Room 1: “Cousins in Love”: A Controversial Marriage

Mansfield Park is the only Austen novel where the hero and heroine – Edmund Bertram and Fanny Price – are cousins. In Georgian England, marriage between first cousins was legal but usually discouraged. However, a common exception was when a woman married their father’s nephew to keep their inheritance within the family – almost half of all cousin marriages in upper-class Georgian society were for this reason. There are three times in Jane Austen’s novels where this nearly occurs (twice in Pride and Prejudice and once in Persuasion), but in the end Jane does not allow the matches to happen.

By contrast, in Mansfield Park Fanny and Edmund marry not for financial reasons but for love. Controversially, Jane describes them more like brother and sister than as cousins: Fanny views Edmund as ‘an affectionate brother’ and Edmund calls her his ‘only sister’. From the beginning of the novel, the Bertram family worry that it would be ‘morally impossible’ for the pair to become ‘cousins in love’. Fanny, in turn, describes her love for Edmund as ‘reprobated and forbidden’. But when Edmund falls in love with Fanny, the novel’s narrator defends their romance, asking the reader, ‘what could be more natural?’.

One of the last sentences of the novel states that ‘with so much true merit and true love, and no want of fortune and friends, the happiness of the married cousins must appear as secure as earthly happiness can be.’ Clearly, Austen’s narrator does not agree that romance between cousins is ‘morally impossible’.


Context: Cousins in Love

Jane Austen’s brother Henry married their first cousin Eliza in 1797. Like Fanny and Edmund in Mansfield Park, Henry and Eliza spent most of their childhoods together and their flirtation is thought to be the subject of one of Jane’s earliest written stories, Henry and Eliza. The couple had a happy marriage until Eliza’s death in 1813. Jane adored Eliza as both a cousin and a sister-in-law and was at her bedside when she died. Eliza never got to read Mansfield Park – but Henry loved it.

Did Jane write about such a controversial topic to defend the love and marriage of Henry and Eliza?

Copy of a portrait miniature of Reverend Henry Austen

Copy of a portrait miniature of Reverend Henry Austen, Jane Austen’s House

Portrait miniature of Eliza, Comtesse de Feuillide

Portrait miniature of Eliza, Comtesse de Feuillide, from an unknown collection