The family flourishes in Sir Thomas's absence. Edmund takes over as leader of the family and proves to be just and kind. Maria and Julia are the toast of the neighborhood, and Mrs. Norris supervises their social outings and screens potential suitors. Lady Bertram rarely goes out, and Fanny becomes her companion and helpmate. Edmund once again does Fanny a great kindness, ignoring the objections of Mrs. Norris to get her a horse to ride for her health. Tom soon returns from Antigua; the business there has not gone well, and Sir Thomas will be staying longer than expected.
Maria is soon engaged to Mr. Rushworth, an incredibly wealthy but also incredibly stupid young man with a large estate nearby. Sir Thomas sends his consent from abroad, and everyone is quite content. Shortly after Fanny's eighteenth birthday, Mansfield Park receives two newcomers--the brother and sister of Mrs. Grant, the parish priest's wife. Mary Crawford is beautiful and charming, while her brother Henry, though not handsome, is heir to a large estate and shares his sister's charisma. Mary Crawford immediately sets her sights on Tom Bertram and his large estate, although she finds him dull. Mrs. Grant decides to play matchmaker for Henry and Julia Bertram, despite Henry's aversion to marriage. The Bertrams and the Crawfords are immediate friends, and Henry seems attracted to Maria despite her engagement. He explains to his sister that, engaged or married, women are "safe" and therefore more fun. Fanny is a puzzle to the Crawfords, who are unsure of her status in the family; after a somewhat convoluted explanation, Mary decides that Fanny is simply not "out" yet (that is, she has not been formally debuted in society).
Despite her best efforts, Mary has made no progress with Tom, and she is disappointed when he leaves Mansfield to carouse with friends. She expects dullness under Edmund. Mr. Rushworth's visits have become more frequent; in the course of one of those visits, he begins to talk of the remodeling and landscaping he wants to do at his estate, Sotherton. The whole party becomes involved in a discussion of estates and style, and they resolve to visit the place. Meanwhile, Mary and Edmund are becoming acquainted, and she finds herself attracted to him. She complains of the difficulty she has had in getting her harp delivered--it is harvest time, and the farmers are not willing to use their carts for hauling. Despite her vanity and her obviously corrupted sense of the world, Edmund is fascinated by her, and speaks to Fanny of her the next day. They agree on her improprieties, but Fanny does not find her as charming as Edmund does. The conversation troubles Fanny, who cannot admit to herself that she is jealous of Mary as a rival for Edmund's affections. Soon Edmund and Mary are spending a great deal of time together, and eventually Mary is using Fanny's horse almost every day to ride out with Edmund and his sisters. Fanny is neglected and left almost entirely to her two aunts, who abuse her and force her to do their errands. Finally, Edmund discovers Fanny ill after a long day with the two women. He berates them, and himself, and the horse is restored to Fanny.
Plans are finalized for visiting Sotherton. Seats in the carriages are limited, and it is decided that Fanny must stay home with Lady Bertram, although Edmund intervenes on her behalf. Finally, Edmund declares that he will stay home so that Fanny can go. In the end, Mrs. Grant volunteers to stay with Lady Bertram, and all the young people are free to go. The carriage ride to Sotherton is tempestuous. Maria and Julia are now competing more or less openly for Henry Crawford's affections, despite Maria's engagement to Mr. Rushworth. Mrs. Grant instructs Henry to allow Julia to ride on the carriage's open seat for a driving lesson with him, and Maria is furious. Fanny is simply pleased with the view from the carriage. Maria takes solace in bragging of Rushworth's holdings, and is in a much better mood when they arrive at Sotherton.
While the last few chapters have focused on social change on an individual level, these chapters focus on broader social changes. The introduction of the Crawfords brings the city to Mansfield Park. Neither Crawford is aware of the conventions of rural estate life, as Mary's fuss about the transport of her harp shows. She remarks that, in London, anything, even transport during harvest season, can be had for the right price. Her comment startles the inhabitants of Mansfield Park, particularly the logical and sensitive Edmund. Clearly she represents a challenge to the old order. Henry Crawford also chooses to be away from his estate much of the time; he knows little of the old-fashioned duty to the land and the local farmers that Edmund feels so strongly. The two Crawfords' superficiality in matters of everyday life foreshadows their emotional superficiality. While Rushworth seems to be more sympathetic to Edmund's point of view, he too espouses modernity, talking of improvements to his estate and of the latest vogues in landscaping. His comments provoke raised eyebrows and some quoting of poetry between Fanny and Edmund, who are both sensitive to nature and tradition. Julia, Maria, and the others, however, are eager to suggest even more changes. Country estates are quickly shifting from being benevolent, if authoritarian, centers of agrarian society to serving merely as showy hunting parks for the wealthy. As the Bertrams and the Crawfords explore Sotherton in the next chapters, these issues will be explored in more detail.
The romantic entanglements of the novel see their genesis in these chapters as well. Maria is engaged to a man whom she is marrying for money, and the disaster her brother Edmund foresees has just arrived in the form of Henry Crawford, who has absolutely no interest in forming a sincere attachment with anyone. Edmund himself, though, has fallen under Mary's spell, to the extent of inadvertently hurting Fanny in his rush of attentiveness to Mary. When Fanny falls ill, Edmund is partially shocked back to his senses. The feelings of Fanny herself are even more complicated. At this point, she is clearly beginning to feel a romantic interest in Edmund, although she cannot admit this to anyone, even herself. This suggests that Mrs. Norris's plans for her proper upbringing have failed. In these chapters, Fanny has become increasingly self-effacing and, to the modern reader, annoying in her deference to one and all. While Fanny can be grating, she also proves a masterpiece of psychology on Austen's part. Abused by all and pulled in every direction, she must try to please everyone at once, leaving her in a position where she cannot be herself, save perhaps at odd moments with the understanding Edmund. Very likely, Fanny annoys herself as much as she can annoy us, and when we step back and look at her overall situation, she emerges as a very realistic and sympathetic character.
With Sir Thomas absent, nearly everyone at Mansfield Park is engaging in play-acting. While Fanny does it to survive, the others do it for amusement or to "practice" being adults. Edmund plays at being family patriarch, and does a fair job of it, despite his occasional neglect of Fanny. Maria, despite her engagement, plays at being a coquette. Mrs. Grant plays at matchmaker, and Mrs. Norris, of course, plays at being both mother and father to the Bertram children. Play-acting can be seen as both a beneficial exercise--something these young people must do to learn to be adults--and as a morally questionable act--something that can cause trouble, as Maria shows. When the group undertakes "real" acting in the next chapters, issues of sincerity and morality become even more prominent.