Amy Patterson is recognizable to many Janeites as one of the three fabulous women behind the Jane Austen Books tables at JASNA AGMs. When she’s not selling books in person or online, she writes for Jane Austen’s Regency World Magazine, and works on long-term writing projects. Amy says she’s currently in the “slow-but-steady process” of blogging her recent trip to England at her site amylpatterson.wordpress.com. Last week she wrote about her visit to the beautiful town and bookshops of Hay-on-Wye in Wales, where she bought a lot of books and forgot what century it is.
She tells me she enjoys “reading, baking, and life with the two craziest little boys around.” Since Amy knows a great deal about both Jane Austen and kids, I interviewed her last year about introducing children to Austen and her novels. I’m very happy to introduce her guest post on the toasted cheese in Portsmouth.
Fanny, fatigued and fatigued again, was thankful to accept the first invitation of going to bed; and before Betsey had finished her cry at being allowed to sit up only one hour extraordinary in honour of sister, she was off, leaving all below in confusion and noise again; the boys begging for toasted cheese, her father calling out for his rum and water, and Rebecca never where she ought to be.
– From Mansfield Park, Chapter 38 (www.pemberley.com)
Oh, those boys. I feel for Mrs. Price. Boys certainly do beg for toasted cheese. And they certainly do ride around on earth in a clamor of “confusion and noise.” They are like little gods descending from the sky on clouds of chaos, demanding fealty from anyone in the house who can reach the refrigerator. My youngest, Charlie, once famously commanded me: “Mom! Get back in yours kitchen and make mine dinner!” I smiled patiently, and informed him that he would have to wait just like the rest of us.
Little boys are hardly the perfect companions for one in Fanny’s state of mind at the end of Chapter 38. Her punishment, the annihilation of peace and solitude, is a fitting representation of the future annihilation of such comforts that will take place if she submits to Sir Thomas’s will and marries Henry Crawford. The wilds of a low-rent Portsmouth establishment are as true a test as any given to an Austen heroine. Fanny of course passes the test through moral strength and spiritual fortitude, but after seeing her family up close it’s hard for the reader, and for Fanny herself, to figure out where these qualities come from.
Through Fanny’s eyes, we see Mrs. Price as a woman without the capacity to do much at all to help her children other than pet and hover over her favorite one. Mrs. Norris complains on her sister Price’s behalf that her inability as a parent is due to the multitude of children she’s had, but evidence suggests that Mrs. Price would probably not make a great mother to a smaller number of children, regardless of her wealth or status.
As Fanny’s stay in Portsmouth lengthens, she discovers that there is not much difference between Lady Bertram and her own mother, both listless personalities. Fanny, blinded by the bit of affection she’s received from Lady Bertram, perhaps doesn’t make the connection that her benefactress is just as neglectful a parent as Mrs. Price – only Lady Bertram has Aunt Norris for assistance, while Mrs. Price has poor, useless Rebecca.
In Chapter 39, the narrator laments that Fanny “must and did feel that her mother was a partial, ill-judging parent, a dawdle, a slattern, who neither taught nor restrained her children, whose house was the scene of mismanagement and discomfort from beginning to end.” Lady Bertram’s house would be the same if not for her income and status – in other words, without a hanger-on like Aunt Norris, whose zeal overcomes any mismanagement by Lady Bertram. It’s hard to imagine a young Edmund creating havoc and demanding food and treats, but as for the rest of the Bertram children, it’s not a leap to believe that their demands were constant, and most likely fulfilled only by their overbearing Aunt, instead of ignored by a dawdle of a mother or achieved half-heartedly by a lazy maid.
But somehow a few of the adult children of both mothers manage to make it into adulthood with their moral fortitude intact. Susan – even though she has spent her life with a disengaged, unaffectionate, ineffective mother and an alcoholic father – still knows what is right and wrong, and still works exasperatedly on her little brothers to behave themselves. Fanny is thoroughly good, as we see throughout the book, and William is an ambitious and bright young man eager to be of service to crown and country. As for their cousins – after Tom’s illness, he is almost as willing to be an upstanding heir as his brother Edmund. How can successful children come from such ineffective mothers? Is it as simple as the idea that “nature” is stronger than “nurture?”
Nature is pretty strong in little boys, and some of them never grow out of their need for physical fulfillment through food, play, or more worldly activities. The rambunctious little brothers at Portsmouth are a physical shock to Fanny’s system, but they are also a vivid reminder that there are men in the world whose nature has been combined with a profound lack of nurture, and that clamoring little boys who are spoiled by their mothers may be destined to grow into men who can’t take no for an answer. They are, in effect, miniature Henry Crawfords, unable to understand how their noise and their needs are unwelcome impositions on a mind seeking simple solitude.
As a mom of two such boys, the eldest of whom I just chased out of my office in tears because – I’m not kidding – he wants grilled cheese and it’s not dinner time yet, I hope all my nurturing will give me the right kind of Henry. (The Tilney kind, not the Crawford kind.) But I should probably get back in the kitchen and make some dinner before I think too hard about it.
To read more about all the posts in this series, visit An Invitation to Mansfield Park. Coming soon: guest posts by Theresa Kenney, Karen Doornebos, Lynn Shepherd, and Elisabeth Lenckos. Next week, in honour of Jane Austen’s birthday, there will be one post per day, beginning on Monday.
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