PERSUASIONS ON-LINE V.27, NO.1 (Winter 2006)
Sex, Debility, and Lady Bertram: Lover or Loafer?

Pauline Beard


Pauline Beard (email:, an Associate Professor of English at Pacific University in Oregon, has spoken at two JASNA AGMS, and is Regional Co-coordinator for Oregon/Washington.  She is the author of a book on the modern novel, and a book on teaching Jane Austen is in progress.



By the bye, as I must leave off being young, I find many Douceurs in being a sort of Chaperon for I am put on the Sofa near the Fire & can drink as much wine as I like.  (6 November 1813)


As an English woman who has had to leave off being young herself, teaching Jane Austen in America has given me far more appreciation for her works.  I respect not only the writing but also the nuances of the social critique in the Austen novels because I begin to see them through new eyes.  For example, one student, many years ago, suggested that Fanny Price in Mansfield Park would become another Lady Bertram, debilitated, taking no exercise, drinking tea or wine, lounging on the sofa.  This contention started a wide-ranging discussion resulting in the conclusion that Fanny had hidden depths and a moral integrity that Lady Bertram could never attain, and raising questions that have lingered with me for years:  What is up with Lady Bertram anyway?  Is she sick?  And what were upper class women like her doing in America at the time?


Lady Bertram is not ill.  She is not a hypochondriac like Emma’s father, Mr. Woodhouse, nor a neurasthenic like Elizabeth’s mother, Mrs. Bennet.  She is not the sad near-paralyzed figure of Mrs. Smith in Persuasion, but she is certainly debilitated, consistently depicted loafing on the sofa, snoozing, dozing, half asleep.  The character’s general indolence and yet the way that all the other family members kowtow to her and absolve her of any the responsibilities of a mother, led me to researching debility in general, and, because of my new interests, in America in particular, at a roughly equivalent time to Jane Austen’s writing of Mansfield Park.  The valuable advice of an American History colleague led me to Stephen Nissenbaum’s book Sex, Diet, and Debility in Jacksonian America, a study of the work of Sylvester Graham and Health Reform.  Nissenbaum recognizes Graham as “the first writer to formulate a coherent physiological analysis of the various new anxieties about the human body that had emerged by the 1830s” in America (ix).


Linking Graham’s theories with health movements such as “vegetarianism, phrenology and water cure, in addition to sexual reform” (ix), Nissenbaum lays out the crux of Graham’s work that “stimulation led to debility” (x, emphasis Nissenbaum’s), as opposed to the accepted view that debility was caused by too little stimulation (x).  Such a theory related to Lady Bertram throws a whole new light on her sofa lounging.  Over-stimulated by sexual activity in the past, Lady Bertram’s system has been undermined and debilitated; as a result, in her older, possibly menopausal years, she is capable only of lying on the sofa and caring for her lapdog, rather than fulfilling her central duty as responsible mother.  Despite her abrogation of duty, Lady Bertram wields an intriguing power over all around her, and in a technical sense furthers character and plot development.


A brief overview of Graham’s theories will help us understand such an idea for such an unexcitable character.  Born in New England in 1794, Sylvester Graham lived in the same era as the American health and sexual reformers, John Harvey Kellogg, William Andrus Alcott, and Mary Gove Nichols, an era filled with an ever-increasing awareness of the body and the way sexuality functioned in the human experience.  Graham especially linked debility in young men to alcohol and excessive sexual activity.  Towards the end of the eighteenth century, however, debility and stimulation were seen as opposites and as mutually exclusive (Nissenbaum 20).  Debility was regarded as far more dangerous than excitability, and artificial stimulation, such as drugs and alcohol, became the prescribed antidote (20).  In Philadelphia, the center for the Temperance Movement in the 1820s, Benjamin Rush, who began his work in 1785, was convinced that artificial stimulation was the cause not the cure for debility.  Indeed alcohol and meat, especially red meat, served to weaken the debilitated person (20).  Following Rush’s lead and the beliefs of the French doctors Xavier Bichat (1771-1802) and Francois Broussais (1772-1838), Graham recognized that the digestive system is in constant battle between organic and inorganic forces (20).  The brain and genital organs exert a reciprocal influence (105), explaining why insanity is often attended with excessive sexual desire (one has only to recall Ophelia’s lewd singing in her “mad scene” to see some reasoning behind such a viewpoint).


According to Graham and his believers, sexual desire then affects every organ in the body—increased blood rushes to the brain, stomach and lungs.  The effect on the stomach is particularly dangerous, according to Graham, producing a “general sense of languor.”  The effect on the Heart produces a circulation feeble and “languid” (Graham, qtd. in Nissenbaum107)—words very similar to those found in the descriptions of Lady Bertram.  Excess alcohol and venery caused diseases of various descriptions, but all needed to have the body system calmed and controlled.  Instead of prescribing harsh stimulants, Rush called for “measures that promised to soothe and relieve excitement: measures such as reduced diet, controlled regimen, purges, and—especially—bloodletting” (Nissenbaum 56).  Thus, many of the historical documents of the eighteenth century, in America and Europe, relate the application of leeches (favored by Broussais) or incisions (favored by Rush) for the draining of blood, to calm the circulation and ease the disease.


Sexual stimulation at its worst, “venereal excess” in Graham’s terms, even in marital sex, pumps more blood into the already debilitated lungs, rupturing the vessels, resulting in the “gushing of blood from mouth and nostrils” (Graham, qtd. in Nissenbaum 110).  In his “Lecture on Cholera” published in 1839, Graham describes the progression of the disease in those already debilitated by sexual excitement and drained of nervous energy, concluding with:  “There follows a period of ‘violent vomiting and purgation,’” during which “all the muscles of voluntary and involuntary motion [are] thrown into the most violent and painful spasms and convulsions” (qtd. in Nissenbaum 110).  One thinks of Tom’s graphic vomiting scene in Patricia Rozema’s film of Mansfield Park, after he returns to Mansfield Park, deserted by his high-society friends.  In the novel Austen never names Tom’s illness, but it is brought on by a bout of drinking and excess, in Newmarket (426).  Seen through the lens of Graham’s theory, Tom’s body is reacting to years of excess, in alcohol and no doubt venery.  Austen reveals early in the novel when Tom is only 22 that he is a wastrel.  His extravagance has ruined half of Edmund’s rightful portion; as a result the “younger brother must help to pay for the pleasures of the elder” (23).  The use of the word “pleasures” suggests something other than running up huge bills for horses and the services of tailors. 


Henry Crawford can be interpreted in Graham’s terms as one who has also allowed sexual excess and “pleasures” to cause the mind to become “exceedingly carnal.”  Again following Graham’s theory, for such a man “sex itself has become the only object of attention: his imagination is constantly filled with lewd and obscene images” (Graham, qtd. in Nissenbaum 109).  If such characterization of the charming Henry seems harsh, consider his dalliance with Maria and Julia, his comments on engaged women (45), and his plans to make Fanny fall in love with him (229).  Even his sister sees that he must be having “‘a somebody’” (230), and in language suggesting the sexual act rather than playing at being in love, she hopes for Fanny that Henry will not “‘plunge her deep’” in love (231).  She sees his “‘idleness and folly’” (230), the latter a word that will resonate later in the novel when Henry absconds with Maria.  Fanny quickly recognizes Henry’s “‘corrupted mind’” (225), and Edmund ultimately acknowledges Miss Crawford’s “‘faults of principle, . . . of blunted delicacy and a corrupted, vitiated mind’” (456).  Both brother and sister have been corrupted by an uncle whose marriage had been unpleasant, “a man of vicious conduct,” who brought his mistress into the house upon his wife’s death (41).  In Graham’s terms, both young people have been ruined by seeing if not experiencing venereal excess.  If not unchaste physically, they are mentally so, as witnessed by Mary Crawford’s lewd punning on “‘Rears, and Vices’” (60).


Having lectured and written on his theories in Lectures on the Science of Human Life (1839) and Lecture to Young Men on Chastity (1837), what were the steps Graham suggested for healing the digestive and nervous system destroyed by excess stimulation?  Sounding as if transposed to our own back-to-nature, bio-dynamically aware society, Graham made cogent pleas for a return to whole grains, to the bread made from whole wheat as the pioneers would have made it:  flour milled at home, not over-processed and made in vast quantities in the way the newly industrialized bakers were producing their breads.  This stricture meant of course the return to the role of the mother as the sole maker of the bread, nurturing her family, within the home, not relying on outside industrialized sources.  As Graham reminisces:


Who that can look back 30 or 40 years to those blessed days of New England’s prosperity and happiness [1800], when our good mothers used to make the family bread, but can well remember how long and how patient those excellent matrons stood over their bread troughs, kneading and molding their dough?  (Graham, Science 448-49)


The role of women, in Graham’s vision, is thus restricted as it was in the eighteenth century, pulling her back to the inner sphere of the home, to the central role of the all-nurturing mother.


Alice Stockham, writing in the late nineteenth century directly mentions Graham Bread and its good effects on the digestive tract, concentrating on this pivotal maternal role in her work Tokology.  The book is truly a “manual of midwifery,” its name derived from the Greek (Tokos meaning childbirth, Logos meaning discourse [Stockham 358]).  Discussing a child’s digestive health with the mother, Stockham encourages the use of Graham bread and cracked wheat (65).  The mother cooks the unprocessed wheat, feeds the child, the child’s digestion improves, and the mother’s role as nurturer is firmly established.  Both Graham and Stockham place the mother at the center of the home, promoting the premise of unprocessed food and healthy outdoor exercise without the stimulants of tea, coffee or alcohol—or excess sexual activity.


In America, during this Jacksonian era, much of the belief in teetotalism, vegetarianism, and chastity, stemmed from Graham.  Although the idea of Graham Bread is no doubt intrinsically part of our whole-wheat artisan breads today, the one remnant of his baking ideals to come down to the present age is Graham Crackers, so desired of children and lovers of cheesecake crusts.1  In England, thirty years before Graham set forth his theories in lectures, Austen may well have read about or at least heard of similar premises, the most notable of these from John Wesley’s Primitive Physick  (1774) and William Buchan’s Domestic Medicine (1769).  Certainly in her novels, Austen deals overtly with diet and exercise; covertly, with references to elopements and affairs and illegitimate children, she adroitly points out the sexual mores of her time.


After this necessarily brief overview of the Graham theories, an investigation of Austen women who are the direct opposite of Lady Bertram will first test his premise.  In contrast to Lady Bertram’s ennui, Miss Bates in Emma of course springs to mind as the aged spinster whose garrulousness and seemingly constant motion perhaps replace the lack of sexual activity in her narrowly straightened life.  Miss Diana Parker in Sanditon is of course indefatigable, described as “walking nimbly” (406), “posting over the Down after a House for this Lady whom she had never seen, & who had never employed her” (413).  Because women are “‘not all born to equal Energy’” Diane Parker puts all her energies into looking after “‘helpless Invalides’” (409), concocting bitters, several phials of which, in one evening, Miss Parker dips into when the smelling salts are not in her hand (413).  These sisters both are sexually inactive, one bustling about dosing the other with stimulants that further debilitate her.


How does Graham’s theory apply to Austen’s married women—especially to women without children, the outward sign of sexual activity in the bedroom?  They all seem to be rushing about interfering in other, single women’s lives.  Newly married Mrs. Elton in Emma is a whirlwind of busy-bodying, nearly ruining the happiness of Jane Fairfax.  One suspects little activity in that bedroom with her “‘caro sposo.’”  Widowed and childless, Lady Russell has tried to replace Anne Elliot’s mother in Persuasion but comes close to wrecking Anne’s prospects with her interfering.  Mrs. Croft seems to be the only childless married woman who achieves a pleasant balance of bustle and spirit with love for and comradeship with the Admiral—or could one argue that with her care and consideration for the Admiral, going with him on all his sea adventures, he is her “child” and she the mother, not the sexual partner?


Finally, we come to the married childless women in Mansfield Park, Mrs. Grant and Mrs. Norris.  Mrs. Grant, described as being one “to love and be loved” (469), is clearly not being sexually loved enough.  Her husband, Dr. Grant, an “indolent, stay at-home man” with a penchant for “drinking claret every day” (47), seems to prefer eating to any other activity, and his wife panders to her husband’s fondness for food, especially “butter and eggs” (31).  The narrator tells us that “having by this time run through the usual resources of ladies residing in the country without a family of children; having more than filled her favourite sitting-room with pretty furniture, and made a choice collection of plants and poultry, [Mrs. Grant] was very much in want of some variety at home” (41).  For “variety,” one could read sexual activity sadly lacking in Mrs. Grant’s life, and her energy and liveliness show the very real need of other activity to fill that void.  When Dr. Grant dies of apoplexy brought on by “three great institutionary dinners in one week” (469), the void is filled (perhaps) by living with her half-sister, the morally bankrupt Mary Crawford.


If we accept for the time being Graham’s premise, the lack of sexual stimulation also applies to Mrs. Norris’s marriage.  Unlike both her sisters, she has no children, and her husband is depicted in “an indifferent state of health,” suffering from “gouty complaints” (9).  As gout was, and in some circles still is, considered an illness resulting from rich food, lobster, red meats, sweetbreads, and fortified wines such as port and Madeira, Mr. Norris, in Graham’s terminology seems to be ruining his body with a type of stimulation other than sexual:  rich food and alcohol.  Disappointed in the marriage, and the lower-than-expected income it has provided, Mrs. Norris exerts her energies toward saving money; indeed “her love of money [is] equal to her love of directing” (8).  This wife and soon to be widow is left unstimulated, continuing her life in a “spirit of activity” (4).  The body’s nervous energy directs itself into other people’s lives with disastrous effects.


So, we turn to Lady Bertram:  lover or loafer?  Following Graham’s theories, one could argue that in the past the lovely young woman who “captivate[d]” Sir Thomas Bertram (3) has been sexually stimulated to such an extent that, four children later and in middle age, her nervous and digestive systems are so disrupted that she exists in an automaton-like state.  The use of the word “captivate” rather than the more mercenary “capture” suggests that Sir Thomas, very much like Mr. Bennet  in Pride and Prejudice, has been infatuated with this pretty woman.  Since Lady Bertram is described as “a woman of very tranquil feelings, and a temper remarkably easy and indolent” (4), it is somewhat surprising that at certain times a close understanding is revealed between husband and wife.  Obviously behind the scenes, perhaps in the bedroom, the baronet and his lady have discussed whether Fanny will stay first at Mansfield Park or with Mrs. Norris.  When Lady Bertram’s “calm inquiry” reveals Mrs. Norris’s true intent of never having Fanny stay with her, Lady Bertram’s reply with “utmost composure” shows that she does not feel the need to consult her husband on this score.  “After a short pause,” Sir Thomas “with dignity” concurs with his wife (9).  This somewhat unexpected agreement possibly results from the power Lady Bertram exerts in the bedroom.  If the woman is sexually stimulating for the male, according to the Graham theorists, she can wield control over his desires, determining when and how many times sexual activity will take place.  Thus even though Graham himself believed that marriage can be a soothing device to cut down on excess sexuality—“Marital sex was not as exciting as non-marital sex” (Graham Chastity 71)—an exciting, sexually active wife could in fact break down the traditional hegemony of the husband.  Sexual intercourse then becomes a tool for power. As Grahamite Orson S. Fowler suggested, the woman becomes “the final umpire in the bedroom” (Nissenbaum xi).


Such an interpretation puts a different spin on the traditional vision of Lady Bertram as simply the stock aristocratic figure of fun in the novel.  One begins to suspect that she knows more than she lets on.  Behind the scenes, the husband and wife obviously talk about Fanny’s living with Mrs. Norris after the gouty man’s death, and Lady Bertram brings “the matter to a certainty,” raising the question “carelessly” (28).  When Mrs. Norris pleads poverty in her refusal, her sister knows exactly how much Mrs. Norris has a year.  When Mrs. Norris hopes that she can “‘lay by a little at the end of the year,’” her sister replies, “‘I dare say you will. You always do, don’t you?’” (30).  Further, when Mrs. Norris claims her worry over Sir Thomas’s plantations in Antigua, Lady Bertram is up on that matter also:  “‘Oh! that will soon be settled. Sir Thomas has been writing about it, I know’” (30).  Clearly Sir Thomas shares not only his bed but also his thoughts and business worries with this seemingly “air headed” spouse.


That Lady Bertram is a figure of fun is true:  she does not like exercise (36); she must ask advice of Sir Thomas if she can do without Fanny (217); she cannot recall the name of Shakespeare for the playwright of the play that Fanny has been reading (336).  In some scenes, however, she acts as a subtle guide for the reader for certain aspects of the other characters being developed.  For example, in the Shakespeare reading scene, she shows perspicuity when despite her “incompetency and languor” she declares, “‘You have a great turn for acting, I am sure, Mr. Crawford’” (338).  Knowing that Henry is in fact acting a role throughout the novel, the reader can read volumes into this line, which means even more coming from a character who is not vigilant enough in observing those around her.


This lack of vigilance is crucial in the outcome of many of the characters in the novel, and in the direction of the plot.  For example, her role furthers the plans of Henry Crawford as he sets out to make Fanny Price fall in love with him (229).  A “quiet mother” (48), considered no more than a “‘cipher’” in the house (162), “a trifle, for she might always be considered as only half awake” (343)—a neglectful sleeping aunt is perfect for his strategies to be alone with Fanny. When Henry believes he really is in love with Fanny, the neglectful aunt/chaperone enables him to pursue his attentions, what the narrator refers to as a “thorough attack” (342) in only slightly veiled sexual terms.  The stock figure of fun and the lassitude of the upper classes are perfectly described when Henry enters the room and finds Lady Bertram “on the very point of quitting it as he entered.  She was almost at the door, and not chusing by any means to take so much trouble in vain, she still went on.”  Henry is “overjoyed to have her go” (298).  A funny scene, yes, but the neglect of the role of chaperone, in the absence of the mother to fulfill this role, aids Henry in his “attack” on Fanny.  The word is used again when Mary Crawford approaches Fanny to persuade her of her brother’s cause.  Perhaps instinctively knowing what role her Aunt Bertram should be playing, Fanny “absents herself as little as possible from Lady Bertram. . . . She succeeded. She was safe in the breakfast-room with her aunt . . .” (357, emphasis mine). 


When the news of Henry’s proposal reaches Lady Bertram, however, she does not see the danger behind it, only the advantage.  The woman’s debilitated, automaton-like state has made her totally irresponsible in the guidance of Fanny.  As if to signal the total lack of awareness, in this scene Austen gives Lady Bertram her longest speech, preceded by a crucial description:  “She had been a beauty, and a prosperous beauty, all her life; and beauty and wealth were all that excited her respect” (332).  Lady Bertram knows “something like impatience, to be alone with [Fanny], and her countenance, as she spoke, had extraordinary animation” (332-33).  The outcome of her speech to Fanny is a recommendation to accept Henry’s offer, as “‘it is every young woman’s duty to accept such a very unexceptionable offer as this.’”  The narrator immediately underlines the lack of care this aunt has afforded:  “This was almost the only rule of conduct, the only piece of advice, which Fanny had received from her aunt in the course of eight years and a half” (333).


The most crucial example of the lack of care in Lady Bertram occurs when she should be paying attention to her family’s decision to perform the sexually risqué play Lovers’ Vows.   In Sir Thomas’s absence, she should be the one to order the conduct of the household, to act the central role of mother in the sense of guidance and nurture.  At a crucial point, as the two brothers argue the morality of acting in the home, Lady Bertram is described as “sunk back in one corner of the sofa, the picture of health, wealth, ease, and tranquillity, . . . just falling into a gentle doze” (126).  This picture of good health and ease negates Graham’s position, but the general dis-ease of the character—it is not natural for a healthy woman to be so lethargic—leaves her family vulnerable.  The central role of the play has been well documented, but Lady Bertram’s role in the development of the play’s importance has not, mainly because of the “presence of absence.”  She is either physically absent—not even mentioned in the pages telling of the play—or mentally—as in the line above.  Her one injunction to Maria—“‘Do not act any thing improper, my dear. . . . Sir Thomas would not like it”—is quickly followed by “‘I must have my dinner’” (140-41).  (Sylvester Graham would draw many dietary conclusions from this statement:  the digestive system ruined by the over stimulation of the sexual organs!)  Not appearing physically for 26 pages (141-67), Lady Bertram then claims that when she is “‘a little more at leisure’” (167), supposedly believing herself overwhelmed by all the little sewing of fringes she indulges in, she will attend a rehearsal.  She has no idea what the play is about.  Of course, well aware of the play’s questionable nature, Mrs. Norris adroitly stops her sister from attending the rehearsal the following evening, and Lady Bertram is “quite resigned to waiting” (167).


Austen, cleverly reversing the role of observer and moral guardian of the house during Sir Thomas’s absence, shows Fanny as the one who knows that the play is wrong, morally and spiritually, for the family.  Unlike the mistress of the house, however, Fanny can do nothing about it.  Fanny is the one who reads the play and is shocked at its contents of illegitimacy and seduction, how improper it is (137).  She hears the outrageous question from Miss Crawford:  “‘Who is to be Anhalt?  What gentleman among you am I to have the pleasure of making love to?’” (143).  She witnesses the sexuality in the acting between Henry Crawford and Maria Bertram (165), and the jealousy of Julia for Maria (160).  In a consummate summary paragraph of the events of the play’s effects, Austen describes all those at fault; the absence of the one who could and should have stopped the play is highlighted in the explanation:  “[t]he inattention of the two brothers and the aunt” (163 emphasis mine).  There are not two aunts involved in monitoring the play, only one, Mrs. Norris, who is so busy interfering in every little monetary detail that she fails in “watching the behaviour, or guarding the happiness of [Sir Thomas’s] daughters” (163).


Ironically, having totally disregarded her daughters’ and Fanny’s welfare during her husband’s absence, Lady Bertram is the one to reveal, when he returns, that the household has been taken over by a play.  Patricia Rozema’s film of Mansfield Park shows the amazing reaction to Sir Thomas’s return; in fact, Rozema’s voiceover commentary, picking up on mere nuances in the novel, reveals what she clearly sees as the true Lady Bertram.  With the noisy actors in the background, as Lady Bertram wakes from a deep doze and stretches out her warm, rosy arms lasciviously, saying she could not have borne his absence another moment, Rozema states, “Ever the sensualist.”  Austen’s text does indeed reveal the happiness of the wife; if not quite sensual, she is “so warmed by his sudden arrival, as to place her nearer agitation than she had been for the last twenty years.”  She “move[s] Pug from her side, and give[s] all her attention and all the rest of her sofa to her husband.”  She is “almost fluttered for a few minutes” (179, emphasis Austen’s).  If we return for a moment to Graham’s theories, the sexuality of the marital relations has been rekindled, returning to the first excitement of Lady Bertram’s marriage, before the birth of Tom.


The automaton becomes animated; Lady Bertram is present, physically and mentally, and “in the elation of her spirits . . . [becomes] talkative” (181), chatting to Sir Thomas of the play-acting, with the hilarious statement:  “‘We have been all alive with acting’” (181, emphasis mine).  In a very telling moment Tom explains that the play was a means of amusing his mother (181), intuitively reasoning that indeed Sir Thomas would be pleased to hear that his lady had been entertained in his absence.  The rest, as the cliché goes, is history.  The moral corruption of the play is cleansed from the house with Sir Thomas burning all the copies, and Henry Crawford removing to Bath.  Life at Mansfield Park returns to the peace and tranquility so beloved of its master and mistress, perhaps because they both have each other and other activities to occupy them in their private rooms.


One might wonder about the accuracy of Sylvester Graham’s theory applied to the long absence of Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram’s increased debility during this crucial time.  Mrs. Grant sees her more of a cipher than before he went away (162).  I see her nervous system as disturbed and weakened by the sexual activity of the past, and her whole persona, initially described as “guided in every thing important by Sir Thomas” (20) now destroyed.  One could parallel the deterioration to that of a drug removed and the addict’s dependence intensified.  The central role of mother is abrogated.


A significant parallel is that of Lady Bertram to her sister in Portsmouth, the original Fanny Ward, burdened by nine children in eleven years, severely neglecting the role of mother, especially to her daughters:  “she had neither leisure nor affection to bestow on Fanny.  Her daughters never had been much to her.  She was fond of her sons, especially of William . . .” (389).  In the voiceover commentary to her film version of the novel, Rozema picks up the cue of the parallels between the two sisters, in persona and looks, by choosing the same actress to play both parts.  The Austen text tells us that indeed Mrs. Price looked like her sister, and was of the same disposition, “naturally easy and indolent” (390), but her situation, clearly sexually stimulated in the past and now overcome by the present poverty has intensified the languor.


In an uncharacteristically cruel passage, Austen describes Fanny’s judgment of Mrs. Price as “a dawdle, a slattern,” who had no inclination for getting to know her daughter better or even understanding her feelings (390).  Her voice “resembled the soft monotony of Lady Bertram’s, only worn into fretfulness” (392).  Whereas Lady Bertram’s natural disposition is weakened by the stimulation of Sir Thomas’s sexual attentions over the years, by the good living and no doubt the fine wines and spirits (shown in the film of course as laudanum), Mrs. Price is similarly worn down by sexuality, plus frequent childbirth, poor food, and the inability to run her rowdy, filthy household with only two slovenly housemaids.  She would loaf on a sofa if one existed in her poverty-stricken home, but as it is she seems in constant useless but languid motion, fretting over the housemaids who are completely out of her control.  In a novel that holds up for scrutiny various types of marriages, that of Frances Price prompts Fanny to adapt Dr. Johnson’s famous aphorism:  “though Mansfield Park might have some pains, Portsmouth could have no pleasures” (392).


Whereas Sir Thomas panders to his wife’s every whim, enabling her loafing role, and in Graham’s terms paradoxically stimulating the lover’s debility, Mr. Price is a wastrel, disabled for active service from the navy but able enough to be out of the house, obsessively watching the ships, and over the years developing into a vulgar, prone-to-violence drunkard.  His drunkenness is accompanied by vulgarity:  “he swore and he drank, he was dirty and gross” (389).  In Graham’s terms again, sexual excess has caused the mind to become carnal.  For such a man “Almost every object he looks at takes on sexual associations. . . . ‘[H]is eye can scarcely fall . . . on the sexual parts of any female animal, without awakening a train of obscene thoughts’” (qtd. in Nissenbaum 109).  Fanny recalls no tenderness to herself, “only a general impression of roughness and loudness” (389).  In Portsmouth Fanny’s father “scarcely ever notice[s] her, but to make her the object of a coarse joke” (389)—one can only guess at the sexual nature of those jokes.  In Sylvester Graham’s view, Mr. Price epitomizes a system gone horrifyingly wrong, under the influence of heavy spirits, excessive venery and excess in marital sexuality.


The Portsmouth poverty highlights the difference in the two mothers, each destructive in her own way, each neglecting the vital central role of the caring, nurturing mother.  However, as Fanny yearns for Mansfield Park as her true home, she (as well as this reader) warms to Lady Bertram.  Lady Bertram’s role in the direction of the novel now takes an interesting turn.  The letters sent between niece and aunt not only fill in the details of the events at Mansfield Park now that Fanny is no longer the calm observer, they also push the plot forward.  The aunt’s chatty letters keep Fanny abreast of the events at “home” and, though full of trivialities at first—“very  little matter was enough for her” (425)—they become vital to Fanny (395).  Almost imperceptibly, the aunt replaces the mother; Edmund’s letters give the outside view of his mother who “‘desires her best love [be sent], and . . . talks of [Fanny] almost every hour’” (423).  Fanny has moved from being the constant companion, fetching and carrying and interminably sewing, to the daughter whom Lady Bertram longs for to comfort her, not to serve her (427).


As if acknowledging the shift in role for Lady Bertram, the narrator supplies an insight into the “back-story” of this character, a passage worth quoting in full:


Lady Bertram rather shone in the epistolary line, having early in her marriage, from the want of other employment, and the circumstance of Sir Thomas’s being in Parliament, got into the way of making and keeping correspondents, and formed for herself a very creditable, common-place, amplifying style. . . . (425)


One sees the young bride, estranged from one sister, dominated by another, filling tedious lonely hours writing letters—no doubt to women friends in similar circumstances—a tiny image that serves to give a psychological explanation for the character’s behavior.  In her study of Victorian women, Disorderly Conduct, Carroll Smith-Rosenberg deals with the vast amount of letters in her sample written by women in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, “turning to one another for comfort,” forging bonds “often physical as well as emotional” (71).  The collection of Austen’s own letters shows how many of her hours were filled with letter writing, and in Mansfield Park, despite the narrator’s self-deprecating suggestion that females have little to say in letters (425), the sequence between Fanny and Lady Bertram regarding Tom’s near fatal illness shows the growing bond between the two.  The following line demonstrates the turn-around in the relationship:  “Her aunt did not neglect her; she wrote again and again” (427).  She may still be loafing on the sofa, but she is at least doing something of value.  When Lady Bertram stops “playing at being frightened” over Tom’s illness, her letter is “finished in a different style, in the language of real feeling and alarm” (427, emphasis mine).  Shaken from her torpor, the aunt is now feeling strong emotions, other than those of sexuality, perhaps the first pangs of motherly love for some very long time, writing of “her daily terrors to her niece, who might now be said to live upon letters” (428).


Suffering as if a daughter, Fanny longs to be home to comfort her Aunt Bertram, who has been protected from the true nature of Tom’s illness so that, typically, she not be “harassed by alarms” (429).  When Maria’s disgrace is known, then Fanny takes her place as daughter, received back at Mansfield Park because of Sir Thomas’s anxiety for Lady Bertram (442).  Significantly, Lady Bertram moves from the drawing room “with no indolent step,” showing emotion, welcoming Fanny back as a comfort to her (447).  Emotionally stirred now as rarely before, Lady Bertram in the role of mother moves into another sphere, showing the change in her character and at the same time revealing the past history of Maria and Henry’s affair.  Lady Bertram is again sleeping (no doubt on the sofa), but this time “after hearing an affecting sermon, [she has] cried herself to sleep” (453).  Her “absence,” in this instance caused emotionally, not catatonically, allows time for Edmund to tell Fanny the shocking story of Mary Crawford’s response to Henry’s “‘folly,’” that “‘it was the detection, not the offence which she reprobated’” (455).  Moreover, Fanny can now reveal the real interest Miss Crawford took in the older brother’s illness (459).  Only “Lady Bertram’s rousing thoroughly up” (459)—notice the different type of energy here—finishes the conversation of four pages’ duration; the gap is filled, and the reader made well aware of Edmund’s state of mind and Fanny’s place as friend in his heart.


The figure of the aristocratic automaton—lethargic,  indolent—follows throughout literary history:  the faded relatives of Sir Leicester Dedlock in Bleak House; James Harthouse in Hard Times; even the new aristocracy, Daisy and Tom Buchanan, the careless people in The Great Gatsby, to name only a few.  They all reflect selfishness and sensuality—in Graham’s theory, the excess of stimulation that has led to debility in the upper classes.  The question, “What is up with Lady Bertram?” cannot perhaps be fully answered by a theory developed in the decades after Austen, and on another continent.  What Austen does achieve, however, is the delineation of a certain literary type, or stock character, that Graham’s later theory explains or even validates.


As an acute observer of human beings with all their failings and strengths in whichever class, Austen’s “types” have made her the consummate craftsperson of her century.  What distinguishes Austen’s loafing lover is her subtle role in directing certain aspects of the novel’s characterizations and the movement of the plot.  Without Lady Bertram’s abrogation of the role of dutiful mother, the play would never have been considered; without her sleeping at opportune moments, the story would never have been pushed forward, nor back-stories and narrative gaps filled in.  As to what women like Lady Bertram were doing in America at the time, perhaps Mary Gove Nichols might have the answer.  A Grahamite, she came to reject the “sexual slavery” of marriage, encouraging women to exercise “the freedom to refuse to submit to the sexual requirements of marriage” (Nissenbaum 167-69)—perhaps Lady Bertram and Frances Price might well agree with her.





1.  Graham died in 1851 at the age of 57.  Ironically, in his last months, in order to recover energy and overcome debility, he “resorted to taking liquor and meat in a last desperate attempt to recover his health” (Nissenbaum 15) but it was too late.  The regime of abstinence from animal meats and alcohol, and preservation of the semen—“the minimal consumption of food and minimal expenditure of semen” (xi, italics Nissenbaum’s)—proved unsuccessful in the founder’s case. His physician could find nothing seriously wrong with the organs, attributing Graham’s death to the “somewhat irregular life” he had been living (Trall 110).


Works Cited


Austen, Jane.  Minor Works.  Ed. R. W. Chapman.  Oxford: OUP, 1954.

_____.  The Novels of Jane Austen.  Ed. R. W. Chapman.  3rd ed.  Oxford: OUP, 1988.

Graham, Sylvester.  A Lecture to Young Men on Chastity, intended also for the serious consideration of parents and guardians.  Providence, 1834.

_____.  Lectures on the Science of Human Life.  2 vols.  Boston, 1839.

Le Faye, Deirdre, ed.  Jane Austen’s Letters.  3rd ed.  Oxford: OUP, 1995.

Nissenbaum, Stephen.  Sex, Diet, and Debility in Jacksonian America.  Chicago: Dorsey P, 1988.

Mansfield Park.  Dir. Patricia Rozema.  Perf. Embeth Davidtz, Harold Pinter.  DVD.  Miramax 2000.

Smith-Rosenberg, Carrol.  Disorderly Conduct: Visions of Gender in Victorian America.  Oxford: OUP, 1985.

Stockham, Alice B.  Tokology A Book for Every Woman.  Chicago, 1891.

Trall, Russell T.  “Biographical Sketch of Sylvester Graham.”  Water Cure Journal 1851.


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