PERSUASIONS ON-LINE V.35, NO.1 (Winter 2014)

A Distracted Seminarian: The Unsuccessful Reformation of Edmund Bertram

Br. Paul Byrd, O.P.


Br. Paul Byrd, O.P. (email: is a Dominican friar and English teacher at Fenwick High School in Oak Park, IL.  His M.A. in Writing is from DePaul University, his M.A. in Theology from the Aquinas Institute of Theology, and his B.A. in English from Thomas More College.  His poetry has been featured in After Hours and Poetry East.


Among Jane Austen’s fictional clergymen, Edmund Bertram stands out.  Not only does he believe in the respectability of the Anglican priesthood as a profession, he also believes in the priesthood’s noble importance as a moral calling, even while he acknowledges the need for serious clerical reforms.  Indeed, as Howard Babb argues, Austen makes Edmund’s priestly vocation the central plot of the novel by making it what fractures the romance between Edmund and Mary, thereby securing not only the happiness of the novel’s heroine but ensuring the moral development of its hero as well (155).


Yet Austen ultimately fails to make Edmund’s noble ideas about the priesthood fully materialize (Collins xi).  Instead of being a reformer, Edmund is portrayed more as a young man with good intentions who nevertheless is easily distracted.  Though he isn’t immoral, he is certainly hypocritical and frustratingly naïve.  What confidence can readers place in a man so easily blinded by the worldly charms of Mary Crawford, a woman who goes to great pains to challenge his core values?  Worse, what confidence can readers place in a reformer who actually fails to convert any of the sinners around him?  Yet Austen does want her readers to believe in Edmund and his calling, just as she wants them to believe that Anglicanism is a source of genuine salvation for a sinful world (Dabundo 105).  Indeed, Mansfield Park dramatizes the growing tensions between the burgeoning Evangelical spirituality of the early nineteenth century and the older “undemonstrative, yet devout” Anglicanism that Austen and her family held (Wiltshire 78, 83)—which is why, as Laura Mooneyham White notes, Austen addresses all of the major concerns of the Evangelicals in her novel, including “non-residency [of priests in their parishes], the abolition of the slave trade, the irreligiosity of urban elites, the importance of family prayers, the distrust of amateur acting and the call to intense private self-examination” (27).  The irony is that Austen ultimately fails to exonerate mainstream Georgian Anglicanism because her hero, who is so eloquent in his speeches on these topics of reform, only imperfectly embodies and enacts the virtues of the religion he so adamantly defends.  As a result, those around him in most need of personal conversion remain unpersuaded and untransformed, and readers are left questioning Austen’s unshakable confidence in her beloved church.


Edmund’s ordination


Famously, Jane Austen wrote in a letter to her sister Cassandra on 29 January 1813, “Now I will try to write of something else;—it shall be a complete change of subject—Ordination.”  Although scholars have debated what she actually meant by that, I will not complicate the matter; rather, I, like Michael Giffin, will take Austen at her word and argue that priestly ordination is actually central to the plot of Mansfield Park, even if the characters’ religiosity is more often discussed than portrayed (Giffin 143).  So how is ordination so central?  From the moment the narrator states in chapter two that he “was to be a clergyman” (Austen 23), Edmund Bertram’s ordination begins to loom over the plot as an expected event.  Ordination marries the characterization of Edmund as one with “strong good sense and uprightness of mind” not only to the education he has already received at Oxford but to his chosen profession as an Anglican priest (23-24).


Of course, Edmund’s profession is also important because he is the second son of a wealthy gentleman.  Since the family fortune belongs by rights to his older brother, Tom, Edmund has been raised knowing that he alone of the four Bertram children will have the responsibility of earning a living.  Rather than resent his lot, Edmund embraces it.  Edmund’s chosen vocation, then, is an externalization of this own preoccupation with fulfilling his duty (Collins 156). From this theme of moral responsibility comes the central dichotomy between the dutiful characters (Edmund, Fanny, and Sir Thomas) and the selfish characters (Mrs. Norris, the Crawfords, and the other Bertram siblings).  All the conflicts of the novel then stem from the clashes between the dutiful and the selfish characters, chief among these being the clash between Edmund and Mary Crawford.


Indeed, although Edmund and Mary fall in love early in the novel, the differences between their moral visions ultimately prevent their marriage.  Before their breakup, however, Austen uses the conversations they have about his vocation to challenge their core values.  Edmund must choose between marrying the woman he loves and performing his duty.  Mary must choose between marrying the man she loves and leading the fashionable life she so enjoys, fixated on money and social prestige.  Austen wants readers to see that a true marriage cannot happen between Edmund and Mary until one of them compromises his or her values:  either Edmund must become less righteous or Mary more so.  As Giffin puts it, Edmund Bertram is “a trope of a church that is being seduced by worldliness and threatening to lose its pastoral focus and moral authority” (129).  In this way, Edmund’s relationship with Mary serves as a test for his priestly calling, a unique feature not found in any of Austen’s other novels.  This same test is extended to Fanny Price and Henry Crawford, whose relational dynamic mirrors that of Edmund and Mary.  It is interesting that Fanny nearly does convert Henry, whereas Edmund doesn’t stand a chance with Mary.  In fact, it is the two women who hold their ground on what they believe while the two men bend to the pressure of love.


Of course, another way that Edmund’s ordination serves as central element to the plot is in how it repeatedly comes up in conversation.  Julia mentions it in the Sotherton chapel in regard to the impending marriage of Maria to Mr. Rushworth, after Edmund, Fanny, and Mary have already debated the efficacy of holding daily prayer in family chapels.  Not surprisingly, Fanny and Edmund are in favor of family prayer while Mary is not (Austen 99-104).  Edmund and Mary then engage in several discussions on the role of clergymen in the broader social context, with Mary arguing repeatedly that priests have little real influence in society and are often the worst of hypocrites while Edmund argues that a country priest who lives among his parishioners can preach very powerfully not only from the pulpit but most especially through his own life, provided he is a conscientious man (107-09).  Mary remains unimpressed and unconvinced, which Joseph M. Duffy, in his analysis of her, condemns.  He writes, “[Mary] is weak in her cynical detachment from society which is unaccompanied by any idealistic notion of what society should be like” (70).  In this way, Mary represents the segment of English society that no longer believes in the importance of the Church of England and its priests.


Oddly enough, Henry Crawford and Sir Thomas join the debate on priesthood later when they discuss pluralism and absenteeism, two prevalent clerical problems of Austen’s day motivated by issues of money and shortages of priests.  The context for the discussion is Edmund’s future ministry at Thornton Lacey and Henry’s own design to settle in the parsonage there to be near Fanny Price.  Sir Thomas condemns the idea of a priest not fulfilling his parish duties due to his residing elsewhere, and Edmund echoes his condemnation (Austen 287-88).  Henry is silenced for the moment, but later discusses the art of preaching with Edmund in a scene that highlights the superficiality of Henry’s understanding of priestly ministry (391-97).  Throughout these conversations, Austen incorporates the character of Dr. Grant, the priest of the church at Mansfield Park, who serves as foil to Edmund’s idealism of the priesthood.  Dr. Grant is just the sort of selfish priest that Mary Crawford rejects and Edmund wants to avoid becoming.  Wickedly, Austen promotes Dr. Grant to a canon of Westminster Abbey, only to kill him off after a week of more-than-usual feasting, making him the second priest to die in the novel to make way for Edmund (542-43).


Thus from this centralizing of Edmund’s ordination, Austen is able to incorporate into Mansfield Park several comments about the clerical reforms already underway in her time, thereby articulating her support of these reforms, yet she softens the didactic tone of the novel by keeping such comments tied to the romantic tension of the novel’s young lovers.


Edmund’s character


Edmund Bertram is a flawed hero because, for all his high ideals, he is nearly as morally weak as his three siblings.  He stands out as the only Austen hero whose love for the primary heroine is so nearly thwarted by the love of another woman.  Even his fellow clergyman, Edward Ferrars of Sense and Sensibility, engaged to another though he was, would never have preferred Lucy Steele to Elinor Dashwood.  So how are readers to understand Edmund?


Edmund garners readers’ sympathies immediately in his kind attentions to his newly arrived cousin, Fanny Price, whom he finds weeping from homesickness (17-18).  From there, Edmund takes on the role of Fanny’s teacher and protector.  This attentiveness to Fanny contrasts him to the other Bertram family members who harass, neglect, or frighten her.  When Fanny is older, it is Edmund who exchanges one of his own horses for another so that Fanny can begin to exercise (42).  In another scene, when Fanny is worn out with fatigue, it is her favorite cousin who notices, defending her against Mrs. Norris’s criticisms (84).  And it is Edmund who insists that Fanny be permitted to visit Sotherton with the rest of the family and the Crawfords, even if it means that he would have to stay home for a dull day with his mother (88-93).  It is Edmund who protests the production of Lovers’ Vows on the grounds of impropriety, despite the fact that he is (with Fanny) clearly in the minority in opposing the scheme (146-47, 163-64).  And when Sir Thomas hosts a ball at Mansfield Park to introduce Fanny into society, it is Edmund who picks out a suitable necklace for his cousin to wear with her new topaz cross (303).  In all these cases, and others in which he consults Fanny for her advice, Edmund is portrayed as a thoughtful, reflective young man, far and away more conscientious than his siblings.  Fanny’s own heroic morality, although it finally surpasses Edmund’s own in the way she will not compromise under pressure, is owing to Edmund’s instruction and example.  In this way, Edmund’s destiny as a clergyman, which has undoubtedly shaped the way he resists his relatives’ weaknesses, has also shaped Fanny’s own resistance to sin and desire for reformation, thus making their relationship the perfect model of Christian priest and convert.


But as virtuous as Edmund is, he is inconsistent in the application of his values and often displays startling levels of insensibility when it comes to understanding other people’s characters.  The earliest indication of this flawed hermeneutic is when he argues that Fanny would benefit from living with Mrs. Norris (28). As Babb points out, he readily “glosses over” his aunt’s pointed meanness toward his cousin and Fanny’s own fear of her aunt in loyalty to his own theory about what their relationship ought to be like (155).  However, this blunder is nothing compared to Edmund’s behavior toward Mary.  When, for example, Mary offends Edmund in the way she speaks of her uncle, she has only to smile and continue to be lively to draw him back into conversation (Austen 84-85).  We learn through Fanny that this propensity of Mary to say scandalous things is habitual, not incidental, which makes Edmund’s excuses for Mary all the more damning (77).


Soon, Edmund’s feelings for Mary begin to make him neglectful of Fanny.  For example, he allows Mary to use Fanny’s horse, even though he knows very well that the horse is Fanny’s favorite source of exercise.  In the scene in which Mary pretends to apologize, Edmund dismisses the harm of Mary’s action and any grounds Fanny would have for being angry, a judgment he later retracts when he finally realizes the impact the lack of riding has had on Fanny’s health (78-80, 84-86) . During the rambles on the grounds of Sotherton, Edmund again fails to appreciate Fanny’s feelings because he is too busy enjoying Mary’s conversation.  The comparison between the two ladies in this scene is marked; readers might sympathize with Mary’s healthier disposition, but it is Fanny’s internal disappointment that Austen focuses on, namely her being left alone on a bench while Edmund goes to flirt with Mary in the woods (109-112, 120).  Although Edmund claims to have wanted Fanny’s company, that desire wasn’t translated into action.  This weakness is echoed later when the young people are enjoying an evening at Mansfield.  Fanny eloquently rhapsodizes about the glories of nature and the influence it has on the soul, to which Edmund heartedly agrees; but when the two are to go outside to stargaze and moralize further, Edmund is easily drawn away to listen to the music of the glee, presumably played by Mary Crawford. Fanny, the narrator says, is mortified (132-33).


Fanny has every reason to be mortified.  Edmund’s attraction to Mary is more than a distraction; it consistently causes Edmund to compromise his values, the greatest example of which is when he, after making a long protestation against the plan to perform Lovers’ Vows finally agrees to play the role of Anhalt, the love interest to Mary Crawford’s character, Amelia.  Even when he goes to Fanny for her advice, it is clear he has only come to affirm his own desire to waver (180-84).  Accordingly, both Maria and Tom—the two loudest supporters of the play—rejoice, because they understand this to be, very clearly, a loss of Edmund’s previous moral high ground (185).  Edmund becomes so engrossed with the play that he fails to observe the immoral behavior of his sister Maria, who flirts with Henry Crawford, even though she’s engaged to Mr. Rushworth.  Worse, he later joins in with the others in urging Fanny to act in the production although he knows how strongly she objects to it (191, 201-02).  The play ultimately does not go on, but its effect in drawing Mary and Edmund closer together has taken hold.  Again and again he defends her, despite noting her worldly opinions.  He even dares to say, “‘She doesn’t think evil, but she speaks it,’” a statement that proves just how willful his apologetics for Mary actually are (312).  In this way, Fanny’s growing disappointment in Edmund is the emblem of the disappointment all laity experience when the clergy fail to live up to the Church’s moral ideals.


As if it weren’t bad enough that Edmund has fallen for Mary, he goes one step further by encouraging Fanny to befriend her and to marry her brother Henry, essentially asking Fanny to join him in his fall from grace.  In the scene in which he and Henry discuss preaching, Edmund is blind enough to be pleased with what Henry says because he thinks simply talking about religious subjects will be enough to win Fanny’s heart for Henry.  Unlike Fanny, Edmund doesn’t realize just how superficial Henry’s opinions are—not because he isn’t smart enough to do so, but because it’s more convenient for him not to.  He wants to be closer to Mary by having Fanny accept Henry as her husband, so much so that he is moved to criticize Fanny as a way to pressure her, arguing that she is too prone to dejection (402).  He says, “‘[Henry] will make you happy, Fanny, I know he will make you happy; but you will make him everything’” (406).  Edmund isn’t necessarily wrong here, as even the narrator recognizes the potential happy marriage between a converted Henry with an Edmund-free Fanny (540).  He’s wrong only because he is abusing his role as Fanny’s primary friend for self-serving purposes, pretending, as Babb argues, to discuss Henry and Fanny when he is really only “cheering himself up about his own relation with Mary” (Babb 166).


Unfortunately, Edmund indulges his romantic fancy all too often, as when he repeatedly recognizes faults in Mary, only to make light of them.  The narrator says, “His objections, the scruples of his integrity, seemed all done away—nobody could tell how” (423).  Accordingly, instead of performing his priestly duties after ordination, he runs off to London to be near Mary.  In his letter to Fanny from London, he describes Mary’s “mercenary and ambitious” friends, as if to say they are the reason Mary’s views are so set against traditional Anglican values (488).  Fanny utterly rejects Edmund’s interpretation, chiding him for his blindness, saying, “‘’tis nonsense all. . . . She is quite as likely to have led them astray. . . . Fix, commit, condemn yourself’” (492).  And as Fanny, not Edmund, is the moral center of the story, readers are expected to side with her against Edmund, even as she softens her condemnation with, “‘He was only too good to every body’” (492).


None of this is to say that Mary alone is so damnable.  She is just one among many of the sinful characters in this novel; and, when compared to Mrs. Norris, Maria, or Henry, she may not even rank as the worst offender.  But Mary is clearly a sinful character.  As she says to Fanny upon returning her horse, “‘Selfishness must always be forgiven you know, because there is no hope of a cure’” (80).  She intends this statement as a witticism, but it is actually the creed by which she lives.  Her arguments against public prayers at Sotherton are rooted in an individualism more concerned with personal comfort than communal reform (98-114).  And her many attacks against the clergy are primarily founded on her obsessive respect for the fashionable world (289).  The result of this bias is that Mary doesn’t think deeply.  When she and Fanny are in the same place, it’s clear that Mary has all the glamour of beauty and accomplishments, all the success of a winning personality, but none of the wisdom that comes from reflection.  So when Fanny waxes philosophical about nature, time, and memory, “Miss Crawford, untouched and inattentive, had nothing to say” (Austen 243).  Mary’s superficiality earns the cool ire of no less than Virginia Woolf, who writes that Austen “lets her rattle on against the clergy, or in favor of a baronetage and ten thousand a year with all the ease and spirit possible; but now and again she strikes one note of her own, very quietly, but in perfect tune, and at once all Mary Crawford’s chatter, though it continues to amuse, rings flat” (265).  The irony is that, like her brother Henry, Mary falls in love with someone who is serious and religious.  But while Mary is convinced that Fanny can have a good influence on Henry, she doesn’t think that she herself is in need of a good influence (Austen 342).  Indeed, she is so insensible, she doesn’t realize that her anecdotes about her two friends, Lady Stornaway and Mrs. Frazer, foreshadow the unhappy marriage she is destined to have should she continue to court money and fashion above virtue and sense.


Unfortunately, the end of the novel seals Mary’s doom.  Despite her love for Edmund, she mocks his parish duties (456-57).  She later likens Edmund to a Methodist reformer or a missionary, during a heated confrontation that finally ends their unhappy courtship and breaks Mary’s spell over Edmund (529-30).  That scene, including the final image of Mary’s coy smile trying to bring Edmund back, echoes the conclusion of Austen’s Lady Susan, a story about, at least in part, a worldly woman and her failed attempt to seduce a virtuous young man.  That Mary Crawford is as despicable as Lady Susan Vernon is made very clear in the way she rejoices at the prospect of Edmund’s inheriting Mansfield Park were his older brother Tom to die from a serious illness (502-03).  Both her mercenary designs on Mansfield Park and her light treatment of her brother’s adulterous affair with Maria reveal that Edmund has had absolutely no positive moral impact on her.  She is, as she always has been, selfish with no hope for a cure.


Mary isn’t the only unconverted sinner at the novel’s end.  Mrs. Norris is sent into exile to live with the fallen Mrs. Rushworth with no program for her reformation.  Their mutual banishment, while it may satisfy poetic justice, hardly predicts repentance.  Just so, Lady Bertram remains indolent and self-oriented, easily replacing Fanny with Susan (546-47).  Only Henry Crawford has any real chance at conversion.  While it lasts, his attraction to Fanny produces several good fruits:  William Price’s promotion, gracious encounters with Fanny’s poor relations at Portsmouth, and charitable reforms on behalf of his tenants (345, 465-70).  Indeed, Fanny is impressed enough to feel “the possibility of his turning out well at last” (470).  But he doesn’t. He is easily drawn back into sinful pleasure by Mrs. Rushworth, whose attraction to him is perhaps only heightened by her jealousy of Fanny (456).  And so the major sinners all stay sinners at the story’s end, with the exception of Tom Bertram—a major sinner, perhaps, but a marginal character—who is only saved through a near-death experience and the example of his sister’s disgrace, certainly not through any preaching on his brother’s part (534).


Austen’s agenda


Asking what Austen is trying to accomplish in Mansfield Park in terms of religion is important because, while modern readers may judge Edmund to be a failure at reform, it can hardly be assumed, given the tone and ending of the novel, that Austen herself saw him that way.  This contradiction exposes cultural distances between the early nineteenth and twenty-first centuries, and demands that modern readers reexamine Austen’s religious context.


Fortunately, scholarship on Austen’s Anglicanism and her opinions of the Evangelical movement within the Church of England is currently a topic of interest.  Indeed, many scholars go to great pains to demonstrate just how Christian Austen’s novels are.  Byrne, for example, argues that Austen restrains her characters’ religiosity because she doesn’t believe heavy-handed preaching to be the proper role of a writer.  Instead, Byrne says, Austen sought to “track the endlessly fascinating process of how human beings find themselves ‘feeling differently every moment’” (202)—meaning that the Christian touches in the novel are of the same quiet kind that Austen exhibited herself, with the focus on “practical utility” (204).  For Dabundo, however, the religiosity is more evident.  She argues all of Austen’s novels are imbued with a Christian understanding of redemption, just as each of the heroines is a Christ-figure who suffers in some way to bring out that redemption (99).  The Georgian Anglican slant to this theology is Austen’s portrayal of the Christian life as one of maturation through self-knowledge (105).


Austen’s approach, therefore, is subtle.  Indeed, De Botton writes, “Upon finishing Mansfield Park, we are invited to go back into the sphere from which Austen has drawn us aside and respond to others as she has taught us, to pick up on and recoil from greed, arrogance, and pride and to be drawn to goodness within ourselves and others” (142).  Babb expands on this idea, arguing that Austen’s spirituality is rooted in moral integrity—but the only way to achieve this integrity is to properly judge reality (171).  In Mansfield Park, he says, only Fanny can claim moral integrity throughout because she is the only character who is able to feel deeply yet still remain objective when evaluating what she feels in light of the truth of each situation (167).  This level of integrity is no easy task for any heroine, let alone one who is, as Wiltshire describes her, “damaged early by her upbringing, as well as by her quasi-adoption, who experiences intense conflict between gratitude to her adopted family and the deepest rebellion against them—a rebellion so deep that it can scarcely be acknowledged in her consciousness” (94).  This insight into Fanny challenges Lewis’s critique that there isn’t enough passion or sacrifice in Mansfield Park (111, 114).  And it contradicts Maugham’s condemning remark that “Fanny and Edmund are intolerable prigs” (78).  In fact, Babb and Wiltshire reveal that in Fanny, if not in Edmund, Austen has fashioned a very morally and psychologically complex character that deserves readers’ admiration.


But why, if the spirituality of the novel is so complex and deep, does it seem to fail in its more overt religious agenda?  The answer may lie in Trilling’s insight that Austen didn’t live in a world concerned yet with doing; her world was about being (65).  Accordingly, White argues that, in the character of Edmund, Austen illustrates that the church will reform itself, over time, just as an individual gradually reforms through maturation (24).  This attitude, Giffin explains, comes from “the tradition of the reasonable, enlightened, and tolerant via media (or middle way) of the long eighteenth century,” a tradition that believed the Church of England was “always being reformed and always being in need of further reform” (24).  Austen, as a member of a sacramental church that emphasized communal over personal salvation, wants practical, rational responses to issues as they arise (28).  And she holds the traditional view that while men and women are sinful, it is their responsibility to work toward salvation in this world, part of which depends on picking a moral person to marry, to be one’s partner on the journey of faith (31-33).


Specifically with Mansfield Park, Giffin believes Austen achieves something unique in the way of her didactic message.  The entire novel is a trope that tells the story of fallen Georgian England (127-28).  Sir Thomas, Edmund, and Fanny “present the novel’s evolving Anglican conscience” (133).  Edmund’s ordination is central in this pattern, he argues, because it is symbolic of the reform of both Anglicanism and Britain itself, and through Edmund, the estate and the church are held together.  Giffin writes, “The drama facing Edmund is the drama facing a Georgian church that must learn that it will lose all of its moral and spiritual authority if it forgets that it is betrothed to Christ, and not to the world, and that it cannot marry both” (144).  It is fortunate then that Edmund eventually comes to see his situation more clearly, thereby learning to judge correctly, unlike Mary and Henry Crawford, who, Giffin says, don’t know what they ought to feel” (147).


In this light, perhaps Edmund isn’t supposed to represent the ideal church.  Rather, he symbolizes a church under repair; so that when he finally fixes his gaze on the correct vision of moral standards—Fanny—he comes to personify the Anglican Church renewing its commitment to the Gospel.  Indeed, Irene Collins argues that Edmund’s marrying Fanny is key to understanding the fullness of his own reformation and his successful setting of a good, private example of moral living (166).  Setting the moral example is his, and Austen’s, chosen brand of preaching; but it’s a risky kind of preaching that means characters like Henry and Mary Crawford remain untouched, no matter how obviously they lose by not converting.  And it means that some readers, including critics like Amis and Maugham, may find the “bad” characters much more appealing than the “good.”  But, as Giffin puts it, Mansfield Park “is a novel about human maturity, not about divine intervention or fairy-tale romance” (148).  In life, then, one has to simply get to the business of informing one’s opinions, and learning to make proper decisions.  This perspective is the practical spirituality and world view of the Georgian Anglicanism Austen treasured and preached, which is why her novels are filled with flawed saints and charming sinners.  In the end, how we respond to her characters says as much about our own moral values as it does about the characters themselves.


While Austen may be comfortable creating a world in which the righteous are rewarded and the unrighteous are tolerated, her readers may not be satisfied with Mansfield Park, given the novel’s overt bias in favor of the established church.  Indeed, what greater condemnation of the Church of England could there be than the fact that it first facilitates a corrupt society focused on fashion and money, and then fails to fully confront the evils of such a society when it becomes evident that change is needed?  Edmund Bertram, the ordained representative of this church, is for most of the novel shamefully complicit or insensible to the sinful behavior of his family and friends.  Time and again he fails to argue persuasively for the moral path.  His inability to help his siblings and the Crawfords value the right things means that he will only be an effective minister to those who already agree with him.


Therefore, readers must not romanticize Edmund simply because he has high ideals, as Barbara Bail Collins does when she writes, “In Miss Austen’s Edmund we see the secular eighteenth-century clergyman, who held several livings to secure a comfortable income . . . vanishing in favor of the Victorian clergyman who was serious about a serious profession” (182).  If Austen wants her readers to see Edmund that way, she ought not to have portrayed him as the rather pampered son of a baronet who is totally unprepared for the real demands of ministry.  Indeed, readers’ only confidence in Edmund comes from his having the good fortune to marry his more accomplished disciple, Fanny.  But even Fanny, in her quiet disapproval of others, effects little real change in the people around her, both at Mansfield and in Portsmouth.  The only time she exerts herself to really preach is in a speech she gives to Edmund about her right to reject Henry Crawford’s offer of marriage (Austen 408).  Rarely, does she use the same energy to confront her abusive Aunt Norris, her slave-owning Uncle Thomas, her lazy Aunt Bertram, her alcoholic father, her indifferent mother, her noisy brothers, her jealous sisters, or her sexually undisciplined cousins.  Although this novel’s cast of miscreants is in great need of preaching, Edmund and Fanny barely make an effort to speak out.  The two are undoubtedly mostly moral in their own behavior, but then they are mostly concerned about their own happiness.  So if Austen sets them before readers as examples of preaching with one’s life, it’s not clear what it is they preach, except perhaps the insular nature of Georgian Anglican reform.


Yet Giffin claims that Austen’s “vision is extremely radical and prophetic, not unlike the vision of those women who dominate the old and new testaments, and not unlike the vision of those women who dominate four thousand years of Jewish and Christian history” (36).  If true, then Mansfield Park may be seen as a lay theologian’s articulation of Christian holiness that is both realistic and attainable, making it an astute contribution to the religious debates of Austen’s day.


But is it true?  To be sure, there is a pleasing fittingness to the union of Edmund and Fanny at the novel’s end that predicts their mutual development in moral goodness; but Giffin’s interpretation of Austen’s spiritual vision actually describes holiness, something far more demanding and extraordinary than goodness alone.  Given that the moral latitude of Edmund and Fanny produces very few visible fruits where they are most needed, Giffin’s interpretation seems idealistic.  This criticism is not to deny the nobility of Austen’s spirituality; rather, it is merely to point out that if, as Wiltshire claims, Edmund really is Austen’s response to the Evangelical “call for increased commitment from Anglican ministers,” she fails to persuade (83).  Edmund’s preaching by example proves insufficient for the maintenance of the Christian community around him.  Indeed, what the situation at Mansfield demands is a direct articulation and application of the Gospel, a clearer call for on-going conversion, beginning first and foremost with Edmund himself.


It is not enough for Edmund or Fanny to do the right thing; they must also insist that the right thing be done by others, lest through neglect or tolerance, to paraphrase one of Austen’s own prayers, they throw away the salvation God has given them and become Christians only in name (499).  Austen seems to admit the need for stronger evangelization in Sir Thomas’s poignant and humble reflection on his parental failures, which underscores the importance of overt religious instruction to personal moral development and practice (536).  Wishing for more moral consistency in this novel is not to suggest that Austen ought to have been more didactic or Edmund more rigid; but simply, if Austen wanted to convince readers that Anglicanism truly is an effective force working to sanctify society, she ought to have portrayed her champion of Anglicanism as a focused priest busy with ministry instead of as a distracted seminarian more attentive to his personal desires than to his priestly duties.  Because she doesn’t, Edmund Bertram remains only the promise, not the paragon, of the reforms the Evangelicals wanted and the Church of England needed.



Works Cited


Austen, Jane.  Mansfield Park.  Ed. John Wiltshire.  New York: Cambridge UP, 2005.

Babb, Howard S.  Jane Austen’s Novels: The Fabric of Dialogue.  Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1962.

Byrne, Paula.  The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things.  New York: Harper, 2013.

Collins, Barbara Bail.  “Jane Austen’s Victorian Novel.”  Nineteenth-Century Fiction 4.3 (1949): 175-85.

Collins, Irene.  Jane Austen and the Clergy.  New York: Hambledon, 2002.

De Botton, Alain.  “The Modest Art of Altering Life.”  2004.  A Truth Universally Acknowledged.  Ed. Susannah Carson.  New York: Random, 2009.  139-43.

Dabundo, Laura.  The Marriage of Faith: Christianity in Jane Austen and William Wordsworth.  Macon, GA: Mercer UP, 2012.

Duffy, Joseph M., Jr.  “Moral Integrity and Moral Anarchy in Mansfield Park.”  ELH 23 (1956): 71-91.  Rpt. in Jane Austen Critical Assessments.  Ed. Ian Littlewood.  Vol. 4.  Mountfield, East Sussex: Helm, 1998.  57-73.

Giffin, Michael.  Jane Austen and Religion: Salvation and Society in Georgian England.  New York: Palgrave, 2002.

Lewis, C. S.  “A Note on Jane Austen.”  1954.  A Truth Universally Acknowledged.  Ed. Susannah Carson.  New York: Random, 2009.  104-15.

Maugham, W. Somerset.  “Jane Austen and Pride and Prejudice.”  1949.  A Truth Universally Acknowledged.  Ed. Susannah Carson.  New York: Random, 2009.  70-82.

Trilling, Lionel.  “From Emma and the Legend of Jane Austen.”  1957.  A Truth Universally Acknowledged.  Ed. Susannah Carson.  New York: Random, 2009.  188-99.

White, Laura Mooneyham.  Jane Austen’s Anglicanism.  Burlington: Ashgate, 2011.

Wiltshire, John.  The Hidden Jane Austen.  Cambridge: CUP, 2014.

Woolf, Virginia.  “Jane Austen at Sixty.”  1925.  A Truth Universally Acknowledged.  Ed. Susannah Carson.  New York: Random, 2009.  259-68.


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