It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in
possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
The beginning lines of Pride and Prejudice are famous. They are well-known, easily recognized, and often parodied. Less familiar, but still recognizable to most fans of Jane Austen are the first words of Mansfield Park.
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. All Huntingdon exclaimed on the greatness of the match, and her uncle, the lawyer, himself, allowed her to be at least three thousand pounds short of any equitable claim to it. She had two sisters to be benefited by her elevation; and such of their acquaintance as thought Miss Ward and Miss Frances quite as handsome as Miss Maria, did not scruple to predict their marrying with almost equal advantage. But there certainly are not so many men of large fortune in the world as there are pretty women to deserve them. Miss Ward, at the end of half a dozen years, found herself obliged to be attached to the Rev. Mr. Norris, a friend of her brother-in-law, with scarcely any private fortune, and Miss Frances fared yet worse. Miss Ward’s match, indeed, when it came to the point, was not contemptible: Sir Thomas being happily able to give his friend an income in the living of Mansfield; and Mr. and Mrs. Norris began their career of conjugal felicity with very little less than a thousand a year. But Miss Frances married, in the common phrase, to disoblige her family, and by fixing on a lieutenant of marines, without education, fortune, or connexions, did it very thoroughly. She could hardly have made a more untoward choice. 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; and before he had time to devise any other method of assisting them, an absolute breach between the sisters had taken place. It was the natural result of the conduct of each party, and such as a very imprudent marriage almost always produces. To save herself from useless remonstrance, Mrs. Price never wrote to her family on the subject till actually married. Lady Bertram, who was a woman of very tranquil feelings, and a temper remarkably easy and indolent, would have contented herself with merely giving up her sister, and thinking no more of the matter; but Mrs. Norris had a spirit of activity, which could not be satisfied till she had written a long and angry letter to Fanny, to point out the folly of her conduct, and threaten her with all its possible ill consequences. Mrs. Price, in her turn, was injured and angry; and an answer, which comprehended each sister in its bitterness, and bestowed such very disrespectful reflections on the pride of Sir Thomas as Mrs. Norris could not possibly keep to herself, put an end to all intercourse between them for a considerable period.
(Mansfield Park, by Jane Austen, Chapter I)
Here we have three sisters. Their respective marriages and characters are shown. Miss Maria Ward makes a very good match, one which she is “at least three thousand pounds short of any equitable claim to.” We are further told that she is “a woman of very tranquil feelings, and a temper remarkably easy and indolent.”
Her older sister, Miss Ward, makes a match that “when it came to the point, was not contemptible.” As for her character, she has “a spirit of activity.” This spirit leads to a breach between the sisters when she can “not be satisfied till she had written a long and angry letter” to her youngest sister.
The youngest sister is Miss Frances. She makes a thoroughly disobliging marriage–her husband has no fortune or education. Not only that, to save herself the trouble of dealing with her family’s remonstrances, she doesn’t tell them anything about it until after she marries him.
These three sisters will be further developed as the story continues, but we have clues to their characters right from the beginning. Lady Bertram (née Miss Maria Ward) is placid and indolent, Mrs. Norris (née Miss Ward) is active and angry, and Mrs. Price (née Miss Frances) avoids effort or inconvenience.
Throughout the story, the heroine, Fanny, is treated by each sister accordingly. Mrs. Price gets rid of the trouble of taking care of Fanny. Mrs. Norris actively represses and torments her, while Lady Bertram, though kindly, takes no effort to make her comfortable.