"To be sure, my dear, that is very stupid indeed, and shows a great want of genius and emulation. But, all things considered, I do not know whether it is not as well that it should be so, for, though you know (owing to me) your papa and mama are so good as to bring her up with you, it is not at all necessary that she should be as accomplished as you are;—on the contrary, it is much more desirable that there should be a difference."
Such were the counsels by which Mrs Norris assisted to form her nieces' minds.
It's often been said that, of all Jane Austen's novels, Mansfield Park (1814) is the problematic one; the one that's hardest to like. Heroine Fanny Price gives Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles a serious run for her money in the insipid passivity stakes, love interest Edmund Bertram provides suitably vacuous and hypocritical support as a proto-Angel Clare, and the central romance has all the warmth and spark of a bag of ice cubes; indeed, Austen appears to care so little about its denouement that she disposes of it in a single, rather acerbic line:
I purposely abstain from dates on this occasion, that every one may be at liberty to fix their own, aware that the cure of unconquerable passions, and the transfer of unchanging attachments, must vary much as to time in different people. I only entreat everybody to believe that exactly at the time when it was quite natural that it should be so, and not a week earlier, Edmund did cease to care about Miss Crawford, and became as anxious to marry Fanny as Fanny herself could desire.
And yet: I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. It's a delicious piece of imaginative observation, as you would expect. Also - new to me, this, in my third Austen novel - while I couldn't stand a single character, I had an absolutely fantastic time hating them all and hoping they'd die in pain and/or penury. Through their every insufferably smug, stupid or selfish act is laced Austen's never-more-biting wit: sometimes in the form of direct commentary, sometimes content to let characters hoist themselves with their own petards. I wouldn't want to claim Austen deliberately set out to create a parade of unlikable grotesques; Fanny's early situation, in particular, is treated with considerable sympathy, and many of those around her have a mix of positive and negative personality traits. Rather, this: if Pride and Prejudice is a novel in which most characters start out as essentially well-meaning, and most have become better people by the end (smarter, kinder, more self-aware), Mansfield Park feels like an exploration of the idea that people don't, by and large, change. Most people respond to adversity, or to the discovery that they're wrong about something, not by trying to correct their faults (as, say, Darcy and Elizabeth do), but by clinging more firmly to their flawed instincts and convictions.
Instead of Mansfield Park being a failure, because so many of the outcomes for its characters are unsatisfactory (when judged in terms of their development, or of what they 'deserve'), I think it can be read as frankly - even savagely - pessimistic: for good or ill, personality is shaped by the environment in which we grow up, and it remains largely static thereafter.
Upbringing is a key theme of the novel. At its opening, ten-year-old Fanny Price is abruptly transplanted from her chaotic childhood home, a place marked by "such a superfluity of children, and such a want of almost everything else" that her harried mother (who, we're told, "married, in the common phrase, to disoblige her family, and by fixing on a lieutenant of marines, without education, fortune, or connexions, did it very thoroughly") opts to throw her eldest daughter on the mercy of her wealthier relations, Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram of Mansfield Park. That the great estate is not going to be an especially welcoming place is signalled in a conversation about whether the Bertrams should adopt such a lowly girl; "We shall probably see much to wish altered in her, and must prepare ourselves for gross ignorance, some meanness of opinions, and very distressing vulgarity of manner", says Sir Thomas, but these things can probably remedied, and they can always send her away again if she proves to be a "dangerous" influence on his more well-bred daughters. "I hope she will not tease my poor pug", is the only - characteristically sagacious - contribution from Lady Bertram.
So it proves. (The 'unwelcoming' part, that is, not the pug-teasing. No-one's that mean in this book.) Mrs Norris, Lady Bertram's other, widowed sister, spends the journey from Portsmouth to Mansfield Park reminding Fanny at length "of her wonderful good fortune, and the extraordinary degree of gratitude and good behaviour which it ought to produce", such that by the time Fanny arrives, to find an unfriendly house where "nobody put themselves out of their way to secure her comfort", she's far too cowed and miserable to speak up for herself, and in any case is convinced that said misery is simply a sign of her own wicked ingratitude.
The pattern continues, and deepens, as Fanny grows up; where her cousins are pampered and indulged, Fanny is treated only slightly better than a servant, shivering in an unheated attic room on the rare occasions when she is not expected to be at Lady Bertram and Mrs Norris' beck and call, making tea and doing their needlework and generally being reminded at every opportunity of her dependence on their patronage. Mrs Norris, perhaps because of her awareness that she, too, owes much to the Bertrams' generosity - she lives in a house on the estate, granted her by her brother-in-law - is particularly keen to reinforce the hierarchy. When Fanny is invited to dine at a neighbour's one evening, Lady Bertram's reaction is bemusement and twittery alarm ("But why should Mrs. Grant ask Fanny? [...] How came she to think of asking Fanny? Fanny never dines there, you know, in this sort of way. I cannot spare her, and I am sure she does not want to go. Fanny, you do not want to go, do you?"); Mrs Norris, however, does not mince her words:
"The nonsense and folly of people’s stepping out of their rank and trying to appear above themselves, makes me think it right to give you a hint, Fanny, now that you are going into company without any of us; and I do beseech and entreat you not to be putting yourself forward, and talking and giving your opinion as if you were one of your cousins [...] That will never do, believe me. Remember, wherever you are, you must be the lowest and last."
With a relish that can really only be described as malicious, she goes on to tell Fanny that it looks like it might rain this evening, but under no circumstances should she imagine the carriage will be sent for her; she'll have to walk back. When Sir Thomas gives this idea short shrift, asking Fanny what time she wants the carriage, Mrs Norris - "red with anger" - comes as close as she ever does in the book to defying him (as a rule, she agrees with him as often and as fervently as possible, even if it means utterly changing her stance in the middle of a conversation), insisting that "Fanny can walk". She loses, but it's a disturbing illustration of how bitterly some will fight to ensure the 'difference' of status and privilege is maintained.
Environment is also crucial in the formation of the character of Fanny's cousins. A pivotal sequence of the novel concerns an extended visit by Sir Thomas to Antigua, to oversee his estates there, in what may be Austen's most direct engagement with the connection between slave-based colonial wealth and the lives of her English landed elites. His absence, Austen notes censoriously, "was unhappily most welcome" to his daughters, Maria and Julia, who are thus freed to moon over their somewhat caddish neighbour Henry Crawford, a process culminating in a disastrous, borderline scandalous attempt to stage a comic play at Mansfield Park, in which all concerned spend a bit too much time rehearsing alone with members of the opposite sex. Lady Bertram basically ignores the whole thing, while Mrs Norris, far from keeping a watchful eye on her charges' respectability, tears into Fanny when the latter - out of a combination of shyness and moral scruples - says she'd rather not take part. Mrs Norris labels Fanny "a very obstinate, ungrateful girl, if she does not do what her aunt and cousins wish her - very ungrateful, indeed, considering who and what she is".
The play ends badly for all concerned - hormonal young people in a sexually-repressive society get a bit over-excited when given the chance to interact, who would've thought? - but it is only the most obvious example of the damaging effect of Mrs Norris' style of upbringing, with her attitude that all things are permitted to certain, special individuals. Reflecting on the sisters' respective fates near the end of the novel, Austen is explicit in her judgement that the pernicious influence of Mrs Norris stretched beyond this one incident:
That Julia escaped better than Maria was owing, in some measure, to a favourable difference of disposition and circumstance, but in a greater to her having been less the darling of that very aunt, less flattered and less spoilt. Her beauty and acquirements had held but a second place.
Maria is not a particularly sympathetic character: she follows Mrs Norris' example in treating Fanny with cultured contempt, she shows little intelligence or self-restraint, and - having had her heart broken by Henry Crawford - she launches into a hasty marriage "being prepared for matrimony by an hatred of home, restraint, and tranquillity; by the misery of disappointed affection, and contempt of the man she was to marry". Marrying someone you don't at least respect is never a recipe for success in an Austen story, and when Maria throws it all away some time later for the sake of an angry, self-defeating fling with Henry it comes as no real surprise. But it's hard not to feel a little sorry for her when her father refuses to take her back under his roof, after the end of both her affair and her marriage:
Maria had destroyed her own character, and he would not, by a vain attempt to restore what never could be restored, by affording his sanction to vice, or in seeking to lessen its disgrace, be anywise accessory to introducing such misery in another man's family as he had known himself.
As if the patriarchy's sexual double standards coming down on her wasn't bad enough, worse lurks in the form of her saviour:
It ended in Mrs. Norris’s resolving to quit Mansfield and devote herself to her unfortunate Maria, and in an establishment being formed for them in another country, remote and private, where, shut up together with little society, on one side no affection, on the other no judgment, it may be reasonably supposed that their tempers became their mutual punishment.
Life alone with Mrs Norris; I don't think anyone deserves such a fate. (Perhaps I don't hate all the characters as much as I thought I did...)
The final set of characters who are held up - by other characters within the novel - as an emblem of The Wrong Upbringing are the Crawfords, rakish Henry and his forthright sister, Mary. They are a dazzling, charismatic pair (or certainly they appear so to people as starved of company their own age as the younger Bertrams of Mansfield Park): charming, gregarious, intelligent, and largely indifferent to the emotions of anyone but themselves. Henry, I have already dealt with: he strings along the Bertram sisters, and breaks both their hearts; later, he turns his eye on Fanny, besieging her with declarations of affection and unwanted offers of marriage, and exercising his own form of patronage (getting Fanny's brother William a good post in the navy) in an effort to either make her feel in his debt (Fanny's gratitude deficit problem strikes again), or demonstrate his sincerity, depending on how cynical you're feeling as you read. (Guess how I read it.) I don't think he's actively cruel, but he's certainly destructive in his unthinking pursuit of the pleasures to which he feels entitled.
Mary, meanwhile, divides her attentions between the two Bertram brothers, Thomas (the dissolute one, who will inherit) and Edmund (the earnest younger son, who's going to become a curate). As Abigail has noted, readers of Mansfield Park have tended to view Mary quite favourably; her frankness and wit, especially set against Fanny's essential dullness, has put some in mind of Elizabeth Bennet. I wouldn't go that far, by any means, but there's no doubt she's a refreshing diversion from the priggishly self-satisfied Fanny and Edmund show. She also shows good judgement and generosity in being more willing than anyone else in the novel to take Fanny on her own terms, rather than treating her as the status difference dictates, and to defend her and draw critical attention to the way she is treated at Mansfield Park:
"I wish you a better fate, Miss Price, than to be the wife of a man whose amiableness depends upon his own sermons; for though he may preach himself into a good-humour every Sunday, it will be bad enough to have him quarrelling about green geese from Monday morning till Saturday night."
"I think the man who could often quarrel with Fanny," said Edmund affectionately, "must be beyond the reach of any sermons."
Fanny turned farther into the window; and Miss Crawford had only time to say, in a pleasant manner, "I fancy Miss Price has been more used to deserve praise than to hear it."
I'm also less inclined than Abigail to condemn Mary so utterly for her rather mercenary attitude to marriage, which is signalled early on when she declares, "I would have everybody marry if they can do it properly: I do not like to have people throw themselves away; but everybody should marry as soon as they can do it to advantage", and is maintained in her plan to marry Thomas rather than Edmund, even though she much prefers the latter, because the former promises to bring with him rather more wealth and status. My problem with Mary is not her calculation in this - given how few options were open to a woman of her time and station to exercise control over the course of her life, I think she's entitled to marry for whatever reason she prioritises - but the fact that she inflicts significant emotional damage in the way she carries out her plan, and with little apparent regret.
Mary and Henry, in other words, are both highly selfish; not in wanting what they want, but in their lack of regard for the consequences to other people of their getting it. In Mary, this is is seen not only in the way she toys with Edmund, but also in her wilful blindness to her brother's flaws. She is baffled and offended by Fanny's refusal to return Henry's attentions; when Fanny points out, quite reasonably, that Henry hasn't exactly shown himself to be a trustworthy potential suitor, what with being a massive cad to Maria and Julia and everything, she responds airily:
"Ah! I cannot deny it. He has now and then been a sad flirt, and cared very little for the havoc he might be making in young ladies’ affections. I have often scolded him for it, but it is his only fault; and there is this to be said, that very few young ladies have any affections worth caring for. And then, Fanny, the glory of fixing one who has been shot at by so many; of having it in one’s power to pay off the debts of one’s sex! Oh! I am sure it is not in woman’s nature to refuse such a triumph."
Fanny shook her head. “I cannot think well of a man who sports with any woman’s feelings; and there may often be a great deal more suffered than a stander-by can judge of."
There is a shocking callousness to Mary's sentiments here; a complete denial of the reality of how precarious is a woman's status and reputation in a society such as theirs. She has a certain unthinking privilege here, of course, because unlike Maria she has little family to shame. Even after Henry has ruined Maria's life, Mary continues to excuse him, even having the gall to blame Fanny for the situation, saying (as reported by Edmund):
"Why would not she have him? It is all her fault. Simple girl! I shall never forgive her. Had she accepted him as she ought, they might now have been on the point of marriage, and Henry would have been too happy and too busy to want any other object. He would have taken no pains to be on terms with Mrs. Rushworth again. It would have all ended in a regular standing flirtation, in yearly meetings at Sotherton and Everingham."
In what way is it Fanny's job to make Henry learn how to behave? Not that Mary is alone in this idea; Mrs Norris, predictably, also blames Fanny for her high-handed decision to refuse a guy who can't keep his hands off other women. Edmund, for his part, wasn't always so taken aback by the very notion that Fanny's duty was to make Henry a better person; indeed, before Maria ran off with Henry, Edmund tried to persuade Fanny of exactly the same thing. When Fanny told Edmund she couldn't marry Henry because they have completely different temperaments ("There never were two people more dissimilar. We have not one taste in common. We should be miserable"), this is the really helpful and life-affirming exchange that followed:
"I am persuaded that he does not think, as he ought, on serious subjects."
"Say, rather, that he has not thought at all upon serious subjects, which I believe to be a good deal the case. How could it be otherwise, with such an education and adviser? Under the disadvantages, indeed, which both have had, is it not wonderful that they should be what they are? Crawford’s feelings, I am ready to acknowledge, have hitherto been too much his guides. Happily, those feelings have generally been good. You will supply the rest; and a most fortunate man he is to attach himself to such a creature - to a woman who, firm as a rock in her own principles, has a gentleness of character so well adapted to recommend them. He has chosen his partner, indeed, with rare felicity. He will make you happy, Fanny; I know he will make you happy; but you will make him everything."
"I would not engage in such a charge," cried Fanny, in a shrinking accent; "in such an office of high responsibility!"
This section was perhaps the only time in the novel after the first few chapters that I felt any real sympathy with Fanny, or any anger on her behalf. Just as they have ever since she was moved to Mansfield Park, every single one of her relations - the people she trusts - assumes they have the right to dictate Fanny's life to her: refusing to take her expressed wishes remotely seriously, belittling her fears and intelligent objections alike, playing on her deep sense of social convention and obligation (Lady Bertram: "you must be aware, Fanny, that it is every young woman’s duty to accept such a very unexceptionable offer as this"), and even (in the case of her uncle) telling her she obviously doesn't understand her own feelings. Of course, Fanny hardly helps herself in this regard; so determined is she to be polite and self-effacing that she shrinks from speaking as strongly and directly as she might:
Fanny knew her own meaning, but was no judge of her own manner. Her manner was incurably gentle; and she was not aware how much it concealed the sternness of her purpose. Her diffidence, gratitude, and softness made every expression of indifference seem almost an effort of self-denial; seem, at least, to be giving nearly as much pain to herself as to him.
All it takes is the discovery that her uncle has ordered a fire to be lit in her room before her faith in her own judgement starts wavering:
A fire! it seemed too much; just at that time to be giving her such an indulgence was exciting even painful gratitude. She wondered that Sir Thomas could have leisure to think of such a trifle again; but she soon found, from the voluntary information of the housemaid, who came in to attend it, that so it was to be every day. Sir Thomas had given orders for it.
"I must be a brute, indeed, if I can be really ungrateful!" said she, in soliloquy. "Heaven defend me from being ungrateful!"
Let me be blunt: Fanny is, for much of the novel, infuriating. In her self-abnegation, in her grovelling gratitude, in her utter committment to fall on the sword of pointless martyrdom at every opportunity, Fanny sails right past saintly and into teeth-grittingly annoying. She sometimes has good points, as in her rejoinder to Mary, quoted a few paragraphs above, about the harm Henry does to his emotional conquests. Yet it's hard not to read her constant yes-sir-no-sir-whatever-you-say-sir mantra as a passive-aggressive commentary on those around her who are less obedient and pathetically grateful than she is (particularly when coupled with the highly judgemental tongue that she occasionally unleashes in private, with Edmund, at the expense of the Crawfords and others); it's hard not to roll your eyes at such overblown protestations of her complete lack of anger as this:
But though her wishes were overthrown, there was no spirit of murmuring within her. On the contrary, she was so totally unused to have her pleasure consulted, or to have anything take place at all in the way she could desire, that she was more disposed to wonder and rejoice in having carried her point so far, than to repine at the counteraction which followed.
It's not at all surprising, then, that she fixates on Edmund. He's the only person she knows who is prepared to spend time talking to her, albeit mostly to mould her into a younger, female version of his views; I can only read acid satire into Austen's narrative aside, after Edmund has expressed relief that Fanny agrees with his judgement on a certain point, "Having formed her mind and gained her affections, he had a good chance of her thinking like him". But, perhaps more importantly, he is safely off-limits to her - way beyond her social status, has the hots for the impossibly glamourous and witty Mary Crawford - so he fits her need to continually remind herself of how lowly she is.
In any case, Fanny's Nice Girl patience and self-effacement is eventually rewarded when the Henry/Maria situation blows up. Mary's shrug of a reaction to Maria and Henry's affair is the death knell for Edmund's infatuation with Mary; to his horror, rather than being properly outraged, she dismisses the whole episode as "folly":
"Guess what I must have felt. To hear the woman whom— no harsher name than folly given! So voluntarily, so freely, so coolly to canvass it! No reluctance, no horror, no feminine, shall I say, no modest loathings? This is what the world does. For where, Fanny, shall we find a woman whom nature had so richly endowed? Spoilt, spoilt!"
There are a couple of key things to note in here about Edmund: even in the midst of his sister's disgrace, everything is about him ("Guess what I must have felt"), his ideas about proper womanly behaviour and emotions ("feminine [...] loathings"), and, more pertinently for the overall argument of this post, he is convinced that Mary has been "spoilt" somehow by the world. He goes on to tell Fanny that he believes Mary has "a corrupted mind", and refers to "a dash of evil" that makes an "alloy" of her character - an obvious opposition to the "purity" we have been repeatedly told, including by Edmund, that Fanny has. The way is now clear for Edmund to forget about Mary, and console himself with steady, innocent, well-behaved Fanny, who knows her place so well she can provide perfectly timed, soothing reassurance during his self-righteous speeches ("He stopt. 'And what,' said Fanny (believing herself required to speak), 'what could you say?'" - again, I read Austen's satire voice at work, here...).
As he alluded to when he tried to persuade Fanny that she should marry Henry to make him a better person, Edmund has long believed that the Crawfords show signs of having been given too much autonomy when they were growing up; they were raised by guardians who were frequently absent, or very disengaged. Even early on, he notes that Mary has too much unfeminine forthrightness, Henry a lack of steadiness and judgement. While Edmund has a crush on Mary, he is uneasy about this, but willing to overlook it; having initially disapproved of the play-staging idea during his father's absence, on similarly high-minded moral-hazard grounds to Fanny, his scruples evaporate when it looks like the ladies will bring in another young man from the area to play the role earmarked for him. Realising that some other chap is now going to be play-romancing Mary instead of him, he tries to shame Fanny into dropping her objection, on the grounds that she - she! - is putting Mary's peace of mind and reputation at risk, by blocking him from taking part with her morals and stuff:
"Think it a little over. Perhaps you are not so much aware as I am of the mischief that may, of the unpleasantness that must arise from a young man's being received in this manner: domesticated among us; authorised to come at all hours, and placed suddenly on a footing which must do away all restraints. To think only of the licence which every rehearsal must tend to create. It is all very bad! Put yourself in Miss Crawford's place, Fanny. Consider what it would be to act Amelia with a stranger. She has a right to be felt for, because she evidently feels for herself. I heard enough of what she said to you last night to understand her unwillingness to be acting with a stranger; and as she probably engaged in the part with different expectations - perhaps without considering the subject enough to know what was likely to be - it would be ungenerous, it would be really wrong to expose her to it. Her feelings ought to be respected."
With this massively hypocritical little speech in mind, I found it hard to root for Fanny to defeat the alluring Miss Crawford and win Edmund's heart. Edmund may talk the talk better than his sisters do, but in the end his strength of character is every bit as hollow as theirs; he just likes the sound of his own self-righteous posturing. Which, well, I suppose that gives him quite a bit in common with Fanny, after all. The end of Edmund's regard for Mary is greeted by a rather obnoxious scene in which the pair of them congratulate themselves over how they understand Mary's flaws ("how delightful nature had made her, and how excellent she would have been, had she fallen into good hands earlier"), and what a relief it is that Edmund has escaped her. And with that behind them, they're free to settle for each other:
Time would undoubtedly abate somewhat of his sufferings, but still it was a sort of thing which he never could get entirely the better of; and as to his ever meeting with any other woman who could— it was too impossible to be named but with indignation. Fanny's friendship was all that he had to cling to.
How romantic. I wish them hundreds of equally sanctimonious children!