The bad example was being set by the Royals--the celebrities of their day--although Austen never mentions them by name. She and her readers knew that the Prince Regent himself (the future King George IV) had run up high debts and was flaunting his love for his mistress. His wife, Caroline of Brunswick, had lovers galore and is thought to have borne an illigitimate son. Caroline's behavior so shocked her philandering husband that he declared her an unfit mother and barred her from seeing their daughter, the innocent Princess Charlotte. And the prince's brother William--the Duke of Clarence and also a future king--well! He lived with a mistress and their ten children until he threw the whole brood out and started looking around for someone richer and younger.
Those in power set the tone, and in Mansfield Park Austen presents young people who have grown up in this unwholesome social climate, without proper guidance. The most glaring examples are Henry and Mary Crawford, whose guardian lived openly with a mistress of his own. This brother and sister toy freely with others' affections and value wealth and comfort over virtue. Austen makes examples as well of the Bertram sisters, Maria and Julia, who wear a veneer of accomplishment, but whose moral foundation has been shamefully neglected. Their brother Tom is in line to inherit their father's estate, but he, too, has been spoiled, and he manages money no better than the prince.
Austen contrasts this bunch with her heroine, Fanny Price, a poor niece being raised in the Bertram home, Mansfield Park, and Fanny's cousin Edmund, a younger son intended for the clergy. Both are virtuous beyond belief, so, naturally, both become targets of the conniving Crawfords. Alas for Henry Crawford, though! He sets out to make a trophy of Fanny's heart only to be smitten himself. Fanny rejects Henry Crawford's advances, but this puts her at odds with her uncle, Sir Thomas, who sees the match as a fine opportunity for his penniless niece. When the frustrated uncle sends Fanny off for a long visit with her parents and siblings in their small, shabby Portsmouth home, the story at last gets interesting--at least for a twenty-first-century reader like me.
Because just as Shakespeare's characters sometimes head for the forest to work out their problems, in Portsmouth Fanny views life from a fresh angle. Most notably, she sees Henry Crawford behaving honorably; not only does he further her brother William's naval career, but on a brief visit to Portsmouth, he treats the humble Price family with gentlemanly respect. Wow, I said to myself when I reached this point in my first reading of Mansfield Park, maybe Austen is letting these characters emerge from one-dimensionality. I was excited to see Jane Austen enter new territory. Maybe, I thought, Fanny and Henry will end up happily together after all.
But, no. At this point Austen backs up and changes direction. Henry quickly reverts to his scoundrel's ways, the Bertram girls behave especially badly, and if Fanny learns anything in Portsmouth, it is that she belongs at Mansfield Park. The novel's ending--with Fanny's marriage to her cousin Edmund--was the one I predicted at the novel's start.
Am I wrong to take issue with Mansfield Park? I've learned from experience that when a novel by an important writer rests uneasily with me, the fault can lie not in the work but in my understanding of it. With time and repeated readings, I eventually say, Aha!
This may happen with Mansfield Park, for as Austen reminds us in chapter twenty-two, "How wonderful, how very wonderful the operations of time, and the changes of the human mind!" But right now I would favor a different, more adventurous course for Fanny Price. And for Henry Crawford. And even for pious Edmund. Life is about moving forward, not back.