“I said, ‘Mansfield Park is my least favorite, and I dislike it because I dislike Fanny Price. She’s too much like me. She’s boring.”
This is the person I’m going to marry, George thought.
If you’ve read Deborah Yaffe’s book Among the Janeites, you’ll recognize this description of the first time Devoney Looser and George Justice met. They’ve now been married for eighteen years, during which time they’ve given many joint presentations on Jane Austen. This past spring they also taught a class on Austen together at Arizona State University. Devoney wrote a guest post for my Mansfield Park series on “Rears and Vices” a few weeks ago, which prompted “a great deal of conversation” (to borrow Anne Elliot’s phrase), and today I’m happy to introduce George’s post on Mrs. Norris.
It had never occurred to me to defend Mrs. Norris, one of the Austen characters readers love to hate. Adelle Waldman recently voted for her as the “greatest fictional character of all time,” because “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.”
But when I mentioned to George the other day that we haven’t talked about Mrs. Norris very much so far in “An Invitation to Mansfield Park,” he immediately started writing about her. I’m very interested to hear what you think about his analysis of her character.
George Justice is Dean of Humanities in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and Associate Vice President for Humanities and Arts in the Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development at Arizona State University. A specialist in eighteenth-century British literature, he’s the author and editor of scholarship on the literary marketplace, authorship, and women’s writing. Most recently, he edited Jane Austen’s Emma for the Norton Critical Editions series. Prior to going to ASU, he taught at the University of Pennsylvania, Marquette University, Louisiana State University, and the University of Missouri, where he also served as Vice Provost for Advanced Studies and Dean of the Graduate School.
In a recent blog entry in The Paris Review, Tara Isabella Burton “defends” the heroine of Mansfield Park by declaring her a victim of an unjust system: “Fanny isn’t moral or upright because she wants to be, but because the role—along with a whole host of so-called middle-class values—is forced upon her. For all we know, she may well wish to be as carefree, as filled with dynamic sprezzatura, as [Emma] Woodhouse or Elizabeth Bennet, Austen’s more fortunate heroines….”
With a “defense” like that, who needs enemies? I would happily praise Fanny Price on grounds familiar to those of us who really understand, but I’d be preaching to the converted. We lovers of Fanny Price don’t need it. We already know we love her, we know why we love her, and we share contempt for those too stupid to understand.
Instead, I here take on a more difficult task: defending Mrs. Norris. A quick Google search reveals a paucity of champions for Mrs. Norris, who is perhaps the most hated of any of Austen’s characters. (Hated, but enjoyed from the novel’s first publication as Austen’s notes on her friends’ and family’s responses make clear.) In a novel with unclear heroes and heroines, Mrs. Norris is—or would seem to be—an unambiguous villain. She is mean-spirited, self-serving, erroneous, obsequious: fully hideous.
“I was just going to say the very same thing,” said Mrs. Norris. “If every play is to be objected to, you will act nothing—and the preparations will be all so much money thrown away—and I am sure that would be a discredit to us all. I do not know the play; but, as Maria says, if there is any thing a little too warm (and it is so with most of them) it can be easily left out.—We must not be over precise Edmund. As Mr. Rushworth is to act too, there can be no harm.—I only wish Tom had known his own mind when the carpenters began, for there was the loss of a half a day’s work about those side-doors.—The curtain will be a good job, however. The maids do their work very well, and I think we shall be able to send back some dozens of the rings.—There is no occasion to put them so very close together. I am of some use I hope in preventing waste and making the most of things. There should always be one steady head to superintend so many young ones. I forgot to tell Tom of something that happened to me this very day.—I had been looking about me in the poultry yard, and was just coming out, when who should I see but Dick Jackson making up to the servants’ hall door with two bits of deal board in his hand, bringing them to father, you may be sure; mother had chanced to send him of a message to father, and then father had bid him bring up them two bits of board, for he could not no how do without them. I knew what all this meant, for the servants’ dinner bell was ringing at the very moment over our heads, and as I hate such encroaching people, (the Jacksons are very encroaching, I have always said so,—just the sort of people to get all they can.) I said to the boy directly—(a great lubberly fellow of ten years old you know, who ought to be ashamed of himself,) I’ll take the boards to your father Dick; so get you home again as fast as you can.—The boy looked very silly and turned away without offering a word, for I believe I might speak up pretty sharp; and I dare say it will cure him of coming marauding around the house for one while,—I hate such greediness—so good as your father is to the family, employing the man all year round!”
– From Mansfield Park, Chapter 15 (New York: Norton, 1998)
This passage exemplifies a number of Mrs. Norris’s traits, most notably her self-identified frugality, the small-mindedness of which interferes with her professed identification with the family’s real interest. Calling a halt to the theatrical proceedings would result in “so much money thrown away.” She moves from a self-aggrandizing declaration that she would be the “steady hand to superintend so many young ones” to exemplifying that steadiness with a hypocritical anecdote about a local family whose greediness and encroaching nature must be stopped by the selfless hard work of Mrs. Norris herself, whose “triumph” over the ten-year-old Dick Jackson was important enough to her for her to relate it again over dinner. (Contrast this to the “triumph” over Mrs. Norris that Fanny avoids projecting when Sir Thomas orders her a carriage to take her to dinner at the Grants’ over Mrs. Norris’s objections).
Was Mrs. Norris born bad? Made bad by circumstances? Taking morality out of our assessment (something required by the critics who profess to disdain Fanny Price) what can we say in favor of Mrs. Norris?
We learn in the first paragraph of the novel that Mrs. Norris was the older sister of Lady Bertram and, subject to the marriage market of her time, had to watch her younger sister marry first (and marry well) and eventually find “herself obliged to be attached to the Rev. Mr. Norris, a friend of her brother-in-law.” The double passive of “found herself obliged” and “to be attached” signals the novel’s latent sympathy with the character. Mrs. Norris is characterized both explicitly and in the action of the novel as having a “spirit of activity.” Therefore, being put in the position of being acted upon in the single most important life moment that society imposed on young women of her social class—marriage—is not a punishment of her but the signal moment shaping the narrative of Mrs. Norris’s life. Mrs. Norris is female activity repressed by patriarchal society.
There would have been plenty of work to do for the active spouse of a clergyman in the Church of England, the most important of which, perhaps, would have been raising children. Mrs. Norris is dealt another blow by life:
Having married on a narrower income than she had been used to look forward to, she had, from the first, fancied a very strict line of economy necessary; and what was begun as a matter of prudence, soon grew into a matter of choice, as an object of that needful solicitude, which there were no children to supply. Had there been a family to provide for, Mrs. Norris might never have saved her money; but having no care of that kind, there was nothing to impede her frugality…. (Chapter 1)
So when we get to Mrs. Norris’s ill-judged encouragement of Lovers’ Vows we have been prepared to understand that she has clawed her way to significance through assuming a role in the economy of Mansfield Park. Mrs. Norris is a middle manager, a factory floor shift supervisor despised by both the owner (Sir Thomas) and the workers (Dick Jackson and his family). But in the chaos of the household absent Sir Thomas, she is doing the best she can. Like many middle managers (I am one myself) she can only act on her best understanding of the intentions of her superiors in relation to those she is managing—who are, at best, resentful, and at worse filled with enmity and contempt.
Mrs. Norris, like Tara Isabella Burton’s Fanny Price, is a victim of an unjust society: widowed, ill-educated, and requiring patronage to maintain her human dignity. If we would prefer that she be Miss Bates, powerless and ridiculed, existing solely on the basis of charity, what does that say about us? Mrs. Norris, given her limited opportunities, is as hard-working as any of Austen’s female characters.
Anyway, we can’t enjoy Mansfield Park without Mrs. Norris, as the earliest readers of the novel recognized. The distinguished literary critic and essayist Paul Fussell once told me that he’d “rather see people in fistfights than holding hands: it’s boring.” Mrs. Norris, may she rest in peace, provides us with the best fistfights of Mansfield Park, defending the indefensible, attacking the just, interfering when interference was least required—and, ultimately, left behind when both her superiors and her inferiors move along to the rest of their lives. Like a retired boxer with nothing left to do, poor Mrs. Norris is condemned by the novel that needs her to close confinement with her surrogate daughter Maria Rushworth. Used, tossed away. Don’t we all deserve better?
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!