(Part 1 )

(Part 2)


Lovelessness, in less extreme form, is, however, a condition recurrent in Mansfield Park, and it is perhaps this more than anything that gives the book its cold, clear, desolate character. Sir Thomas Bertram, despite his essential virtue, is almost as little loved as his sister-in-law. The child Fanny, though she knows that she ought to feel affection for him, guiltily realizes that she cannot: he is simply too stiff and forbidding. His daughters are more at ease when he is away from home:

”Their father was no object of love to them, he had never seemed the friend of their pleasures, and his absence was unhappily most welcome. They were relieved by it from all restraint; and without aiming at one gratification that would probably have been forbidden by Sir Thomas, they felt themselves immediately at their own disposal, and to have every indulgence within their reach.”

After disaster has struck, Jane Austen in her summing up will echo in her own serious voice the phrase that Mary Crawford has so lightly used: ‘Sir Thomas, poor Sir Thomas . . . was the longest to suffer.’14 He is of the stuff to make a tragic figure. He fits the Aristotelian idea of the imperfectly but essentially good man who suffers in consequence of a mistake or error. His very virtue—his desire to impose a solemn and orderly decorum upon his family—has by the repression of their natural spirits been the means of leading his children astray. And his virtuous self-knowledge is the very instrument of his suffering: it is because he is ‘a parent, and conscious of errors in his own conduct as a parent’ that he is so anguished. His wife, a far more defective parent, is quite incapable of suffering in this way: she has not the merit for it.

But it is very fine that Jane Austen will not make him tragic. That was Fanny’s idea: she supposes that it will be scarcely possible for him and Edmund to ‘support life and reason under such disgrace’, but Edmund corrects this impression: ‘My father is not overpowered.’15 Sir Thomas’s stoicism imposes itself upon the narrative, so that we are able to pity him less than we might have thought. It is a mark of great artistry that Jane Austen should deepen her story by making us feel, in this respect, not more but less.

But just as Jane Austen will not make Sir Thomas tragic, so she wonderfully resists the temptation to redeem Mrs Norris. Almost any other novelist who had thought of the brilliant idea of Mrs Norris’s voluntary self-immolation would have gone a little further: we should have learnt that the lady found some solace in being of service to another (and we might perhaps have heard Mrs Rushworth, like Little Em’ly, weeping ceaseless tears of gratifying penitence). That is not Jane Austen’s way. Let us complete the quotation: ‘ . . . where, shut up together with little society, on one side no affection, on the other, no judgment, it may be reasonably supposed that their tempers became their mutual punishment.’ Jane Austen knows that it is right to maintain the brutal tone. I am tempted to a lofty comparison: at the end of the Aeneid, Virgil’s hero has his foe Turnus at his feet. Aeneas thinks for a moment of mercy, but then, reminded of one of the young men whom Turnus has slain, plunges his weapon into his enemy’s body in passionate anger. Even if it is right for Turnus to die, Virgil could easily have made his killer more magnanimous in spirit, more regretful in action; but he knows that it is right aesthetically and psychologically— perhaps in a sense even morally—to preserve an element that is hard and unrelenting.