As a clergyman, however, Edmund will have ‘the guardianship of religion and morals, and consequently of the manners which result from their influence.’ He further explains the responsibilities of the men of the cloth:

The manners I speak of might rather be called conduct, perhaps, the result of good principles; the effect, in short, of those doctrines which it is their duty to teach and recommend; and it will, I believe, be everywhere found, that as the clergy are, or are not what they ought to be, so are the rest of the nation.

Illustration from

He starts quite modestly by opposing private theatricals, but then changes his mind in order to prevent a greater evil, a rationalisation that fails to convince Fanny. She, in turn, ‘cannot act,’ so we may well wonder whether she’s not making a virtue out of necessity.

A few months after ordination, however, his sister’s sexual transgression prompts a harsh, uncompromising, unforgiving response. Mary Crawford believes that  

if by any officious exertions … she is induced to leave Henry’s protection, there will be much less chance of his marrying her than if she remain with him. I know how he is likely to be influenced. Let Sir Thomas trust to his honour and compassion, and it may all end well; but if he get his daughter away, it will be destroying the chief hold.

Edmund is shocked: ‘No reluctance, no horror, no feminine … modest loathings!’ The ‘dreadful crime’ must be punished immediately, there must be no ‘acquiescence in the continuance of sin.’  This is not Antigua. The Bertrams cannot afford to give their ‘sanction to vice … or lessen its disgrace.’ Some people just cannot be reformed, so Miss Crawford must be given up, though

hers is not a cruel nature. I do not consider her as meaning to wound my feelings. The evil lies yet deeper: in her total ignorance, unsuspiciousness of there being such feelings; in a perversion of mind which made it natural to her to treat the subject as she did. She was speaking only as she had been used to hear others speak, as she imagined everybody else would speak. Hers are not faults of temper. She would not voluntarily give unnecessary pain to any one … Hers are faults of principle …  of blunted delicacy and a corrupted, vitiated mind.

The moral crusade seems to have run out of steam: he must now stop the bleeding and go on preaching to the choir. We should be grateful, however, to have been spared the fire and brimstone rhetoric we often find in contemporary and later literature. Concern with the social implications of behaviour appears paramount in the novel.

In 1809 Jane Austen openly states: ‘I do not like the Evangelicals.’ Yet in November 1814, over a year after finishing Mansfield Park, she writes to Fanny Knight: ‘I am by no means convinced that we ought not all to be Evangelicals, & am at least persuaded that they who are so from Reason and Feeling, must be happiest & safest.’ She doesn’t sound as if she were undergoing a conversion: I rather believe she’s been exploring possibilities. By the end of the book Edmund and Fanny seem to have found happiness and safety ‘within the view and patronage of Mansfield Park.’ Afraid of the evil influence of the outside world, fighting a losing battle against change, they feel comforted and reassured among like-minded creatures. Would the author have been content with that kind of bliss?

In fact she had already turned her thoughts ‘to those … more cheerfully employed,’ though she would later express her doubts about Emma too: ‘I am very strongly haunted with the idea that … it will appear … to those who have preferred MP very inferior in good Sense.’ Never mind the good sense – I, for one, am glad to leave the self-righteous whining behind.


Jane Austen’s novels quoted from

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.

Brown, Richard. (2002). Church and State in Modern Britain 1700-1850. London: Routledge.

Hardman, O. The Clapham Sect. Retrieved from

Le Faye, Deirdre, ed. (2011). Jane Austen Letters. Oxford: OUP.

Schlossberg, Herbert. The Evangelical Movement in the Church of England. Retrieved from

Stott, Anne. (2014). Wilberforce and Jane Austen: some possible connections. Retrieved from

Tomalin, Claire. (1999). Jane Austen. A Life. New York: Vintage Books.

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