In discussing Jane Austen’s craft in his book A Fine Brush on Ivory, Richard Jenkyns observes that in Mansfield Park she “experiments with touches of symbolism and develops a new sense of the significance of place”.1
Her exploration of the significance of place and area is most strikingly visible in the visit to Sotherton, where she makes her experiment with what one is bound to call symbolism. The lawn enclosed by a wall, Mary Crawford wanting to pass beyond the door in the wall and finding it unlocked, her leading the way into the ‘wilderness’ beyond and talking with Edmund there (and making an explicit comparison with the metaphorical ‘wilderness’ of a lawyer’s profession) — the symbolic force of these things needs no explication. Christ was tempted in the wilderness, as were the Israelites before him, and Mary acts the temptress’s part, pressing Edmund to abandon him plan to become a clergyman. In the next chapter the symbolism is plainer still. Henry tells Maria that she has ‘a very smiling scene’ before her. ‘Do you mean literally or figuratively?’ Maria replies, preparing us for the fusion of literal and figurative in the episode that follows. Maria continues, ‘Yes, certainly the sun shines and the park looks very cheerful. But unluckily that iron gate, that ha-ha, give me a feeling of restraint and hardship. I cannot get out, as the starling said.’ Rushworth has the key, and is slow in bringing it. Henry questions whether she needs Rushworth’s authority and protection, and suggests that with his own help she could get around the edge of the gate and allow herself ‘to think it not prohibited’.2
This symbolism works because “Henry is fully conscious of it, and Maria at least partly so. It is not imposed from the outside, but developed by the characters themselves: it is part of Henry’s apparatus of flirtation, his testing of Maria to see how far she might go.”3
1 A Fine Brush on Ivory, by Richard Jenkyns (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 95.
2 Ibid. pp. 145-46
3 Ibid. pp. 146-47