one of the features of Mansfield Park that make it so ambitious a work is the subtlety of its study of evil. The amusement at human folly we expect from Jane Austen’s novels is rather scanty here; irony is certainly present, but it tends rather to be sad or even bitter. In Austen’s other major novels, evil is largely contained, its worst manifestations taking place only rarely and at an emotional distance, as befits comedy. But in Mansfield Park we see an insidious form of evil at close hand, trying, persistently and with little check, to destroy the soul of a vulnerable child and adolescent.
Fanny Price is uprooted in childhood and must either accept the cancerous new identity pressed upon her, or face the heavy challenge of building a new one for herself. She has remarkable intelligence, integrity and capacity for love, but is hindered by low vitality, which makes her easily intimidated. To meet the challenge she must unravel the moral and cognitive confusions that have entangled her since she came to Mansfield, get the better of her fears, come to know her own high value, learn to assess relationships by “just consideration of others” and sometimes compassion, and make a marriage of true minds, true hearts. Since she is not a fairytale heroine but a flawed human being, she is only partly successful at these daunting tasks. I believe that this view of Fanny’s task is implicit in the novel, but I will make ethical judgments on this basis regarding her and other characters as though they were historical people without trying to establish the author’s intentions.
This essay is interdisciplinary, combining theological and ethical analysis with literary commentary. In the first part I will sketch the conception of evil to be used, breaking it down into categories commonly discussed among theologians and ethicists. In the more extensive second part I will comment on how Mrs. Norris, Sir Thomas, and Fanny exemplify or respond to specific forms of cultural evil, especially in view of the prophetic challenges to these evils which they probably encountered. In some instances, the challenges were heeded, leading to change in mindset; in others they were rejected, so that evil acts became more fully deliberate.
Natural and Moral
In philosophical analyses, evil is usually categorized first of all into natural evil and moral evil. By natural evil, I mean, roughly, harm to sentient beings that comes about through the forces of nature, apart from human will and deed. Jane Austen, like most good writers of fiction, uses it very sparingly. In Mansfield Park the only significant instance is (perhaps) the unnamed event or events that disabled Fanny’s father, contributing to the Price family’s chronic financial straits
Moral Evil: Rebellion and Harm
My focus will be moral evil, the sense in which the word is ordinarily used. The term is so broad that vagueness and confusions are common. Two important elements in conceptions of evil are a) rebellion against religious, social or civil authority, and b) intentional action or neglect that causes harm to others (physical pain, psychological suffering) for its own sake or for trivial benefits. For example, Fanny’s conviction that the young people’s theatrical production is wrong arises from an approximately equal mixture of these two elements: Sir Thomas, the lord of Mansfield, would disapprove; Henry is harming Julia and Maria, and Henry and Maria are harming James Rushworth. In life, many different combinations of the two elements are found. There are, of course, also varying ideas of what constitutes authority, what harm is, and to whom it can apply to be considered evil.
This essay will focus on conceptions of evil as rebellion and/or harmfulness, but there is a third element, overlapping with the other two and tending to be in the background, which should be mentioned. It is experienced as a sense of pollution resulting from the breach of one or more of a culture’s walls in structures of meaningfulness, particularly violations of taboos regulating relations of sex, family, race, class or caste. The result is a mixing or blending together of things or persons which tradition has demanded be kept separate. It is accompanied variously by perplexity, anxiety, loathing, but sometimes exhilaration. This conception of evil tends to be allied to that of rebellion against authority; it may be in tension with that of harmfulness. Examples might be Fanny’s horror at Maria’s and Henry’s elopement, and Lady Catherine’s seemingly bizarre idea of the pollution of the shades of Pemberley.
Jane Austen’s lifetime was a period of radical questioning and stout defense of authority-based ideas of good and evil, with much heat, light, and obscuration. My understanding of moral evil in this essay is the heir of the radical critiques of Austen’s period, as well as their further developments in the last half of the twentieth century. I see the essence of evil as cruelty, deliberate harm done for one’s own gratification to sentient beings themselves capable of experiencing conscious pain, suffering, and pleasure (Singer 176-79).1 An example is the sadistic abuses that the Austens’ neighbor, Lord Portsmouth, visited on his servants and on animals awaiting slaughter in the shambles (Tomalin 88). In its worst forms, cruelty culminates in the crushing of the spirit as well as the death of the body. But harm to other beings done reluctantly and purely out of an honest conviction that it is crucially necessary--for their correction, for the safety or health of oneself or one’s group, for order in society, or for justice—would not fall in this category. (And if the conviction is in fact mistaken, the result is tragedy or pathos, in some ways akin to natural evil.) Harm done reluctantly and only out of necessity is perhaps rare; there tends to be an admixture of callousness or cruelty, or even pure cruelty, in human motivations in situations of supposedly necessary harm.
Many religious thinkers, notably psychologist M. Scott Peck in People of the Lie, have shown that evil is often screened by muddy thinking and deception of self and others; in the language of Mansfield Park, such persons lack a knowledge of their own hearts. Double-talk “enables people to compel others without having to regard themselves as bullies” (Johnson 102). For example, Mrs. Norris is ostensibly correcting Fanny for selfishness and laziness when she attacks the sick girl with “‘You should learn to think of other people; . . . it is a shocking trick for a young person to be always lolling upon a sofa’” (71), an accusation which even the usually indifferent Julia protests as unfair.
(Whether or not evil’s accompanying tendency to deception is universally found is uncertain. It seems likely to appear most frequently in societies characterized by high ideals of universal human dignity; by contrast, in openly violent societies with little idealism there may be less masking of cruel impulses.)
An overlapping form of evil-as-harm is unnecessary willed action or neglect to prevent sentient beings from developing their full potential for good, sometimes culminating in the death of the spirit such as we see in Anne de Bourgh. Mrs. Norris is, again, the great example of such evildoing, persistently working to prevent Fanny from developing self-esteem and self-confidence, as when she pressures her not to speak at the Grants’ dinner party, and to remember that she must always be the lowest and last (221). The sickening fact that Fanny agrees with her shows how pervasive has been the effect of the poison. Self-deception and lying tend to characterize this form of evil as well. Like the pathological parent who covertly makes his or her child sick in order to be the selfless nurse, Mrs. Norris, the “generous” benefactor representing the Bertrams, must keep Fanny abjectly low so Fanny will always need and appreciate the bounty they bestow on her.
Actions of overt harm or stunting of others, whether necessary or evil, are likely to be partly or wholly motivated by insecurity, under the assumption that value is scarce: to show the other to be insignificant or bad magnifies oneself. For example, it seems likely that an ever-present insecurity about her secondary status underlies Aunt Norris’s selfish resentment that Fanny should have the pleasure of the trip to Sotherton, though in fact it detracts nothing from herself. More about this trait later. In contrast, the equally selfish but secure Lady Bertram objects to her going only until Edmund or Mrs. Grant agrees to take her place as companion.
In keeping with the trends of our own time and culture, the conception of evil used in this paper is derived from the element of harm to sentient beings rather than rebellion against authority (or pollution from the blending of that which should be kept separate). Although in individual cases of harm the degree of evil may be hard to evaluate, we must be able to ponder the question honestly for ourselves, rather than giving the burden of it over to an authority. Authorities are finite and subject to error and to evil themselves. (Even divine authority, assuming it exists, is always mediated through culturally limited conceptions.) However, many evils in the sense of harm are in fact prohibited by authority, and such prohibitions, though not sacrosanct, have practical benefits toward curbing evil in society. Authorities must be subject to question, but they cannot be disregarded.
Moral Evil: Cultural and Deliberate
Another basic categorization of moral evil breaks it down into cultural evil and deliberate individual evil act. In any given human life, cultural evil usually comes first: from family and friends a child absorbs the culture’s pervasive ideas and attitudes toward an oppressed group, participating in their injustices before she or he understands the situation. For example, as children Julia and Maria soaked up their parents’ and aunt’s prejudice regarding the impoverished Fanny, soon treating her with careless contempt. Unjust social arrangements, supported by prejudiced ideas, are the evil matrix from which come individual prejudiced actions. This process is not inevitable; one finds children, even teenagers such as Edmund, who question unjust ideas and actions to some extent. But in most cases the youthful critics learn to accept them sooner or later, and the culture continues to be largely unaware of its systemic injustices.
Sensitive persons of any age in an unawakened culture will be distressed at particularly dreadful instances of cultural evils. These occasions give them an opportunity to reflect and awaken to the evil pattern enmeshing them, but most people are unable or unwilling to resist the structures that have shaped their identity, especially if they benefit from the situation. Instead they accept ready misconceptions and rationalizations, avoid such scenes, compartmentalize, quickly forget them, or numb themselves.
As long as opportunities to awaken are thus passed over, and the ideas underlying cultural evils are not questioned in any significant way, everyday injustices are committed without full deliberation, and remain on the level of cultural evil. Unawakened individuals who actively participate in or tolerate such evils have a quasi-innocence, or rather a limited degree of guilt, varying with the situation.
Things change when the system faces challenges from awakened critics, prophetic2 voices such as the biblical Amos, William Cowper, Mary Wollstonecraft, Frances Power Crabbe, and Mohandas Gandhi. Though cultural evils have often thrived with the blessing of organized religion, the tradition of prophetic challenge also has its source in religion: specifically, in convictions that Deity compassionately takes sides with the oppressed, beginning with the Jewish tradition of Israel’s Exodus from slavery in Egypt, and continuing in its daughter religions Christianity and Islam. In modern times, some critics’ inspiration may be purely ethical. In either case, the critic shows that an entire social pattern, perhaps even a society’s foundation, is unjust: a dominant group is systematically harming or even destroying members of a subordinated group of sentient beings. Often the oppressed need to hear this word as well as those in the dominant group. The critic declares that the oppressed have needs, potentials, and rights to their own interests and agendas, and that it is radically wrong for them to be treated as though they exist merely or mostly to benefit the group in power. Religious critics may claim that oppressors, however pious their language, are really worshipping idols of gold crafted by human beings.
Now hearers must make a decision: to heed the challenge in whole or in part, or reject it. Those who choose to heed must undergo a profound, sometimes seismic change. The term for thisprocess in the Hebrew scriptures is t’shuvah, literally “return,” involving remorse, confession, and resolution of amendment of life.3 In the Christian scriptures the Greek word is metanoia, “change of mindset,” both terms usually being translated as “repentance.” Such persons turn away from their complicity in the evil system, and may even join in action to oppose it. But this process, needless to say, is difficult, involving painful self-criticism, acknowledgement of guilt, loss of social supports, and the anxiety of facing a new, largely uncharted world. There may also be conflicting loyalties when one’s family or friends are complicit, and economic risk when the evil is imbedded in one’s means of livelihood, as was human slavery for Sir Thomas. When the decision, conscious or subconcious, is to reject the challenge, one either determinedly shuts one’s ears, or actively defends the evil system. In the theological language of Marjorie Suchocki (developing ideas of Austen’s contemporary Friedrich Schleiermacher), at this point original sin--the corrupted social matrix—becomes actual or deliberate sin (Suchocki 16-19, 129-42). Quasi-innocence vanishes along with ignorance, evil hardens, and guilt deepens.<
So much (or so little rather) to explain what I mean by evil and the processes of encountering it. In the second part of this essay I will reflect on the ways certain characters in Mansfield Park, principally Mrs. Norris, Sir Thomas Bertram, and Fanny Price, are involved in four cultural evils: oppression of impoverished classes, gender oppression, slave-holding, and species exploitation. In Mrs. Norris we see an extreme case of class prejudice, held to the last. Sir Thomas’s beliefs and actions show class prejudice and gender prejudice, both of which he comes in part to reject, and complicity in slavery, which he retains. Fanny appears as the victim of class and gender prejudices, but surmounts them; she apparently shuts her ears to specific challenges to human slavery and the exploitation of animals.
For Mrs. Norris, human value is completely determined by possessions and class membership; human individuals are two-dimensional figures within this social structure. Virtually nothing matters but high rank and wealth. Members of the lowest classes are denied any agenda of their own, existing merely for the benefit of upper classes. She is determined to shore up class structure against any and all perceived threats, at whatever cost to truth and fairness. This system, as the all-determining and all-consuming reality, is the evil matrix out of which she, an evil individual, operates. Her prejudiced outlook is of course typical of a number of unsympathetic characters in Austen’s fiction; she is unusual in being a major character with no redeeming features, in the literal sense that even her positive qualities are used for ill, and do not redeem her.
What are these positive qualities (if they exist)? Mrs. Norris has been described as a caricature, a stereotypical figure sounding a single dissonant note rather than a portrait of a relatively complex human being. However, one of her first actions in the story is to propose that, out of compassion for the beleagered Mrs. Price, the Bertrams take in and educate her oldest daughter. But we soon learn that not only does does her “compassion” mean ongoing persecution, she never actually donates a penny to this magnanimous scheme; thus it seems obvious that she is hypocritical as well as miserly and cruel. True enough. But it is not likely that as she mused on how further to help her sister, she said to herself in so many words, “We’ll get one of her daughters here, I’ll get the credit, Sir Thomas will bear all the expense, and I can stick the knife into her every day.” To give the devil her due, we should, I think, acknowledge that Mrs. Norris has enough moral taste to appreciate generosity, the quality she most sorely lacks. There is a sense in which she originally “meant well.” But like Henry Crawford, who could appreciate integrity and committed love but would rather marry them than do the sustained hard work of developing them (Bander 117), Mrs. Norris wants to identify with generosity without diminishing her own hoard.
Mrs. Norris also continues to support Maria after she is condemned by all the others, even leaving her home to join Maria in exile. But, as I shall try to show, she is motivated not by genuine love for Maria but by idolatry.
A minor illustration of her ways can be seen in her relationship to Mrs. Grant. Mrs. Norris is hostile toward both the Grants from the outset. Their relationship begins in dilapidations, meaning that Mrs. Norris, as widow of the deceased rector, must pay for any repairs the vicarage needs (Collins 73-74). Apparently anxious about money and thus avaricious, she of course resents this. That her bad feelings do not blow over after a time is partly because of Dr. Grant’s character, selfish and outspoken like her own. But Mrs. Grant is sensitive and pleasant; for example, she tactfully soothes Mrs. Norris when Dr. Grant deprecates the Moor Park apricots in which she took such pride. Yet Mrs. Norris is even more hostile to her than to Dr. Grant, complaining angrily and repeatedly about Mrs. Grant’s style of housekeeping: her dining-room table is too big, her cook is overpaid, her meals have too many courses, her food budget is inflated. None of these things actually harms Mrs. Norris in the least. The key to her resentment is the size of Mrs. Grant’s dowry, only five thousand pounds (her own probably having been seven). By her expansive style of housekeeping the modestly-dowered Mrs. Grant is stepping out of her proper sphere, aspiring to be a great lady. She is threatening the social order in ways that Dr. Grant does not (31, 221).
Another example, having to do with Mrs. Norris’s managerial traits, is seen in her vindictive stance toward servants. She professes great concern for the old coachman, but we never see it in operation, and probably it is imaginary. In the worst instance of abuse, involving verbal child-battering, she harshly berates ten-year-old Dick Jackson for arriving at the servant’s quarters at dinnertime on an errand for his father, and claims that he is greedy (141-42); naturally she shows no consciousness where the greed really is. Similarly, she approves of Mrs. Rushworth’s housekeeper, “a treasure,” for turning away two maids for wearing white gowns (105-06). The scene of Sir Thomas’s return suggests what her everyday interaction with servants is like. She is impatient to show her importance by ordering an unscheduled meal, going to the housekeeper “with troublesome directions, and insult[ing] the footmen with injunctions of dispatch” (180). When she cannot control the housekeeper on the day of the ball, she becomes intolerably abrasive The self-serving callousness or cruelty shown in these incidents suggests that when she brags to Sir Thomas that she detected more than one bad servant, quite possibly she was largely manufacturing their misdeeds.
As suggested above, her “remorseless bullying” of Fanny is, like her obsession with thrift, probably a “neurotic compensation for her inferior family position” (Wiltshire 59). Having in her youth had the prestige of being the oldest daughter, she probably enjoyed the power over her sisters given her by her birthright as well as by her greater energy, and expected to marry first and marry well. But having her younger sister marry spectacularly well six years before she herself had to give in and attach herself to a clergyman—her brother-in-law’s de facto retainer—was, in Juliet McMaster’s image, doubtless a bitter pill to swallow, and its bitterness became part of her constitution. By her own lights she is virtually a failure, yet she is disinclined to see this fact as due to any fault of her own. Fanny becomes the scapegoat upon whom she vents this accumulated resentment (McMaster 83). In theological language, she projects onto Fanny her self-hatred for having failed to gain the high favor of the false gods Rank and Wealth that the Bertrams enjoy.
Mrs. Norris’s flattering and spoiling of Julia and especially Maria, supposedly love, become the other side of this process; as Kay Torney Souter points out, the Bertram girls represent the aunt’s ego-ideal (Souter 211). She projects upon Maria especially her wished-for self as the darling of these same gods, a divine-human being, “a perfect angel.” Mrs. Norris lives so completely in her projections that she knows none of her nieces. With no more interest in Maria’s deep feelings than in Fanny’s, she sees and shapes Maria as a perfect painted image: the ever-so-forward-and-clever yet appropriately modest child; the beautiful, perfectly bred, sought-after princess who triumphs in a dazzling marriage; the fabulously wealthy social queen—all made possible by her aunt’s unresting labors. Fanny, by contrast, is brought into the family only to be kept out of its text and relegated to the margins, treated like a perfidious servant with designs on the inheritance. Any evidences of dawning social favor to Fanny, such as the Grants’ dinner invitation and Sir Thomas’s offer of the carriage, Mrs. Norris protests and undermines. Fanny’s actual kindness, growing beauty and grace, superior perceptiveness about relationships among the young people, self-discipline, intelligent interest in ideas, and sensitivity to beauty in nature and poetry simply do not exist.
Mrs. Norris does not know her own heart any more than those of her nieces. Far from acknowledging that she is abusing Fanny for her own gratification, she believes herself to be generous and compassionate despite great poverty: “‘[W]ith all my faults, I have a warm heart: and, poor as I am, would rather deny myself the necessaries of life, than do an ungenerous thing’” (7). Throughout the story, in almost every utterance, she is at least partially lying, muddying the waters of her own mind as well as those of the other family members. Her decisions are hard to pinpoint, being so habitual that they are apparently done half-consciously or even unconsciously. But there is at least one passage of free indirect speech in which the narrator catches her in a deliberate lie. The aunt declares that she wants the indulgence of accompanying Fanny and William to Portsmouth to see her poor dear sister Price and to give the young people the benefit of her older head (whereas in fact she probably wants to bully both Fannys). But then, recalling that she will have to pay for her return fare, she announces her change of mind as motivated by a conviction that she is indispensible to her sister and Sir Thomas. We may assume that she will soon forget that the expense had any part in her motivation.
The central question is, of course, whether Mrs. Norris’s evil actions, and the lies that cover them, have the “innocence” of one unawakened by a challenge to cultural evil. It seems very unlikely. Her apparent siege-mentality strongly suggests that she has long been aware of the criticisms of class oppression and amassed wealth which were in the air in the late eighteenth century. Thus, although her prejudiced actions are mostly half-conscious, they are in the realm of the deliberate. We may doubt that Miss Ward with her spirit of activity spent much time reading Burns or Goldsmith or Cowper, but she could not have missed such widespread themes as the idealization of the simple life in picturesque cottages (as in Sense and Sensibility), talk of noble savages and childish innocence, activity aimed at ameliorating the suffering of prisoners and the poor, and the like. Much of this interest was of course the Lady Bountiful kind of top-down charity that Mrs. Norris applauded and thought to enact with her Fanny-project, but it included serious claims of human dignity and equality that she would not applaud.
But trends were favorable to her mindset. From the time of the Reign of Terror in 1793 and throughout the years of the Napoleonic wars, reaction against concepts of equality and fraternity was widespread in England, increasing during the time of the main action of the novel, which takes place either in 1808-09 (Chapman 553) or 1812-13 (Southam 494). For nearly two decades, Mrs. Norris would have heard much to support her in dismissing such odious ideas.
Generalizations aside, one ongoing challenge to her class prejudices comes in the person of Fanny herself with her superior qualities. Mrs. Norris rejects this evidence. By acting to depress Fanny’s spirit she largely prevents these qualities from coming to her attention, and those that emerge anyway the aunt either closes her mind to or misrepresents. Fanny’s submissiveness and expressions of gratitude would also have served to reinforce Mrs. Norris’s prejudices.
For years she receives no effective challenge from the Bertrams. Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram, who share Mrs. Norris’s prejudiced views, see no reason to protest her bullying; only Edmund, half-aware of what is going on, quietly supports Fanny. At length, in the play-production scene in which Mrs. Norris abuses Fanny as “very ungrateful indeed, considering who and what she is,” Edmund and Mary Crawford are shocked by the extent of her cruelty, but the codes of social decorum and deference to elders prevent them from criticizing her effectively and openly. Mrs. Norris does encounter a potential challenge in Sir Thomas’s reprimand of her for not forbidding the theatricals. Even though he does not know about her abusiveness in that scene, she might have remembered her words to Fanny and felt some shame. But there is no sign that she does; rather she manages to darken and distract Sir Thomas’s mind by flattering him and herself with a lengthy account of her labors in bringing about Maria’s engagement.
A critical and stunning challenge to Mrs. Norris’s evil mindset finally comes in Maria’s elopement with Henry Crawford. With the brilliant marriage Mrs. Norris had built for her now a ruin, the social queen discredited and disgraced by her own and Henry’s action, the aunt must feel considerable pressure to withdraw her projection and gain knowledge of her own heart in all its monstrosity. But she refuses; instead, she proceeds to rewrite the past. Maria becomes the victim of circumstances and of Fanny’s villainy, “[my] unfortunate Maria,” who ought to be received back into Mansfield Park. Not only does the projection on Fanny remain intact as well, Mrs. Norris is ready with a further projection on Susan. When a changed Sir Thomas refuses to accept her proposal, she goes into exile with Maria. Though she shows signs of tenderness for the outcast Maria that no one else apparently does, her feelings are no closer to love than they ever were, for she shows “no judgment,” which I take to mean that she does not relate to the real Maria, but only to her own projected image.
Ironically, the worst harm Mrs. Norris has done is not to Fanny, who overcomes the effects of her aunt’s years of stunting and abuse, but to Maria. Heaping Maria with flatteries, she has failed to see her idolized niece as a limited human being needing guidance in “that higher species of self-command, that just consideration of others, that knowledge of her own heart” (91), which I have taken to be the central moral principle of Mansfield Park. But Mrs. Norris could not teach Maria or Julia what she had never learned herself. Unintentionally she has worked to prevent Maria from attaining her full potential as a human being in loving relation to others.
The golden idols Rank and Wealth, shown up for what they are, have betrayed Mrs. Norris in the act of betraying Maria, whom she taught to venerate them. (Of course, Maria was betrayed not only by her deities but by her wrongheaded quest for fulfillment in love.) But rather than undergoing the pain of self-excoriation and the loss of her identity by swearing off the service of her false gods, Mrs Norris continues to cling to their broken images and to their world of illusions, lies, and death-in-life. Her scope for doing evil is now much more closely contained, limited as it is to Maria. We may guess that she will do her utmost to keep Maria ignorant of her own heart and clinging to the same death-dealing illusions./p>
Sir Thomas Bertram
Unlike Mrs. Norris, who is a thoroughgoing villain, Sir Thomas is a morally ambiguous character: benign yet hard, of good will yet unconsciously cruel, home-loving and solicitous yet failing his family out of blindness, domination, and materialism. His visible failings are closely linked to his class and gender prejudices. About how his slaveholding affects him we know little, but can make some responsible guesses.
First, his class prejudice. An important dimension of Sir Thomas’s character is embodied in his sister-in-law, “my dear Mrs. Norris.” It is with his consent—indeed, as his tacit agent—that she runs the household much of the time, harshly keeping the servants in their place; with his qualified consent she guides his daughters’ social development. The qualification is, of course, that he sees the unwisdom of her flatterires and excessive indulgence, and tries to compensate by his own stiffness—another cause of the catastrophe.
It is also with his consent, as his commisioned agent, that Mrs. Norris puts Fanny in her place with such cruelty. The distinctions proper to be made between his daughters and Fanny are “‘a point of great delicacy,’” he tells Mrs. Norris, asking for her help (11). The home-loving Sir Thomas cannot have missed hearing Mrs. Norris with no delicacy at all repeatedly clubbing into Fanny the remembrance that she is not a Miss Bertram, but he sees no problem, makes no objection. Fanny’s status as servant of both her aunts is, again, something that he consents to; “he was master of Mansfield Park” (370). For a long time he is of one mind with Mrs. Norris. Having approved her abuse of Fanny for six years, he is also responsible for its continuation in his two-year absence.
After his return, beginning to value his family more, he acknowledges that the aunt has carried her principle too far in depriving Fanny of a fire, but asserts that in treating Fanny as an inferior, Mrs. Norris was being her friend. He clearly allies himself with his sister-in-law: “‘they were not least your friends who were . . . preparing you for that mediocrity of condition which seemed to be your lot. . . .. [I]t was kindly meant. . . . ’” (313). But he is deceiving himself. The narrator’s assurance in the last chapter that the harm his failure did Fanny for so long was “an error of judgment only,” “the appearance of harshness,” is mere blandishment. In fact, Sir Thomas acknowledges that Mrs. Norris, whom he eventually finds intolerable, “seemed a part of himself. . . . ”(465). He is as guilty as she of the attempted killing of Fanny’s spirit. But that the attempt does not finally succeed may owe something to his willingness to undergo metanoia. At length, in gladly affirming Fanny as his cherished daughter, fully a Bertram, he tacitly (or explicitly, we are not told) apologizes to her for his sins of class prejudice, and makes amends with frequent visits.
Gender oppression is another important dimension of Sir Thomas’s mistreatment of Fanny. Stepping back to the beginning of the story, the first thing we learn about Sir Thomas is that he was captivated by the beautiful Miss Maria Ward, of only moderate fortune, whom he elevated to the rank of a baronet’s lady. This thoroughly patriarchal marriage is highly satisfactory to both; homebodies, always mutually courteous, they enjoy each other’s company. We may assume she represents his ideal woman. Maria Ward was not afflicted with that independence of spirit which Sir Thomas finds so disgusting in young women. Despite her new name and title she remains Sir Thomas’s ward, in effect a small child, content to be guided by him. On the rare occasions when they have opposite wishes about a course of action he proposes, she mildly submits. Contributing so profoundly to the stunting of a human being is morally wrong, but there is no warning signal of pain when stunting is just what the other wants. Of even lower vitality than Fanny, Lady Bertram spends her days nicely dressed on a sofa doing needlework or dozing, untroubled by any felt obligation to exert herself to run her household or guide her children mentally or morally. Of the vacuous lifestyle of his child-woman, leading to eventual catastrophe for her daughter, Sir Thomas is the enabler.
We see very few interactions between Sir Thomas and Fanny before his return from Antigua, but that he has impressed his sexist values into her as well as his daughters through the general atmosphere he has created is clear from the young women’s shared feelings of guilt about the theatricals. The key term here is modesty. As Claudia Johnson shows in her excellent analysis, propriety prohibited a well-bred lady from displaying herself on the stage, and, especially, from portraying feelings or actions out of keeping with her place. Fanny knew that Sir Thomas not only disapproved of ladies on the stage in principle, but would object to Lover’s Vows in particular. She was surely expressing his training when she reflected that the situation of Agatha the unwed mother, and the assertive language of Amelia as suitor of her beloved, were conspicuously unfit to be expressed by any woman of modesty. Effacing themselves, women were to leave all major initiative, all important decisions to their male guardians, who could be counted on to see to their best interests. By gratitude and submissiveness, by following male “advice,” modest daughters and wives would not ruffle the waters. Thus, their lords would never have to reveal, by using psychological or physical violence, that their advice was “the advice of absolute power” (280) (Johnson, 1988, 101-05).
The gender-based stunting to which Sir Thomas has apparently subjected Fanny ever since her coming to Mansfield becomes explicit in his initial incredulity and rising wrath when he learns of her refusal of Henry Crawford. He had, he says, formed a very favorable opinion of her since his return. Indeed, he had called her “my little Fanny” (178), and later addresses her as “child” (320), clearly indicating his assumption that she was, like Lady Bertram, a child-woman. He had thought her free from that disgusting and offensive willfulness of temper and independence of spirit so prevalent among young women in modern days. His verbal battering culminates with an accusation of ingratitude, cruelly effective, for Fanny has hardly begun to clear up the moral confusion of the past seven years. He does not expect so frail a creature to hold her ground.
Showing more inner strength than anyone might have expected, Fanny does hold her ground. But Sir Thomas’ rage does not increase further, for he does not believe his ears. Keeping an adult who is committed to integrity mentally child-sized—the foot-binding of the soul—means doing violence to reality at some points, and if insisted upon, must lead to dishonesty. Sir Thomas (like Henry) deludes himself into thinking that “no” is really turning into “yes.” The velvet glove slips back on, the iron fist unclenches, and he is once more benevolent. He tells the “child” to dry her tears and refresh herself with a walk. He orders a fire. He half-protects her from Mrs. Norris’s cuts. He offers her the happy prospect of a visit home which will give her more time with William, but with an intention closer to blackmail, or perhaps penal transportation, than to benevolence (Lew 507).
And yet, despite his vicariously-or directly-inflicted cruelty, Sir Thomas’s good will is also real. The narrator tells us that he was a truly anxious parent, one who has unwisely chosen a severe demeanor toward his daughters—a statement that is at least a half-truth, for he has been ambivalent all along. His heart is genuinely warmed to his family, including Fanny, when he returns from his long sojourn; the homebody has been lonely in his exile. In conflict about Maria’s engagement, he does make an attempt, albeit too feeble and self-deluding to counteract his own ambition and greed, to let her escape from it. At dinner after his tirade in the East Room, he feels uncomfortable at Mrs. Norris’s abuse of Fanny, though her language is much the same as he himself just used. But the chief reason to believe his benevolence genuine is that only a vital seed of goodness would have enabled him, after Maria’s catastrophe, to accept the painful knowledge of the darkness of his own heart. He rejects his inner Mrs. Norris, and enters finally upon a friendship with Fanny based upon a just consideration of her—even more, a warm attachment. At last Fanny has a genuine father.
The gender and class oppressions which he comes to repent are not Sir Thomas’s only sins. He is deeply implicated in the monstrous system of human slavery, depending as he does on his Antigua plantation for a significant portion of his income. That Mansfield’s great house is “modern-built” suggests that it was West Indian blood money that enabled Sir Thomas, or perhaps his father, to build it. In return for their favor, the gods Wealth and Power at some point demand human sacrifices. The continuance of the Bertrams’ opulent lifestyle depends upon the continuance of the violence underlying these ill-gotten gains.
It is hardly necessary to document that slavery was4 a cultural evil, or that by the time of the story, a number of prophetic voices had risen to challenge the “peculiar institution,” particularly the African slave trade that fed it. As a member of the House of Commons, Sir Thomas would have been present during the protracted debates culminating in the abolition of the international trade in 1807-1808 (Johnson, 1998, 406), and therefore knew well the arguments that he very likely opposed.
Observing her own principle of writing only of what she has observed, Austen does not follow Sir Thomas to his sugar plantation, and we do not learn about his attitude toward the evils he is committing, or how he would answer the abolitionist. Judging from his outwardly benign style of governance at Mansfield, and the widespread view of Black people as permanent children (animal imagery was also frequently used), we may responsibly speculate that he had convinced himself that he was the wise father-figure that the child-African, like the child-woman, needed and rightly obeyed. But putting a failing plantation back into the black may well have involved slave purchases. The ban on the slave trade, though inadequately enforced, had begun to affect the supply. The population of slaves was declining each year (Terry, 99) also because (unlike the situation in the United States) the slaves were not reproducing to maintain their numbers. Sir Thomas may have had to buy slaves of whose “legality” he was uncertain. Slaves sales and purchases, with their blatant commodification of human beings, their uprooting of individuals and tearing apart of families, were difficult to square with a kindly, paternalistic self-image. Sir Thomas’s “dead silence” following Fanny’s question about the slave trade may well have been caused by a bad conscience over bills of sale. Fanny’s question was not really the voice of prophetic challenge, as we shall see, but may have felt so to her uncle.
At such a distance in time and culture it is easy to blame Sir Thomas for not listening to the challenges, undergoing metanoia and freeing his slaves, but we must not underestimate the practical difficulties involved, nor the enormous courage and sacrifice that would have been required. Like Marley’s ghost, he is chained to his ledgers and cashboxes. Simply selling the plantation would certainly do the enslaved people no good, and might have made their situation worse. Freeing them with no further responsibility for their situation might have led to destitution, even starvation for some, for the gross prejudice of the times would have made paid employment hard to find. Before emancipation they really needed to be given valuable work skills, as Thomas Jefferson succeeded in doing with a few of his slaves. For Sir Thomas to take them on as unskilled employees himself not only would have made his current financial straits even more dire, it might have been unworkable. Tending the vats of boiling cane juice in hellish heat (Terry, 100), was such a dreadful job that some of the workers, unused to responsibility and heady with their new freedom, would have left. Furthermore, his fellow planters would have villified his actions as a betrayal of the side. As a beachhead of emancipation, the plantation might well have turned into an expensive charitable enterprise draining his income from the Mansfield estate, necessitating the sale or rental of the great house and a withdrawal, like Sir Walter Elliot, to relatively modest quarters elsewhere. Such an action most of the Bertrams would certainly resent.
This is not to say that no planters ever succeeded in extricating themselves and their dependents from the monstrous system, only that very extraordinary courage, integrity, and devotion to justice were necessary. Sir Thomas could not summon up these qualities; he was unwilling to give up the best blessings of his gods Wealth, Power, and Prestige. Thus, by the end of the story he is only partly transformed. In one way his state is worse than that of Mrs. Norris, whose confinement with Maria leaves her scope for evildoing contracted. Sir Thomas, together with his family, continues a lifestyle paid for with the blood of many.
Readers who dislike Fanny tend to see Mansfield Park as a morality tale serving us up a spiritless, patient Griselda, the feminine ideal who rejects frivolous pleasures, who suffers, submits, and waits, and is finally rewarded by unconvincing manipulations of the plot. But such a reading will not do; it overlooks too many ironies; it fails to do justice both to the admirable qualities and the moral failings of Fanny and other major characters, as I will try to show.
It is important to remember that most of the time we see Fanny in a highly unnatural situation that represses or distorts several of her basic personality traits. Low vitality does not necessarily mean inner dullness or paucity of feeling. In her childhood she had fun dancing in the street. She has a capacity to appreciate humor and experience intense joy; she has a love of well-performed drama, and an ever-springing faith in human goodness and love. Her deepest commitment is actually to equality. Underneath her pervasive fearfulness, convictions of inferiority, hero-worship of Edmund, and attempts to realize the modesty and gratitude urged upon her by the powers that be at Mansfield, is a very different picture of her own identity, arising out of the friendship with William that shaped Fanny in her first years, and is tenously kept alive through correspondence. In William’s three visits to Mansfield Park, the devoted siblings joyously express their “unchecked, equal, fearless intercourse” of total sharing and total acceptance. With William, Fanny becomes assertive; she glows (161). This deep awareness of who she really is and what a good relationship is gives Fanny a hidden key like that of Bunyan’s Pilgrim, scarcely known as such even to herself, to unlock the fetters of servility and self-contempt put upon her by the senior Bertrams and Mrs. Norris.
But for a long time Fanny and William are mere children, whereas adults, of course, are much wiser. Furthermore, since Fanny’s absorption into Mansfield, William has nearly always been far away, while her uncle and aunts loom very tall; it is no surprise that for years the influence of the latter has the controlling impact on her consciousness. Given away by her parents and deprived of her only sources of nurturance and self-esteem, Fanny is told, even before her arrival and repeatedly thereafter, how fortunate she is and how she must labor, by good behavior, to show her gratitude. Her wretchedness the first week is made even deeper by this crazy-making command, but after Edmund shows kindness to her and helps her re-establish contact with William, her core humanness is confirmed. Genuine gratitude then arises spontaneously, but its object is Edmund.
Thereafter, the two major poles of her life at Mansfield are Edmund’s kindness and enrichment of her life, on the one hand, and on the other, Mrs. Norris’s cruelty. It is remarkable that in this long hunger for love from the one and anxious shrinking from the threat of the other, she does occasionally display amusement: at the young people’s jockeying for desirable parts in the play while pretending to altruism; at Tom’s discomfiture on finding that Dr. Grant, who he has been abusing, is right at his elbow; at some of the pleasantries Mary makes in their tête-a-têtes. It is remarkable that despite her low energy she finds a ball delightful; that she enjoys traveling to new places, enjoys natural scenes, can almost forget there is such a thing as suffering in her awe at the stars. Perhaps most remarkable is that despite her dread of Sir Thomas’s disapproval, she finds pleasure in the play rehearsals, as well as appreciating the thespian gifts of a man she holds in contempt.
But these moments are, of course, rare. Voicing the opinion of all the Bertrams, Mrs. Norris’s repeated assertions that Fanny is lucky and must be grateful—in the face of so much actual deprivation and mortification—form the core of the cognitive and moral dissonance with which she must struggle. She gets little help in clearing up the confusion even from Edmund, who scarcely notices the contradiction. Five years into their relationship, Edmund sees no real difference between Mrs. Norris’s treatment of Fanny and her treatment of himself and his siblings, thinking Mrs. Norris wants Fanny to live with her out of appreciation, and wants to put her forward. Repeated demands for gratitude, especially at vulnerable moments, make for a weapon of control the more powerful because seemingly just: they present as generosity asking for a small return. Fanny can scarcely defend herself against them, for she is intellectually convinced that the Bertrams really are generous. She believes that the elementary comfort of a fire in her sitting room, after eight years of cold, is something for which she owes Sir Thomas an immense debt of gratitude; she tries to feel it.
In purely financial terms, it is doubtful that Fanny owes the Bertrams much if anything. Judging from Mrs. Norris’s comment that it can make no difference to the governess whether she has three pupils or two, apparently Miss Lee receives no increase in salary. Fanny does receive an allowance, which she spends on books and charities. She is a mouth to feed. But food was cheaper then than now, and in so large a household the difference to the food budget must have been negligible. Clothing, on the other hand, was considerably more expensive than it is now, and was not lightly discarded (Byrde 61-62); even the wealthy Eleanor Tilney would re-use the fabric from an unwearable muslin gown. The fuss made over Fanny’s new bridesmaid gown with glossy spots suggests that during the preceding eight years she has been wearing her cousins’ cast-offs. Indeed, it is hard to imagine Mrs. Norris assenting to costly new clothes for her when old ones were available, or Lady Bertram caring enough to interfere.
In fact, considering the three or more years that Fanny worked as unpaid servant and companion to her aunts, it could be argued that the ten pounds (perhaps $500-$800 in U.S. money today) that Sir Thomas gives her before her trip to Portsmouth is only a portion of the back wages he owes her. “Unpaid servant” is of course a euphemism for slave. The Bertrams have not bought Fanny; the money they sent her mother was a gift made prior to any plans for Fanny’s transfer. But they do consider her coming in all its financial implications. Sir Thomas’s intention to pass her on to Henry Crawford whether she will or no suggests commodification. She is under the control of a cruel overseer; she gets a headache as a result of harvesting roses and trudging about in the hot sun, all under orders, suggesting the situation of Sir Thomas’s human property in the Indies. And, as Claudia Johnson has reminded us, slaves were expected to be grateful for any trivial favor bestowed, shadowing the overarching cruelty (Johnson, 1988, 107-08).
But the assertions that she owes the Bertrams are not simply lies, for Fanny does profit in significant ways by her informal adoption, and thus her confusion has some basis. Without the formal education, the leisuretime reading of biography, poetry, and drama, the discussions with Edmund, and the rides and walks in nature, her reflective mind and her health would have been much the poorer. Furthermore, as the grime, chaos, and noise of her Portsmouth home later make her aware, she also has needed the cleanliness, orderliness, and relative quiet of Mansfield (though these needs may have been magnified or created by a desire for what control she could get in her powerless situation (Gard 130-31).
But neither Fanny nor the reader should forget to set these gains against the major losses she suffers on her adoption. She has gone from being a comparatively big fish in a small, scummy pond to being a fingerling in a large, beautiful lake containing a sharklike predator. In her parents’ home, for all its deprivations, she had the prestige of the oldest daughter; she was a nurturer and a person of consequence to her siblings, experiencing deep mutual fulfillment with William. But at Mansfield she is the youngest, ostensibly a family member but actually inhabitant of a no-man’s-land, a victim of ongoing verbal battering. The loss of William’s company is partly compensated by her friendship with Edmund, but that friendship is never “unchecked, equal, and fearless” until the final chapter. Edmund is too often blind to what she is going through, and his assertions of her value are not enough to counteract the others’ setdowns. His caring attentions are kindnesses, gestures of which Fanny feels undeserving.
External circumstances help her somewhat during her pivotal year. Sir Thomas’s long exile makes him more appreciative of her as well as the rest of his family; the departure of Maria and Julia reduces the insidious comparisons from which she has suffered. She tends to see these improvements as favors rather than rights, but they do give her a small boost (though they also lead to the unwanted attentions of Henry Crawford).
Fanny finally takes a step toward resisting the gratitude weapon when it is Edmund who wields it, during the walk in the shrubbery, closing his mind to her objections to Henry’s character and urging her to “prove [herself] grateful” and “let him succeed at last.” For the first time she speaks up articulately for herself against the wishes of all: a woman has the right to say no (347, 353). Later she is even stung into anger against Edmund when she reads his long letter expressing his disappointed but perpetual attachment to Mary. “‘[N]othing will open his eyes, nothing can. . . . “[Mary] so very fond of me!” ‘tis nonsense all’” (424). But the resentful mood does not last; tenderness for him reasserts itself, and she ends up being grateful for his confidences. Half a step back. She is also grateful as she leaves Portsmouth for Mansfield. But thereafter there is no sign of the Bertrams’ expecting Fanny to be grateful; quite the opposite.
Another feature of the cognitive dissonance she must clear up is the message she gets from her aunts at the beginning that she is stupid (meaning stuporous) in comparison to Maria and Julia. Since she has not yet learned the names of all the kings, emperors, metals, semi-metals, planets, and distinguished philosophers (!), she clearly believes it to be true. For some years, the discussions of books and ideas with Edmund are insufficient to disabuse her of this idea; even at fifteen she speaks of “my foolishness and awkwardness” (21).
But by the time of Sir Thomas’s return from Antigua, Fanny is aware of the contrast between her own intelligent, wide interests and the small-minded concerns of Maria, Julia, Tom, and her aunts, who evidently do not beguile their free time with biography or travel books. She listens eagerly to Sir Thomas’s tales of the West Indies and wants to ask further questions, but is held back by anxiety that they may set her off at her cousins’ expense. In particular, she must also be aware (though she does not express it) that her literary tastes are not really shared with her Aunt Bertram, who usually dozes off while Fanny reads. At this point, then, her feelings about her mind and her value are mixed.
Especially after the coming of the Crawfords Fanny misses nothing of what is going on among the young people in Mansfield, particularly in their erotically charged relationships. (In fact, compared to her it is the other Bertrams who are stuporous.) Not only does she know this, she can partly acknowledge it. In her conversation with Mary in the East room defending her rejection of Henry’s proposal, she is so self-affirming as to say “‘I had not . . . been an inattentive observer of what was passing between him and some part of this family. . . . I was quiet, but I was not blind’” (363).
It must be admitted that she is much less perceptive about the relationships among the elder three. She rightly shrinks away from Mrs. Norris as harmful, and evidently adjudges her accurately. We don’t hear her denouncing her aunt even in thought, but near the story’s end we know she has made matters clear to Susan, who knows just what to expect. But Fanny holds the senior Bertrams in high regard without noticing that they, the lord and lady of Mansfield Park, are responsible for everything Mrs. Norris does there. It is no surprise that she should have been unaware of this at ten or eleven, but that she still has not seen it at eighteen requires explanation. It is probably part of her pattern of wishful thinking, a negative manifestation of her ever-springing faith in human love. The need for nurturing and sheltering parents is so great that she recasts the emotionally distant Sir Thomas and the gentle, exploitative Lady Bertram in this mould, blocking out their conspicuous failures by dwelling on her own supposed unworthiness. Amid the noise and squalor and neglect of Postsmouth, Fanny longs for the order and beauty of Mansfield. Her idealization is unchecked; they become “the dear, dear friends,” and Mansfield is where “every body’s feelings were consulted” (392), something two of the dear, dear friends had scarcely ever done with her in their lives.
Despite the grating discomfort of her Portsmouth home, there Fanny regains and surpasses the status she had first had among her siblings. Since she can no longer turn to William for support, her self-esteem becomes stronger than it was in her childhood. Then appreciated as playfellow, instructress, and nurse, now she becomes the wealthy benefactress, beloved friend, book-chooser, and mentor of Susan, as Edmund had been for her. As Fanny moves into this position, however hesitantly at first, she tacitly acknowledges that she is a person of superior knowledge, tastes, mental abilities, capacity for love, and power, power to open new worlds to another in need. She had looked forward to going home to Portsmouth as an opportunity for unchecked, equal, fearless interaction. But now she knows she is not the equal but the superior of the remaining Prices, though she scarcely voices it to herself (and is helpful rather than acting above her company). Now, rather than feeling pervasive pressure to be grateful, it is another who is warmly and spontaneously grateful to her. When she returns to Mansfield, liberating Susan and becoming the great comfort and mainstay of Lady Bertram, Sir Thomas, and especially Edmund, the last becomes first: the principal people at Mansfield Park are rightly grateful to her.
We have seen that low vitality is one of the key traits of the two Fannys and Lady Bertram, and it is the source of our Fanny’s fearfulness amid deprivation and ongoing threat. For all three characters low vitality is apparently an innate characteristic, but it is not a constant; some change is possible. We would not know this from the mother and aunt, who make no effort to change their virtually helpless behavior, but Fanny, by exerting herself, does resist her fears and thus become a little stronger. She is less successful at this than she is in raising her self-esteem. Her first opportunity comes very early, when with Edmund’s help she gathers her courage to ride horseback. Her second opportunity comes during the theatricals when the players, capped by Mrs. Norris, urge her to act the cottager’s wife. Since Mary Crawford and Edmund come to her rescue, her courage is not tried to the fullest extent. The second time the actors (including Edmund) pressure her, she consents, but is again rescued, this time by Sir Thomas’s return.
These scenes are a tangle of ambiguity as regards Fanny’s psychological and moral growth. She has to gather courage to stand against the others in her refusal to act, but her stance is not altogether for the best. Insofar as it stems from her fear of notice, it is weakness; but since her stand also rises from her conviction that the play-production is wrong, it is necessary to her integrity, and to that extent is strength. Yet, still more confusingly, her moral condemnation of the theatricals arises partly from a misguided acceptance of Sir Thomas’s ideal of the modest child-woman. (Aesthetic condemnation of the play’s often overwrought dialogue would have been appropriate, but that is not really relevant.) We can only speculate that without his timely arrival, she would have had useful practice for overcoming her fear of notice, but at the cost of corrosive guilt. And the guilt begins in any case, as she begins to wonder if she owed them her cooperation. As it is, these two harrowing trials of her courage do not do a great deal to strengthen her.
But they prepare her somewhat for what is to come. The great scene in which Fanny shows her mettle is, of course, the confrontation with Sir Thomas in the East Room. This time the demands of courage, of integrity, and of her heart’s desire are all on the same side of the issue, and though her way is excruciatingly painful, it is clear. Convinced that to marry for worldly advancement (that is, without love) is wrong, she must resist Sir Thomas’s authority. <(She never really acknowledges that in now taking the stance that he can be wrong, she is partly undermining her own earlier resistance to the theatricals.) She holds her ground despite his verbal battering, and continues to do so for months.
A cavil: had her courage risen still further—had she voiced her strongest reason for rejecting Henry, his exploitative character—the story might have gone in quite a different direction. But not having overheard the conversations at the parsonage as we readers did, she has no proof of it, and fears Sir Thomas will not be convinced. And, of course, she shrinks from bringing on Maria a minor discredit, which ironically might have spared her cousin total ruin.
Fanny does not thereafter show herself as fearless as Siegfried by any means, but at least once her courage rises spontaneously. During the dinner party at the Grants’, when Henry is expressing his nostalgic regrets for the theatricals and his wish that Sir Thomas had been delayed, she surprises herself by angrily voicing her opinion that everything had gone quite far enough. It is unfortunate that she does not give as her reason his callous behavior, which had been on her mind while he spoke. Had she charged him with his heartlessness, again, the story might have gone in quite another direction.
At other times of need, however, strength does not rise spontaneously, and she must act seemingly without it—perhaps the truest form of courage. When Henry turns up suddenly at Portsmouth, and Fanny is so shocked and anxious as to think she is struck speechless and about to faint, she has still managed to pull herself together and introduce him neutrally to her mother. By exerting herself and taking action she achieves a tolerable presence of mind, gets through his visit, and even finds occasional positive moments in it. The outside of a door seldom supplies the longed-for courage, but opening the door despite all makes her somewhat stronger.
The last and worst shock of all, with all its terrors of catastrophic results for the Mansfield family, unfortunately leaves her with nothing to do for some time, no way to use the event to grow. Had there been immediate action she had to take, she would almost surely have been able to rouse herself, but she continues to reel ingloriously for two days until she is rescued by Edmund’s letter announcing his arrival on the morrow to take her home.
Fanny’s extraordinary turnabout from a state of horrified, trembling shock to exquisite happiness contains perhaps the strongest irony at her expense in the whole story. Her anguish at the report of Maria’s adultery was partly because Maria’s was an act of rebellion against patriarchal authority, which held that a woman’s chastity is crucial to the honor of her family, especially her male guardian. When this happens in her own adopted family, Fanny reacts as one for whom the sky is falling, the center cannot hold, pollution spreads through all, and form and meaning are con-fusing into ultimate Chaos. The other aspect of her distress rises, of course, from her kindly heart’s awareness of the dreadful pain Maria’s deed will cause them. But when the ghastly event turns out to be greatly beneficial to herself and her dear Susan, her horror vanishes abruptly; suddenly, the sky is firm overhead again. Sympathy for the suffering of the family she tries to maintain, and compassion rises spontaneously when she is near any one of them. But at her core is the very understandable happiness at returning home, at being a blessing to her true family, and at long last closing with her beloved.
She is now at the heart of the remaining Bertram family, and soon courage is no longer called for. It is quite likely that as she grows used to being secure and loved, she will reach for the key hidden in her bosom, the equality with William she knew in childhood. She may well grow as assertive in her daily life with Edmund as she was in the brief visits with her brother.
To summarize her achievement: In significant ways Fanny has met the central challenge of her situation. Outwardly passive most of the time, she has slowly carried on an inner labor that is arguably greater than that of any other of Austen’s heroines. She has partially cleared up the moral and cognitive confusions entangling her. She has rejected the soul-killing identity pressed on her, and built a life-giving one: she has gained strong self-esteem through developing and acknowledging her talents and maintaining her integrity; she has grown moderately in courage through exerting herself to face her ordeals and seizing the opportunity to benefit another. The damage wrought by the class prejudice of the Bertrams and Mrs. Norris, and by the sexist oppression of Sir Thomas, is largely mended. She has had significant help from William and Edmund, but the achievement is mostly her own.
However, Fanny definitely remains a seriously flawed character throughout, although to say this is to see as sharply ironic the narrator’s final comforting comment that everything in the environs of Mansfield Park was thoroughly perfect in her eyes. All is not as Fanny sees it at Mansfield. For one thing, Lady Bertram is little changed. Far more stunted than Fanny ever was, the pretty little child still needs her nursemaid. And Fanny has contributed to stunting her. While exiled in Portsmouth Fanny is eager to return to her aunt not only to comfort her in distress, but even to save her trips upstairs; she readily supports, in a small way, that abdication of all responsibility which was one cause of Maria’s downfall. At her return Fanny gladly takes up her old position (later relinquishing it to Susan, who is equally happy to be have it). This is not to imply that Fanny really had the option of refusing to serve her aunt; but she could have become aware that her aunt knows nothing of just consideration of others.
Another issue on which Fanny remains largely blind is the business in Antigua that is the foundation of Mansfield Park. Unlike her three thoughtless cousins and her aunts, Fanny has an inquiring and reflecting mind. She has informed herself about the world via biography and travel books; more, of the many voices in England at that period condemning slavery, she has a particular regard for that of William Cowper, and may well have known his harsh challenges of slavery in “The Negro’s Complaint,” “The Morning Dream,” and the satirical “Pity for Poor Africans.” Could she have been undisturbed by such passages as
What are England’s rights, I ask?
Me from my delights to sever,
Me to torture. . . . ?
Think, ye masters, iron-hearted,
. . . how many backs have smarted
For the sweets your cane affords . . .
Is there one who reigns on high?
Has he bid you buy and sell us . . . ?
Ask him, if your knotted scourges,
Matches, blood-extorting screws,
Are the means that duty urges
Agents of his will . . . ? (Cowper 34-35)
Assuming that her regard for Cowper’s art was such that she read everything of his she could, and was distressed when she read these prophetic lines, she seems to have forgotten them. Though Fanny’s character is completely at odds with the cruel exploitation of slavery, we catch no hint of discomfort about the dependence of Mansfield Park on slave labor. The potentially damning implications of Sir Thomas’s dead silence following her question about the slave trade do not occur to the mind that saw so much during the production of Lovers’ Vows. Had they done so, it seems unlikely she would have told Edmund that she loved to hear her uncle talk, longed to ask more questions, and refrained only out of concern that her bored cousins would be shown up. Needing to believe that the foundation of her life at Mansfield is sound, Fanny compartmentalizes her uncle, so discerning, so honorable, so good, from the morality of his occupation in the Indies those two years. And experiencing at a visceral level, from his cruel tirade in the East Room, that as paterfamilias he is neither discerning, honorable, nor good (something she soon forgets) apparently prompts no further reflections on his role as slavelord. This is not to say that she would defend slavery, as Sir Thomas probably did in Parliament, but that she has probably convinced herself that its evils cannot apply to Mansfield Park and its master.
Another prophetic challenge, again from Cowper, to which Fanny shuts her ears is his denunciation of sport hunting. The morality of animal exploitation has become a live issue today in our culture, both in the general population and particularly among certain ethicists and theologians. Some of them charge that the higher animals rightly are members of the moral community to which all humans belong, and that thus our widespread patterns of using them up for perceived human benefit, such as for food and for scientific research, constitute a great cultural evil. But this issue is not so new; already in the eighteenth century occasional voices were heard denouncing the exploitation of animals. Cowper was far ahead of his times in urging not merely that animals ought to be used kindly, but that they have a right to be free to pursue their own interests. Human beings are meant to be their loving guardians, as in Eden, but not their owners or users. In fact, the happiest animals now are those who live far from man, uncontrolled, “Nor ask his leave to slumber or to play” (Cowper 88). The poet has tried to make a little Eden of his country home, where a few hares he has befriended live in safety (Cowper 24-26).
So long as nearly everyone believed that eating animals was necessary to human health, and evidence to the contrary hard to come by, the full implications of an abolitionist position could not be developed convincingly, and Cowper does not try. But he is piercing in his denunciation of the one who kills animals for fun: the sportsman. In Book VI of The Task:
. . . the streams [are] dyed
With blood . . .
Earth groans beneath the burthen of a war
Wag’d with defenseless innocence, while he, . . .
Adds tenfold bitterness to death, by pangs
Needless, and first torments ere he devours (Cowper 87).
From Book III:
. . . Detested sport,
That owes its pleasures to another’s pain;
That feeds upon the sobs and dying shrieks
Of harmless nature. . . . (Cowper 65)
Going beyond ethics into the search for ultimate meaningfulness, in his most celebrated lines from The Task Cowper hints at identification with the divine in the violence animals suffer at the hands of human beings, indirectly comparing Christ, the wounded healer, to a deer pierced by the arrows of hunters (Cowper 62).
An apt student of Edmund, Fanny knows The Task well; at the dinner in which Mr. Rushworth holds forth about improvements, including cutting down his avenue, she quotes appropriate lines mourning their fate unmerited. But when her beloved Edmund goes out to wage war against defenseless innocence—pheasants, hares, foxes—Cowper’s lines of indignation and mourning do not come to her mind or lips.5 When Henry Crawford provides her beloved William with a mount so that he can join the others in feeding upon sobs and dying shreiks, she is anxious only for William, and when he returns safely our tender-hearted heroine is ready to call Henry’s act a kindness.
It is even less surprising that Fanny should have been unable able to listen to this prophetic challenge by Cowper than to his denunciation of the human slavery Mansfield Park depends upon. Edmund and William are her founts of love; they are her whole life; they cannot be doing something so close to pure evil as Cowper suggests. The cognitive and moral dissonance would have been intolerable. Had it been Henry who first introduced hunting at Mansfield Park, inviting William, Fanny might well have recoiled and persuaded her brother to stay away from something so cruel. But Edmund has been hunting for years. And for years Edmund has been her soul’s father, brother, teacher, and beloved; she could not presume to correct him (as she could not when he “consulted” her about taking the part of Anhalt). She has blinded and deafened herself, numbed herself, in order to retain what she still can of her conviction that he is everything good and great. William, unlikely to have had leisure to read Cowper or other denouncers of animal abuse, may keep his quasi-innocence, but Edmund has innocent blood on his hands, and the consenting Fanny is not far behind.
A final way in which matters are not well at Mansfield Park has to do with its method of dealing with Maria’s betrayal of her marriage and marriage partner. I have taken just consideration of others as the touchstone of moral conduct in the novel, but the close identification of our heroes with religion justifies us in going beyond this core principle of fairness to expect more from them at this point, namely the Christian ideal virtues of compassion and forgiveness, which they have already shown several times. Edmund’s years of active compassion for Fanny are her lifeline. Fanny, in turn, gives from her allowance to the poor; she is Rushworth’s best friend, trying to support him in his distress at Maria’s callous disappearance at Sotherton, and patiently rehearsing with him his two and forty speeches; she becomes Susan’s best friend, giving her a new life.
In view of their admirable records in this regard, it is distressing to see no sign from either character that they felt compassion for Rushworth in the sword-thrust Maria has given him. The narrator may opine that his passion for her was selfish and his stupidity could excite little pity, but the narrative has not given us a picture of Collins-like “love,” dropped for one and taken up for another while the fire is being stirred. Certainly Rushworth knew that Maria did not love him, but, like Colonel Brandon, he may well have hoped that his beloved would come to care for him eventually. If so, he was badly mistaken, but the stupid do not necessarily suffer less than the intelligent upon such a loss, just as the obese suffer no less than those with a graceful set of limbs.
Edmund and Fanny also show no sign of compassion for Maria, to whom an outraged patriarchal society, concerned chiefly with threats to property and power, denies any second spring. It may well be that exile was the only decent option Sir Thomas had, that to receive her again at Mansfield would have meant announcing approval of her action. He hopes she is repentant; we never find out whether she truly comes to a knowledge of her own heart. But surely Edmund, the compassionate man of God, and his tender-hearted Fanny should have urged compassion and forgiveness for Maria; they should have urged correspondence and visits, which might themselves have helped to bring about metanoia and new life. Nothing is said about it, and I think we may assume that nothing was done. A Christianity without forgiveness and spiritual renewal is a poor affair, deserving something like Mary Crawford’s scorn.
It is easy to see that the forms of evil at Mansfield Park are deeply rooted in culture. The characters are born into a soul-corroding context, into original sin, but they have some choice as to whether they will mire themselves more deeply in evil and guilt, or courageously use opportunities to say no to it and transcend it, even to become liberators. It is harder to generalize about their success in so doing. Growth and healing are dearly and splendidly achieved in some regards; in others, blindness and hard-heartedness prevail in the best characters as well as the worst one. It is clear, however, that the story is far from being a black-and-white morality tale. Those readers who have seen Mansfield Park as a bastion of sound values, or Sir Thomas as a highly admirable patriarch, or Fanny as a saintly ideal (alternatively, as an odious prig and killjoy) are showing that Fanny is not the only one given to selective forgettery. Mansfield Park and its people are a-la-mortal, finely chequered. Jane Austen was right to be proud of her creation.
1. Since there is much variation in capacity for intensity and complexity of experience, it is not easy to establish which among the simpler animals should be included under “sentient beings.” Singer holds that a central nervous system is probably necessary to feel physical pain, and takes that as a cut-off point, and I follow his usage.
2. The Hebrew prophets were not so much concerned with foretelling the future as with speaking to the pressing religio-socio-political issues of their own day. “Prophetic” thus refers to the office of a cultural critic, not to prediction of distant events.
3. I am grateful to Marvin Sweeney and Roberta Kalechofsky for supplying me with this information. Although the concept of accepting prophetic critique is of Hebrew inspiration, because I do not know the language I use the Greek term derived from the Christian scriptures. The English word “repentance” for the most part no longer carries the profound associations of turning away from cultural evil.
4. In some places, notably in Africa, it still exists; slavery is part of ethnic cultures in north Africa. It is also relevant to us in the United States and Europe: in a new variant of Cowper’s thrust about sweets paid for with the smart of the lash, the major purveyors of chocolate in the United States are partially dependent on Black slavery in the Ivory Coast. However, though this practice is evidently widespread, it is illegal (Robbins), and thus is not strictly a cultural evil.
5. It is impossible to say how intentional this painful irony is on the part of the author. Herself fond of Cowper’s verse, she must have been aware of the applicability of these passages to the hunting activities of her brothers, but we do not know how she dealt with it.
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