Edmund and Fanny when young

While I thought Cheryl Windom's comment, "This narrator has an edge," well-taken, I don't myself feel uneasy about it. Mansfield Park is a hard book. Austen takes a hard look at everyone, even at her hero, Edmund Bertram, and heroine-in-training, Fanny. There, to be sure, the hard look is softened by kindness and tenderness, but this softening is occasioned by Austen's conception of the two as kind and tender-hearted when they are compared to all about them.

I find this kindness and tenderness begins right away, and I guess that's the theme of this posting, to wit, that in Chapter Two Austen begins an intense loving relationship between Edmund and Fanny that from the time we meet her relatively grown up (Ch 3) she recognizes as true love on her side and is determined to hide at all costs. (It is equally loving on Edmund's; it just takes him all book to see what Fanny means to him.)

Look at, for example, Edmund's very first words: "'My dear little cousin,' said he with all the gentleness of an excellent nature,' what can be the matter?' (Mansfield ParkChapman II:2, 15). He is the first to recognize in the family that maybe something beyond just letting Fanny stay in the house with them is called for.

And which are the first lines for Fanny? the first line of chapter two are the first to focus our attention directly on her exclusive of anyone else: "The little girl performed her long journey in safety" (Mansfield ParkChapman I:2, 14). "Little girl" stresses her vulnerability; it's neutral and yet touching. Let us recall Mrs Norris's plans were not such as a careful mother might approve of; Sir Thomas's notions of doing right (getting reasonable guardians, making sure she really gets from Portsmouth to Mansfield) are better than nothing if there is no heart.

Fanny's first couple of direct utterances are realistic and touching too. The talk is really at the level one might find in a 9 year old. She responds to Edmund's attempt to find out what she is. In a way that is the problem with many of the people in this book--or why they get into trouble. Mrs Norris never thinks to find out what someone else isin their mind or heart. It is not only of no interest to her; she has no real idea of what she is in her heart or mind either. The devastation of Maria with which the book closes also results from her not looking at what people are. She marries regardless of what the man she is to marry is. Perhaps this too is typical of many people and something Austen means us to notice from the time the book opens to its sombre close Well for Fanny's voice, first we hear "'no,no--not at all--no, thank you'" (Mansfield ParkChapman I:2, 15), and then "'Yes, very'" (16). Fanny's words, the tune of Fanny, chimes in our ears like a pure bell.

I like the sweet humor of the scene too. No edge here. As Edmund helps Fanny write her first letter to William, Austen presents them as two children or a girl-child and an older teenage boy and yet (through the tact of the exquisitely pointed word or adjective) Austen also suggests the deeper emotions of both are being touched as they act and react upon one another. We laugh and yet are aware that what happens to children when they are children counts:

they went together into the breakfast room, where Edmund prepared her paper, and ruled her lines with all the good will that her brother could himself have felt, and probably with somewhat more exactness (Mansfield Park Chapman II:2, 16).

One might ask why the edge "at" the others. I'd say because the others are hard, indifferent, cold, or unfeeling. I'd say that's the real "sin" in Austen--the cold hard heart. More at the close of Chapter they are positively cruel. The Bertram girls enjoy themselves immensely running to their aunt to show how "stupid" is Fanny. Pray aunt see how stupid she is. Did you ever see such stupidity reiterates in the reader's ear as Austen makes it reiterate in Fanny's--we are in Fanny's mind as the central quiet perceiving consciousness. She is on the receiving end and it hurts. She does not cry out like Jane Eyre, but the effect is all the more powerful because it is not overdone. And what would be the result of crying out? She has no recourse, no-one on her side. It's in no-one advantage to be. I find Lady Bertram's so-called defense that Fanny cannot help it and must bear with it and she's such a harmless little thing who runs on all my errands curdles the mind yet further-but quietly, realistically. This is just what such a woman might say. The "edge" Austen achieves is gotten by Austen not condemning Lady Bertram, by her not writing narrator-like passionate invectives, but leaving it for us to see the thoughtless selfishness of this woman as that which we come across everyday.

I'd like to conclude this post on the sympathetic conception and introduction of hero and heroine as younger people with suggesting that the continually reiterated cries of stupid are there as context for or the central explanation of the growing intense attachment of Fanny to Edmund. As all around her laugh at her, as she is given the attic room and used and displays of contempt are shown to her, there is Edmund in comparison as the chapter concludes recommending books, charming Fanny with them, encouraging, correcting, making her reading useful until, as the narrator says, "she loved him better than anybody in the world except William; her heart was divided between the two" (22). Fanny will not tell us she loves Edmund deeply; she cannot for it's dangerous. But we are to know she does.

Well, the terms of the relationship between the key figures have been set, its initiation and intense growth explained, something of some important elements in their interacting personalities brought forth. I would say there is an edge--but it's not knife-like; it's just that Austen does not sentimentalize or overdo her portrait of the child with deep feelings or her protective cousin.

As a coda I'd add the scene also has a beautiful symmetry in terms of the whole book: Edmund teaching Fanny looks forward at Mansfield from his father's library looks forward to to Fanny teaching Susan at Portsmouth out of the circulating library from the same man's allowance to her.

Ellen Moody

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Page Last Update 10 January 2003