One of the cryptic comments that Jane Austen made when she had finished the glorious novel that is Pride & Prejudice was that her next novel would be a novel about ordination. There are numerous ways that this statement can be taken. For one, Austen was notoriously witty in her personal life as well as in her writing, and so one can view it as a throwaway comment that was supposed to lead people in the wrong direction, or one can view it more seriously and ponder how it is that Mansfield Park is a novel about ordination. As one might imagine, there are a great many unexpected ways where the novel is in fact just that, but sometimes it requires us to think hard about what Jane Austen might have meant by ordination.
So let us begin with that. Ordination is something that is familiar to many religious traditions (including the Anglican tradition that Jane Austen was a part of), where people were received into holy orders and undertook a ceremony where they were given a religious office in a church. One main character in Mansfield Park is obviously ordained into the clergy during the course of the novel, Edmund Bertram, and he just happens to be the romantic hero of the story, and one whose ordination proves to be unpopular with the fashionable and not particularly moral Mary Crawford, who along with her brother Henry tend to view the ministry as a place to show off and perform, while Edmund has in mind moral elevation and a godly example. More than two centuries later, this is still relevant within the ministry, as there are some people who see the ministry as a way to show off their skills at performing, and there is still (thankfully) a strong tradition of those who wish to elevate the moral tone of society through their efforts and service.
Yet the ordination of Edmund alone is only a small part of the theme of ordination in the novel. Edmund’s living situation is harmed by the general profligacy of his older brother, which prevents him originally from enjoying the living in Mansfield parsonage itself, halving his income and bringing in Mr. Grant, who is the brother-in-law of Henry and Mary Crawford, and thus forming part of the inciting action of the novel itself. Here again we have questions of religious positions and their importance, as is the case with the absence of a curate at Southerton, which Maria Bertram and Mary Crawford might view as improvements, but which demonstrates the moral squalor of the age in a way that foreshadows the eventual fate of the Rushworths because of their lack of moral rigor, a case where ordination may have provided at least a reminder of decent and moral standards that are worth living.
When we move beyond this, we see that questions of title and place and rank and moral uplift are a major part of the novel and its structure and meaning. Fanny Price is uplifted through her removal from her birth family and her being raised as a foster sister to the Bertram siblings. And she in many ways serves as the moral center of that place, given that their mother is indolent, their aunt (herself the widow of the previous holder of the Mansfield Park living) is a nasty busybody and no moral exemplar to anyone, and, Sir Thomas is focused on moral appearances and not moral substance, alas. Fanny Price, it may be said, has an unofficial ordination in Mansfield Park and she later serves to uplift a younger sister to take her place within the Mansfield Park household as a companion to her aunt Lady Bertram. Nor indeed does this exhaust such matters, as we also see the ordination of Fanny’s brother into the navy. It certainly gives a lot of food for thought about what Austen could have meant by ordination in this novel.