books, courtship, Edmund Bertram, George Whalley, Jane Austen, judgement, Juliet McMaster, literature, love, Mansfield Park, Mansfield Park 200th anniversary, marriage, tragedy
Twelfth in a series of posts celebrating 200 years of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. For more details, open Your Invitation to Mansfield Park.
I lived in Edmonton near the University of Alberta in the 1970s, but I was too young to attend the conference Juliet McMaster organized at the university to mark the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s birth. Fortunately, Juliet edited a collection of the papers presented at the conference, Jane Austen’s Achievement, and thus when I grew up I was able to read this wonderful book. If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you already know that I think very highly of the paper George Whalley presented, “Jane Austen: Poet,” which inspired me to explore the idea that Mansfield Park is a tragedy. (He suggests it’s a tragedy, but doesn’t follow up on the idea, so I wrote “The Tragic Action of Mansfield Park” as my attempt to show why it makes sense to think of this “problem novel” as a tragedy, rather than as a failed comedy.)
Fortunately, too, I’ve been able to read and reread Juliet’s many books and essays on Jane Austen over the years (including, a couple of weeks ago, her excellent essay “Sex and the Senses” in Persuasions 34), to hear her present at many other conferences, and to benefit from her advice about my dissertation on Austen and the classical and theological virtues (she was the external examiner for my Ph.D.). I was delighted that she accepted the invitation to contribute a guest post for this series celebrating Mansfield Park.
Juliet is Distinguished Professor Emerita at the University of Alberta, and a frequent speaker at JASNA occasions. Author of books on Thackeray, Trollope, and Dickens, and of Jane Austen on Love and Jane Austen the Novelist, she is also the co-editor of The Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen and illustrator-editor of Austen’s The Beautifull Cassandra. I adore The Beautifull Cassandra, and Juliet’s edition, with its playful illustrations and helpful introduction to Jane Austen’s life and works, is at the top of my list of Jane Austen books for kids. I often give copies of this book and the Cozy Classics Pride and Prejudice to the young people in my life.
Juliet is giving a talk on “Female Difficulties: Austen’s Fanny and Burney’s Juliet” at the JASNA AGM in Montreal this fall, and I hear she will also be performing in “A Dangerous Intimacy,” the play by Diana Birchall and Syrie James that was commissioned for the AGM.
Fanny was the only one of the party who found any thing to dislike [in the return of Henry Crawford after only two weeks away]; but since the day at Sotherton, she could never see Mr. Crawford with either sister without observation, and seldom without wonder or censure; and had her confidence in her own judgment been equal to her exercise of it in every other respect, had she been sure that she was seeing clearly, and judging candidly, she would probably have made some important communications to her usual confidant. As it was, however, she only hazarded a hint, and the hint was lost. “I am rather surprised,” said she, “that Mr. Crawford should come back again so soon, after being here so long before, full seven weeks; for I had understood he was so very fond of change and moving about, that I thought something would certainly occur when he was gone, to take him elsewhere. He is used to much gayer places than Mansfield.”
“It is to his credit,” was Edmund’s answer, “and I dare say it gives his sister pleasure. She does not like his unsettled habits.”
“What a favourite he is with my cousins!”
“Yes, his manners to women are such as must please. Mrs. Grant, I believe, suspects him of a preference for Julia; I have never seen much symptom of it, but I wish it may be so. He has no faults but what a serious attachment would remove.”
“If Miss Bertram were not engaged,” said Fanny, cautiously, “I could sometimes almost think that he admired her more than Julia.”
“Which is, perhaps, more in favour of his liking Julia best, than you, Fanny, may be aware: for I believe it often happens, that a man, before he has quite made up his own mind, will distinguish the sister or intimate friend of the woman he is really thinking of, more than the woman herself. Crawford has too much sense to stay here if he found himself in any danger from Maria; and I am not at all afraid for her, after such proof as she has given, that her feelings are not strong.”
Fanny supposed she must have been mistaken, and meant to think differently in future; but with all that submission to Edmund could do, and all the help of the coinciding looks and hints which she occasionally noticed in some of the others and which seemed to say that Julia was Mr. Crawford’s choice, she knew not always what to think.
– From Mansfield Park, Chapter 12 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988)
This brief exchange between Edmund and Fanny occurs after Henry Crawford has returned to Mansfield after only two weeks’ absence at his own estate of Everingham. And it is interesting in showing how Fanny, the pupil, with strong powers of observation and judgement, is desperately short of confidence in her own judgement; whereas Edmund, the tutor – (and their relation has been very much that of pupil and teacher) has full confidence in his own judgement, but with much less reason.
Fanny has had the benefit of observing Henry’s flirtatious behaviour with Julia and especially Maria during the trip to Sotherton. Edmund was there too, but he didn’t see what Fanny observed, and his powers of observation are clearly inferior to hers. He is pretty thoroughly wrong about several things:
* For instance, that Henry Crawford “has too much sense to stay here if he found himself in danger from Maria” – Wrong! In fact we know that Henry finds Maria more attractive for her engagement, presumably on the “forbidden fruit” principle.
* He considers Maria quite free of attachment to Crawford, since by engaging herself to Rushworth she has proved “her feelings are not strong.” Wrong! Her feelings are in fact so strong that that despite her engagement to Rushworth (for mercenary reasons, of course) she is ready to upset the whole applecart for Crawford, as eventually she does.
Is Edmund right about anything? His comment that Crawford “has no faults but what a serious attachment will remove” could be right – and Mary Crawford too believes that if he had married Fanny he would have settled down to being a good husband and landlord. That belief is pretty questionable, of course, but it is never tested, and since it is only a might-have-been, the answer must depend on the individual judgements of readers.
Then what about his general comment on human behaviour, that “it often happens that a man, before he has quite made up his own mind, will distinguish the sister or intimate friend of the woman he is really thinking of more than the woman herself”? Wrong again, so far as Julia and Maria are concerned! From this bit of general wisdom he intends to prove that Crawford’s attentions to Maria are really because he prefers Julia – which again is arrant nonsense (as Fanny knows, but daren’t say, because of her disastrous lack of confidence in her own judgment).
But what interests me is the extent to which Edmund’s piece of wisdom may actually apply to himself. I have long believed that Edmund, even while he consciously courts Mary Crawford, is equally in love with Fanny – or indeed even more so. (Note: I argued this in Jane Austen on Love, back in 1978, but I have sometimes been challenged on it.) Certainly Edmund believes himself in love with Mary, and – through his ignorance of Fanny’s feelings – he often puts Fanny through the pain of being his confidante in his courtship of Mary. But there are many signs of his equal love for Fanny. He calls her “Dearest Fanny!” (note the superlative!), and kisses her hand “with almost as much warmth as if it had been Mary Crawford’s” (269). “Almost”? But that is Fanny’s perception more than the narrator’s pronouncement, isn’t it? He tells Fanny fervently, “I have no pleasure in the world superior to that of contributing to yours … no pleasure so complete, so unalloyed” (262).
I should concede the points against me. I have to admit that Edmund’s encouraging Fanny to accept Henry Crawford, as he certainly does, is not very lover-like. After all, the most visible sign that Mr. Knightley is in love with Emma is his jealousy of Frank Churchill. Indeed, it seems he doesn’t wake up to his own love himself until he understands his own jealousy (and the same applies to Emma, who doesn’t know she loves Knightley until she thinks he may marry Harriet). But then Mr. Knightley is certainly more knowledgeable about himself and his feelings than Edmund is about his. Edmund thinks he is in love with Mary, says he could never marry anyone else. But then why doesn’t he get on and propose to her? Should he propose in person, he wonders, or in a letter? (422). He is forever dithering. Even Fanny gets impatient at his prolonged shilly-shallying, and exclaims, “There is no good in this delay … Why is it not settled?” (424).
But to return to Edmund and my chosen passage: “A man … will distinguish the sister or intimate friend of the woman he is really thinking of, more than the woman herself.” As a general rule, this is one more place where Edmund is wrong. But as applying to himself – the rule is true and correct. Edmund does distinguish Mary, the intimate friend (as he thinks) of Fanny, more than Fanny herself. But whom does he really mean to marry, even if he doesn’t know it himself? Right! Fanny!
Dare I conclude, Q.E.D.?!
To read more about all the posts in this series, visit An Invitation to Mansfield Park. Coming soon: guest posts by Lynn Festa, David Monaghan, Diana Birchall, and Deborah Barnum. Subscribe by email or follow the blog so you don’t miss these fabulous contributions to the Mansfield Park party!
This is a really interesting theory! I love these little hidden gems that are really right there in plain sight. The only thing that keeps me from wholehearted agreement is that Edmund is so clearly delighted with the idea of Fanny marrying Henry, and one cannot help but suspect it is because it will bring him (Edmund) closer to Mary. But that might be another case of “the gentlemen doth protest too much”–covering up his attraction to Fanny by encouraging her marriage to another man.
Also at that point in the story, Sir Thomas would not be too thrilled about Edmund marrying Fanny. It took Maria’s contretemps for him to come around about that. I’m sure Edmund knows that on some level. Also Mrs. Norris is out of the way by the time Fanny and Edmund are engaged–imagine the screech she would have set up about it!
Sarah Emsley said:
Mrs. Norris’s response to an early engagement — wouldn’t that have been something! George Justice is writing about Mrs. Norris for this Friday. His post is called “Angry White Female: An Apology for Mrs. Norris.”
Hobbie DeHoy said:
I think that Edmund has absolutely no idea what love is. He is infatuated with Mary Crawford, who is charming, confident and doesn’t scruple to manipulate situations to bring herself to his attention. If Mary weren’t working so hard to keep herself in view, would his fascination with a charming woman ever have increased to the point where he believed himself to be in love? I think Edmund’s hesitation, when it comes to the point of actually proposing to Mary, is very telling. He is infatuated, but his moral sense is not allowing him to proceed with a course he feels is wrong. He believes he is in love, but he really isn’t. He is blinded and distracted by Mary’s delightful wit and conversation. When Mary is no longer part of the menage at Mansfield, he is able to see what’s right in front of him and fall in love with Fanny. For real this time.
This question, “Is Edmund Bertram right about anything,” set me thinking. I think it’s something about Edmund that has bothered me unconsciously. Because the answer seems to be, no.
Edmund seems to have a kind of Polly-annish view about just about everything and everybody. Just as an example, he’s at least somewhat aware of Aunt Norris’ mistreatment of Fanny, but he really doesn’t get the extent of the mistreatment or the hostility.
As this post shows, he has too naive a view of Henry Crawford and of his own sisters. It’s hard to credit this guy with much discernment if he’s been around Maria and Julia for so long and doesn’t understand them better. But, maybe family affection and loyalty blinds him.
The same thing happens with Mary Crawford, to an exaggerated degree. Edmund just doesn’t see – or seems willfully not to see, in the way of lovers.
I wonder if this quality – not his “boringness” — is what turns many readers off to Edmund. (I have the impression that he’s not one of the more popular of Austen’s leading men.) Not that they are consciously reacting to that, but Edmund does not cut an especially admirable figure. An affectionate heart is nice, but it’s hard to admire blindness.
Edmund is like Sir Bertram in his ignorance of a lot that goes on at Mansfield Park, but for very different reasons. Edmund seems to hardly be capable of imagining people doing real harm – even when they act it out in front of him. Sir Bertram’s ignorance seems to be a combination of absence and then a somewhat ambitious/materialistic view of having Maria marry well.
I mean, maybe it wasn’t his place, but if Edmund had been a more astute observer, he might have warned Sir Bertram a bit about the dangers of the new acquaintances or of his sisters’ lack of discretion. Maybe this is being a tattletale or that’s how Edmund would have seen it. I just can’t help but think that Edmund could have prevented some of the scandal that befell Mansfield Park.
As I think about it, Edmund has some of the characteristics of Jane Bennet. But, in his case, there are consequences.
Sarah Emsley said:
“Yes, I agree that ‘Maybe family affection and loyalty blind him’ about what is going on with Maria and Julia. Edmund is often wrong in his statements about people – he actually believes Aunt Norris will provide a good home for Fanny! – But what one has to hand to him is that he FEELS correctly, and will follow through on his feelings. So it could well be that his lack of perception about what is happening between his sisters and Henry Crawford is because of his brotherly affection..
He cares about Fanny’s health, and makes sacrifices to make sure she gets a horse to ride. He insists that Fanny be included in the trip to Sotherton. He makes sure she gets to go to dinner with the Grants. These are things no one else pays attention to. (One wants this hero to live up to hero status, and so far as I’m concerned this is how he does it.)”
Yes, absolutely. There’s no doubt about Edmund’s goodness and his integrity. Yes, he gets credit for taking care of Fanny and it’s no surprise that, given the lack of such attention, she fairly worships him. But, as I say, it’s hard to admire blindness. For me, at least.
Although, Austen may be about something more sophisticated and complex. She may really be writing about the downfall of a house, even a society, with Mansfield Park being the microcosm. As opposed to a simple love story with two admirable specimens finding each other.
In that way, Edmund’s blindness, much more innocent than anyone else’s (except Fanny, who isn’t blind at all), does play a part – he’s not insightful enough, not on guard enough. So that, even though his heart is all goodness, it isn’t enough to save the society from malice and wrong-doing.
I guess what I’m saying is that Austen herself may not have designed/intended him to be the great romantic hero. She was doing something else in this creation.
I LOVE this Mansfield Park series! So much to ponder. Thanks so much, Sarah, for hosting it.
Sarah Emsley said:
I think you’re right, maidrya, that Austen didn’t intend for Edmund to be the great romantic hero. His conversations with Fanny make her adherence to her own standards even more interesting. She’s in love with him and he has guided her moral education, yet she’s still so strong and independent.
I’m delighted that you’re enjoying the series. I’m learning so much from all the guest posts and comments, and I’m glad I decided to extend the series through the rest of the year so we have time to focus on several passages in detail. (Originally I was planning ten or twelve posts.)
I like what Hobbie DeFoy said about Edmund in that he has no idea about love. Coming from a manly point of view, men who are truly in love, become VERY possessive, very demonstrative, and pursue the object of their desire.
Even after Mary insults Edmund’s plan to enter the clergy, he is remains infatuated with her. Here is one indicator that shows he is wrong about Mary.
In spite of his objections to the party putting on Lover’s Vows, he acquiesces and takes part anyway as Fanny rightly refuses. And, everyone is aware of Henry’s inappropriate and flirtatious behavior with his sisters Bertram. Here is another indicator that he is wrong.
Fanny had it right in the first place in regards to Maria and Henry when she says “If Miss Bertram were not engaged,” said Fanny cautiously, “I could sometimes almost think that he admired her more than Julia.” However because of her lowly status in the family and her awe and admiration of Edmund, his opinion holds sway and he is wrong still again.
In Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion, and Emma, the leading men declare their feelings of love openly and with conviction prior to the conclusion. However, in Mansfield Park, In Jane Austen’s very brief summation, no such dialogue takes place and it is almost a side-event as the author discloses, finally, their wedding plans.
It is for some of these reasons that I never warmed up to Edmund as a proper Jane Austen hero. He’s just so clueless and dense as a brick for most of the story. He seems passive and unable to identify Fanny’s love for him. Edmund, as her mentor and tutor, molds her from a child but she possesses the innate intuition and steely moral judgment that he could never teach her because his was inferior to hers in the first place.
So, I think Edmund does very little of anything right other than finally marrying Fanny, but does he even deserve her?
Hobbie DeHoy said:
Oh, I think he does. Just the way Emma deserves Mr. Knightley in the end. “None of us ever minds having what is too good for us…” Edmund is good-hearted and cares about doing the right thing. He probably won’t ever be as good as Fanny is about observing behavior and drawing conclusions from it, but most marriages involve balancing out skill sets. Just think how useful Fanny’s observations will be as a clergyman’s wife! You know that Edmund will write really good sermons, deliver them well, and care for the poor in his parish. Such a conscientious guy does deserve to be married to Fanny. He’ll have more faith and reliance on her judgment than he did before he knew she had the good judgment to love him!
I think Edmund is a bit more astute than he’s being given credit for in the comments; he often makes keen observations about Fanny herself. Remember when it seems like Fanny will have to go live with Aunt Norris, and she’s horrified and can see nothing good in the situation? Edmund tells her, “You speak as if you were going two hundred miles off, instead of only across the park, but you will belong to us almost as much as ever. The two families will be meeting every day in the year. The only difference will be that, living with your aunt, you will necessarily be brought forward as you ought to be. Here there are too many whom you can hide behind; but with her you will be forced to speak for yourself.” And he’s right: Fanny does sink into herself and hide behind others and hide behind others. She does need to learn to speak for herself.
Remember also how angry he is when Fanny has been used to overexertion through the combined selfishness of Lady Bertram and Mrs. Norris. (And part of his anger is directed at himself for having been so absorbed in Mary as to forget Fanny’s health and leave it to the tender mercies of his family.) He sees, when no one else cares to, when Fanny is feeling unwell. He can follow her moods. When she comes back from Mary Crawford’s with the borrowed necklace, he can see how depressed and tired she is. Granted, he never realizes that Fanny is in love with him, but she puts all her might into hiding that from everyone. I would also note that the trope of the guy being interested in another girl and missing the love right in front of his face is hardly unique to Mansfield — it’s a staple of literature that deals with relationships. Austen does allow Edmund to be suitably punished for his persistent devotion to the image of Mary, but I don’t think we can argue that he’s wrong about everything. He’s not even a stopped clock.
You say that he’s right about Fanny’s hiding. That part he does get right. However, in that same incident he tells Fanny, “She (aunt Norris) never know how to be pleasant to children. But you are now of an age to be treated better; I think she is behaving better already; and when you are her only companion, you must be important to her.”
He is completely wrong. Aunt Norris isn’t behaving better to Fanny and never does. Fanny is never going to be important to her. Fanny shrank from a removal to Aunt Norris’, knowing it would be a living hell. Fanny was right. Edmund was blind.
Edmund’s not a stopped clock, but I don’t think there’s any denying that he’s wrong about the big events taking place under his nose: Maria’s attachment to Crawford, Mary C’s character.
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Carol Settlage said:
I have very thoroughly enjoyed all the insights and discussion on this and all the topics! For me the place I lose most patience with Edmond is during his talk with Fanny after coming back home and discovering that Crawford has proposed to her… While he is purportedly attempting to discover Fanny’s real feelings, he continually fails to really listen to her and still interprets them in the way that most suits his ideas! He is a good and kind friend to Fanny in most situations, but negligent in others, as pointed out above, and he is clearly the least romantic of Jane Austen’s hero’s… But I agree that that was not her point in this story, and Mansfield Park remains a very favorite of mine, right after P&P!
I too am very grateful to Sarah for this wonderful series!
Sarah Emsley said:
It’s so ironic that at the start of that conversation, “he wanted to know Fanny’s feelings.” But then he has so much trouble believing what she says. “Do you suppose that we think differently? I have no idea of it.”
Thanks, Carol. I’m glad you’re enjoying the series!
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[“So, I think Edmund does very little of anything right other than finally marrying Fanny, but does he even deserve her?”]
Both Fanny and Edmund truly deserved each other. And I’m not being complimentary.
I like Edmund. He reminds me of Jane Bennet, from Pride and Prejudice. Pure. He see’s Crawford as he see’s himself. He would never chase after a women engaged to another, so he mistakenly attaches his own beliefs to Crawford, considering him a good man. Edmund is not as attuned to people and their motives, as Fanny is, and I think it has something to do with that fact that she has been treated “second best” her entire life. She understands what people are capable of. She has lived her life in the shadows of others who call themselves her family. I would be cautious of everyone too. I think this cation allows Fanny to see a side of human beings that Edmund can not quite comprehend, considering his life has been spent wishing to be a minister, and sharing his love for God and the principles of a humble Christian man, as the Bible says he should be. He has never wanted for any thing. As great as his life of luxury is, it has handicapped his perception in life. I can not completely blame Edmund, he knows no better. He considered himself more intelligent than Fanny because he is a man, as men did in this time, and as the richer of the two, has been given a better education than her. This leads him to already by the leader of them both. His opinion is always taken more seriously than hers, and as a future leader of the church, he feels the need to be in charge, and for his opinions to be considered correct. As for his love of Fanny, I think this is also one of the ways Edmund reminded me of Jane. He loved Fanny, but he seems to not understand how to connect sexual desire and love. Edmund is silly. He fumbles around in his head, unsure of how to express his love, like many men today. He probably did not know how he truly felt about Fanny until someone else came in, and helped him to make a more precise decision. Mary was very different than Fanny, and she was new. Something new and different could be captivating to Edmund. He found her interesting, and grew to care for her quickly. I believe he always did love Fanny, however, until Mary kindled his feelings, he wasn’t confident enough to do something about it. It reminds me of a girl who has a male best friend who she loves like a brother, but then a wild and exciting handsome man comes into the picture and she is swooned away by him, only to find out he is corrupt, and then realizes her male best friend has always been her rock and foundation, and make the decision that he has been the best option from the beginning. Edmund probably meant it when he was happy for Fanny and Henry, because he has a love interest of his own. However, that doesn’t mean that a part of him did not love Fanny the entire time. A true friend does what they believe is best for their friend, not what is best for them. He probably did feel a tinge of sadness at the fact of Fanny and Henry, but he believed Henry would make Fanny happy and Mary would make him happy. In which case, their love could still continue to be platonic and they could continue to love one another as cousins. My opinion is all speculation of course, but it seemed to be the most likely answer, with consideration to all of their characteristics.
I don’t really like Edmund. A part of me wishes that Mary Crawford had never really fallen in love with him. For all of her flaws, I thought she was too good for him.
Bailey E said:
This feels right on with me, especially as I reread Mansfield Park again. The narrator, Mary, and Edmund himself give too many clues tending that direction.
1. During Fanny’s prolonged stay at Portsmouth, Mary writes to her about Edmund’s delay in coming to London. Mary asserts “There may be some old woman at Thornton Lacey to be converted. I am *unwilling* to fancy myself neglected for a *young*one.”
2. Edmund acknowledges in his desperate letter to Fanny that his thoughts are relayed to her stream of consciousness, and that his thoughts are *contradcitory.* He says he can’t give Mary up, that he could only marry her, etc. He says in the same letter that “You are very much wanted. I miss you more than I can express… I want you at home that I may have your opinion about Thornton Lacey. I have little heart for improvements till I know that it will ever have a mistress.” [COME ON!]
3. The dénouement wouldn’t make sense if this wasn’t the case. Basically as soon as Fanny and Edmund are left alone, he realizes he is in love with her. That beautiful creature he was apt to dwell on (in his imagination) looks a lot like Fanny’s internal self, doesn’t it?
I think this makes sense insofar as Edmund must have internalized what Sir Thomas and Aunt Norris were worried about when Fanny was 10–that she should marry one of the brothers.
Bailey E said:
I would actually add here that the whole dragging-his-feet-during-Fanny’s-Portsmouth-stay might be illuminated by Fanny’s own emotional brinkmanship during that period. He might be dragging out his courtship of Mary because he’s actually waiting to see what Fanny will decide RE: Henry. We get a direct hint from the narrator that Fanny would have consigned herself to marrying Henry if Edmund married Mary. Edmund may very well have been doing the same thing (albeit a lot less consciously).