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

The Monstrous Mothers of Mansfield Park

Marilyn Francus


Marilyn Francus (email: is a Professor of English at West Virginia University.  She is the author of Monstrous Motherhood: Eighteenth-Century Culture and the Ideology of Domesticity (Johns Hopkins, 2012) and editor of The Burney Journal.

during the first documented coversation between the Crawfords and the younger Bertrams, Tom Bertram describes a visit to the home of his friend, Charles Anderson:


“When Anderson first introduced me to his family, about two years ago, his sister was not out, and I could not get her to speak to me.  I sat there an hour one morning waiting for Anderson, with only her and a little girl or two in the room—the governess being sick or run away, and the mother in and out every moment with letters of business; and I could hardly get a word or a look from the young lady—nothing like a civil answer—she screwed up her mouth, and turned from me with such an air!  I did not see her again for a twelvemonth.  She was then out.  I met her at Mrs. Holford’s—and did not recollect her.  She came up to me, claimed me as an acquaintance, stared me out of countenance, and talked and laughed till I did not know which way to look.”  (MP 49-50)


Mothers and governesses are expected to raise daughters properly; their absence seemingly explains Miss Anderson’s rudeness at home, and later in public.  Mrs. Anderson is culpable because she does not stay still—she moves in and out of the room attending to letters of business rather than to her children.  (That the governess may have run away suggests that Mrs. Anderson may be prone to other types of negligence as well.)  Mary Crawford specifies the maternal critique in her response:  “‘Mothers certainly have not yet got quite the right way of managing their daughters.  I do not know where the error lies.  I do not pretend to set people right, but I do see that they are often wrong’” (50).  Tom responds with a similar story about the Sneyd family, and being unable to determine which of Sneyd’s sisters is out.  He remarks, “‘Mrs. Sneyd was surrounded by men’” (51)—implying questionable, flirtatious behavior—so Tom unwittingly walked with the younger daughter, who was not out, and offended the elder daughter as a result. Mary chimes in again:  “‘But it was entirely the mother’s fault.  Miss Augusta [the younger sister] should have been with her governess’” (51).


This conversation between Tom and Mary seems ordinary.  Tom, who is flighty, immature, and not the most reliable of narrators, may have no motive other than to entertain the Crawfords; Mary is looking to be pleased, since she is considering Tom as a marriage prospect, and she wants to encourage Tom by mitigating his social errors.  But it is the very ordinariness of this conversation that is important, for it reveals the degree to which the discourse of motherhood is embedded throughout Mansfield Park.  Neither Tom nor Mary is an expert on mothers:  Mary is technically motherless and Tom is functionally so, and neither is a parent or a moral or social exemplar.  Nevertheless, they feel empowered to engage in maternal critique, for they know the social codes for proper behavior and that mothers are responsible for inculcating and policing those behaviors.1  Yet as Mary diagnoses that there is something wrong—that mothers do not manage their daughters (or arguably, sons) properly—she does not have a remedy.  Like Mary, Mansfield Park repeatedly demonstrates that mothers cannot get it right, and like Mary, it offers no solution.  There is no nurturing, virtuous, astute mother here.  Rather, Mansfield Park depicts the confusing, chaotic consequences of maternal inadequacy, suggesting that maternal deviance is normative and inescapable.


Casal argues that Fanny Price is constantly subject to inadequate, monstrous mothers, but I want to suggest that everyone in the novel feels the effects of maternal monstrosity.  Mary and Henry Crawford and Mrs. Grant are well aware that Lady Bertram and Mrs. Norris affect their relations with the Bertram children, Fanny Price, and local society.  Tom and Julia Bertram feel the maternal monstrosity of Mrs. Rushworth; Sir Thomas realizes that he has nearly destroyed his household by sanctioning the monstrous motherhood of Mrs. Norris for years (162, 296; 100, 119; 463, 465-66).  Criticizing motherhood is easy—perhaps too easy.  But Austen is not engaging in a conservative critique of motherhood to convince mothers to behave conventionally; as Claudia Johnson has shown, Austen complicates, and to some extent undermines, the conservative agenda in Mansfield Park.2  Nor does Mansfield Park propose a liberal critique that questions maternal standards, or that identifies the sources of maternal misbehavior to remediate them.  Rather, unlike Austen’s other novels, where the union of the romantic couple promises a brighter future with better marriages, better estate management, and better parenting, Mansfield Park demonstrates that monstrous motherhood already resides at home, and cannot leave.  After “light & bright & sparkling” Pride and Prejudice (4 February 1813), Austen commits to an inexorable social and psychological realism, of which monstrous motherhood is an integral part.



Motherhood, in Austen’s time as in ours, was not limited to a biological relationship.  Any older woman who nurtured a child—including wet nurses, nannies, governesses, stepmothers, and aunts—could function as a mother.  Mothers of the middle and upper classes often delegated mothering to others; such help was commonplace and socially acceptable.  But the guidelines for mothers emphasized maternal engagement with children, and maternal surveillance of caregivers.  Thomas Gisborne’s Enquiry into the Duties of the Female Sex (1797)—a popular conduct manual that Austen read and liked—presents contemporary notions about motherhood and mothering.3  Gisborne recommends that mothers supervise a child’s diet and exercise; avoid fashionable books, governesses, and schools in favor of substantive ones; and monitor a child’s friends and associates, including servants (378; 364, 366-70, 375, 379, 386).  Gisborne underscores the importance of shaping a child’s character, as he encourages mothers to develop relationships with their children so that they confide in their mothers (381-84).  For Gisborne, the greatest danger is the artful, furtive child, whose behavior prevents a mother from parenting properly (375).  Accordingly, Gisborne warns against maternal behaviors that encourage duplicity in children, such as partiality or promoting sibling rivalry (373-74; 377).  Through ongoing care and assessment, and by modeling virtuous behavior, Gisborne claims that mothers can guide their daughters successfully through courtship and adulthood (388-93).


The conduct-manual guidelines for mothers aligned with standards for women regarding virtue, domesticity, charity, chastity, and modesty.  These standards advocated a form of female self-effacement, if not selflessness; society praised mothers who engaged in parenting without drawing attention to themselves as people with narratives of their own.  The defiance of these standards—through overt resistance or ignorance—was deemed deviant, if not monstrous.  “Deviance” derives etymologically from the Latin deviare, means “to turn from the road,” to swerve or veer, while “monster” derives from the Latin monstrare, “to show” (the same root as “demonstrate”) and monere, “to warn.”  In other words, the deviant, monstrous mother veers from expectation:  she demonstrates difference through her inability to parent properly, her rejection of maternal selflessness, or her refusal to parent at all.  By presenting maternal subjectivity—by demonstrating motherhood—mothers drew attention to an issue that society preferred ignore, if not hide.  There was a wide range of behaviors that could be considered deviant or monstrous, but the distinguishing characteristic of the monstrous mother was her sense of self.  When she exercised her will for her own benefit and pleasure, she ignored, abused, or misled her child.  As I have argued elsewhere, maternal power is not inherently monstrous, because mothers need will, authority, and a sense of self to fulfill the social expectations of motherhood (Francus 16, 46-73).  But the monstrous mother uses her power to rebel against expectation.  She is a warning to both parents and children, for maternal failure leads to disaster for the family and society.


Motherhood is a subject of ongoing interest for Austen, as maternal worth and maternal deviance jostle against each other regularly in her novels.  Mrs. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice embarrasses her daughters, and her social aggression nearly destroys their marital chances as she attempts to secure their future.  Her maternal monstrosity is of a different order and magnitude than Sense and Sensibility’s Mrs. Ferrars, whose disinheritance of her son Edward not only defies social convention, but also reveals her radical misunderstanding of her children.  Some mother figures overstep their bounds as they attempt to infantilize everyone by imposing their will, like Lady Catherine De Bourgh in Pride and Prejudice and Mrs. Churchill in Emma; some maternal monstrosity manifests as indifference, as Northanger Abbey’s Mrs. Allen and Persuasion’s Mary Musgrove pursue their own pleasures rather than tending to their charges.4  While these novels are filled with deviant mothers, they also feature positive mother figures who help define (and often alleviate) monstrous motherhood—mothers like Mrs. Gardiner, Mrs. Weston, Mrs. Jennings, Mrs. Musgrove, Mrs. Harville, and Mrs. Morland.  But monstrous motherhood is not vanquished in Austen:  it is contained.  Mrs. Ferrars and Mrs. Bennet are difficult parents and mothers-in-law, but ultimately they do not affect the lives of Elinor and Edward, Elizabeth and Darcy, Jane and Bingley, or the snug family communities those couples create.


Mansfield Park differs from the rest of the Austen canon by presenting unrelieved monstrous motherhood, and the containment of maternal deviance is rare and belated.  As Casal observes, the primary mother figures in the novel—Lady Bertram, Mrs. Price, and Mrs. Norris—constantly defy, even undermine, maternal expectation.  The secondary mother figures in the novel, Mrs. Rushworth and recently deceased Mrs. Crawford, much like Mrs. Anderson and Mrs. Sneyd, are little better.  Their maternal misbehavior is accentuated by Mansfield Park’s claustrophobic representation of family.  Claudia Johnson has noted the isolation of the Bertram family, and that there are fewer families in Mansfield Park than in Austen’s other novels.  The limited number of families in Mansfield Park generates an intense scrutiny of their members and relationships—a scrutiny that is heightened by thoughtful, critical Fanny Price as the protagonist.


Mansfield Park also emphasizes motherhood and deviance through the presence of a complete parental generation.  Parents in Austen often seem to be created ex nihilo; distant relatives, like Sir John Middleton, Mr. Collins, and Lady Dalrymple may enter the narrative, but parents usually function separately from their siblings, parents, and family networks.  As a result, the parental generation is something of a mystery, for often children (even as adults) can only understand their parents as parents.  Since Austen’s protagonists are members of the younger generation, readers are encouraged to take this stance as well, which risks treating parents as undeveloped types.  Mansfield Park, however, shows the interactions of the parental generation—particularly Mrs. Norris’s conversations with Lady Bertram and Sir Thomas—a tactic that illuminates their parenting decisions.5  Accordingly, the assessment of motherhood in Mansfield Park is not determined solely by the child—who often has a vested interest in assigning labels of maternal deviance as a means of self-justification, or as some psychologists suggest, as a part of identity formation.  Instead, the reader evaluates motherhood in the novel based on information that the younger generation lacks.


Mansfield Park’s monstrous motherhood begins with Miss Maria Ward’s marriage to Sir Thomas Bertram.  She is not the eldest of the three Ward sisters but she is the most beautiful, and her marriage sounds like something from a fairytale.  No parents are mentioned, as befitting sisters named Ward—only her uncle the lawyer, who declares that she is lucky because her fortune is £3,000 less than Sir Thomas deserves.  The privileging of a younger sibling sounds like a Cinderella narrative, but it is the sisters of the newly minted Lady Bertram who are disenfranchised Cinderella figures.6  Unable to attract a suitor, the eldest Miss Ward is matched by Sir Thomas to Mr. Norris, a clergyman—which forces the new Mrs. Norris to remain in the neighborhood, socially and economically subordinate to her sister, with her privileges as the eldest sibling never realized.7  The youngest sister, Miss Frances Ward, marries a lieutenant named Price “without education, fortune, or connections” “to disoblige her family” (MP 3).  The courtship narratives of the Ward sisters reflect their characters:  Lady Bertram’s love of wealth, Mrs. Price’s rebelliousness against expectation, and Mrs. Norris’s aspirations and disappointments.  The sisters’ participation in the marriage market concludes, singularly lacking the real affection that Austen valorizes in her other novels.8


Lady Bertram’s beauty shapes her career as a wife and mother.  Much has been made of Lady Bertram’s physical stasis:  sitting on her sofa, being catered to, accompanied by her pug.  Her lack of physical activity is consonant with her role as a beautiful object (seemingly the reason Sir Thomas married her) and literalizes her psychological inertia as a parent and a wife (cf. Erwin).  Her ongoing deference to Sir Thomas—even in the choice of a card game (MP 239)—typifies her resistance to decision-making, which involves effort and responsibility, and leads to consequences and accountability.  If Lady Bertram refuses to make simple decisions for herself, she cannot make decisions for her children.  It is tempting to say that Lady Bertram renounces agency in the face of patriarchy, but Austen suggests that Lady Bertram lacked agency to begin with, and never sought any.9  With a sense of self but no sense of responsibility, Lady Bertram does not attempt to follow the conduct-manual advice for mothers, abandoning her maternal obligations to others (19-20; 35).


Lady Bertram’s children do not take her seriously:  she is a pet, like her pug dog.  None of them confides in her, a crucial aspect of the mother-child relationship according to Gisborne, and they never ask her for advice.  Lady Bertram does not try to stop Tom’s profligate spending; she has no influence over Tom, who invokes her authority at his convenience to justify the production of Lovers’ Vows (23-24; 126, 181).  When Tom becomes ill, Lady Bertram is no help; she wanders through the house like a ghost, gliding in and out of Tom’s room unable to provide comfort or assistance (429).  As she fails to parent her eldest son, so she fails to nurture her daughters.  Mothers are supposed to shepherd their daughters through society and courtship, as Gisborne and the discussion about Mrs. Anderson and Mrs. Sneyd, make evident (cf. MP 42, 43, 45-47, 194).  But Lady Bertram resists attending balls, making visits, and vetting suitors for her daughters, leaving these tasks to Mrs. Norris (35, 39).


Maria, Lady Bertram’s namesake, follows in her mother’s footsteps as she markets her beauty to marry Rushworth, whose estate is larger than her father’s.  But history does not repeat itself, for Maria’s adultery reveals her character as the antithesis of her mother’s:  willful, decisive, and rebellious.  Julia’s elopement with Yates, like Maria’s adultery, is a defiant, willful act, a desperate bid for attention and love.  Only Edmund emerges unscathed from his mother’s non-parenting, saved by his status as a second son who must make his way in the world and by his sense of duty.  It is curious that Lady Bertram is not blamed for the behavior of her children—unlike Mrs. Norris, Mrs. Price, Mrs. Crawford, Mrs. Anderson, and Mrs. Sneyd, who are assigned responsibility for the behavior of their charges.  The narrative resists the notion that Lady Bertram’s passivity is a choice; instead, her maternal indifference is cast as incapacity and infantilization.  But if Lady Bertram were measured by her children, as other mothers are, she would be deemed a failure, for three of her children defy moral and social expectations—through adultery, elopement, and courting bankruptcy—and they risk undermining the institutions of marriage and estate.


Lady Bertram’s children are not images of herself; her misbehaviors are not theirs, and monstrosity does not necessarily perpetuate itself.  There are similarities, however, between Lady Bertram and her surrogate daughter, Fanny Price:  their calm, deferential demeanors, their domesticity, their lack of stamina.  Fanny, like Lady Bertram, receives a marriage proposal from a wealthy suitor—and Lady Bertram believes that Fanny’s beauty, which she takes credit for, elicits Crawford’s proposal (333; 271-72, 277).  Her advice to Fanny—the only advice she offers anyone in the novel—is that “‘it is every young woman’s duty to accept such a very unexceptionable offer as this’” (MP 333).  This advice is worldly, given Crawford’s estate and Fanny’s portionlessness, but misguided, as she fails to discern Henry’s character and Fanny’s heart.  (Perhaps Lady Bertram received similar advice upon Sir Thomas’s proposal.)10  When Fanny resists, suggesting that Lady Bertram would miss her, Lady Bertram dismisses the objection:  “‘No, my dear, I should not think of missing you, when such an offer as this comes in your way.  I could do very well without you, if you were married to a man of such good estate as Mr. Crawford’” (333).  There is no sentimentality, no nurturing, no acknowledgment of their relationship—only expedience.11  Lady Bertram is not sensitive, perspicacious, or thoughtful; during her family’s crisis she realizes nothing about herself or her motherhood. Later, when she hastens to greet Fanny on her return to Mansfield Park—a sign of affection, as Lady Bertram finally bestirs herself—she exhibits her characteristic selfishness, happy because Fanny brings her comfort:  “Lady Bertram came into the drawing room to meet her; came with no indolent step; and, falling on her neck, said, ‘Dear Fanny! now I shall be comfortable’” (447).


Lady Bertram’s failure to mother leaves a vacuum that her sister, Mrs. Norris, attempts to fill.  At first glance, these sisters could not be more different:  Lady Bertram is fertile, passive, and deferential, while Mrs. Norris is childless, active, and aggressive.  But both are selfish—Lady Bertram in her indolence, and Mrs. Norris in her incessant activity—and both are monstrous mothers, demonstrating their deviance from expectation.  Mrs. Norris abuses Fanny, and spoils Maria and Julia, damaging all three.  She is able to get away with these behaviors because, as Claudia Johnson argues, they serve Sir Thomas’s agenda: he requires distinctions among the cousins, which Mrs. Norris reinforces constantly and at Fanny’s expense.  The initial conversation between Sir Thomas and Mrs. Norris about bringing Fanny to Mansfield (5-11)—a conversation that the children are not privy to—presents Mrs. Norris’s characteristic manipulations, as she controls the situation through assertion, diversion, and flattery (cf. 180, 188, 272).  Since Sir Thomas trusts Mrs. Norris, and Lady Bertram is lazy, no one monitors Mrs. Norris:  she has freedom from the surveillance and accountability that caregivers usually experience, and that Gisborne recommends.  As a result, her power as a surrogate mother is disproportionate to her status.


The Bertram children dislike Aunt Norris.  As Edmund tells Fanny early on, “‘I can say nothing for her manner to you as a child; but it was the same with us all, or nearly so.  She never knew how to be pleasant to children’” (26).  Her efforts to ingratiate herself to the Bertram children—particularly her praise of Maria and Julia—do not lead to affection, gratitude, confidence, or respect (466; see also 128, 129).  Rather, they label Mrs. Norris’s behaviors as intrusive and self-serving.  On the journey home from Sotherton, Maria, noticing that Aunt Norris has a parcel and a basket, says, “‘I think you have done pretty well yourself, ma’am.  Your lap seems full of good things, and here is a basket of something between us, which has been knocking my elbow unmercifully’” (105).  Mrs. Norris claims that she was compelled—the gardener and the housekeeper forced her to take gifts—but Maria regards her aunt’s behavior as “‘spunging.’”12  When Mrs. Norris tries to maneuver Tom into playing cards to please Mrs. Rushworth, he avoids the commitment by asking Fanny to dance, declaring his annoyance:  “‘To want to nail me to a card-table for the next two hours with herself and Dr. Grant, who are always quarrelling, and that poking old woman, who knows no more of whist than of algebra.  I wish my good aunt would be a little less busy!  And to ask me in such a way too! without ceremony, before them all, so as to leave me no possibility of refusing.  That is what I dislike most particularly’” (119-20).  It does not matter that pleasing Mrs. Rushworth will strengthen the alliance between the families, or that Tom has compelled Fanny in precisely the manner that he resented from his aunt.  Mrs. Norris’s manipulations are unsubtle and unwelcomed by her nieces and nephews.13  The Bertram children’s experience of Mrs. Norris—and Lady Bertram for that matter—echoes Fanny’s more than one might expect.


Yet no one feels the effects of Mrs. Norris’s self-importance as much as Fanny.  Mrs. Norris decides to bring one of her sister’s children to Mansfield Park when Mrs. Price asks for help, but while Mrs. Norris appears to be charitable, she avoids all responsibility for Fanny’s maintenance and care (4-5; 9, 28-29).  Fanny’s residence at Mansfield Park serves another purpose:  Fanny bolsters Mrs. Norris’s status by raising her from the bottom of the family hierarchy (Casal, Duckworth).  The Bertrams do not consider Fanny in these terms; they do not remind Fanny that she is their poor relative.  Rather, with the exception of Edmund, the Bertrams treat Fanny with benign neglect:  Maria and Julia give her items they no longer want; Tom buys Fanny trinkets as an afterthought; Lady Bertram takes her for granted; Sir Thomas ignores her (14, 152-53).  The Bertrams’ condescension is thoughtless but not malevolent, unlike Mrs. Norris’s purposeful, constant haranguing.  Mrs. Norris bullies Fanny, reminding her of her subordinate place: that Fanny is lucky to live at Mansfield Park, to visit Sotherton, and to dine with the Grants; that Fanny should never forget her rank and never aspire; that she should be grateful to her cousins and please them by participating in the play; that Fanny should always be available to exert herself for aunts’ convenience.14  Given the circumstances, Fanny’s compliance is not striking, but her acceptance of Mrs. Norris’s vision of her unworthiness is (221, 275; see also 26, 222, 322).


While scholars have noted the similarities between Mrs. Norris and Fanny as dependent relatives looking to please (Casal, Edwards), Mrs. Norris’s sustained psychological abuse of Fanny polices the distinction between herself and her niece.  Mrs. Norris seems to be fulfilling a parenting fantasy vis-à-vis Fanny:  she has all the privileges of a parent—in terms of authority and discipline—but none of the responsibilities of psychological support, physical care, education, or economic support.  In this sense, Mrs. Norris has achieved parity with her sister, who also has authority over her children and niece without responsibility.  Arguably Mrs. Norris wants to be Lady Bertram, as shown by her involvement in the Bertram household, her knowledge of the estate, and her role in the courtship of the Bertram daughters.15  The monstrosity of this parenting fantasy lies in its selfish resistance to acknowledging and ministering to the child’s needs.  Mrs. Norris repeatedly proves to be a terrible surrogate parent, misunderstanding her charges, and failing to model or instill virtue.


Since Mansfield Park is presented primarily from Fanny’s perspective, Mrs. Norris’s maternal monstrosity is clear, for the reader suffers as Fanny does.  The novel offers no sympathy for Mrs. Norris—not as a childless woman, a widow, or a sister—nor can she be read through a comic lens as some of Austen’s irritating characters, like Mr. Collins or Miss Bates, can.16  Rather, Austen underscores Mrs. Norris’s deviance through the perspective of Sir Thomas, who is not subject to her.  The arc of his realization begins on his return from Antigua, for as Sir Thomas relishes the family reunion, he quickly discerns that those sentiments are not reciprocated:  there is reluctant duty but no affection from his children.  The production of Lovers’ Vows raises his concerns about their defiance of his authority and the behavior of his sister-in-law, who supported the enterprise.  (Tellingly, Sir Thomas is not concerned about his wife.  Because she lacks the ability to initiate anything without him, he does not perceive the monstrous aspects of her parenting.) Sir Thomas’s discussions with Mrs. Norris—about the play, and Maria’s engagement—reveal her officiousness, her manipulations, and her resistance to accountability (188-90).  Sir Thomas starts to revise his opinion of his sister-in-law, and hecontinues to do so during Crawford’s courtship of Fanny (312-13, 332).


In the wake of Maria’s adultery and Julia’s elopement, Sir Thomas recognizes that Mrs. Norris’s parenting in conjunction with his own is the source of his children’s faults.  As the narrator remarks:


Too late he became aware how unfavourable to the character of any young people, must be the totally opposite treatment which Maria and Julia had been always experiencing at home, where the excessive indulgence and flattery of their aunt had been continually contrasted with his own severity.  He saw how ill he had judged, in expecting to counteract what was wrong in Mrs. Norris, by its reverse in himself, clearly saw that he had but increased the evil, by teaching them to repress their spirits in his presence, as to make their real disposition unknown to him, and sending them for all their indulgences to a person who had been able to attach them only by the blindness of her affection, and the excess of her praise. (463, emphasis added)


Sir Thomas’s analysis echoes Gisborne’s commentary on the dangers of encouraging furtiveness and duplicity in children, and as he acknowledges his monstrous fatherhood, he completes his re-assessment of his sister-in-law.  Mrs. Norris comprehends her complicity in this familial disaster, and initially she is stunned into inactivity and silence (448).  Her effort to blame Fanny—like Mary Crawford, Mrs. Norris asserts that if Fanny had married Henry, these disreputable events would not have occurred (448, 455-56)—is her final attempt to control the family narrative and exonerate herself, a move that is as cruel as it is characteristic.  As Mrs. Norris chooses to live with Maria in social exile, she takes responsibility for her monstrous motherhood, committing herself to a hell of mutual recrimination (466).


Mrs. Price has the least narrative time of the Ward sisters, but like her siblings, she participates in monstrous motherhood.  Fanny does not miss her mother when she leaves home (MP 15), but when Fanny returns to Portsmouth, she anticipates a joyous reunion with her family—and like Sir Thomas, she is disappointed (388-89).  Fanny is not expecting fine manners or affluence, but she is hoping to be loved, and her parents, particularly her mother, fail to meet expectation.  After her welcome, the narrator notes that Fanny is ignored:


The instinct of nature was soon satisfied, and Mrs. Price’s attachment had no other source.  Her heart and her time were already quite full; 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, but Betsey was the first of her girls whom she had ever much regarded.  To her she was most injudiciously indulgent.  William was her pride; Betsey her darling; and John, Richard, Sam, Tom, and Charles, occupied all the rest of her maternal solicitude, alternately her worries and her comforts.  These shared her heart: her time was given chiefly to her house and her servants.  Her days were spent in a kind of slow bustle; always busy without getting on, always behindhand and lamenting it, without altering her ways; wishing to be an economist, without contrivance or regularity; dissatisfied with her servants, without skill to make them better, and whether helping, or reprimanding, or indulging them, without any power of engaging their respect.  (389-90)


As Marilyn Butler observes, Mrs. Price combines some of the worst traits of her sisters:  Mrs. Norris’s endless bustling without the results, and Lady Bertram’s emotional unavailability without her calm.  Like them, Mrs. Price disregards the conduct-manual advice for parenting, as she too fails to model the values she should nurture in her children.  Mrs. Price plays favorites among her children, complains about the servants, and does not elicit devotion, respect, or confidence.  Like her sisters, Mrs. Price is not psychologically equipped to guide her children, nor does she attempt to learn how to do so.


Mrs. Price, however, grapples with challenges that her sisters do not face:  she has an unemployed, alcoholic husband, more children and more demands on her attention, and fewer resources.  While Fanny recognizes the material distinctions between her parents’ home and Mansfield Park, she refuses to acknowledge that socio-economic circumstance might affect behavior.  Her assessment of her mother is merciless:


she must and did feel that her mother was a partial, ill-judging parent, a dawdle, a slattern, who neither taught nor restrained her children, whose house was the scene of mismanagement and discomfort from beginning to end, and who had no talent, no conversation, no affection towards herself; no curiosity to know her better, no desire of her friendship, and no inclination for her company that could lessen her sense of such feelings.  (390, emphasis added)


Fanny’s judgment is fueled by anger, frustration, and disappointment—traits generally not ascribed to quiet, gentle Fanny, who, even in her jealousy of Mary Crawford, can acknowledge Mary’s talent and wit.17  Yet Fanny’s sense of fairness does not extend to her mother, who lacks any redeeming characteristics—the “no”s of rejection accumulate here—as Mrs. Price seemingly defies all expectations of motherhood.


Why is Fanny so vehement in her criticism of her mother?  As noted earlier, designating a parent as monstrous is often a part of childhood development, a means to justify identity formation.  But Fanny is looking to reunite with her mother, not separate from her. Mrs. Price’s letter to Fanny, “express[ing] so natural and motherly a joy in the prospect of seeing her child again” (371) raises Fanny’s expectations, for she wants her mother to cherish her.  This is a fantasy of validation; Fanny has been marginalized and abused at Mansfield for years, and she wants to be central, significant, loved.  Fanny remembers that she was not her mother’s favorite in the past (371; cf. 15), and to acknowledge the distance between herself and her mother would force Fanny to modify her expectations, and perhaps motivate Fanny to (re)build their relationship.  But like Lady Bertram, Fanny resists taking the initiative in her relationships.  Instead Fanny acts like a child, not an adult—blaming her mother for not fulfilling her wishes, for not discerning Fanny’s importance and showering her with attention, affection, and love.18  Susan experiences similar frustrations with their mother, which sanctions Fanny’s response and leads to sisterly love; Susan grants Fanny the identity that their mother does not.  Fanny refuses to understand her mother’s perspective, for that could validate her mother’s lack of interest in her.  So Fanny protects her identity by rejecting her mother.  It is better to characterize her mother as monstrous and inept—and better to be a minor character at Mansfield—than to feel like a nobody, even with Susan’s love, at Portsmouth.19


Fanny does not harbor fantasies about her aunts’ affection or validation, so she is not angry with them.  Ironically, though, she has become the daughter of Lady Bertram and Mrs. Norris:  Fanny has assimilated their standards, which further alienates her from her mother.  Fanny assesses her mother’s beauty (like Lady Bertram would) and her mother’s economics and organization (as Mrs. Norris would), and finds her mother lacking on all counts (408; 379; 382-87, 390-91).  The longer Fanny remains in Portsmouth the more convinced she is of her parents’ monstrosity, and the more she identifies as a resident of Mansfield Park, which she now calls home (431).  When Fanny returns to Mansfield Park, she fulfills her fantasy as the valued child, as she becomes the daughter Sir Thomas always wanted (472).



The last chapter of Mansfield Park begins:  “Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery.  I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can, impatient to restore every body, not greatly in fault themselves, to tolerable comfort, and to have done with all the rest” (461).  In a novel that has dwelt upon guilt and misery for hundreds of pages, the impatience to conclude with “tolerable comfort” may be ironic.  But neither the restoration nor dismissal of characters achieves closure; few things change, and disturbingly, monstrous motherhood remains.


Literary justice is served as Mrs. Norris and Maria are exiled from Mansfield Park, and the narrator is “done with” them.  This judgment echoes those of Willoughby and Wickham, who are placed outside of newly-constituted family circles looking in—and who still have the potential to disrupt family dynamics.  While life outside Mansfield Park is construed as punishment, it is not clear that that is the case.  (Evidently Julia and Yates do not feel deprived living away from Mansfield Park.)  The exile of Mrs. Norris and Maria safeguards the Bertrams—but their punishment derives from living together, alone.  There is no indication that Mrs. Norris has learned from her mistakes; she and Maria will torment each other endlessly.  Mrs. Norris is still a monstrous mother, with one child subject to her monstrosity.


The isolation of Mrs. Norris is the closest that Mansfield Park comes to containing the monstrous mother.  All the other characters, “not greatly in fault themselves,” are restored to tolerable comfort.  Lady Bertram remains at Mansfield, selfish and indolent, without becoming a better parent—and there is no evidence that the other mothers of the novel have changed either.  Mrs. Rushworth still dotes on her dullard son; Mrs. Price remains overwhelmed and incompetent; as far as the reader knows, Mrs. Anderson and Mrs. Sneyd are still neglectful.  (Mrs. Crawford, who spoiled Mary, thankfully remains deceased.)  It is significant that these mothers are not censured, even though they have all deviated from maternal expectation.  Life goes on, and their children are fine:  Julia’s marriage with Yates is not as dire or debt-ridden as feared; the Price children begin to succeed professionally; Mr. Rushworth is unhappy only until he will remarry; and clever, immoral Mary and Henry Crawford move on, apparently none the worse for wear.  Seemingly these mothers are not “greatly in fault themselves”—or perhaps they are, and one must accept that the world is filled with disappointing, flawed people.


As history is set to repeat itself at the end of Mansfield Park, such maternal misbehavior will continue.  Fanny is positioned to become the next Lady Bertram in fact if not in title; Julia, who married to displease her family, imitates her aunt, Mrs. Price; and Maria is becoming Mrs. Norris, the displaced, childless, eldest daughter losing her status to a younger sibling.  There is little evidence that this generation will be better than their parents.  For readers who dislike Fanny, she is already something of a monster:  a masochistic, passive-aggressive, charmless, righteous young woman whose morality and beauty do not supersede her flaws.  For those readers, Fanny is bound to become a monstrous mother.20  But even for readers who admire Fanny, the specter of maternal deviance looms.  While Fanny embodies conduct-manual values of morality, chastity, and charity—and her mentoring of Susan shows promise of good mothering—Fanny has characteristics of her monstrous mothers.  Like Lady Bertram, Fanny tends to be sedentary, reactive, and deferential to male authority.  Like Mrs. Norris, Fanny is hypersensitive to social status, and the politics of class; while Fanny does not express her opinions as her Aunt Norris does, Fanny can be just as judgmental and stubborn as her aunt. In her lavish affection for William and Susan—and her comparative lack of effort with her other siblings—Fanny echoes her mother’s dangerous behavior of favoring some children over others.  Fanny may not have been a monstrous child, but if her parenting incorporates these behaviors, she may well become a monstrous mother.


Austen recognizes that monstrous motherhood deviates from social expectation, but it is not deviant from reality—and the gap between ideal and real always remains. Austen is too much of a realist to ignore maternal misbehavior, but she cannot condone it or justify it or make it disappear.  Instead, Austen documents maternal misbehavior and the ways that it becomes (and is perceived as) monstrosity.  By doing so, as Harding suggests, Austen attempts to find “some mode of existence for her critical attitudes.  To her the first necessity was to keep on reasonable good terms with the associates of her everyday life. . . . And yet she was sensitive to their crudenesses and complacencies and knew that her existence depended on resisting many of the values they implied” (266-67).  Austen positions the reader to do the same—to recognize the problems of family and society, and engage in critique to locate value.  Critique may not effect positive change, as the initial conversation between Tom and Mary indicates; change is difficult and rare, as the static Mansfield Park community illustrates.  But critique can safeguard the individual through its articulation of value, and provide a means to survive the inevitable disappointments and failures of life.





1. Cf. Fanny and Edmund’s comments on Mary Crawford’s questionable behavior, which they attribute to the faulty parenting by her aunt, her surrogate mother (63-64; 268-69).  Mrs. Rushworth provides comparable evidence of the faulty mothering of a son; see her proud remarks about her doltish son and his estate (84-86, 89-90, 118; cf. 75).


2. Johnson 97, 114, 116, 120.  Johnson argues that Mansfield Park is “a work of demystification” (100) of conservative ideology, most evident in the novel’s presentation of patriarchy, particularly Sir Thomas Bertram (see Johnson 100-02, 103, 112).  Johnson analyzes the conservative reading of female behavior and sexuality in the novel, but does not discuss motherhood.  My argument about monstrous motherhood is cognate with Johnson’s argument about patriarchy, for the conservative ideology of matriarchy, like that of patriarchy, implodes in MansfieldPark.


3. The popularity of Thomas Gisborne’s Enquiry into the Duties of the Female Sex may be partially measured by its multiple editions:  the Enquiry went through four editions by the end of the century, and a thirteenth edition was published in 1823.  (See WorldCat.)  Austen was reading Gisborne in 1805, as she writes to her sister Cassandra:  “I am glad that you recommended ‘Gisborne,’ for having begun, I am pleased with it, and I had quite determined not to read it” (30 August 1805).  The most recent edition that Austen could have read would have been the sixth edition corrected, published in 1805.  All subsequent references to Gisborne’s Enquiry will refer to the first edition and appear in the text.


4. Arguably Lady Susan is the most monstrous mother in the Austen canon, for she hates her daughter and torments her throughout the text.  This epistolary novella, part parody and part satire, highlights many of the issues discussed here:  maternal selfishness, the impact of maternal behaviors on children, the standards for female virtue, and the value of surrogate mothers.  But for the purposes of this essay, I consider Lady Susan as an exaggerated version of the very real problems that monstrous motherhood causes.  For a survey of mother-daughter relationships in Austen’s major novels, see Benson.


5. Pride and Prejudice features Mrs. Bennet, Mrs. Philips, and Mr. Gardiner as siblings in the parental generation, but unlike Mansfield Park, their interactions are rarely depicted (PP 287-88, 331), more often appearing in passing references and synopsis (e.g., PP 142, 227, 350).


6. Cinderella is invoked frequently in discussions of Mansfield Park, usually regarding Fanny Price; see Harding, Hoberg, Ray, Simpson, and Yeazell.  Simpson also comments on the Cinderella elements of the opening of the novel, but she reads the Ward-Bertram marriage as elevating all the Ward sisters, much like the end of Perrault’s tale, where Cinderella’s stepsisters marry lords of the court after she marries the prince.  It is worth noting that Mansfield Park does not specify the amount of all the Ward sisters’ dowries, unlike Pride and Prejudice, which states the dowries of all of the Bennet daughters.  While it would be expected that the Ward sisters would have equivalent dowries, the absence of information presents the possibility that the eldest and youngest Ward sisters lack dowries, which would emphasize their status as disenfranchised Cinderella figures.


7. Cf. Erwin.  Mr. and Mrs. Norris have an income of “very little less than a thousand a year” (MP 3), which is respectable but nowhere near the affluence of the land-owning Bertrams.  After Mr. Norris’s death, Mrs. Norris will have £600 a year (MP 29), which is more than the interest on Lady Bertram’s dowry (at a typical 5% rate, or £350 per year) and a very comfortable amount for a widow without children.


8. Austen clearly values sisterly affection in Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice, and bemoans its absence in Persuasion.  The lack of sibling affection among the Ward sisters—and the Bertram siblings for that matter—is striking, particularly in light of the narrator’s comments regarding Fanny and William, and that fraternal ties from youth often are stronger than marital ones (235).  For the mutual indifference of Lady Bertram and Mrs. Price see MP 428; see also MP 4, 444.  Cf. E. Auerbach 190-92.  See Gisborne on the eighteenth-century commonplace that sisters love their brothers more than each other, because sisters tend to compete with each other (387-88).


9. Forster cites Lady Bertram as an archetypal example of a flat character, who may become rounded for a moment, but then lapses back into flatness (73-77).  Mrs. Grant notes Lady Bertram’s inscrutable emptiness as she remarks to Mary, “Lady Bertram seems more of a cipher now than when he is at home” (162).  I would suggest that Lady Bertram is more of blank than a cipher—a blank that Sir Thomas inscribes at will.


10. Cf. the marriage advice of Mary and Mrs. Crawford to Janet Fraser, about marrying a financially desirable man (361).


11. Her remark—“‘And I will tell you what, Fanny—which is more than I did for Maria—the next time pug has a litter you shall have a puppy’” (333)—signals some appreciation of Fanny.  But Lady Bertram’s emotional inertia is consistent:  generally, she does not miss anyone and shows affection rarely.  She is not disturbed when Sir Thomas travels to Antigua, and Tom is only nominally missed (32, 34); when Maria leaves for her honeymoon with Julia in tow, it is unusual that “Even their mother missed them” (204, emphasis added).  When Sir Thomas decides to send Fanny to Portsmouth, Lady Bertram protests, asserting that she will miss Fanny, but her objection is insufficient to change Sir Thomas’s mind (370-71).


12. MP 106; cf. Lady Bertram’s comment on her sister’s acquisitiveness (30).  See Willis on Mrs. Norris’s relentless, sterile materialism; cf. Erwin.


13. See Edwards for an analysis of Mrs. Norris and meddling, particularly in terms of her relationship with Fanny.  Mrs. Norris is perpetually inserting herself where she is not wanted, always seeking attention, and always looking to control situations (180, 233, 236, 324).


14. See Ray on Fanny Price as an abused child.  Mrs. Norris starts lecturing Fanny on her initial ride to Mansfield Park (MP 12-13), and bullies her thereafter.  For Mrs. Norris forcing Fanny to run errands and/or work beyond her strength, see MP 36, 72-73, 166-67, 205; for Mrs. Norris scolding Fanny, see MP 71, 113, 147 (also 322); for Mrs. Norris inveighing against (and when possible, limiting) Fanny’s privileges, see MP 78, 79, 252-53, 312; for Mrs. Norris lecturing Fanny about her lower status, see MP 105, 220-221; for Mrs. Norris encouraging Maria and Julia’s mean opinion of Fanny’s abilities, and disparaging Fanny’s character to Sir Thomas, see MP 18-19, 323-324.


15. See Juliet McMaster’s comments on Mrs. Norris’s desire to be Lady Bertram in “Female Difficulties: Austen’s Fanny and Burney’s Juliet.”


16. Arguably some scenes with Mrs. Norris, like her spiriting away of the green baize, may be seen as humorous.  But Mr. Collins and Miss Bates retain their comic status largely because the reader is not forced to live with them, as the reader does with Mrs. Norris.  Presumably Charlotte and Jane Fairfax do not find their relatives to be as funny as the reader does.


17. See Eddleman on female anger in Mansfield Park.


18. Tellingly, William sees the problems with the Portsmouth household (372), but he does not criticize his mother—perhaps because he is her favorite, and he feels loved.


19. See MP 392.  See Halperin, who criticizes Fanny’s assessment of her mother and life at Portsmouth, arguing that Mansfield Park is a stagnant world based on economics and superficiality, while Portsmouth is full of life, energy, and true feeling.  See also Erwin, on place, space, and psychology.


20. See Nina Auerbach’s analysis of Fanny Price as a monstrous character.  For Auerbach, Fanny’s isolation and marginality, her critical spectatorship of others, and her refusal to act and participate in community, all contribute to her monstrosity.  In Auerbach’s reading, Fanny is like Frankenstein’s creature and Grendel in the Anglo-Saxon tale Beowulf, the jealous outcast who covets and eventually conquers the home (213, 219); Auerbach also associates Fanny’s behaviors with vampirism (212; see also 213).



Works Cited


Auerbach, Emily.  Searching for Jane Austen.  Madison: U Wisconsin P, 2004.

Auerbach, Nina.  “Jane Austen’s Dangerous Charm: Feeling as One Ought about Fanny Price.”  Women & Literature 3.1 (1983): 208-23.

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

_____.  The Works of Jane Austen.  3rd ed.  Ed. R. W. Chapman.  Oxford: Oxford UP, 1933-69.

Benson, Mary Margaret.  “Mothers, Substitute Mothers, and Daughters in the Novels of Jane Austen.”  Persuasions 11 (1989): 117-24.

Butler, Marilyn.  Jane Austen and the War of Ideas.  1987.  Oxford: Clarendon, 2002.

Casal, Elvira.  “The Many Mothered, Motherless Fanny Price.”  Persuasions 28 (2006): 31-40.

Duckworth, Alistair M.  The Improvement of the Estate: A Study of Jane Austen’s Novels.  1971.  Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1994.

Eddleman, Stephanie M.  “Mad as the Devil but Smiling Sweetly: Repressed Female Anger in Mansfield Park.”  Persuasions 28 (2006): 41-51.

Edwards, Thomas R., Jr.  “The Difficult Beauty of Mansfield Park.”  Nineteenth-Century Fiction 20.1 (1965): 51-67.

Erwin, Jacqueline M.  “Lady Bertram, Mrs. Norris, and Mrs. Price: Place and Moral Identity in Mansfield Park.”  Persuasions 17 (1995): 144-51.

Forster, E. M.  Aspects of the Novel.  1927.  New York: Harcourt, 1955.

Francus, Marilyn.  Monstrous Motherhood: Eighteenth-Century Culture and the Ideology of Domesticity.  Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2012.

Gisborne, Thomas.  Enquiry into the Duties of the Female Sex.  London, 1797.

Halperin, John.  “The Trouble with Mansfield Park.”  Studies in the Novel 7 (1975): 6-23.

Harding, D. W.  “Regulated Hatred.”  1940.  Rpt. in Twentieth Century Literary Criticism.  Ed. David Lodge.  London: Longman, 1981.  262-74.

Hoberg, Thomas.  “Fanny in Fairyland: Mansfield Park and the Cinderella Legend.”  Persuasions 17 (1995): 137-43.

Johnson, Claudia L.  Jane Austen: Women, Politics, and the Novel.  Chicago: UCP, 1988.

McMaster, Juliet.  “Female Difficulties: Austen’s Fanny and Burney’s Juliet.”  Persuasions 36 (2014): forthcoming.

Ray, Joan Klingel.  “Jane Austen’s Study of Child Abuse: Fanny Price.”  Persuasions 13 (1991): 16-26.

Simpson, Janice C.  “Fanny Price as Cinderella: Folk and Fairy-tale in Mansfield Park.”  Persuasions 9 (1987): 25-30.

Willis, Lesley H.  “Object Association and Minor Characters in Jane Austen’s Novels.”  Studies in the Novel 7.1 (Spr. 1975): 104-19.


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