If you’re unfamiliar with Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, here’s a synopsis: Rich Sir Thomas Bertram offers to raise his niece, Fanny Price, the eldest daughter of his wife’s sister. The Prices are numerous, with nine children, and Sir Thomas’ offer would relieve them the expense of raising one child and so Fanny leaves for Sir Thomas’ home, Mansfield Park. Fanny is a timid child and feels the poor relation and her Aunt Norris, Lady Bertram’s sister, constantly reminds her of her lowly status.
The family, however, is not actively unkind to Fanny and realistically she wants for nothing, other than love and affection. She has a real friend in her cousin Edmund, Sir Thomas’ second son, however, and grows to love him as more than a relation. She has three other cousins, Tom, the eldest brother (a wastrel), Maria and Julia (the youngest).
The story begins in earnest when Henry and Mary Crawford arrive at the Mansfield Park parsonage to visit their sister: Mrs. Grant and her husband. The Crawfords are young and exciting and reasonably well off and Henry proves attractive to both Maria and Julia, although Maria has just become engaged to the very rich and silly Mr. Rushworth. Mary Crawford first has designs on the eldest son, but Tom Bertram leaves with his father to visit the family’s plantation in Antigua.
Mary then turns her attention to Edmund, despite the unwelcome news that Edmund plans to be ordained, and Edmund is smitten with Mary, despite her prejudice against the clergy and despite her improprieties (and an off-color pun about sodomy in the Royal Navy).
The Henry/Maria/Julia triangle is tested when the family visits Sotherton, Mr. Rushworth’s estate. Maria is busy showing off her what will be her home after her marriage to Mr. Rushworth while at the same time flirting with Henry Crawford, in competition with Julia. During a tour of the grounds at Sotherton, Edmund walks with Fanny and Mary Crawford, but eventually Fanny tires and they leave her alone for a considerable time. Henry Crawford and Maria slip through a locked gate, eluding both Julia and Maria’s fiancé, Mr. Rushworth.
The excursion firmly sets Julia against Maria, leaves Mr. Rushworth suspicious of Henry Crawford, confirms Fanny’s low opinion of Mary Crawford and leaves Edmund even more infatuated with Mary.
The tensions only increase when Tom Bertram arrives home from Antigua ahead of his father and continues his wastrel ways. He has picked up a friend, Mr. Yates, who had been deprived of partaking in another family’s amateur theatrical, and Tom and Mr. Yates propose they should stage a play ahead of Sir Thomas’ return.
Edmund is aghast that they should entertain themselves while Sir Thomas’ life remains in peril (because of his impending sea voyage) and because he’s certain his father would disapprove of their having fun. He’s drawn into the play himself, however, when they’re unable to find someone to act as Mary Crawford’s love interest in the play.
Lady Bertram offers only an indolent demurral to the play and Aunt Norris busy bodily approves. A stage is built in the billiard room and Sir Thomas’ study is turned into a green room. Only Fanny refuses to be drawn into the scheme, although she must help with the preparations and to her horror, both Edmund and Mary arrive in Fanny’s room asking for help in rehearsing their roles. Meanwhile, the flirtation of Henry and Maria continues, Tom becomes almost manic in his desire to stage the play, Mr. Rushworth’s suspicion of Henry increases … and Sir Thomas arrives home early. He is not pleased at what has happened while away and the play is canceled.
Sir Thomas’ return also puts an end to the Henry/Maria romance. Maria is wed to Mr. Rushworth, even though Sir Thomas asks his daughter if she truly wants to marry a man Sir Thomas is convinced to be very stupid. Maria and Mr. Rushworth leave for their honeymoon, accompanied by Julia (a not uncommon practice and their rift is reconciled by Maria’s marriage).
Sir Thomas is a changed man upon his return from Antigua and pays particular favor to Fanny, noting how her looks have improved upon his absence. Upon the occasion of Fanny’s brother William, a midshipman, paying a visit to Mansfield Park, Sir Thomas proposes to hold a ball for Fanny and William. Fanny’s unaccustomed to the attention but still she enjoys the ball, especially now that William has a commission as a lieutenant, secured by Henry Crawford from his uncle, the admiral.
The gratitude she must show Henry, however, is balanced against his unwelcome proposal of marriage. Knowing of Henry’s dalliance with Maria and being in love with Edmund despite her cousin’s love for Mary, Fanny refuses Henry. (Bereft of other interests, Henry had decided to pursue Fanny as another dalliance, but he quickly fell in love with her, probably because of her coldness toward him.)
Fanny’s refusal comes as a surprise to Sir Thomas. Fanny is a penniless girl whose only asset is her uncle’s name. A match with Henry Crawford would be much to Fanny’s advantage, and he tries to persuade her to accept the proposal. She stands her ground, however, and Sir Thomas, not willing to browbeat his niece, suggests she think on it.
Fanny continues to refuse Henry, even though he does his best to ingratiate himself with her. Even worse, Edmund pleads with her on Henry’s behalf. Fortunately for Fanny, however, the Crawfords quit Mansfield Park. Mary leaves for London and Henry returns to Everingham, his estate.
Sir Thomas then has a plan that he thinks might convince Fanny of the wisdom of marrying Henry. He suggests Fanny should visit her family in Portsmouth, to which Fanny happily agrees. Sir Thomas hopes that time with her destitute family in Portsmouth will make Fanny remember that she’s still a penniless girl and that a marriage with Henry Crawford would secure her future.
The plan partially succeeds. Fanny is surprised to find how coarse and low her real family is and how little she was missed while at Mansfield Park. She realizes that her real home is Mansfield. She’s further mortified when Henry Crawford pays her a visit at home. Although she doesn’t welcome his attentions, she does not like the thought that he should be put off by the vulgarity of her relations.
Henry, however, is all charm and Fanny’s family, which is a handsome if poor family, does not cause too much embarrassment. He leaves Fanny with a good impression of him, mostly left because he represents a link to Mansfield Park.
Fanny’s stay at Portsmouth becomes extended (all part of Sir Thomas’ plan) to three months with less and less news of Mansfield Park until she learns her cousin Tom, Edmund’s older brother, has taken ill after a drunken fall during a night of carousing. The family fears for Tom’s life, but eventually he recovers. Fanny during this period despairs that she is not home at Mansfield Park to offer comfort to her aunt, Lady Bertram.
Then Fanny gets a letter from Mary Crawford, urging her not to believe the rumor she might have heard. She is confused because she has heard no rumor until her father reads in the newspaper that her cousin Maria has deserted Mr. Rushworth and that she left accompanied by Henry Crawford. Edmund then arrives to take Fanny and her sister Susan (the only member of her Portsmouth family besides William with whom she feels a connection) back to Mansfield Park.
Returned to Mansfield Park, Fanny learns the whole story: Henry found himself in London and met Maria there. He had not intended to pursue her, being still devoted to Fanny, but he took Maria’s cold reception as a challenge and tried to regain her favor, to the extent that Maria left her husband. Meanwhile Maria’s sister Julia eloped with Mr. Yates, the other thespian, to Scotland to marry.
She also learns that Edmund is now free of Mary Crawford. Upon meeting Mary in London, she bemoaned the folly of her brother and his sister, an observation that shocks Edmund, for their conduct exceeds the description of folly. Mary also advises that Sir Thomas should do nothing to provoke matters, that in due course Henry might be persuaded to marry Maria, which might with careful management, salvage Maria’s reputation.
Edmund finally realizes that Mary’s moral compass points in such an opposite direction as his that he can no longer hope to marry her. He still loves her, however, and turns to Fanny for comfort. In time, he begins to realize that Fanny is better suited to him as a wife.
Sir Thomas eventually forgives Julia, Tom improves from his illness with a more sober outlook on life, Edmund and Fanny marry and eventually move into the parsonage after Mrs. Grant and her husband leave. Susan takes Fanny’s place at Mansfield Park as a comfort to Lady Bertram.
Mr. Rushworth divorces his wife and inevitably, Henry leaves Maria. Sir Thomas provides for her but will not suffer her under the same roof and so she is banished with Aunt Norris to live elsewhere, “remote and private, where, shut up together with little society, on one side no affection, on the other no judgment, it may be reasonably supposed that their tempers became their mutual punishment.”