adoption, books, families, Fanny Price, Jane Austen, John Thelwall, Judith Thompson, literature, Mansfield Park 200th anniversary, Mrs. Norris
Second in a series of posts celebrating 200 years of Mansfield Park. For more details, open Your Invitation to Mansfield Park.
You’ll soon notice that many of the contributors to this series are from Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where I was a graduate student. Lyn Bennett, who wrote last week’s post on the opening paragraph of Mansfield Park, was in the PhD program with me, for example. The other contributors with connections to Dalhousie and/or its near neighbour, the University of King’s College, are Maggie Arnold, John Baxter, Elizabeth Baxter, Hugh Kindred, and the author of today’s post, Judith Thompson. It was in one of Judith’s classes that I first fell in love with Jane Austen’s novels. I had read Pride and Prejudice and Northanger Abbey as a teenager, but it wasn’t until I read Sense and Sensibility and discussed it in this class that I saw just how brilliant Austen’s fiction is. Thanks, Judith!
Judith Thompson is a professor of English Romantic Literature at Dalhousie, official archivist of the John Thelwall Society, and a leader in the rapidly-growing field of Thelwall Studies. She’s the author of John Thelwall in the Wordsworth Circle: The Silenced Partner (Palgrave, 2012), (co) editor of Thelwall’s The Peripatetic (Wayne State, 2001) and The Daughter of Adoption (Broadview, 2013) and she’s currently editing the first modern edition of Thelwall’s Selected Poetry and Poetics. She says that while she’s devoted her research career to reviving the legacy of this radical romantic, “acquitted felon” and eccentric polymath, she also has a strong teaching interest in Romantic women’s writing, and offers classes in everything from poetic voice to postmodern fiction.
I have a secret to confess. I’ve always liked Fanny Price, even though she is generally agreed to be the most tight-ass heroine of the most conservative novelist of the romantic era, whereas I’m passionately in love with one of that era’s most kick-ass revolutionaries, the radical activist and atheist John Thelwall. But I’m not really betraying him by writing this blog post, because I’ve always suspected that there’s more to Fanny, and her creator, than there appears. One need not turn Austen’s mousy heroine into a cheeky ironist (a la Patricia Rozema) or a sullen rebel (a la Billie Piper), to find something appealing in her introverted independence, unshakeable integrity and undemonstrative opposition to the follies of her cousins. One need only recognize that, like her author, she takes in a lot more than she lets on.
Recently I had occasion to revisit the adopted daughter of the Bertram family, in order to help me contextualize an edition of Thelwall’s novel The Daughter of Adoption, published 13 years before Mansfield Park. And strangely I found much to compare between the two narratives. Though Thelwall’s Seraphina is an outspoken Wollstonecraftian Creole who challenges and overturns the slaveowning patriarchal system, and Austen’s Fanny is a cowering English country-mouse who seems content to submit to classbound hierarchies and traditional moral codes, both novels share several plot elements and even some characters with the same names and natures. Perhaps this is because both draw from a common source in Burney’s Evelina, though it is not impossible that Austen had read Thelwall’s Daughter: it was published under a pseudonym, and she read a lot more than she let on, too.
But I’m getting ahead of myself; the purpose of this post is not to undertake a comparison, and far less to promote my edition of Thelwall (though of course you should all read The Daughter of Adoption, available in an accessible Broadview edition here). Instead it is to say a few words about my chosen passage, which provides the main impetus for the adoption plot of Mansfield Park, taking up the middle of Chapter 1. Here Mrs. Norris proposes that they do something to help her poor sister, “reliev[ing her] from the charge and expense of one child entirely out of her great number” by “undertak[ing] the care of her eldest daughter.” It is not easily excerpted, because it extends over several pages, in a debate (ever so proper but full of Austen’s ironies) that also introduces stiff Sir Thomas and his busybody sister-in-law. Here is the core of it:
Sir Thomas could not give so instantaneous and unqualified a consent. He debated and hesitated; — it was a serious charge; — a girl so brought up must be adequately provided for, or there would be cruelty instead of kindness in taking her from her family. He thought of his own four children, of his two sons, of cousins in love, etc.; — but no sooner had he deliberately begun to state his objections, than Mrs. Norris interrupted him with a reply to them all, whether stated or not.
“My dear Sir Thomas, I perfectly comprehend you, and do justice to the generosity and delicacy of your notions, which indeed are quite of a piece with your general conduct; and I entirely agree with you in the main as to the propriety of doing everything one could by way of providing for a child one had in a manner taken into one’s own hands; and I am sure I should be the last person in the world to withhold my mite upon such an occasion. Having no children of my own, who should I look to in any little matter I may ever have to bestow, but the children of my sisters? – and I am sure Mr. Norris is too just – but you know I am a woman of few words and professions. Do not let us be frightened from a good deed by a trifle. Give a girl an education, and introduce her properly into the world, and ten to one but she has the means of settling well, without farther expense to anybody. A niece of ours, Sir Thomas, I may say, or at least of yours, would not grow up in this neighbourhood without many advantages. I don’t say she would be so handsome as her cousins. I dare say she would not; but she would be introduced into the society of this country under such very favourable circumstances as, in all human probability, would get her a creditable establishment. You are thinking of your sons – but do not you know that, of all things upon earth, that is the least likely to happen, brought up as they would be, always together like brothers and sisters? It is morally impossible. I never knew an instance of it. It is, in fact, the only sure way of providing against the connexion. Suppose her a pretty girl, and seen by Tom or Edmund for the first time seven years hence, and I dare say there would be mischief. The very idea of her having been suffered to grow up at a distance from us all in poverty and neglect, would be enough to make either of the dear, sweet-tempered boys in love with her. But breed her up with them from this time, and suppose her even to have the beauty of an angel, and she will never be more to either than a sister.”
“There is a great deal of truth in what you say,” replied Sir Thomas, “and far be it from me to throw any fanciful impediment in the way of a plan which would be so consistent with the relative situations of each. I only meant to observe that it ought not to be lightly engaged in, and that to make it really serviceable to Mrs. Price, and creditable to ourselves, we must secure to the child, or consider ourselves engaged to secure to her hereafter, as circumstances may arise, the provision of a gentlewoman, if no such establishment should offer as you are so sanguine in expecting.”
“I thoroughly understand you,” cried Mrs. Norris, “you are everything that is generous and considerate, and I am sure we shall never disagree on this point. Whatever I can do, as you well know, I am always ready enough to do for the good of those I love; and, though I could never feel for this little girl the hundredth part of the regard I bear your own dear children, nor consider her, in any respect, so much my own, I should hate myself if I were capable of neglecting her. Is not she a sister’s child? and could I bear to see her want while I had a bit of bread to give her? My dear Sir Thomas, with all my faults I have a warm heart; and, poor as I am, would rather deny myself the necessaries of life than do an ungenerous thing. So, if you are not against it, I will write to my poor sister tomorrow, and make the proposal; and, as soon as matters are settled, I will engage to get the child to Mansfield; you shall have no trouble about it. My own trouble, you know, I never regard. I will send Nanny to London on purpose, and she may have a bed at her cousin the saddler’s, and the child be appointed to meet her there. They may easily get her from Portsmouth to town by the coach, under the care of any creditable person that may chance to be going. I dare say there is always some reputable tradesman’s wife or other going up.”
– From Mansfield Park, Chapter 1 (New York: Oxford, 2008)
What no doubt strikes the modern reader is how little concern is shown for the emotional needs of the adoptee, as either a child or an individual (note, for instance, that her name is never mentioned). Sir Thomas at least begins by thinking about kindness to her, but this is undercut by self-interest and social propriety (what would be “consistent with the relative situations of each”). The word “love” is used only in relation to his immediate family, and betrays his intense class anxiety: one of his boys might violate social hierarchies by falling in love with his lowly cousin.
Mrs. Norris, on the other hand, despite her longwinded protestations, is motivated by nothing but financial self-interest; any words of emotion she uses (“generosity,” kind heart,” repeating Sir Thomas’ fear of “love”) are entirely insincere and calculated to flatter either him or herself. Although she may seem progressive in suggesting that it is important to “give a girl an education,” the only female independence she really cares about is her own freedom from responsibility. Her true attitude to her niece is neatly revealed, with typical Austen irony, at the end of each of her speeches. In the first of these she equates the unnamed child with an animal (“breed her up with them” is a devastating comment on Sir Thomas’ anxiety about good breeding). In the second she treats her like a package to be sent from Portsmouth “with any creditable person that may chance to be going” (here again the repetition of a word initially used by Sir Thomas reveals the bottom-line mentality that lies beneath the aristocratic facade).
Although such unfeeling calculation may be shocking to us, it is entirely consistent with what we know the history of adoption, which, surprisingly, was not actually legal in England until the 1920s. Before that, like Sir Thomas, English common law insisted upon the primacy of bloodlines, property and primogeniture. While informal adoptions and wardships like the ones being negotiated here had always existed, adoption was primarily a mechanism to gain advantage (whether cheap labour or moral credit) for the adopter, rather than a way of ensuring the adoptee’s well-being.
As Marianne Novy, chief historian of the English adoption novel, points out, the slow move towards more humanitarian adoption in England began with the institution of the London Foundling Hospital in the mid 18th century, closely connected to the development of the novel through the work of Henry Fielding, one of its sponsors. Fielding’s Tom Jones is of course the classic English adoption novel, whereby a foundling is taken in by a noble family, but always suspected of “bad blood” and ultimately cast out, until, after overcoming many obstacles (including various surrogate parents) he discovers that he really IS related by blood to his Allworthy father. In the case of the female bildungsroman, for example Fanny Burney’s Evelina, the adopted daughter is typically more timid and trammeled by social convention, but she endures and overcomes similar stigmas and surrogates before the novel ends with her aristocratic father “owning” her (a word whose dual meanings Burney exploits to highlight the tension between bonds of affection and mere financial obligations).
It is that same tension between affection, economic self-interest and “noblesse oblige” that lies at the heart of the (heartless) exchange between Sir Thomas and Mrs. Norris, and defines the adoption plot of Mansfield Park. Fanny is a lot like Evelina: intimidated by the false, fashionable world of her adopted family, she is unable to assert herself even though she recognizes and resists its pretense. Yet ultimately, even more than Burney’s heroine, Fanny prevails: the great irony of the novel is that the lowly adopted daughter is more loyal to Sir Thomas than his dishonoured birth daughters, and he not only recognizes this but reorients his family around her.
Of course the meaning of that irony has been a matter of much debate. Does Austen use adoption to challenge and reform the aristocratic patriarchal family from below (as Easton suggests), or does it serve as a kind of organic Burkean grafting that strengthens the bloodline, thereby retrenching aristocratic privilege and power (as Tuite maintains)?
This is not the place to engage such debate. I’ll simply end by returning to the importance of affection in this novel of adoption. Ultimately, all of Fanny’s inflexible integrity adds up to a strong preference for the one person (Edmund) who gives her what is so lacking in that opening passage. She simply, single-mindedly stands firm and waits until her affection can be reciprocated. Mutual love is her moral law, and by the end of the novel, the family adopts that law as its own.
Which brings me back to Thelwall. For it is here that Fanny is most like Thelwall’s heroine, Seraphina, who for all her independence and assertiveness, also withdraws from the deceptive, soul-destroying world of fashion, and holds firm, forcing another dysfunctional, slave-owning aristocratic family to reshape itself according to her unshakeable values, of which the chief is mutual affection. At the end of the novel she asserts the moral of the story: “they build a family indeed, good doctor, who bring them up in social equality and reciprocal love.” Austen might or might not agree with the social equality part, but when it comes to daughters of adoption, the demure conservative and the fiery radical come together under the banner of reciprocal love.
Austen, Jane. Mansfield Park. New York: Oxford UP, 2008.
Easton, Fraser. “The Political Economy of Mansfield Park: Fanny Price and the Atlantic Working Class,” Textual Practice 12.3 (1998): 459-488.
Novy, Marianne. Reading Adoption: Family and Difference in Fiction and Drama. Ann Arbor: U Michigan P, 2004.
Thelwall, John. The Daughter of Adoption. Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview, 2012.
Tuite, Clara. Romantic Austen: Sexual Politics and the Literary Canon. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002.
To read more about all the posts in this series, visit An Invitation to Mansfield Park.
This conversation between Mrs. Norris and Sir Thomas is such a brilliant example of the writer’s craft, in revealing personality and intent through dialogue. It has always reminded me of another such discussion–in Sense and Sensibility, where Mrs. John Dashwood, ‘reasoning’ with her husband, manages to absolve them, step by step, of any financial responsibility for his own sisters. In the end they are both begrudging the bereaved widow and daughters even their ‘china, plate and linen’.
Austen portrays the manipulative, grasping spirit so effortlessly we have to smile at their own self-deception, even while we are horrified at their callous selfishness. Both Mrs. Norris and Mrs. John Dashwood had a sort of evil genius for protecting their own interests while effectively discharging what was really considered a family, moral, and social obligation–to take care of the poor among them. Jane Austen may not have been a radical in her views, but she did have a wisdom beyond her years. She knew that the key to real social change starts from within. Fanny Price was her answer…though timid, mild, socially disadvantaged, she was able to stand firm against a tide of opinion and make decisions that ultimately benefited not only herself, but those around her. Thank you for this fascinating post! I am also interested in reading more about this Romantic polymath…
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Sarah Emsley said:
Great comparison between Mrs. Norris and Fanny Dashwood, and I’m glad to hear you’re interested in reading more about Thelwall. Thanks very much for commenting on Judith’s wonderful post about adoption.
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Lady T said:
Great post-I’ve always felt that Fanny being a live-in relation as opposed to one of the daughters of the house, set her distinctly apart from all of the other Austen heroines.
Even put upon Anne Eliot was still a “Miss Eliot” when all was said and done. Part of her reason for her quiet demeanor is due to that status being reenforced rather cheerfully at times by Mrs. Norris and in minor ways by the rest of the family(and even the servants,when Fanny first arrives, look down on her!). I’m also reading Evelina at the moment and you can see it’s influence upon Austen’s work, especially with Sir Clement Willoughby!
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Sarah Emsley said:
I like the point you make about how different Fanny’s position is from Anne Elliot’s. Yes, even though Anne is often overlooked, she’s still a member of the family. Thanks very much for visiting and for commenting on Judith’s post!
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I think that Sir Thomas is not simply being calculating in his hesitation at taking Fanny on as a ward. He has maintained his wealth by making careful and considered decisions, and he is determined to do the thing right. Mrs. Norris counts on marrying Fanny off after a few years to someone else who will maintain her; Sir Thomas is reckoning on making a lifetime commitment to Fanny’s financial security. (“I only meant to observe that it ought not to be lightly engaged in, and that to make it really serviceable to Mrs. Price, and creditable to ourselves, we must secure to the child, or consider ourselves engaged to secure to her hereafter, as circumstances may arise, the provision of a gentlewoman, if no such establishment should offer as you are so sanguine in expecting.”) And in a typical Mansfield Park twist, it is of course his own oldest son Tom, the one who has the most natural claim on Mansfield money, who taxes Sir Thomas’s finances at cost to his younger brother’s prospects.
Sir Thomas is almost as introverted as Fanny herself, and expressing any positive feeling is a stretch of his character. One of his most touching moments is his sudden arrival home from Antigua. The house is in a barely-concealed uproar, but Sir Thomas is almost oblivious in his joy to be home, and he seeks out Fanny and bestows affection and compliments on her.
Now Mrs. Norris — there’s a character who’s a delight to loathe, and she’s even more despicable because Austen makes her so very human. Fanny is only useful to Mrs. Norris as an object on which to practice generosity; any time Fanny shows any agency she brings down the wrath of Mrs. Norris. But even for all her selfishness, Mrs. Norris is nearly right: Edmund does consider Fanny as a sister through most of the book, until he can see her character in true contrast to Mary Crawford’s, and to his own sister’s.
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Sarah Emsley said:
Good point about how Sir Thomas considers the long-term consequences of taking Fanny in as his ward. It’s interesting that Mrs. Norris does predict Edmund’s attitude toward Fanny accurately — at least for most of the novel. I agree that it’s fun to loathe Mrs. Norris. Did you see her appearance on the list of the “greatest fictional characters of all time” in The Atlantic last month? Adele Waldman says “What makes her so brilliant — and so chilling — is that her brand of malevolence is so ordinary; she really has no idea that she’s a monster” (http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/04/who-is-the-greatest-fictional-character-of-all-time/358649/).
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What a great list! Mrs. Norris really doesn’t have any idea that she’s a monster, and that the brilliance of Austen’s characterization: Mrs. Norris has plenty of virtues, but they’re all inverted. She’s very generous, with other people’s money and time; she’s very devoted to her nieces, to the extent of excusing their moral flaws; she’s very active, and has no patience with any semblance of idleness from the physically weaker Fanny. She lives wntitely for others, as long as others will be managed by her. There’s not a speck of redeeming feeling in her, and yet she’s entirely human. A masterpiece, indeed!
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Hi, I was first introduced to your writings by my friend Lit-Lass who reviewed your book. I love Fanny Price and am so glad you admire John Thelwall. It’s funny people tend to see Mansfield Park as the stick-in-the-mud sort of novel, when actually it’s very radical for its time. And it’s the first novel in which Austen distinctly encourages Romanticism.
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Sarah Emsley said:
Thanks so much for visiting, Caroline! It was so kind of Lit-Lass to write about my book in such detail. There’s so much more to both Fanny Price and Mansfield Park — I agree with you that they deserve to be appreciated more fully.
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