The Sotherton episode in Mansfield Park provides a brilliant foreshadowing of the disaster to come for the Bertrams and the Crawfords. Fanny Price, our famously unassertive heroine, watches helplessly as the man she loves falls under the spell of the witty Mary Crawford, and her cousins Julia and Maria compete for the attentions of Mary’s brother Henry.
Mansfield Park is not Austen scholar Devoney Looser's favourite novel. But she told the Bonnets at Dawn podcast that the scene with Fanny sitting on the bench is "an amazing moment where each of their characters come into view, all of the challenges that they’re facing as they are on the precipice of what their adult lives are going to be, that is a beautiful, amazing scene, and a kind of nothing scene. Fanny sitting on a bench, how can that possibly be interesting? But it’s incredibly interesting and incredibly moving, and so beautifully conceived and written."
In conceiving this cleverly crafted portion of the book, Austen drew inspiration from her favourite poet, William Cowper. Cowper is mentioned when the trip to Sotherton is first discussed, because Mr. Rushworth, Maria’s fiancé, wants to update the landscaping there. Fanny quietly laments the planned destruction of an avenue of oak trees. “Cut down an avenue!” she murmurs to her cousin Edmund. “What a pity! Does it not make you think of Cowper? 'Ye fallen avenues, once more I mourn your fate unmerited.'”
A locked gate, of course, plays an important role in the Sotherton episode. For Maria Bertram, the gate represents “restraint and hardship.” Henry Crawford persuades her to “pass round the edge of the gate” and she goes off alone with him, to the alarm of the hapless Fanny.
This gate is at one end of an enclosed forest called the Wilderness. Mary Crawford, Edmund, and Fanny are the first to enter the Wilderness: “[T]hey were all agreed in… leaving the unmitigated glare of day behind… They all felt the refreshment of it.” In The Task, Cowper wrote of walking under shade trees:
Refreshing change! where now the blazing sun?
By short transition we have lost his glare,
And stepped at once into a cooler clime.
Cowper took Edmund’s side of the debate. The Task derides worldly fame --“The laurels that a Cæsar reaps are weeds” – and includes a lengthy criticism of clergymen who neglect their duties.
…loose in morals, and in manners vain,
In conversation frivolous, in dress
Extreme, at once rapacious and profuse,
Frequent in park with lady at his side,
Ambling and prattling scandal as he goes…
Like Edmund, Cowper asserts the importance of the clergymen to the moral fiber of the country:
Must stand acknowledged, while the world shall stand,
The most important and effectual guard,
Support, and ornament of virtue’s cause…
Soon, Fanny is left behind while Edmund and Mary go off to settle a friendlier dispute—what are the dimensions of the Wilderness? Mary thinks they must have walked at least a mile, because they “have taken such a very serpentine course, and the wood itself must be half a mile long…” This appears to be a coy reference to The Task:
We tread the wilderness, whose well-rolled walks,
With curvature of slow and easy sweep--
Deception innocent—give ample space
To narrow bounds.
As she waits, Fanny Price might say with Cowper:
I see that all are wanderers, gone astray
Each in his own delusions; they are lost
In chase of fancied happiness, still woo’d
And never won.