This is my second Jane Austen book of 2012. While Mansfield Park had the same soap opera feel of young people battling for each others affections as Emma, it brought up two interesting themes that endeared me to this book more so than the other. The first is of blessings that flow from opening one’s home to a child in need. The second theme seeks to answer the question: what does a morally upright woman look like?
Lady Bertram is the wealthiest of three sisters as the result of an extremely advantageous marriage. Her sister, Mrs. Norris, married a clergyman, but quickly became a widow. Her other sister, Mrs. Price, married a drunkard who is apparently a frisky fellow, as they have heaps of children. Desperate and pregnant with her umpteenth child, Mrs. Price writes to her sisters entreating them for assistance. Mrs. Norris, a wretched woman with a knack for getting everyone to do everything for her (but taking all the credit for it) manages to trick the Bertrams into taking in one of her sister’s kids to offer some relief to the ever growing Price family. What got Mrs. Norris on my bad side right off the bat was how snotty she was and how she looked down so harshly on her niece, Fanny, whom she claimed to love too much to ignore. Make me vomit, Aunt Norris…you are NOT genuine, and you are NOT nice. Sir Thomas Bertram, also had a slight case of my-poop-doesn’t-stink syndrome at the beginning of the story:
‘There will be some difficulty in our way, Mrs. Norris,’ observed Sir Thomas, ‘as to the distinction proper to be made between the girls as they grow up: how to preserve in the minds of my daughters the consciousness of what they are, without making them think too lowly of their cousin; and how, without depressing her spirits too far, to make her [Fanny] remember that she is not a Miss Bertram. I should wish to see them very good friends, and would, on no account, authorize in my girls the smallest degree of arrogance towards their relation; but still they cannot be equals. Their rank, fortune, rights, and expectations will always be different. It is a point of great delicacy, and you must assist us in our endeavors to choose exactly the right line of conduct.’
My, how Mrs. Norris took that last request to heart. I’m sure Sir Thomas regretted the day he ever asked Mrs. Norris to be his conscience. For years, she berated, belittled, and criticized her niece for anything and everything, real or imaginary. Ugh, by the end of the book I really hated her character, and it became evident that her relatives also found her insufferable. I think she’s horrid, with a capital H-O-R-R-I-D.
Fanny, the eldest daughter of the Price brood, becomes the youngest among the Bertram children (two boys, two girls) by several years. I would liken her personality to a frightened little bird. Scared to open her mouth, scared to disappoint, and scared to appear ungrateful, Fanny tries to fade into the background of life at Mansfield Park, the expansive mansion her generous relatives call home. Her cousin, Edmund, an observant and compassionate young man, recognizes the deep sadness she feels over being suddenly removed from her family and becomes her friend and confidant. It is Edmund’s kindness, above all, that fuels Fanny’s heart throughout the book.
Fanny Price as the ultimate under dog. She’s convinced of her own inferiority and so humble that she struggles to ever exert herself. Though considered quite ignorant and lacking manners upon her arrival at Mansfield, Fanny grows into a beautiful young woman in appearance and in spirit. She is patient,virtuous, considerate, and sacrificial. She becomes an indispensable companion to Lady Bertram and her relatives (minus Aunt Norris) begin to take notice of her character and actions, both of which are beyond reproach. Everyone pats themselves on the back for their part in bringing her up and giving her the environment that would produce such happy manners, but using that same logic, one wonders how the three eldest Bertram children fell so short of the propriety and humility demonstrated by Edmund and Fanny. The girl that nobody wanted is a true gem compared to her elder female cousins.
To say much more would kill the drama and suspense of the story. I will finish by saying that Lady Bertram and Sir Thomas wind up loving Fanny like their own daughter and don’t regret the day they brought her home to live with them.