In Mansfield Park by Jane Austen, the East room is the room that the heroine, Fanny Price, artlessly works herself into.1 Her own room, the little white attic, is too small to accommodate her plants and her books, and she is glad to keep them in the East room. Little by little, as she adds to her possessions and spends more time there, the room becomes considered as her own. It is to the East room that she goes after anything unpleasant below. In the East room she can always find some pursuit, or some train of thought, at hand to console her. There she keeps her plants, her books, her writing-desk, and her works of charity and ingenuity. There, if nothing but musing would do, every object in the room had an interesting remembrance connected with it—everything was a friend, or bore her thoughts to a friend. The room was most dear to her, and she would not have changed its furniture for the handsomest in the house. To this nest of comforts Fanny goes to try its influence on an agitated, doubting spirit. There she works and meditates undisturbed. When she leaves Mansfield Park for a time, she misses the East room and often sighs at the remembrance of all her books and boxes, and various comforts there.
In his book Miniatures and Morals, Peter J. Leithart observes about Mansfield Park, “Space almost plays the role of a character in the book. Not only do certain towns have important thematic associations, but the living space has a subtle influence on character. Fanny’s life is divided between two locations. Early in the novel, she moves from her family’s two locations. Early in the novel, she moves from her family’s home in Portsmouth to live with her uncle and aunt Bertram at Mansfield Park. Her large family lived in cramped housing, and Fanny is at first overwhelmed by the size of everything at Mansfield:
The grandeur of the house astonished, but could not console her. The rooms were too large for her to move in with ease; whatever she touched she expected to injure, and she crept about in constant terror of something or other; often retreating towards her own chamber to cry; and the little girl who was spoken of in the drawing-room when she left at might, as seeming so desirably sensible of her peculiar good fortune, ended every day’s sorrows by sobbing herself to sleep. (p. 51)
“To make the Park a livable space, Fanny sets up a little “nest of comforts” in the East room, where she retreats to read and think. Even there, the fact that she is marginal to Mansfield Park is emphasized by the fact that Mrs. Norris allows no fire in the room.”2
The East room used to be the Bertram girls’ and Fanny’s school-room, so called till the Miss Bertrams would not allow it to be called so any longer. It had been called the East room ever since Maria Bertram was sixteen (Fanny herself was about thirteen3). There they had read and written, and talked and laughed, with their governess, until she left them. The plain furniture of the room had suffered all the ill-usage of children. Its greatest elegancies and ornaments were a faded footstool of Julia’s work, too ill done for the drawing-room, three transparencies, made in a rage for transparencies, for the three lower panes of one window, a collection of family profiles, thought unworthy of being anywhere else, over the mantelpiece, and, after Fanny takes possession of the room, a small sketch of a ship sent four years ago from the Mediterranean by William, with H.M.S. Antwerp at the bottom, in letters as tall as the mainmast. The smallness of the white attic made the use of the East room so evidently reasonable that the Miss Bertrams, with every superiority in their own apartments which their own sense of superiority could demand, were entirely approving it; and Mrs. Norris, having stipulated for there never being a fire in it on Fanny’s account, was tolerably resigned to her having the use of what nobody else wanted, though the terms in which she sometimes spoke of the indulgence seemed to imply that it was the best room in the house.
It is to the East room that Fanny goes after she refuses to be bullied into taking part in the play. There she goes to see if by looking at Edmund’s profile she could catch any of his counsel, or by giving air to her geraniums she might inhale a breeze of mental strength herself. It is in the East room that Edmund tells Fanny that he is going to join the play scheme. It is to the East room that Fanny goes to escape the concerns of the theatricals. It is in the East room that both Miss Crawford and Edmund rehearse their parts before Fanny. It is in the East room that Fanny goes to deposit a necklace from Miss Crawford, and finds Edmund there with a chain for William’s cross which she keeps with the scrap of paper on which Edmund had begun writing to her—the dearest part of the gift, a treasure beyond all her hopes. It is to the East room that Fanny goes to walk up and down and calm herself after Mr. Crawford’s proposal. It is to the East room that Fanny goes to avoid him when he calls. It is in the East room that Sir Thomas tells Fanny of Mr. Crawford’s proposals to her, where she assures her uncle that she will not marry Mr. Crawford, and where her uncle tells her of his displeasure over her refusal. Fanny was quite struck when, on returning to the East room after this occasion, the first thing which caught her eye was a fire lighted and burning, and she found, from the voluntary information of the housemaid, who came in to attend it, that so it was to be every day—Sir Thomas had given orders for it. It is the East room that Fanny avoids, to prevent being surprised there alone by Miss Crawford before she leaves for London. It is to the East room that Fanny takes Miss Crawford when she requests a few private words and where Miss Crawford reminisces over the theatricals rehearsed there and chides Fanny for refusing her brother. It is of the East room that Fanny is reminded by the lack of a fire in the little bedroom she shares with her sister Susan in Portsmouth.
In his book A Fine Brush on Ivory, Richard Jenkyns discusses this space of Fanny’s.
“Within Mansfield Park itself Jane Austen finds a sense of the significance of interior space—of what might be called moral space. This sense can be related to something else that she first discovers in this novel: the poignancy of objects. She understands the tenderness of personal ownership, especially in childhood or early youth. At Portsmouth we see Susan and Betsey battling for the possession of a little silver knife, and Betsey’s satisfaction at owning the knife which Fanny buys her to mend the quarrel. In Emma Harriet’s relics of Mr Elton—a piece of court-plaster and the stub of a pencil—are reverently labelled ‘Most precious treasures’, and like the heroine herself, we hardly know whether to laugh or cry.89 A similar poignancy attaches to the spaces which the child Fanny ‘owns’. These spaces are intensely realized, yet with almost no description. Concerning the attic in which Fanny begins we know only that it is small and white and that there is no fire.90 But this cold, pure, pale place is vivid to us as part of our understanding of Fanny. What we know of the old schoolroom is that it faces east and that it is chilly until Sir Thomas’s intervention (since Mrs Norris has forbidden a fire to be lit there);91 the transparencies of picturesque views are on the window, and it is where Fanny keeps a few of her particular treasures. It has become Fanny’s space, and it is imbued with her moral presence.”4