The Problem of Edmund

I'd better begin by simply saying flat-out that Sue Dunn is probably right. I was probably reading into Edmund's emotional response to Fanny in these the earliest incidents of the book what I believe Edmund has come to feel for Fanny by the time she is eighteen. That is, I believe Edmund is in love with Fanny by the time he and she are grown up; he does not know how much he deeply cares for her because he is a bit dim when it comes to people's minds, particularly his own--and in this he is very like Sir Thomas. I am always struck by the fact that each time Edmund begins to move away from Mary Crawford, begin to doubt he loves her (that is her character, for what she is inside rather than her outside or her bewitching manners, graceful exterior, lively gaiety which charms him), he moves back to Mary because Mary has done some kindness to Fanny. She has stepped over after Mrs Norris has harshly mortified Fanny in front of the others and said, never mind, Miss Price; she has done Fanny's mind justice. He also cannot "bear" that Fanny shall be without a horse; he must go to Fanny to have his behavior validated. Fanny has become the repository of his ego; her opinion of him is him by the time of the play. But yes in the early scene it is Fanny's psyche and memory that is receiving the deep impression that will keep her from even being able to fall in love with Henry Crawford, that leads her to have and follow many of the values we see her embody if not enunciate throughout the novel.

I have called this posting "The Problem of Edmund" because I think one problem in this novel is that Austen intended Edmund to be more likable than he is. Dorothy asks why no-one sees through Mrs Norris, and Bobbie answers they do, but just don't talk aloud about it, except through hints. We might ask if anyone in this book is thoroughly likable? I think the answer might be, no. Fond as I am of Fanny, I know there are elements in her character which make me uncomfortable.

Let me step back a bit here. As I have suggested Mansfield Park presents many characters enacting essentially unkind and ugly behaviors in a understated realistic way such that we see that these unkind ugly behaviors are just what we experience and ourselves are part of in everyday life. Who has not met a Mrs Norris? Did you confront her? Probably not. You got out of the room. If she was your aunt and it was a family holiday, you sat far away. In Austen's time people had to spend all year with their family members, not just holiday.

What I'm trying to get out is _MP_ is an uncomfortably realistic book. In a remarkably concise and austere style and a restrained ironic presentation through very few words or strokes or images Austen goes into the minds of most her characters pretty thoroughly, and all but Fanny are shown to be motivated _most of the time by_ vanity, pettiness, selfish desires of all sorts (e.g. Tom and Julia Bertram) or greed and resentment (Mrs Norris, Maria Bertram), or lust and a desire for triumph (Maria Bertram and Henry Crawford) or are the products of dense class-consciousness and self-interest (both Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram with her added salient quality of total sloth), or are hollow and mischievous and acting out of boredom (Henry Crawford) or materialistic and cold and ambitious (Mary Crawford, even if she's capable of appreciating kindness and understands it, it's not her main motive as she very well knows--I take her speech to Fanny that Fanny must forgive her for being selfish as the kind of playful sincerity that those who are selfish rely on to get everyone simply to accept their behavior as no worse than they). Mrs Rushworth is a pompous ass, and Mr Rushworth her son just as bad. No sympathy is given him. He is too stupid not to buy a wife. The exceptions to all this are perhaps the Grants, Dr being shown from the outside, and Mrs being somewhat slid over and allowed to show a pleasant face to us (we do not get any looks into her heart, just her rationales).

And even Fanny and Edmund are not spared. If Fanny is good it's because (thank you Kirstin for your compliment on my first posting and I promise to read Povey) she has been bullied, denigrated, and made to feel she is an outsider and inferior from age nine. Fanny lacks courage because she is continually harrassed and in danger of public insult from which _no-one not even Edmund_ will protect her fully; she does not lack self-esteem, but she knows she is regarded as not worth very much by everyone, as the one who can be "used" at will, and knows she must knuckle under or risk being thrown out or punished somehow. So she's not good because she's good (as Anne Elliot is), but because she has been driven to understand what Darwin called the source of moral behavior--the need to survive in a group who are stronger than she. Against this I admit, as Dolores Pushkar suggested, that that the relationship between Edmund and Fanny is deeply appealing. Dolores also said that Fanny's "humility and timidity" "elicits contempt and bullying from the selfish, confident characters" and in part (and naturally I suppose--though that naturally would perhaps raise a smile from Austen) is not looked upon with favor by 20th century readers who want to identify with "the courageous, confident, witty, and beautiful." She also argued that Edmund and Fanny are the only two characters thus far to show any kindness or tenderness which is unselfish, any behaviors which are decent out of a motive to be good or decent. To this I would add that as Fanny is the underdog and as we are made to see the world from her eyes (outcast Cinderella who never goes to the festivities of the season, who is, very like Anne Elliot, always left out of the enjoyment) and as she will rush to help another (as in Rushworth's case), is ever kind and feels sorry for others (Julia during the play is a good example) and will love back when given the least reason (Fanny does love or at least her emotions are rooted in affection and an attachment to her Aunt Bertram), I think most readers who love Mansfield Park are led to love Fanny. She stands for kindness, for deep feeling, for adherence to memory, tradition, beauty and so so. That is, Fanny is a real person, not idealized, but we feel for and with her--or cannot read the book with any patience I suppose.

But Edmund now. I feel Austen was aware that she was not creating a creature who would answer the wish-fulfillments of the average reader who is motives by the same vanities, prides, self-interests (&c&c) of all the other characters in the book. But I am not sure she is aware she is making Edmund rigid and unpleasant in his rigidness. Fanny's morality was taught her by Edmund; she is by the age of eighteen head over heels in love with Edmund. Fanny will say and do and think whatever Edmund says is right. Where do I find Edmund's character rigid. Not when he defends the character of a clergyman--I find him urbane and sophisticated in his responses to Mary Crawford's needling comments after she discovers he is to be a clergyman. Nor even when he is disturbed by Mary's comments about her uncle and her salacious pun. In terms of his background, Fanny's presence (her brother in the navy), and his justifying Mary he's not over-pious or hypocritical--though he defends the hypocrisy of defending one's relatives no matter what in public (which I have learned from the Austen list many people agree with). No. It's nothing he specifically says or does. It's his whole demeanor which seems stuck-up, self-satisfied, though here he's just like all the Bertrams, Mrs Norris and everyone in the book but Fanny and interestingly Mary and Henry Crawford (who know themselves very well and simply aren't bothered about their amorality).

I have been wondering if what is wrong with Edmund is that he does not stick up sufficiently for Fanny. He does not enter into her case with the kind of sensitivity he ought (in a separate posting I want to talk about the horse and Fanny's headaches when deprived). He seems unaware of what she feels; he allows the others to hurt her and only comes in to soothe afterwards. Maybe it's that he doesn't seem sufficiently to sympathize with Fanny's vulnerability or powerlessness or know what such powerlessness creates in her (distress for example).

I think to myself had this been Mr Knightley he would have done something before. He would not have allowed Mary to grab Fanny's horse for a week. Now some people don't find Knightley attractive--I do. He's attractive in his mood and stance and behavioreven if he's equally diffident, incapable of a pun (like Edmund), no charmer (unlike Henry Crawford or Frank Churchill). Mr Knightley knows what a man ought to do and does it. On the other hand of course he is helpless against Mrs Elton. He does not confront her except to stop her bullying him.

Was Austen aware she was making Edmund an uncomfortable presence? I ask because in one of her letters she shows she thought both Edmund and Knightley real heroes.

To conclude, I suggest the roots of Edmund's unlikability do not stem from any deviation from moral goodness he says or acts, but rather from his inability to sympathize fully with Fanny or understand her or her vulnerability in a deeper way. Also from his rigidity and dimness about psychology. Do others agree?

Now If Austen is aware of this, then she is creating a very subtle distance between her heroine and hero which further isolates the heroine while condemning the hero in precisely that area people would like to see him not isolated. Did Austen want us to feel some repugnance at Edmund's behavior because he too, like all the other rich people in the book doesn't see Fanny's case the way we do and for the reasons we do. The exceptions (and this is interesting) are maybe Mary (who sees it at least) and Henry Crawford who once he's allured by Fanny and sees the beauty of what she is wants to do something real for her--ah, and that's interesting. Is this why some people prefer Henry? Edmund thinks it's perfectly okay for her to go and live with the bullying harridan Mrs Norris.

The question of how far Austen saw into Edmund's flaws is not otiose. Perhaps she couldn't see Edmund's obtuseness because she too finally accepted the class system, despite her resentment. I am interested in this subject, yes.

Ellen Moody

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Page Last Update 10 January 2003