The Inmates Running the Asylum: The Children of Mansfield Park
Ask anybody what is the main theme in Jane Austen’s novels. Most likely, they would say the heroine gets her man in the end. This would be accurate, since a happy ending for young women during the Georgian Era was a blissful, loving marriage to a man of name and means. Yet there is another overlooked theme; the self-involved parent. They’re either more interested in themselves, such as Mr. Woodhouse in Emma and Sir Walter in Persuasion, or their children as means of gaining or maintaining prestige, as Mrs. Ferrars in Sense and Sensibility and Lady Susan Vernon. Those few good, caring parents are scarcely in their novels. Take Mr. and Mrs. Morland in Northanger Abbey, their appearance is relegated to the end of the novel.
This lack of parental care and involvement is at its most perverse in the novel Mansfield Park. Of the three groups of siblings, The Bertram’s, Crawford’s and Price’s, none of the parents collected, either natural or surrogate, make up enough caring, discipline or concern to equal that of at least one parent. The adults they become are due to outside influences, circumstances and each other. The parents in Mansfield Park are not central to the rearing and development of the children in the novel.
Austen is known to pit the maternal values of aristocratic versus domestic women of her time. In Mansfield Park, she demonstrates this in Lady Bertram. Francus states, “Mothers and governesses are expected to raise daughters properly,” yet here is a woman by “Her ongoing deference to Sir Thomas…typifies her resistance to decision-making, which involves effort and responsibility, and leads to consequences and accountability.” Her primary concern in early talks of taking in Fanny is, “I hope she will not tease my poor pug” (9). When first introduced to her aunt, Fanny describes her as,
“To the education of her daughters Lady Bertram paid not the smallest attention. She had not time for such cares. She was a woman who spent her days in sitting, nicely dressed, on a sofa, doing some long piece of needlework, of little use and no beauty, thinking more of her pug than her children, but very indulgent to the latter ... Had she possessed greater leisure for the service of her girls, she would probably have supposed it unnecessary, for they were under the care of a governess, with proper masters, and could want nothing more” (16).
She is the mother of four children, yet here is a woman who “ignores her sons and daughters, favoring her expensive and ornamental lapdog” (Howard-Smith192). She’s more invested in her pet, unoriginally named Pug, than her natural offspring and niece. Pug is everywhere she is. The only person who she will uproot the dog for is her husband, as is seen when Sir Bertram returns from Antigua (140). What is rarely seen is her interacting with her children, and in none of those moments does she show any maternal affections toward them. She shows even less for her niece. When questioned by Edmund why his mother did not stop Fanny from remaining in the heat longer than she should have, she responds, “for the heat was enough to kill anybody. It was as much as I could bear myself. Sitting and calling to Pug, and trying to keep him from the flower-beds, was almost too much for me” (59). Here is Fanny suffering from heatstroke, but we must take care to keep the pug out of the flowerbed!
Mrs. Norris could be considered the surrogate mother to the children. She favors the Misses Bertram’s, with Maria as her favorite. She is shown in the novel to have taken a keen interest in their futures. This may seem a type of familial love for her nieces, and it gains her Sir Thomas’ trust. In reality, it’s not the case. Her attentions are more self-serving, in that “no one monitors Mrs. Norris: she has freedom from the surveillance and accountability that caregivers usually experience… As a result, her power as a surrogate mother is disproportionate to her status” (Francus). She uses this power to integrate herself into the Bertram household in a capacity beyond that of an aunt to benefit from it by integrating herself into higher society. One way is in a role the father usually assumes, as matchmaker, to further the family’s means, and hers by proxy. She’s the mastermind behind Maria’s engagement and marriage to Mr. Rushworth. In the end, Mrs. Norris, “abuses Fanny, and spoils Maria and Julia, damaging all three,” (Francus) and is exiled from Mansfield for her actions when her failures come to fruition with Maria’s disgrace and Julia’s elopement.
The examples of Lady Bertram’s and Mrs. Norris’s lack of maternal skills are reflected when they allow the young people organize a play at Mansfield Park. Putting on a play may seem harmless today, but in the Georgian Era the theater was viewed as, “the moral, or rather the immoral reputation of the professional stage players, particularly the actresses. For longer than a century, actresses had been fighting against the stigma of prostitution so indelibly attached to their profession. Many actresses lived openly outside of wedlock, or were engaged in illicit affairs” (Fisher). For the siblings and their friends, it may have seemed an amusing way to entertain themselves. Mrs. Norris doesn’t even share Edmund’s concerns for what this could do to Maria’s engagement to Mr. Rushworth (99), a match she was integral in making and proudly boasts.
It was also regarded as an act of defiance. They are aware of the displeasure Sir Thomas in regard to it, as they are alarmed upon hearing he’s returned. He’s the only adult who cares it’s happening, and immediately puts an end to all the nonsense. By then, the billiard-room has been physically altered to accommodate the production, Edmund lured into participating and Fanny pressured to help with a dress rehearsal. Through it all, there are no objections by either the lady of the house or her sister. In the last chapter of the first volume, they are nonexistent. Their silence is evidence of their indifference to what is going on in the household.
The history of the Crawford siblings’ parentage is a messy one. When the novel begins, their parents are deceased. They were raised by their aunt and uncle, down gender lines, “The Admiral delighted in the boy, Mrs. Crawford doted on the girl” (32). Mary is forced after her aunt’s death and “after some months' further trial at her uncle's house, to find another home. Admiral Crawford was a man of vicious conduct, who chose, instead of retaining his niece, to bring his mistress under his own roof” (32). Henry does not offer for her to stay at his estate and takes her to their sister and her husband, Dr. and Mrs. Grant (32). Upon their arrival, Mrs. Grant reveals she plans to benefit their family by facilitating matches for them within the Bertram household (34). Due to these influences, “both sister and brother exhibit a kind of worldly selfishness” (Folsom). This is revealed as Mary engages in “mercenary talk about marriage and about inevitable marital disappointment” that denotes she “has absorbed the implied values of the adults in their lives—values that urge marrying for a large income, a good house, and a position” (Folsom). As concerns Henry’s attitude, he “has apparently absorbed his uncle’s cynicism about all women—that there is not one in the world who can be faithful… and what Mary tells their sister about Henry’s reckless flirtations with women … indicate his enjoyment of casual sexual power” (Folsom). Their arrival at Mansfield, and sway on the younger Bertram’s, brings consequences to the state of the family, in particular the siblings.
Fanny’s biological parents, Lt. and Mrs. Price are less than ideal. Due to an accident that has left her father unable to continue his commission, he is retired with half pay and has a difficult time holding a job. They cannot afford a governess like their family in Mansfield. Yet when faced with the task of having to rear her eleven children, Mrs. Price cannot or will not be a proper mother. The house is ill kept and Fanny’s siblings are rambunctious, vulgar and ill-mannered as a result of her mother’s negligence. Fanny observes of her mother that, “a situation of similar affluence and do-nothingness would have been much more suited to her capacity than the exertions and self-denials of the one which her imprudent marriage had placed her in” (306). Mrs. Price is more like Lady Bertram, without the means to be able to afford the luxury of her behavior. Her father’s an abusive drunkard only interested in reading the newspapers and Navy lists. He talks only about anything to do with the sea. As far as personality, he “swore and he drank, he was dirty and gross. She had never been able to recall anything approaching to tenderness in his former treatment of herself” (305). It’s apparent her brother William was the responsible one in the household. With him off in the Navy, any semblance of order and parental control is gone. Some of that order returns when Fanny becomes a guidance for her sister Susan. After gaining Susan’s respect and confidence by setting a dispute with another sister, Betsey, Fanny sees the potential in her. She brings Susan to Mansfield Park to acquire the support that benefited Fanny (311).
Sir Bertram is the only one who possesses some type of parental judgements and guidance, but still falls short. The girls see him as a dictator, as he perceives them as a means to bring more standing and wealth through marriage. In his attempt to prepare Thomas to inherit the estate, he unintentionally shows him the all the benefits and none the responsibilities that come with it. Even his attempt to rectify this with a trip to Antigua backfires. Sir Thomas sells Edmund’s parsonage when tight for money due to Thomas’s debts (18). He forces Fanny to accept Henry Crawford’s proposal, despite “her strong interpretation of the Crawford’s as careless of the feelings of others” (Folsom). When she refuses, he sends her away to Portsmouth to compel her compliance (289). His belief that seeing her impoverished roots is a punishment shows a lack of any understanding of Fanny. It is not until the end that Mr. Bertram becomes “conscious of errors in his own conduct as a parent” (362) that brought on the lack of respect from his children, and “realizes that he has nearly destroyed his household by sanctioning the monstrous motherhood of Mrs. Norris for years” (Francus). He strives to be a better parent and realizes “Fanny was indeed the daughter that he wanted” (371).
Because of the elder Bertram’s and Miss Norris, it’s no surprise Thomas, Maria and Julia turned out the way they do.
Thomas, as heir to the family fortune, grew up with the knowledge that his future has been secured. Being part of the upper gentry has given him a sense of entitlement, as well as a devil-may-care attitude. This is compounded by his trip with Sir Thomas to their plantation, as it “stems from a newfound sense of power he experienced in Antigua as a slave holder, but just as the estates suffered from mismanagement in Sir Thomas's absence, so does Mansfield Park…Tom naturally fills the vacuum of power with the kind of immoral management he learned in Antigua” (Karounos). He cannot see that to manage his future inheritance, it will require work.
The sisters, likewise, have been influenced by the ladies of the house. They view their mother as what their future holds; marry a rich man and do whatever they please. Instead of considering this a negative thing, they want and strive for it. Miss Norris doesn’t help the situation with her “excessive indulgence and flattery” (363), causing the girls’ belief they are more worthy than other young women to obtain comfortable matches, even beyond their station. Not that she has much more influence as “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” (Francus).
As a result, the children suffered the consequences. Thomas becomes greatly ill due to his reckless lifestyle. Maria destroys her marriage and reputation by carrying on an affair and then running away with Henry Crawford. Fearful of her father’s reaction to her sister’s exploits, Julia elopes. With no respect for their parents, there are no thoughts of repercussions to temper their behavior. Lessons have to come from the results of their foolish conduct.
In examining the behaviors and personalities of the Bertram children, Edmund stands out as not becoming spoiled and overindulgent. Why is he the only one to do so? As the second son he is, by the laws of inheritance at the time, not promised anything of the fortune of his father’s estate and title. He must earn his own living, and common for the son of a Baronet was the priesthood. This would require an education of a religious nature, from the beginning of his schooling through his post-secondary education. He would be quite aware that his lifestyle would have to be earned. This type of education also promotes a humility and morality that his parents, aunt and sibling lack.
As Edmund is the major influence on Fanny as she is growing up at Mansfield, it’s no wonder that she becomes the young woman she is. As Waldron observes, “Fanny's principles remain superior to those of others in the novel despite the assaults made on them” (260). As Edmund is the one who takes notice, treats her kindly and takes Fanny under his care, she is bound to be influenced by him over the others in morality and outlook. Yet, the fact that the Bertram’s and Miss Norris have no real concern for her throughout the novel also contribute to her development. Her female cousins “are insensitive and bold in their self-confidence, openly revealing a critical detachment toward their vulnerable cousin, whose ignorance they continually expose to their governess” (Anderson 343). Miss Norris, who first suggests bringing Fanny to Mansfield Park as a help to herself, finds every reason not to keep her end of the bargain. The fact Fanny is, and probably never was, wanted by her aunt cannot be lost on her. Then Sir Thomas seems to be only concerned with the cost of providing for her, an attitude encouraged by Miss Norris. All this combines “to reinforce her degraded position at the bottom of the family social ladder” (343-4). Thus, Fanny isn’t in any position to feel superior like her cousins, or immoral like the Crawford’s. With Miss Norris needing to put Fanny in her place as she perceives the family hierarchy and Edmund’s loving, moral guidance, she becomes the quiet, unassuming young woman of the novel. She is able to resist the wild child lifestyle of her cousins and see through the Crawford’s when no one else does.
By the end, “the characters are restored to that appropriate level of comfort or are brought to guilt and misery” (Bonaparte 45). In the last chapter, the virtuous characters are rewarded, the ones lacking in morality punished, and those in between repenting their previous transgressions and blindness. Maria and Mrs. Norris are banished from Mansfield Park. Henry Crawford’s true persona is outed to all of upper, respectable society, ruining any reputation he may have had. Mary Crawford is left to leave Mansfield and pine for Edmund, not making a match that would have given her love and security. Thomas recovers and sees the error of his ways. When Julia repents, she and Mr. Yates are welcomed back to the family. Fanny is appreciated by both Sir and Lady Bertram, with Sir Thomas appreciating her and Lady Bertram valuing how much of a help she has been over the years. Fanny also gets her heart’s desire, as she and Edmund are married and gain the recovered parsonage at Mansfield. All these outcomes are due to the children relying on self-reflection, themselves and people other than their parents.
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© 2018 Kristen Willms