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Epistolarity in Mansfield Park: Lady Bertram's Letters to Fanny


We ought not to neglect Fanny's other correspondent, and a much more faithful one than either Mary Crawford or Edmund Bertram. I don't know whether everyone has taken note of how much the post office must have profited from Fanny's time away from her aunt in Portsmouth. We may remember the comment of Austen's narrator at the close of Lady Susan and laugh that the state had a loss on the day Fanny returned home and Lady Bertram "came with no indolent step," the "one of the suffering party" who expects Fanny with "such impatience as she had never known before" to throw herself into Fanny's capable and equally glad and relieved embrace (Mansfield ParkChapman III:15, 447; Penguin, Ch 46, p 435). But something more crucial is come to an end: Lady Bertram's letters as a felt imagined presence in Fanny's life at Portsmouth: they not only plot important turns in the stories Fanny is an outcast from, and provide suspense to us who are with Fanny and can only see these events from afar. They give us the imagined sense of Mansfield Park as a place ever present in Portsmouth against which we judge Portsmouth as wanting but also not so very different in its moral and emotional life.

It's true the narrator is none too sympathetic towards the literal content and mode of procedure Lady Bertram follows in her continual missives, as when Edmund beats her to the punch and in two brief sentences tells the news of the Grants' removal to Bath ("It is quite settled that the Grants go to Bath; they leave Mansfield on Monday. I am glad of it.," Mansfield Park Chapman III:13, 424; Penguin Ch 44, p 414), the narrator comments:

"Everybody at all addicted to letter-writing, withouthaving much to say, which will include a large proportionof the female world at least, must feel with Lady Bertramthat she was out of luck in having such a capital piece ofMansfield news as the certainty of the Grants going to Bath,occur at a time when she could make no advantage of it,and will admit that it must have been very mortifyingto her to see it fall to the share of her thankless son,and treated as concisely as possible at the end of along letter, instead of having it to spread over the largestpart of a page of her own. For though Lady Bertram rathershone in the epistolary line, having early in her marriage,from the want of other employment, and the circumstanceof Sir Thomas's being in Parliament, got into the wayof making and keeping correspondents, and formed forherself a very creditable, common-place, amplifying style,so that a very little matter was enough for her; she couldnot do entirely without any; she must have something to write about, even to her niece; and being so soon to lose all the benefit of Dr. Grant's gouty symptomsand Mrs. Grant's morning calls, it was very hard upon herto be deprived of one of the last epistolary uses she could putthem to." (Mansfield Park, Chapman III:13, 425; Ch 44, p 415).

The cogent irony of the above--which I take also to be a comment on most people's letters ("very creditable, common-place, amplifying" in style--and of course edifying)--leads the reader to forget that a very little matter will do for Lady Bertram, and she is not writing to communicate content but to be present to her niece and to imagine her niece present to her. Let us not knock this aspect of letter-writing--it is after all one of the pleasures of e-mail--the imagined presence, shared interests, and of course kindness of others.

There is in fact a continual stream of letters which keep Fanny and us--for we are in Fanny's epistolary "position"--apprised of what's happening and in suspense. For example, just after Mary's first letter to Fanny telling of her first meeting with Mrs Rushworth and Julia, and a coming party (Mansfield Park Chapman III:9, 399; Penguin Ch 40, p 386), Fanny receives a letter from Lady Bertram which can be dated as Saturday, Feb 25th (see Chapman's chronology at the back of the Oxford), in which Lady Bertram tells Fanny Edmund is headed for London. This news is yet another motive for Fanny's renewed attempts to read with Susan and inspire "a taste for the biography and poetry in which she delighted herself:"

"In this occupation she hoped, moreover, to bury someof the recollections of Mansfield, which were too aptto seize her mind if her fingers only were busy;and, especially at this time, hoped it might be usefulin diverting her thoughts from pursuing Edmund to London,whither, on the authority of her aunt's last letter,she knew he was gone. She had no doubt of what would ensue. The promised notification was hanging over her head. The postman's knock within the neighbourhood was beginningto bring its daily terrors, and if reading could banishthe idea for even half an hour, it was something gained" (Mansfield Park Chapman III:9, 398; Ch 40, p 391).

The daily terror is that banal letter from Lady Bertram which acutely tells more than Fanny can bear to hear. Fanny's renting and chusing of books like most of our motives satisfies a complicated group of needs.

The next of Lady Bertram's letters which is described and quoted occurs directly after Edmund's first (Mansfield ParkChapman III:13, 420-4; Ch 44, pp 411-4), which we will recall tells the sad story of how he was snubbed by Mary and how he still means to ask her to marry him, but cannot make up his mind whether to do it by letter or in person, and leads to a long powerful stream of consciousness passage coming from Fanny where she longs to see him do something, "Fix, commit, condemn yourself yourself" and at least give Fanny some peace. Or so she thinks: we recall that Elinor did not experience quite that peace of mind she thought she would when she believes she has been told Lucy Steele and Edward Ferrars are now married.

The second of Lady Bertram's letters to be quoted then deepens the mood of the book in a new direction; it is a plot development experienced as an aspect of Fanny's and Lady Bertram's shared consciousness--for a letter is a two-way street. Lady Bertram's "style of writing" is not "warm and genuine," in this one (Mansfield ParkChapman III:13, 425-6; Ch 44, pp 415-6), but when about a week or so later Edmund brings Tom home, we are told the following and then read over Fanny's shoulder this:

"Her aunt did not neglect her: she wrote again and again; they were receiving frequentaccounts from Edmund, and these accounts were as regularlytransmitted to Fanny, in the same diffuse style,and the same medley of trusts, hopes, and fears,all following and producing each other at haphazard. It was a sort of playing at being frightened. The sufferings which Lady Bertram did not see had littlepower over her fancy; and she wrote very comfortablyabout agitation, and anxiety, and poor invalids, till Tomwas actually conveyed to Mansfield, and her own eyes hadbeheld his altered appearance. Then a letter which shehad been previously preparing for Fanny was finishedin a different style, in the language of real feelingand alarm; then she wrote as she might have spoken. "He is just come, my dear Fanny, and is taken upstairs;and I am so shocked to see him, that I do not knowwhat to do. I am sure he has been very ill. Poor Tom! I am quite grieved for him, and very much frightened,and so is Sir Thomas; and how glad I should be if youwere here to comfort me. But Sir Thomas hopes hewill be better to-morrow, and says we must considerhis journey" (Mansfield Park Chapman III:13, 427; Ch 44, p 417).

Now Fanny does not dread her aunt's letters, she longs for them. (How curious is human psychology; now that it is not Fanny's whose fate is directly threatened and someone is really sick, Fanny is ready to listen patiently, calmly.) Now to talk to Susan is not the same as to read her aunt's letters. One might remark here that Mrs Price has the same curious gift for the acute if not deeply felt remark when she is told what is in these continual letters: "'My poor sister Bertram must be in a great deal of trouble'" (Mansfield ParkChapman III:13, 428; Ch 44, p 418). It is true that we are told "A very few lines from Edmund shewed [Fanny] the patient and the sick room in a juster and stronger light than all Lady Bertram's sheets of paper could do," and Lady Bertram is no help at all in the sick room, with her gliding in and out in a state of continual semi- alarmed fret, but they do come and we are entitled to doubt whether Edmund would have written his few lines without his mother's prompting (Mansfield Park Chapman III:14, 429-30; Ch 45, pp 419-20); Lady Bertram's letters also mark time in the narrative and give us a sense of how slow it moves for Fanny as she waits and waits.

The last of Lady Bertram's letters to be quoted and described is placed just before Mary's third letter (Mansfield Park Chapman III:14, 430-1; Ch 45, pp 420-1) wherein as we have said Mary reveals to us, if not to Fanny, the dangerous liaison (to coin a phrase) which has been deepening between Henry and Maria; Mary's mysterious worried fourth diverts our and Fanny's minds back to this half-buried love story, a novel within a novel in this phase of Mansfield Park. But Lady Bertram's letter is significant; it strikes the central theme of the book: which is Fanny's home? whose daughter is she? whom does she belong to? and by implication her relationship with the man who has become her real father, Sir Thomas.

As I read this letter I in fact find Lady Bertram beginning to rebel against the above husband. Edmund's obtusely-stated reports have continually told Fanny Lady Bertram has reminded (a la Lady Middleton) Sir Thomas some six or seven times a day that Fanny is not here, or where is Fanny, or, why do we not bring Fanny back. The importance of the letter is it clinches Fanny's growing awareness that home is not and cannot be Portsmouth--too many years and roots have been placed in Mansfield Park for that.

Why, why are they not sending for her? it is after Easter, more than three months: Mansfield Park Chapman III:14, 430-1Ch 45, p 420-1).

Fanny is at first worried lest she hurt her biological parents' feelings. She need not have. They barely listen to her. She is "as welcome to wish herself" at Mansfield as to be at Portsmouth. And then comes the consolation _and validation_ from Lady Bertram as she sounds her exasperated note at Sir Thomas's for once powerless dithering about:

"I cannot but say I much regret your being from homeat this distressing time, so very trying to my spirits. I trust and hope, and sincerely wish you may never be absentfrom home so long again"

are "most delightful sentences to her," a "private regale" (Mansfield Park Chapman III:14, 431; Penguin Ch 45, p 421).

Since Lady Bertram's letters do not link up to the love story we tend to ignore them, but they are an important part of the texture of the book during Fanny's time at Portsmouth. They underline Fanny's loneliness; they link up to her longing for the beauty of the country, to see spring come again; and, very importantly, they keep before us the overarching structure of the book which is the story of a fringe woman (I refer now to my posting on The Watsons) who through a hard struggle and much effort lives on herself, makes herself what she is in despite of the psychological beating she takes from her Aunt Norris and the mortifying careless snubbing and indifference of others, a woman who earns her place, albeitly quietly, at Mansfield Park as the sturdy tree around which all these vines wrap themselves at its close. I always enjoy the joke on Sir Thomas at the book's end:

"After settling her at Thornton Lacey with every kind attention to her comfort, the object of almost every day was to see her there, or to get her away from it" (Mansfield Park Chapman III:17, 472; Penguin Ch 48, p 456).

It's true his feelings for Fanny were deeper than Lady Bertram's who finds a substitute in Susan, but it was Lady Bertram who wrote to her.

Ellen Moody


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