The Education of Sir Thomas Bertram

Several people have now suggested that we can read MP so as to make Sir Thomas a pivotal character in the novel. We can, in fact, read the book as centrally showing us how Sir Thomas learns some hard lessons, and, as a result, if his essential personality does not change (which is hard for any full-formed adult to do), he modifies those behaviors under his control so as to make the world he lives in a happier better place both for himself and those who live in it with him.

One way you can argue such a point is to look at an overarching plot of a work and see if the character acts centrally in its turning points. Sir Thomas does. It is he who must first agree to invite Fanny to grow up in the park. At this point he is dubious about what the result for her and his family will be. He is able to see the issue decently and generously in the large general terms: Mrs Price is desperate to have one less child to burden her; he can provide an education such as Mrs Price cannot. But he is just as keen to make sure that Fanny will not get out of her "place" and endanger any of his plans for continued family aggrandizement. He talks of the difficulty of taking just the right note in all this, depressing her just the right amount, not too much. The events in the section we are now upon could not happen if Sir Thomas were there, and his presence and probable disapproval are not forgotten (like Hamlet who does not need to be on stage to be felt). When he returns, he has changed, softened--not entirely of course. But he has had some hard experiences. He shows Fanny how much he cherishes her for the first time. His quiet but determined destruction of everything that has to do with the play brings it to a comfortable end--no crisis such as had been brewing occurs. Most interesting to me, for the first time he begins to look askance at Mrs Norris. He still thinks she does the wrong thing for the right reasons, but he catches her changing the subject on him deliberately for the first time, begins to look at her as less of a trusted friend. Maria's marriage is nothing to be proud of. Then the dinner party. I think we are to see him notice that Mrs Norris is again wrong when she speaks of Fanny walking. His distrust has been aroused, and when the proposal comes, and Fanny says no, he promises Fanny not to tell either aunt. He protects her from Mrs Norris.

I would say the central climactic scene of this novel is the scene between Fanny and Sir Thomas (Chapman III:1, or Ch 31). It is not a proposal scene. We have none. It is strong stuff. As in real life we do not see Sir Thomas see the error of his ways in this scene, just soften because he sees how genuine is Fanny's distress and distaste, but it is part of the trajectory or denouement of the third volume which brings home lessons about his mistake in marrying Maria off without thinking her emotional life was important to her, his mistaken understanding of Crawford. He is deeply and permanently chastised by what he has permitted to happen.

I suggest that the first chapter in the third volume of the book is the one that remains most strongly in the mind. This is a powerful scene. He is all Fanny has to depend upon; she looks upon him as one would an awesome beloved father. He is also a real person throughout this scene. No ogre. But he bears down so hard on Fanny. Every word in his vocabulary which can be used to disdain, reject, scorn, and heavily castigate her comes forward. And he is the only father she has ever known. When she goes "home" to Portsmouth, she finds no father at all. She is sitting in a tiny room upstairs, an attic; she has no fire; she is there on sufferance, can be sent out to whatever Sir Thomas pleases at any time. Her books are not really hers. She has what no-one else has wanted. And yet she holds firm, stands fast, takes it, and does not yield an inch. She certainly never expected that Sir Thomas would not punish her in some way, much less give her a fire afterwards. Fanny's toughness and resoluteness might be remarked upon; there's steel in that gentle soul. Sir Thomas is astounded. The parallel here is with his behavior towards Maria: although there he voiced concern over what he saw was her complete lack of love for Rushworth, here he is revealed as someone who never for a moment doubts Fanny will be for sale to the highest bidder. Crawford's handsomeness, intelligence, and apparent decency of characters are the icing on the cake.

The denouement of the book when Maria runs away with Crawford are seen from Fanny's point of view, and Sir Thomas writes none of the letters she reads. But like Hamlet, it is he whom Fanny's mind averts too when she thinks of who will grieve the deepest and longest. It is Sir Thomas who has kept her at Portsmouth to teach her a lesson; it is Sir Thomas (recalling Mr Bennet again) who must suffer the search, the humiliation, and finally the knowledge his priorities all along were to blame.

At the close of the book we get a passage which clearly invokes the opening. We are told Sir Thomas had long begun to understand that Mrs Norris was an evil in his home, had the worst of values, behaved in the worst way--in fact we are told he had glimmerings of this all along but thought his conduct would offset the worst of hers. He makes the incubus leave--though the narrator lets us see how much she cries and is shattered over her loss. Again there is a tendency to focus on the characters who figure in the exploded romane. Mrs Norris's ironical punishment will be that her daughter Maria scorns her as an empty flattered, a scrounger, and having been brought up to be without pity will have none for her aunt. We remember how Maria is sent away. We are told in comic style that Sir Thomas saw the marriage between Fanny and one of his sons which he had dreaded become what he longed for, and when once he got her over and into bed with Edmund as his wife in their parsonage (and when the novel ends we hear through a hint of Fanny's pregnancy) he spent a good deal of his time conniving to get her back to the Park again. But a final very long paragraph is given over to Sir Thomas's realizing how he has miseducated his daughters and prized the surfaces of life when what happens in the inner moral life which has no price tag is what counts.

Sir Thomas is treated in the round; he is given weight, moral and psychological presence. His voice is him, and we recognize it in the kind of sentences he always speaks. That Austen is aware of what she is doing here is suggested by one of the narrator's comments that Sir Thomas tries to speak more comfortably, less formally, but cannot.

There is a strong tendency to treat most novels which use love stories as centrally concerned with pairs or trios of lovers. We have discussed Fanny and Edmund who make a trio with Mary Crawford; there's Maria and Rushworth who make a trio with Henry Crawford; Henry Crawford appears again in a trio with Maria and Julia; again (he gets around) he is the third of a secret trio (the secret only known to Fanny) with Fanny and Edmund, a third of an open trio once he proposes with Fanny and Maria (at least in Maria's enraged jealousy). But overarching all of this are a strong pair who move from being King and pawn to King and Queen, Sir Thomas and Fanny.

In this light Edmund's blindness and obtuseness as a character may be more understandable. While the book may be read as his education too (in fact our author educates all her characters), his education goes not go as deeply into his character as Sir Thomas's in the sense that he never really says his values are wrong or he ought to have questioned his own motives in loving Mary or his rage at Maria. Although his eyes are opened as to Mary Crawford's values by the end of the book, and he turns from her to Fanny who is his Galatea while he is her Pygmalion, he does not really learn about himself very much. He never seems to understand that his values could be wrong or that he could have twisted them so as to serve his appetites. We at least are never shown him seeing how he has failed Fanny for years and years in a number of ways. Fanny herself exists in a state of continual doubt as to her values; she questions her motives for doing the right thing (not to play-act) because if her motives are suspect, then her act is. She is as Calvinistic as her favorite poet, Cowper in this.

We might in fact argue that the one character who really alters himself insofar as anyone ever does--and given human nature that must be limited--is Sir Thomas. In this he resembles 1) Marianne Dashwood who changes insofar as her nature will let her; 2) Elizabeth in the sense that she is awakened to her egoism, prejudice, pride, faults; 3) Emma ditto; and finally 4) Captain Wentworth ditto. The last three don't actually repudiate any essential values they had held through the story; but like Marianne, Sir Thomas does.

Ellen Moody

To this Kathy Born replied with comments on Sir Thomas's centrality in the novel:

Sir Thomas really must be thanked for the good fortunes of at least three Price children. Fanny was given the chance to live in heaven on earth. (She said with a hint of irony.) William was supported in his career by Sir Thomas. "This dear William would be soon amongst them. . . . his direct holidays must instantly be given to the sister, who . . . and the uncle who had done most for his support and advancement." And, finally, Susan is tutored by Fanny and accepted by Lady Bertram. "Susan could never be spared. First as a comfort . . . as gradually to become, perhaps, the most beloved of the two." It is all clear in the third to the last paragraph of the book. The Price children MIGHT have been able to advance without Sir Thomas, but I can't believe it.

I, like Tina Barton, believe what the narrator tells me. I believe that Miss Frances " married . . . to disoblige her family, and . . . did it very thoroughly. She could hardly have made a more untoward choice." No, Mr. and Mrs. Price are not nice people. ". . . [Mr. Price] was more negligent of his family, his habits were worse, and his manners coarser, than [Fanny] had been prepared for." "Her disappointment in her mother was greater; THERE she had hoped much, and found almost nothing."

I also believe that Sir Thomas came "to know" himself. The last chapter is too filled with his improvements to ignore it. Kathy Born

And then Dorothy Gannon reverting to some comments I had made about Sir Thomas's appearance when he first returned from Antiqua:

Subject: Sir Thomas in 3-D

Ellen's quotation from the description of Sir Thomas on his return,

... he is exhausted, "burnt, fagged, worn," filled with "tender feeling for his family ...

reminded me of our previous discussion on Austen's general lack of physical description. This one jumped out at me when I read it in the text the other night. By a few words Sir Thomas is made to seem more vivid and three dimensional than the others. It serves to contrast, to increase the reader's sense of his importance among the others, the sense of the disappointment he will feel when he discovers the acting scheme (which fades very quickly into the background, flimsy and two-dimensional);-- but Sir Thomas seems larger than life.

Dorothy Gannon

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Page Last Update 10 January 2003