( Link to Part 1)

PART 2

The book’s distinctive tone is exemplified in the treatment of Mrs Norris and Sir Thomas Bertram. In terms of form and structure, Mrs Norris plays a dominant role in Mansfield Park: she is the first person to speak in it and her first extended utterance is longer than any speech of Fanny’s in the entire novel. That is fitting: Mrs Norris makes her debut like the wicked fairy at the christening, and she will harry the heroine remorselessly for nine years until her final defeat at the book’s end. She may not be quite the nastiest person in the novels (that honour should go to Mrs John Dashwood, or perhaps to General Tilney, though because of the predominantly genial tone of Northanger Abbey he tends to get forgotten), but she is so presented as to be the most hateful. Yet she might also seem deserving of pity. Hers has been a wretched history of disappointed hopes. Once pretty, she failed to catch a good husband, and ‘found herself obliged to be attached’ to a clergyman without money. He is an invalid,and dies early (he may well have been a good deal older than she). She has no children, and seems likely to have been sexually frustrated.

The frustration of her maternal instinct is more clearly indicated, most obviously in her unnaturally and unhealthily passionate attachment to her eldest niece. But there are other hints. It may be significant that she has a servant called Nanny—a diminutive of Anne, but a name that was already
established as a title for a children’s nurse. When Fanny is back with her chaotic family in Portsmouth, the author, with her usual feeling for family likenesses, notes that Mrs Price resembles her sister Lady Bertram in having a ‘naturally easy and indolent disposition’, and would have turned out
much like Lady Bertram had she married as well. But the other sister is quite different:’ [Mrs Price] was a manager by necessity without any of Mrs. Norris’s inclination for it, or any of her activity . . . Mrs Norris would have been a more respectable mother of nine children, on a small income.’2

This is an unexpected thought, but it rings true. It is hard to imagine Mrs Norris as a charming mother, but she might have been by most lights a good one, and fulfilled in that role. Two frustrations are suggested here: the lack of children, and the lack of any vent for her natural energy. Very early on, in fact, Jane Austen says, explicitly, that her passion for penny-pinching is the consequence of a vigour denied its wholesome outlet: ‘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; . . .’3 It is worth noting how here in the first chapter we are told that, with a little more luck in life, Mrs Norris might have been a quite different person. None other of Jane Austen’s ‘baddies’— Wickham, Lucy Steele, General Tilney, Mrs Elton, William Elliot—has been tried as she has.

Mrs Norris is a damaged personality, the only character in the six novels who might plausibly be suspected of psychological disturbance. Her behaviour is obsessive: she may be naturally mean, but such small details as her capture of the green baize used for the play (she carries it off to her cottage) show the hunter-gatherer instinct hypertrophically developed.4 There is something obsessive too about her persecution of small children. Fanny, of course, she bullies relentlessly. But there is also a tiny episode, told by herself, of how she bullied a 10-year-old boy (again in a tussle over some material of very small value—this time a couple of deal boards).5 Little Dick Jackson, whose only existence is in Mrs Norris’s account of him, is one of those off-stage characters whose presence is oddly substantial.6

Mrs Norris has nobody to love her, or even to care for her. We never learn her Christian name; why should it ever be wanted? It may be doubted whether she has even the sad pleasure of loving without return: her fixation upon the Bertram sisters can hardly be called love. And evidently she has not loved her late husband. The best anyone seems to feel for her is indifference; to most she is plainly the object of disdain or dislike. Even the butler is allowed to smile sarcastically at her—one of the very rare moments in Jane Austen when a servant’s viewpoint counts.7 Fanny alone is allowed (a little) to pity her, but even she can feel no regret at all when Mrs Norris departs. It is a terrible condition, this utter lovelessness, shared by no other character in the six novels.

imagine Mrs Norris as a charming mother, but she might
have been by most lights a good one, and fulfilled in that role.
Two frustrations are suggested here: the lack of children,
and the lack of any vent for her natural energy. Very early
on, in fact, Jane Austen says, explicitly, that her passion for
penny-pinching is the consequence of a vigour denied its
wholesome outlet: ‘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; . . .’3 It is worth noting
how here in the first chapter we are told that, with a little
more luck in life, Mrs Norris might have been a quite
different person. None other of Jane Austen’s ‘baddies’—
Wickham, Lucy Steele, General Tilney, Mrs Elton, William
Elliot—has been tried as she has.
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