In Jane Austen's era, social status was often linked to place of living. The conflict between city and country lifestyle is prevalent through the rigid class structure in Mansfield Park. This intersection of societal position and location create complexities within the lifestyle of Fanny Price. Fanny's removal from her hometown of Portsmouth into the Tory gentry class estate of her relatives, the Bertrams, is a culture shock, not only to Fanny, but to her relatives as well. Sent to the country to avoid the impoverishment to which her immediate family is subjugated, Fanny learns the accepted manners of the gentry, though she does not always conform to them. London at the start of the 19th century was beginning to undergo a vast economic and geographic transformation, in which it saw an influx of people looking for employment. While the city was a place of vast class diversity, the country was made up of the gentry, who were looking to expand their wealth and develop their own private spheres away from the bustling and crowded city.
The novel highlights Fanny's adoration and appreciation of nature, while also drawing attention to the Crawford sisters' love of urbanity, particularly as told through their visits to London. Fanny’s love for the Mansfield Park and the countryside is evidenced through narration, glances into her mind, and when she verbalizes that she feels “as if there could be neither wickedness nor sorrow in the world; and there certainly would be less of both if the sublimity of Nature were more attended to” (80). On the other hand, the city could be viewed as a taboo, as it is only made known to the reader through conversations Julia and Maria Crawford have about going there. The reader is not given a look into a characters’ personal thoughts, but rather, only what is mentioned in public conversation. While the estate is located in the country, it reveals traits of the city, which is portrayed as a vile place to those characters concerned with morality.
Portsmouth, Fanny’s town of origin, serves as a sort of balancing point between Mansfield Park and London. A thoroughly working class, (and, as in the case of the Price family) impoverished city, Portsmouth is Fanny’s constant, to which she compares other settings. While the country, by nature, seems to be a place of honesty and virtue, without vice, it has been corrupted by the city, and becomes a place where improvement of character is necessary and virtue is questionable. In a conversation between Edmund and Miss Crawford early on in the novel, the latter asserts that “The metropolis, [she] imagines, is a pretty fair sample of the rest” (66), exemplifying her ignorance of the greater society. Edmund’s response, “Not, [he] should hope, of the proportion of virtue to vice throughout the kingdom. We do not look in great cities for our best morality. It is not there, that respectable people of any denomination can do most good” (66) implies that the country is the more proper setting. The rigid class differences are manifested through the characters and their respective experiences, travels, and times spent in various locations. While Fanny was not brought up in a setting that emphasized her role, the gentry class structure which she is placed enforces elements of social consciousness, such as the concept of “coming out” to society and that “girls should be quiet and modest” (36). She only learns these concepts at Mansfield Park; when she returns to her family, she recognizes the need for her younger sister to change. Furthermore, this return to Portsmouth in the third volume of the novel is seen as a direct punishment. If returning home is a punishment, then is being at Mansfield Park assumed to be a privilege? This seems to imply that returning there, because it is a place of poverty, is a negative experience.
Overall, the novel’s concern with place-whether a specific location at Mansfield Park, elsewhere in England, or the family’s Antigua plantation- correlates with ideas of social status and morality. How does Fanny’s experience spending the first ten years of her life in a poverty-stricken setting affect her views on the social structure forced upon her at her arrival at Mansfield Park? Is the countryside really a sort of “Eden”? If so, given the characters’ thoughts on the country versus city, would it be considered Eden before or after the fall? Finally, given the eventual marriage between Fanny and Edmund, what is the significance of Fanny’s elevated social status, and do you think it plays a pivotal role in her life (after the end of the novel)?