20 January, 2010
Responsibility in Mansfield Park
As I was reading the first few chapters of Mansfield Park (for Literary Tradition IV), I was particularly struck by the proclivity of various characters to claim all the benefits of a position of responsibility while foisting off the challenges of such a position onto others. Mrs. Norris is, from the first pages on, the clearest example of such a character, as we see in her manipulate the Bertrams into taking on Fanny Price as a ward: a gesture that (at least in her own mind) allows her to appear the generous and forgiving sister while avoiding all the inconveniences that would accompany such a gesture. “Good heaven!” she cries, upon hearing of Sir Thomas’ proposition that she take on the older Fanny about five years later, “what could I do with Fanny? – Me! A poor helpless forlorn widow, unfit for any thing, my spirits quite broke down, what could I do with a girl at her time of life, a girl of fifteen!” ( MP, 63). Yet this same “forlorn widow” is quite capable of “promoting gaieties for her nieces, assisting their toilettes, displaying their accomplishments, and looking for their future husbands” (MP, 68). She is ready to jump at the least excuse to avoid the arduous task of looking after an undesirable niece from the poor side of the family while claiming all the merit of having procured Fanny’s welfare, and the responsibilities she does take on seem accepted only because of the “means [they] afforded her of mixing in society without having horses to hire” (MP, 69). While Mrs. Norris’ hypocrisy and essential indolence (as pronounced as Lady Bertram’s, though camouflaged beneath a veneer of frantic activity) are clear-cut, Austen does not commit the problem of how one must accept responsibility to Mrs. Norris alone. Lady Bertram’s laziness obviously unfits her for the role of a responsible guardian, but Sir Thomas’ case is more complex. He clearly wants to be a good father to his children and guardian to Fanny, yet fails on many counts to provide for their welfare. Austen repeatedly emphasizes his lack of emotional connection with his children and with Fanny, describing him as a man of the best interior disposition, sensitive to the potential trauma of Fanny’s removal from her childhood home and determined to treat her kindly, but unable to form his charges’ characters due to his “reserve of manner” (MP, 55). As the novel progresses, Austen’s attention begins to turn from the question of the responsibilities of educators to their charges towards the question of how one is socially responsible in the adult world. The most responsible thing Mr. Rushworth can do with his great wealth and estate is to spend as much as possible to restore the estate to a level of grandeur appropriate to his social status—or so Mrs. Norris believes (MP, 85). Mary Crawford speaks with great levity about the responsibility of getting married at some point, and eventually being constrained by attention to public opinion to be “staunch” in defense of marriage (MP, 76, 79). But consistently thus far, the only two characters who seem to take their responsibilities towards others seriously, rather than merely putting on a socially acceptable show of assuming them, are Fanny and Edmund. Edmund is the single member of the family to genuinely care for Fanny, not merely as a figure to be given an education in French and then tolerated as a companion for Lady Bertram, but as a human person, with cares, interests and sorrows of her own that need attending. His education seems to encourage Fanny in her original gentle and caring disposition, and its effects are evident when Fanny is the only member of the Bertram household besides Edmund himself who has enough loyalty to her guardian to grieve when he leaves for the West Indies. Given this early relationship between Fanny and Edmund, it will be interesting to watch more closely the progress of Fanny’s turn to being a guardian of sorts for her older cousin as he becomes increasingly ensnared in the charms of Mary Crawford, a charming woman, with much of the good intentions that so many of the novels inefficacious and otherwise unpraiseworthy characters seem to share, but hardly a “moral” match for Edmund Bertram.