books, death, Fiction, illness, Jane Austen, literature, Mansfield Park, Mansfield Park 200th anniversary, Pride and Prejudice, Theresa Kenney, Tom Bertram
Thirty-third in a series of posts celebrating 200 years of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. For more details, open Your Invitation to Mansfield Park.
Tomorrow is Jane Austen’s birthday, and I’m celebrating all week long with guest posts on Mansfield Park every day. Please check back tomorrow when Karen Doornebos raises a glass to toast Jane Austen on her 239th birthday.
Today’s post is by Theresa Kenney. A member of JASNA and an Associate Professor of English at the University of Dallas, Theresa has written several essays for Persuasions. She has also published essays on Dante, Donne, Southwell, and Dickens. She edited and translated “Women Are Not Human”: An Anonymous Treatise and Responses, and co-edited and contributed to The Christ Child in Medieval Culture: Alpha es et O! At Stanford, her dissertation research focused on Medieval and Renaissance nativity lyrics, but she has frequently taught the 19th century novel, Early Modern literature, and Arthurian romance. Always missing her native Pennsylvania, she tells me, she and her Irish husband live in Texas with their two daughters – “and make frequent trips to cooler climes.”
Theresa and I first met at the 2006 JASNA AGM in Tucson, one of my favourite AGMs because it focused on – what else! – Mansfield Park. (And because it was in Arizona, so I got to visit with some relatives who are very dear to me.) It’s a pleasure to introduce her guest post on “Why Tom Bertram Cannot Die,” and, before we get to that topic, to share with you her account of how she discovered Jane Austen.
I came late to Austen! While the regular 10th grade classes were reading Pride and Prejudice, the advanced placement students were afflicted with Malamud and Faulkner; if it hadn’t been for a heavy dose of Shakespeare and metaphysical poets that year, I would never have liked English at all. I was fully intending to major in Italian and Classics as a freshman at Penn State when my best friends, Nan Runde and her husband Joe, who were grad students and had sung in the church choir with me, steered me toward the English major, though I did double major in Classics. Some time later, these same friends influenced the course of my life again when they insisted that I read Pride and Prejudice while I was visiting them shortly after they had graduated and moved to Connecticut.
I remember nothing about my reaction to the opening chapters, or even to Mr. Darcy, but when Mr. Wickham told Elizabeth that he had a warm, unguarded temperament I could not stop laughing. Every time I remembered that passage, I laughed. From then on I was in love, in love with Austen’s bad characters and their self-congratulatory way of speaking. It must have been 1980, the same year that the wonderful televised version with Elizabeth Garvie and David Rintoul came on, and my sisters and I lived for each episode. Elizabeth Bennet displaced Shakespeare’s Rosalind and Beatrice as my favorite female character in literature. I then tried reading Emma, but I disliked Mr. Knightley and his preachiness, and I could not figure out what Emma saw in him. Silly me! Now he is my favorite Austen hero.
I also liked Edmund Bertram more than your average Austenite even when I first read Mansfield Park some years later, and that takes some explaining. Edmund is no one’s favorite Austen hero, largely because he spends most of the novel in love with the wrong girl (if you like Fanny) or the right girl whom he does not deserve (if you like Mary Crawford). But I always like to be directed by Jane Austen on these matters, and she has chosen him and not Henry Crawford for her hero.
I teach college aged boys all the time, so Edmund’s infatuation with Mary seems to me the most natural thing in the world – and his unrecognized attachment to Fanny (I am convinced by Juliet McMaster on this subject, largely because I came to the same conclusion on my own) is just the sort of blindness I have seen in my own students and even a brother or two of my own. Moreover, Austen seemed to me to be showing that his struggles at the end of the novel were rewarded not only by gaining Fanny, but also by gaining his brother Tom, who had never really cared much for him at all. That happened instead of the Cinderella ending of Edmund’s inheriting Mansfield Park and elevating Fanny to be mistress of it. And so Tom’s illness, which I had discussed with my friend Dr. Cheryl Kinney, became for me a key to understanding both men’s roles in the novel.
[You can read Juliet’s argument in her post “Is Edmund Bertram right about anything?” and you can also read Cheryl’s discussion of “Why Tom Bertram is right that Dr. Grant will ‘soon pop off.’” – Sarah]
I have always been interested in the sibling relationships in Mansfield Park, which start out in an unpromising way with the initial twisted Cinderella story of the three Ward sisters, in which Aunt Norris and Mrs. Price seem to play the role of the ugly stepsisters. Sir Thomas and Aunt Norris’s discussion of the potential romantic relationships that could arise between the adopted Fanny and the two Bertram boys also makes us think about sibling relationships as much as romantic ones. When I ask my students if the boys’ relationship with Fanny is the same as that they have with their sisters, they start to realize that at least Edmund’s is not, and it also becomes apparent that the Bertram siblings are far from close. It is clear that Edmund and his sisters do not have much in common, just as it is clear that Tom and Edmund share very little in the way of values or interests. It does not seem that their mother was close enough to her siblings to care if she were separated forever from the youngest, Fanny’s mother, and the younger generation in both the Bertram and Price families have inherited a cold attitude toward relations.
Edmund and Tom have a particularly important relationship in the novel, though Austen separates them and keeps Tom offstage a good deal of the time. Edmund often strikes readers as the elder of the two, and Mary Crawford even wishes for him to step into his elder brother’s place should Tom (as she hopes) die of the illness that afflicts him as part of the crisis and climax of the novel. However, though Edmund often arrogates authority to himself in conversations with his siblings and even with his mother and aunt, Edmund clearly has no wish to usurp Tom’s position as heir and future landowner. I would like to focus on significant communications that Edmund and Fanny share regarding Tom as the elder Bertram brother lies on his sickbed. Edmund’s notes to Fanny reveal an important change in Tom’s relationship with his younger brother:
. . . but when able to talk or be talked to, or read to, Edmund was the companion he preferred. His aunt worried him by her cares, and Sir Thomas knew not how to bring down his conversation or his voice to the level of irritation and feebleness. Edmund was all in all. Fanny would certainly believe him so at least, and must find that her estimation of him was higher than ever when he appeared as the attendant, supporter, cheerer of a suffering brother. There was not only the debility of recent illness to assist: there was also, as she now learnt, nerves much affected, spirits much depressed to calm and raise, and her own imagination added that there must be a mind to be properly guided.
– From Mansfield Park, Chapter 45 (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2005)
Yes, Fanny does make some of her own imaginative additions, but Edmund’s narrative of his services to Tom in his letters emphasizes Tom’s depression and agitation. That Edmund is “all in all” may not be Tom’s phrase but Fanny’s, but she is reading between the lines with more than just an admirer’s discernment. As Edmund reveals the difficulty Tom has with the presence of his parents, he also reveals, without meaning to do so, how much Tom wants him and only him in the sick room. Edmund “attends, supports” and “cheers” him, proving to Tom what real friendship is when he has just suffered from the negligence of the London friends whose company he had previously preferred. Moreover, the narrator briefly confirms Fanny’s perception of Tom’s new regard for Edmund when Edmund returns to Mansfield after having fetched Fanny from Portsmouth: “Edmund was almost as welcome to his brother, as Fanny to her aunt . . .” (Chapter 47).
Edmund appears to the reader as the superior of the two brothers, healthy and protective when Tom is suffering and weak – and all this when he is crushed by the severest, the only, romantic disappointment of his young life. However, Austen still does not want to confirm Mary Crawford’s hopes and transform him into the future Sir Edmund. If Edmund succeeds in his task he will himself, personally, prevent a gap from opening up that would allow the author to slip him into the seat of secular power. Edmund reveals his moral strength and humility in nursing the sick, preserving Tom to lead Mansfield Park after Sir Thomas. Austen resolutely refuses to join with Mary Crawford in wishing “wealth and consequence” to be conferred upon her hero.
Thus, a changed Tom receives as a gift at the end of the novel a new appreciation of the goods Edmund has always espoused, and a priest in his parish who is not only his most loyal supporter, but also a loving brother. His future sister-in-law is also not greedy for power or money that would come her way (unbeknownst to her) should Tom die. During Tom’s illness, she is “more inclined to hope than fear for her cousin, except when she thought of Miss Crawford; but Miss Crawford gave her the idea of being the child of good luck, and to her selfishness and vanity it would be good luck to have Edmund the only son.” Fanny has no such ambition for Edmund, although she values him so much more highly than Tom.
But Fanny need not worry, for no such good luck attends Miss Crawford; Jane Austen is the only fairy godmother of this book and her gift to siblings is that they love each other and live and enjoy that affection. If Tom Bertram were to die, Austen could not show the power brotherly love might have not only in the family but also in the political world where church and state vie for highest status. Tom undergoes illness not to make way for the more meritorious Edmund, but because, as moral writer, Anglican priest Thomas Gisborne writes in “The Duties of a Clergyman,” “Sickness naturally disposes the mind to seriousness and reflection; and, by withdrawing its attention and loosening its attachment from the objects of the present world, fits it for estimating according to their real importance the concerns of that which is to come” (An enquiry into the duties of men in the higher and middle classes of Society in Great Britain: Resulting from Their Respective Stations, Professions, and Employments [London: B & J White, 1795]).
Though critics have neglected Tom, his creator Jane Austen says, “Tom became what he ought to be, useful to his father, steady and quiet, and not living merely for himself” (Chapter 48). From the demanding Jane Austen, that is high praise indeed, and confirms that by the end of the novel, it is not only Edmund who deserves to be entrusted with a great responsibility.
To read more about all the posts in this series, visit An Invitation to Mansfield Park. Coming soon: guest posts by Karen Doornebos, Lynn Shepherd, and Elisabeth Lenckos.
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Do you know, it never occurred to me that Tom might die. When I think about it though, by the standards of many stories a ‘happy’ ending would have seen Fanny as mistress of the estate. I never wanted that for her, firstly because I think she’d be happier as a clergyman’s wife than as Lady Bertram, but also because I have a sneaking fondness for Tom. Though he is self-absorbed and has never been taught to think of others he is not a bad man and just needed a wake-up, which he got in the form of his illness. I also love the relationship between Tom and Edmund after the former’s illness, it couldn’t be much better when you consider how much better things will be going forward for the tenants, with Tom now disposed to listen to the wise counsel of his brother.
I also feel that Austen’s endings tend to be fairly realistic, that is, there is no melodramatic downfall for the ‘bad’ characters or huge reward for the good. This is one of the things that I really value in her work, it’s like a peep at life at the times rather than a drama.
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I think about Austen’s concept of poetic justice a lot, so that steered me toward this view. For instance, it will be hellish for Maria and Aunt Norris to be together though auntie has always loved her, but she’s never gotten affection in return. OR they could get along…. But Austen does seem to think Maria is being treated pretty severely. And Henry has no punishment but his own regret and self-recrimination. Tom really does seem to be a character Austen likes. The more I go Tom hunting in the novel, the more I find. Another interesting thing: Maria seems a much more important character, but she actually speaks much less than he does, I think.
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