The party arrives at Sotherton and is immediately given a tour of the house by Mr. Rushworth's mother, a garrulous old woman as dull as her son. Fanny is disappointed by the chapel, which is a mere room. She conveys her feeling to Edmund and Mary Crawford, who disagree with her and with each other. Mary finds the idea of going to chapel disagreeable and, unaware that Edmund is to become a priest, makes a snide comment about clergymen. Neither Edmund nor Fanny inform her of her gaffe, but a chance comment of Julia's leaves her mortified at her mistake. Julia's comment, that if Edmund had taken his orders he could marry Maria and Mr. Rushworth in the chapel that day, is an attempt to embarrass her sister and warn her away from Henry Crawford, with whom she has been flirting more and more obviously.
The party leaves the house to view the grounds. Maria, Henry, and Rushworth form a threesome, as do Fanny, Edmund, and Mary. To her anger, Julia has to stay with Mrs. Norris and Rushworth's mother. Mary teases Edmund about his decision to become a clergyman. Fanny is mostly left out of their flirtatious conversation, but she continues to accompany them about the grounds. Fanny becomes tired, and the threesome sits. Mary is restless and prevails on Edmund to accompany her further while Fanny rests. Fanny is left behind. Some time later, Maria and her two suitors arrive. They wish to pass through a nearby gate to the rest of the park, but the gate is locked. Rushworth returns to the house to get the key, but Maria and Henry slip through the side of the spiked gate and go off alone together, to Fanny's dismay. A few minutes later, an annoyed Julia arrives and follows after Maria and Henry. Finally, Rushworth arrives with the key and is clearly disappointed. He asks Fanny what she thinks of Henry; he is clearly aware of Maria's flirtations. Fanny evades his question. Finally, the rest of the party returns for Fanny, and they depart for the house, where they dine quickly and then leave for home. Julia again shares a seat with Henry, and the women in the coach are crowded by the plants, cheeses, and eggs Mrs. Norris is bringing back as gifts.
Soon after the trip to Sotherton, a letter arrives, informing the family that Sir Thomas will return in November, thirteen weeks from the present. Maria is anxious, because her father's return will mean her marriage; the rest are concerned that his return will mean an end to their gaiety. For Edmund, his father's return will also mean his taking orders, and, at a party one evening, Mary takes the opportunity to tease him again. In her teasing she includes some insults to Dr. Grant, which offends Fanny. Fanny and Edmund escape Mary and go out to look at the stars. Edmund again speaks of Mary to Fanny, trying to justify her bad habits and her cruelty by pointing to her precarious upbringing. Fanny changes the subject to point out constellations. Edmund soon rejoins the party, to Fanny's dismay.
The various features of the Sotherton grounds reflect both actual vogues in landscape and a metaphorical commentary on the action of the novel. Aesthetic considerations are one of the few things that can provoke Fanny to speak her mind, as the conversation in the chapel shows. The chapel highlights the differences among Fanny, who is romantic and conservative yet sensitive, Edmund, who is practical above all but still retains his aesthetic sense, and Mary, who is wholly modern and more interested, as Fanny notes, in people and politics than in beauty. Edmund represents a sort of golden mean, as he is neither stuck in the past nor forward-looking to the detriment of all else. The park at Sotherton represents the attempts of man to control nature over the centuries. It even includes an artificial "wilderness," an area that is supposed to look wild and natural but is in reality carefully groomed. The action that takes place in the park is heavily reliant on the setting. The park is not a house, so it can seem like a place where normal social rules do not apply. Maria's flirtations with Henry are an indication of this. However, this is no Eden; it is a place made by human hands (hands which represent a source of exploited labor, no less). Therefore, rules do apply. The passage of Maria and Henry around the locked gate reveals this. They violate the park together, a transgressive act. Their act is a penetration of a previously locked-off space, which is clearly meant to suggest a sexual act. The spikes on the gate and the threat to Maria's gown hint at the violence that Maria could possibly do herself by undertaking such actions with Henry.
Edmund's skirmishes with Mary over his future as a clergyman are also telling. Edmund views clergymen as a powerful moral example for their parishioners; he feels that by knowing those to whom he preaches he can do good in their lives. Mary feels that the job is outdated and filled by those who harangue to a congregation of strangers and then don't live up to their own precepts. While her brother-in-law Dr. Grant may not be perfect, he is nevertheless far better than Mary makes him out to be. That Edmund is still attracted to her despite her flawed reasoning and her generally disturbing outlook is proof that passionate love is not a positive thing in this society. Edmund is blinded by his attraction to her. His relationship with Fanny, on the other hand, is based on companionable, if not brotherly, love and mutual interests. A mark of the depth of his relationship with Fanny is his willingness to discuss romantic interests with her. While this is, in its way, transgressive--it is not really proper conversational material for a brother and sister--it also speaks to the depth of their attachment and the essential un-brotherliness of his feelings for her. She is his closest friend in a world where friendship between the genders is normally superficial; it is also possible that Edmund is unconsciously trying to make her jealous.
The two threesomes that form to tour Sotherton foreshadow the two love triangles that are developing. In the park at Sotherton, the characters have a chance to compare alternatives and try out potential couplings just as they try out possible rehabilitation plans for the estate. Both are serious business, yet both are treated as proper holiday fun. While the triangle involving Maria, Rushworth, and Henry seems more serious--Maria and Henry are always on the verge of actual involvement--they represent more of a comic situation. It is Fanny, Edmund, and Mary who grapple more directly with social issues and sincerity, who provide the serious commentary on choosing a proper mate. Although our sympathies are obviously meant to be with Fanny, and we are meant to distrust Mary, at this point she is ahead in the quest for Edmund's affections. The passive Fanny, not sure whether to view Edmund as a brother or as a lover, cannot counter Mary's aggressive style. Mary's quasi-sexual assertiveness will increasingly become an issue, first for Fanny and then for Edmund.
Regarding Maria Bertram and Mrs. Norris in the last chapter, neither leaves England. When Austen writes that "an establishment [is] being formed for them in another country," she does not mean continental Europe. Here, "country" simply means another part of the same country (most likely somewhere in the countryside). They are still in England.
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