Quiet Kindness

“[T]here is nobleness in the name of Edmund. It is a name of heroism and renown; of kings, princes, and knights; and seems to breathe the spirit of chivalry and warm affections.” — Mansfield Park, by Jane Austen, chapter 22.

Edmund Bertram is intelligent, generous, principled, and affectionate. He is not afraid to take the initiative in doing what he thinks is right. He has many good qualities and, of course, some faults. Of these characteristics, I think one of those which most defines him — the quality which most sets him apart from others and earns him the status of hero — is his quiet, unobtrusive kindness, especially in all the small (and sometimes not-so-small) ways he silently cares for the heroine, Fanny Price.

When, as a sixteen-year old young man, Edmund finds his newly-installed little cousin Fanny crying on the attic stairs, he speaks to her “with all the gentleness of an excellent nature” (ch. 2), calming her feelings of embarrassment at being so discovered and persuading her to confide her sorrows. Finding that she is, naturally, missing her family, he helps her write a letter to her brother William. He finds her an undisturbed place in which to write, procures her writing materials, rules her paper for her, sharpens her pen, helps her with her spelling, and delights her by adding a note of his own for William and sending him half a guinea under the seal. This is only the beginning of Edmund’s kindnesses to Fanny:

Without any display of doing more than the rest, or any fear of doing too much, he was always true to her interests, and considerate of her feelings, trying to make her good qualities understood, and to conquer the diffidence which prevented their being more apparent; giving her advice, consolation, and encouragement.” — Chapter 2, italics mine.

Time and again, he protects her, serves her, and makes sacrifices for her. When the pony Fanny rode for her health dies during her uncle’s absence in Antigua, Edmund insists, “Fanny must have a horse.” (Ch. 4.)1 Although he could not help paying heed to his aunt’s caution against increasing his father’s stable expenses,2 he “could not bear [Fanny] should be without” this means of exercise, so he determines to give up one of his own horses (no small gift) that it may be exchanged for a mare for her especial use. Fanny is delighted with the mare, finding, to her surprise, even greater pleasure in riding it than she had had with the pony.

Learning that newcomer Mary Crawford wishes to learn to ride, Edmund asks Fanny’s leave to use the new mare. When Mary desires to use the mare for a whole morning, Edmund tells Fanny, “[A]ny morning will do for this. … She rides only for pleasure, you for health.” (Ch. 7.) Despite his caution, however, more and more riding parties are planned, with Miss Crawford borrowing the mare. Then, one day, Edmund finds Fanny with a headache from walking in the sun at her aunt’s behest. Realizing that she has been without choice of exercise or excuse for avoiding her unreasonable aunt’s requests, he is immediately angry with himself and resolves that “however unwilling he must be to check a pleasure of Miss Crawford’s [with whom Edmund “was beginning … to be a great deal in love”] that it should never happen again.” (Italics mine.) The next chapter begins: “Fanny’s rides recommenced the very next day …” (ch. 8).

Caught up in ideas for improving Sotherton, the young people, under the management of Mrs. Norris, plan an outing there. The latter arranges who will go in the carriage, who on horseback, and who — namely Fanny — will stay at home with Lady Bertram. Everyone concurs except Edmund who “heard it all and said nothing” (ch. 6). He says nothing, but quietly makes arrangements to stay at home himself so that Fanny, whom he knows to have “a great desire to see Sotherton” (ch. 8), may go instead. In the end, Mrs. Grant offers to spend the day with Lady Bertram so that Edmund and Fanny may both go — earning the gratitude of each as Fanny, though grateful for Edmund’s kindness, was pained “that he should forgo any enjoyment on her own account” and felt that she wouldn’t enjoying seeing Sotherton without him, and Edmund “was very thankful for an arrangement which restored him to his share of the party”.

Edmund does his best to overcome his family’s habit of using Fanny to run errands.3 Although not completely successful in stopping this practice, Edmund quietly steps in to curtail it when he can. On one occasion, when Lady Bertram, from her sofa, tells Fanny to “ring the bell; I must have my dinner”, Edmund simply and unostentatiously comes forward and does it himself, “preventing Fanny”4 (ch. 15).

After Sir Thomas’s return and the subsequent end of the play-acting project, Edmund makes sure to do Fanny justice. He tells his father that Fanny was in no way to blame. “Fanny … judged rightly throughout …. She never ceased to think of what was due to you. You will find Fanny everything you could wish” (ch. 20). If Edmund hadn’t taken the trouble to exonerate Fanny, Sir Thomas might have confounded her in the general blame. Fanny was too afraid of her uncle to have defended herself to him, and none of the others who were involved cared enough. Edmund, on the other hand, automatically takes it upon himself to help and champion Fanny.

Edmund takes the trouble to find out what Fanny wants. When Dr. and Mrs. Grant invite Edmund and Fanny to dine with them, it is a completely new attention to the latter. She is flurried by the unexpected application and unsure whether it is in her power to accept. Edmund, “delighted with her having such an happiness offered,” and first “ascertaining with half a look, and half a sentence” (ch. 22) that her only objection is on her aunt’s account, encourages her to accept. He explains the matter to his father who, of course, thinks it only right that Fanny should go. She is glad, for, to her, the engagement had “novelty and importance”. On another occasion of them dining at the Parsonage, Edmund begins to “quietly” fetch Fanny’s shawl “to bring and put round her shoulders” (ch. 25) in preparation for her departure. Though he never makes a show of it, his kindness to Fanny is constant.

Fanny’s brother William gives her a “very pretty amber cross” (ch. 26). Unfortunately, although he wanted to also purchase a gold chain for her to wear it on, he could not afford one, so she wears it on “a bit of ribbon”. Edmund takes note of this and decides to get her a chain himself. Presenting it to her, he explains, “I hope you will like the chain itself, Fanny. I endeavoured to consult the simplicity of your taste, but at any rate I know you will be kind to my intentions, and consider it, as it really is, a token of the love of one of your oldest friends.” (Ch. 27.) That he has paid attention to her tastes is obvious, for the chain is precisely what Fanny wished for. His kind action is accompanied by kind words, as well, as he assures her that he has “no pleasure in the world superior to that of contributing to yours. … no pleasure so complete, so unalloyed. It is without drawback.”

When Fanny rejects Henry Crawford’s proposal of marriage, Edmund attempts to show her “his participation in all that interested her” (ch. 34). When he sees her embarrassment, however, he endeavours to “scrupulously guard against exciting it a second time, by any word, or look, or movement.” Eventually, he thinks she must need at least the “comfort of communication” (ch. 35). He assures her that she has done exactly as she ought. Even though mistaken about Fanny’s thoughts and sentiments about Henry, he is observant of her feelings. Seeing “weariness and distress in her face”, he immediately resolves to “forbear all farther discussion; and not even to mention the name of Crawford again.” When other topics of conversation leave her still “oppressed and wearied”, he no longer tries to talk it away, but leads “her directly with the kind authority of a privileged guardian into the house” to rest.

Noah Webster, in his 1828 An American Dictionary of the English Language, defined “Kind” as “Disposed to do good to others, and to make them happy by granting their requests, supplying their wants or assisting them in distress; having tenderness or goodness of nature; benevolent; benignant.” Again and again, Edmund demonstrates this trait. Jane Austen’s heroes portray a variety of admirable qualities. Edward Ferrars and Colonel Brandon are both loyal and steadfast, Mr. Darcy is generous, Mr. Knightley is discerning, Henry Tilney is cheerful, Captain Wentworth is brave and industrious. I think, however, that Edmund Bertram’s trademark characteristic must be his unceasing, unassuming kindness.

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Illustration: “The kind pains you took to persuade me out of my fears” (Jane Austen, Mansfield Park, chapter 3) by C. E. Brock.

1. Not a strong girl, Fanny’s health did suffer from the loss of this regular, but not too strenuous, exercise: “Edmund was absent at this time, or the evil would have been earlier remedied.” (Chapter 4, italics mine.)

2. “Before the railroad, the horse was the way you got somewhere if you weren’t going on foot …. Horses were expensive both to buy and maintain …. In the 1820s, a good carriage horse or hunter could run £100 and even an ordinary hack could cost £25 to £40. Plus horses, unlike cars, had to be fed, sheltered, and cared for daily, which meant that if you got a horse you were also entering into a subsidy of the horse transportation business. You were buying the services of a corn dealer (fast horses ate 72 pounds of straw, 56 pounds of hay, 2 bushels of oats, and 2 bushels of chaff a week), a blacksmith, a saddler, a coachmaker (if you had a carriage), a harness maker, and — if you were fancy — a coachman and a groom as well.” — Daniel Pool, What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993), pp. 142-143.

3. “Fanny was up in a moment, expecting some errand, for the habit of employing her in that way was not yet overcome, in spite of all that Edmund could do.” (Chapter 15, italics mine.)

4. According to Noah Webster’s An American Dictionary of the English Language (1828), the word “Prevent” has the meanings both of “To go before” and “To anticipate” (“Anticipate”: “To take or act, before another, so as to prevent him”).

Happily Ever After

This is seventh in a series of guest posts written by “Sophie” of A Reasonable Quantity of Butter in celebration of Mansfield Park’s bicentennial.

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Squashed into the epilogue of ‘Mansfield Park’ is the marriage of Edmund and Fanny. Although Fanny’s and Edmund’s romance is quite bland in comparison with the excitement in the rest of the novel, I think the couple had an excellent chance of achieving a “happily ever after”. They shared an attitude and philosophy of life as well as interests and pastimes. This, combined with mutual trust, could create a solid base for their life together.

Happily Ever AfterBeyond this, their marriage could strengthen both Edmund and Fanny individually. Because Fanny fully supported Edmund’s career, Edmund could gain confidence in his work. As Fanny was not accustomed to expensive gaieties and luxuries she would not weigh him down with discontent.

For Fanny, marriage to Edmund meant taking on a high position in a new community. As  the wife of a clergyman, her duties of hospitality and charity could help her develop confidence and authority, especially practiced among strangers.

I imagine Fanny and Edmund star-gazing, reading, visiting the poor, and raising children together. What reasons do you think would make them a happy couple?

Misguided Concealment

This is sixth in a series of guest posts written by “Sophie” of A Reasonable Quantity of Butter in celebration of Mansfield Park’s bicentennial.

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In many novels, much of the drama revolves around a concealment. These passages are especially irksome because great harm often comes from the concealment, and it would be so simple for the informed character to say something and avert the catastrophe.

Often these concealments arise from some romantic fancy. In Far From the Madding Crowd, Gabriel Oak conceals Sergeant Troy’s former relationship from Bathsheba out of a mistaken sense of obligation to Fanny Robin. In Bleak House, Lady Dedlock conceals her past from her husband, even though speaking out would completely disarm her enemy, because she fears losing her husband’s esteem. Other characters feel that it would be wrong to speak ill of someone, even when not speaking injures another person—a person who really has a right to know.

Whereas I have come to expect misguided concealments in novels such as those by Dickens and Hardy, I was surprised to meet one in Mansfield Park.1 Happily, it has no effect on the outcome of the story, but it is still there!

Fanny Price keeps important information from Edmund. As Edmund’s only confidant, she knows that, although he is deeply in love with Mary Crawford, several things would keep him from proposing to her: Mary’s love of money, love of prestige, and contempt for Edmund’s profession. In fact, these did at one point decide Edmund against marrying her. After his ordination, he purposely stayed away from Mansfield to avoid seeing Mary, intending to return only after she left.

Fanny is uncertain as to how much Mary’s fondness for Edmund may have overcome her worldly notions, and she must, in any case, leave Edmund to his own judgment. What good would it do to convey doubts and suspicions to a mind accustomed to excusing them? And what right had she to do so—would it not be only indulging her own envy?

But while in Portsmouth, Fanny receives confirmation of her fears in writing from Mary.2 There, in Mary’s own handwriting, is evidence that she loves money and position in society to the point of wishing Edmund’s brother dead, and looks forward to Edmund’s profession being concealed as a past disgrace!

Despite any attending awkwardness, I think Fanny should have forwarded Mary’s letter to Edmund. He had a right to know.

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1There is a misguided concealment in Emma, which is crucial to the plot, but Austen handles it much differently than the other authors mentioned. Also, in Pride and Prejudice, Jane and Elizabeth choose not to publish Wickham’s true character because he is leaving soon.

2“Poor young man! If he is to die, there will be two poor young men less in the world; and with a fearless face and bold voice would I say to any one, that wealth and consequence could fall into no hands more deserving of them. It was a foolish precipitation last Christmas [Edmund’s ordination], but the evil of a few days may be blotted out in part. Varnish and gilding hide many stains. It will be but the loss of the Esquire after his name. With real affection, Fanny, like mine, more might be overlooked.”—Mansfield Park, Chapter XLV

If Only

This is fifth in a series of guest posts written by “Sophie” of A Reasonable Quantity of Butter in celebration of Mansfield Park’s bicentennial.

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37th copyMansfield Park is a tragedy. Its readers often exclaim, “If only!”

The “if only” usually refers to the marriages of Fanny & Henry, Mary & Edmund. What happiness for them all! What fun for the readers to enjoy Henry’s and Mary’s felicity, and to see Fanny and Edmund learn to laugh at themselves, as Mr. Darcy did in Pride and Prejudice.

But this is impossible. As Austen wrote the story, tragedy was inevitable. Although she convinces us that Fanny and Henry could be truly happy together, she states that Fanny would only have married Henry after “a reasonable period from Edmund’s marrying Mary.”1 And, sadly, it seems that Edmund and Mary would not have been happy together.

In contrast to Henry, who, within a short time of falling in love with Fanny, began to change his actions2, Mary did not change for love of Edmund, although her affection continued for many months. In conversation, Henry moderated his tone and topics to Fanny, but Mary sharpened her tongue against Edmund. She ridiculed his principles rather than trying to understand them.

Also, Mary despised Edmund’s profession and would have been discontent with his income. Whereas marriage to Fanny would have been Henry’s moral salvation, marriage to Mary would have been Edmund’s moral condemnation. And Henry’s moral salvation—through Fanny, at least—could only happen by that sacrifice of Edmund.

And we all know what happens when neither of these couples marry. A tragedy.3

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1Chapter 48, Mansfield Park.

2I chose “actions” as distinct from “principles”. Henry did think about serious subjects more seriously while courting Fanny, but ultimately did not change his principles.

3Although Edmund did suffer deeply, this was a tragedy primarily for the Henry and Mary, as, ultimately, Fanny and Edmund lived happily ever after.

True Love?

This is fourth in a series of guest posts written by “Sophie” of A Reasonable Quantity of Butter in celebration of Mansfield Park’s bicentennial.

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Did Mary Crawford truly love Edmund Bertram? Put another way, this question could read, “Did Rosamund Vincy truly love Tertius Lydgate?” Or, does a woman truly love a man devoted to his profession, if she despises his profession? According to Tertius, the answer is “no”.

“Do you know, Tertius, I often wish you had not been a medical man.”

“Nay, Rosy, don’t say that,” said Lydgate, drawing her closer to him. “That is like saying you wish you had married another man.”

“Not at all; you are clever enough for anything: you might easily have been something else. . . . I do not think it is a nice profession, dear.” We know that she had much quiet perseverance in her opinion.

“It is the grandest profession in the world, Rosamond,” said Lydgate, gravely. “And to say that you love me without loving the medical man in me, is the same sort of thing as to say that you like eating a peach but don’t like its flavor. Don’t say that again, dear, it pains me.”1

Hugh Thomson illustration with captionIn a strikingly similar conversation, this question first occurs to Edmund and Mary:

“But why are you to be a clergyman? I thought that was always the lot of the youngest, where there were many to chuse before him.”

“Do you think the church itself never chosen, then?”

“Never is a black word. But yes, in the never of conversation, which means not very often, I do think it. For what is to be done in the church? Men love to distinguish themselves, and in either of the other lines distinction may be gained, but not in the church. A clergyman is nothing.”

“The nothing of conversation has its gradations, I hope, as well as the never. A clergyman cannot be high in state or fashion. He must not head mobs, or set the ton in dress. But I cannot call that situation nothing which has the charge of all that is of the first importance to mankind, individually or collectively considered, temporally and eternally, which has the guardianship of religion and morals, and consequently of the manners which result from their influence.” . . .

“I am just as much surprised now as I was at first that you should intend to take orders. You really are fit for something better. Come, do change your mind. It is not too late. Go into the law.”2

Although Mary is more intelligent and kind than Rosamund, the two share values in marriage: money and position. Mary is aware of the discrepancies between Edmund and her ideals, but Rosamund thinks she has found them in Tertius. When she learns that she is mistaken, she attempts to conform Tertius to her ideals, ultimately ruining him and their marriage. Tertius is at first filled with ambition to do good through his work, but Rosamund’s behavior causes him to lose his respect for himself, and with it a greater part of his ability to do good.

Could a similar future have awaited Edmund and Mary? Tertius and Edmund were similar men—both gentle, serious, and dedicated to their vocations. Attraction to Mary had already lead Edmund to act against his conscience during the play, and Fanny fears that Edmund would do more of the same if he married Mary: “God grant that her influence do [sic] not make him cease to be respectable!”3

The nature of true love is not to ruin and destroy. It is to adhere, to respect, to support.

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1Middlemarch, by George Eliot, Book V, ch. XLV

2Mansfield Park, by Jane Austen, ch. IX

3Ibid., ch. XLIV