Poisoning Her Existence: Mrs Norris & Fanny and Jenkins on Maria Williams & Lady Greville

This week's chapters also contain several of those kinds of passages Austen writes which are hard to read because they are so painful. I speak of course of Mrs Norris's determined attempt to spoil any pleasure Fanny might have in contemplating or actually experiencing Mrs Grant's invitation to her to dine at the Parsonage which, as Lady Bertram says, is wholly unexpected because of course who would ask Fanny to go anywhere with a view to giving her a pleasant time, e.g. "But why should Mrs. Grant ask Fanny?" and

"I cannot imagine why Mrs. Grant should think of asking her? She never did before. She used to ask your sisters now and then, but she never asked Fanny" (1996 Penguin, ed Tony Tanner, Ch 23, p 229).

Fanny is, equally of course, surprised and grateful, and so eager to go that she knows if permission is refused (for she is a dependent not a daughter, someone who must make herself useful in return for what Sir Thomas has given her when he needn't have), so eager that her hopes are up and hope deferred, hope destroyed, as Dr Johnson said, is far harder to take than never having hoped at all. So she must leave the room while the discussion takes place in which Lady Bertram asks Sir Thomas what he thinks. I'm afraid Sir Thomas is surprized Fanny was never asked before not because she is a human being amongst them but because she is "Miss Price, Lady Bertram's niece," and regards her going as "an indulgence," but he does give his permission because he at least can understand she wants to enjoy herself. Alas though to get Lady Bertram to let Fanny go, Mrs Norris is called in to pour the tea Fanny would have poured.

It is then we are presented with a group of speeches Mrs Norris aims at Fanny so full of gratuitous malice they leave us and her slightly breathless:

"Upon my word, Fanny, you are in high luck to meet with such attention and indulgence! You ought to be very much obliged to Mrs. Grant for thinking of you, and to your aunt for letting you go, and you ought to look upon it as something extraordinary; for I hope you are aware that there is no real occasion for your going into company in this sort of way, or ever dining out at all; and it is what you must not depend upon ever being repeated. Nor must you be fancying that the invitation is meant as any particular compliment to you; the compliment is intended to your uncle and aunt and me. Mrs. Grant thinks it a civility due to us to take a little notice of you, or else it would never have come into her head, and you may be very certain that, if your cousin Julia had been at home, you would not have been asked at all" (p 231).

The narrator interrupts the speech to tell us that Mrs Norris has now "done away all Mrs Grant's part of the favour," any sense Fanny might have had it was an invitation to her because she as a human being was liked and wanted and respected, and waits for Fanny to acknowledge how she is getting away with something. This coerces Fanny into saying she has been spending her time "endeavouring to put her aunt's evening work in such a state as to prevent her being missed," and now Mrs Norris has another handle to her axe, another way to hit Fanny:

"Oh! depend upon it, your aunt can do very well without you, or you would not be allowed to go. I shall be here, so you may be quite easy about your aunt. And I hope you will have a very agreeable day, and find it all mighty delightful. But I must observe that five is the very awkwardest of all possible numbers to sit down to table; and I cannot but be surprised that such an elegant lady as Mrs. Grant should not contrive better! [Now]... Had the doctor been contented to take my dining-table when I came away, as anybody in their senses would have done, ... and how much more he would have been respected! for people are never respected when they step out of their proper sphere. Remember that, Fanny. Five--only five to be sitting round that table. However, you will have dinner enough on it for ten, I dare say" (p 232).

Fanny should not think she is needed or wanted by anyone. No-one will miss her. But as she goes on, incited apparently by her grating anger at Mrs Grant's generous way of life which she sees as a living rebuke to her own miserly one at the Parsonage, she realizes Fanny will be an extra. She will stick out; "remember that, Fanny." Fanny will make an awkward number.

But Mrs Norris is not through yet. She's got more poisoned curved arrows to wind into Fanny's consciousness with. She just had to "fetch breath" to carry on with vigor. First Fanny is not to take this as any sign that she has any right to be treated as an equal to everyone around her. She is to remember every moment she is there that she is only there because Mrs Rushworth and Julia are not, and there is nothing more ridiculous than stepping out of one's rank (p 232):

"Remember, wherever you are, you must be the lowest and last; and though Miss Crawford is in a manner at home at the Parsonage, you are not to be taking place of her. And as to coming away at night, you are to stay just as long as Edmund chuses. Leave him to settle that" (p 232).

Fanny's half-mute reply, "Yes, ma'am, I should not think of any thing else," gives Mrs Norris her opportunity for her last dart: Fanny will of course have to walk there and back and she can look forward to getting soaked and muddy:

"And if it should rain, which I think exceedingly likely, for I never saw it more threatening for a wet evening in my life, you must manage as well as you can, and not be expecting the carriage to be sent for you. I certainly do not go home to-night, and, therefore, the carriage will not be out on my account; so you must make up your mind to what may happen, and take your things accordingly" (p 232-3).

Fanny has nothing to say against this; it is probable (and we have seen her getting soaked at the opening of Chapter 22--it happens all the time). But here Mrs Norris goes too far because the words reach Sir Thomas, and we get one of the several gradually accumulating passages in this volume in which Sir Thomas begins to see that Mrs Norris is not simply a woman whose good heart misleads her judgement, but is "an hourly evil" in the lives of all the people at Mansfield:

"His opinion of her had been sinking from the day of his return from Antigua: in every transaction together from that period, in their daily intercourse, in business, or in chat, she had been regularly losing ground in his esteem, and convincing him that either time had done her much disservice, or that he had considerably over-rated her sense, and wonderfully borne with her manners before. He had felt her as an hourly evil, which was so much the worse, as there seemed no chance of its ceasing but with life; she seemed a part of himself that must be borne for ever. (Ch 48, p 450).

We might say that the pleasure she is gaining from this vicious attack is costing her dearly in the drip-drip-drip into Sir Thomas's ear of the poisoned words. She is unaware of the impression she is making on him; she is slightly out of control, and when he comes in asking Fanny what hour does she want the carriage to come for her, Mrs Norris overplays her hand; she is still only thinking how to deprive Fanny of any sense of worth, and wheels round to tell her of course the carriage is for Edmund whose voice, she suddenly remembers, had been a bit hoarse on Thursday night." Fanny is for once not fooled.

In Elizabeth Jenkins's book, Jane Austen (which I am still reading) Jenkins discusses a strikingly similar, but only harsher and less realistically conceived variation on this scene in Austen's Juvenilia. It is well-known, the "Letter from a Young lady in Humble Circumstances to her Friend." Jenkins calls the earlier scene "extraordinary" and "astonishing," especially when we consider it came from a teenager:

"The writer of the letter, Maria Williams, living in a humble manner with her mother, is taken to the ball in the coach of the odious Lady Greville, who is not only a brutal snob, but takes a perverse pleasure in unkindness, as is seen by her going out of her way ... [to 'bait'] a humble acquaintance." The daughter is forced to put up with the treatment because her mother thinks "the connection too valuable to be dropped." The day after the ball Lady Greville drives up to the house just at dinner time ("that is the time of day she generally contrives"), and demands the girl come out and stand before her. The girl protests, but the mother insists,
"Accordingly I went and was obliged to stand there at her Ladyship's pleasure, through the wind was extremely high and very cold."

It is remarkable that the same details we find in Mrs Norris's malignant harangue appear in this earlier one:

"'Why, I think, Miss Maria, you are not quite so smart as you were last night--But I did not come to examine your dress; but to tell you that you may dine with us the day after tomorrow--not tomorrow, remember, do not come tomorrow, for we expect Lord and Lady Clermont and Sir Thomas Stanley's famly--There will be no occasion for your being ery fine, for I shan't send the Carriage. If it rains you may take an umbrella..."

A little later the daughter of this woman, Ellen, says she fears Maria must be feeling very cold standing there, and Mrs Norris-like Lady Greville seizes the opportunity,

"'Yes it is an horrible east wind,' said her Mother--'I assure you I can hardly bear the windows down--But you are used to being blown about by the wind, Miss Maria, and that is what has made your comlexion so rudely and coarse. You young ladies who cannot often ride ni a Carriage never mind what weather you trudge in, or how the wind shows your legs. I would not have my girls stand out of doors as you do in such a day as this. But some people have no feelings either of cold or delicacy.'"

Jenkins asserts this is "not a caricature. One immediately recognizes the type of person whom she represents, and admits the truth of the representation" (Jenkins, 1949 edition, pp 32-5). One can of course trace a whole series of scenes that enact this core of humiliation: Elizabeth watching Charlotte standing out outside before Miss de Bourgh's carriage; several of the dialogues between Lady Catherine and Elizabeth, but I'd like to link it up in two other ways. This experience is also at the heart of those pivotal Tuesday scenes of snubbing, Willoughby of Marianne, Mrs Ferrars of Elinor (and Marianne's deep open distress), and those not on Tuesday--as when on that Sunday Emma baited Miss Bates. Also those scenes where the heroine or hero must endure a mortifying display on the part of those he or she is connected to--the Netherfield Ball. We in the 20th century keep thinking sex is everything; we look for sexual abuse, some high physical misery when we look for trauma. Trauma can also be quiet. My guess is that the remembered Tuesday scene had nothing to do with love or sex or would have been apparent to many people who were there.

I'd also connect it up to the root "source" of MP itself. The heart of Fanny's story is not romance; Henry and Mary Crawford are side issues. The central pivot and climax of the book occurs between Sir Thomas and Fanny; the central situation is that of a morally decent intelligent and deep feeling heroine who is powerless, moneyless and therefore despised, and the some of the most telling scenes, telling in the sense of offering the moral of the book which is an argument on behalf of the powerless, the vulnerable who are also good and worthy, are those in which Mrs Norris gets after Fanny and attempts to shatter her utterly.

Why? I've never liked Coleridge's word "motiveless" with malignity, because Mrs Norris does have some motives or at least we are given enough to invent some. I prefer gratuitous. It also means "motiveless" but it goes beyond that for it comes from the Latin gratuitus meaning spontaneous and freely given. Some people simply enjoy hurting others; it is spontaneous, freely given, not earned (by Fanny for example, or Charlotte Lucas, or the Maria of the Juvenilia). My speculative guess is that some version of this scene of the ball and the snub, the mortifying display on the part of those one is connected to, the ejection, and the details of the carriage, the dress which is resented, the rain, the vicious grating voice exposing the victim to all happened to Austen to someone she held dear. Equally importantly, Austen saw in this pattern the essence of what Shakespeare's Iago also represented: in the words which come out of Sir Thomas's consciousness: "an hourly evil" in many of our daily lives about which we can do nothing, for many people are this way or don't mind it at all when it's not directed at them.

Ellen Moody

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Page Last Update 10 January 2003