The Brothers

This is a continuation of my series of posts on the characters of Jane Austen's Mansfield Park, which I studied in depth while writing my novel, Fanny, a Mansfield Park Story. I wasn't going to feature either William Price or Tom Bertram in this series, but recent conversations have convinced me they deserve a mention.

William Price and Tom Bertram are the brothers of the main characters, Fanny Price and Edmund Bertram. They are both eldest sons and both seem to have an open, spirited personality. But there are also differences. William is making his way in the Navy. Tom is idle and, "born only for expense and enjoyment," had nothing to do but wait to inherit and spend his father's money in the mean time. And, of course both serve a purpose in the plot.

It is Tom's "extravagance" that requires the living at Mansfield to be sold which brings the Grants and consequently the Crawfords to the Parsonage. He also serves a purpose in being the eldest son by providing that tension in Edmund's relationship with Mary Crawford occasioned by his being a second son who is to take orders. He is a catalyst for the play and a foil to Edmund's attempts to prevent impropriety during the time of the play. Finally, his illness draws Edmund's attention away from Mary when he was on the brink of proposing and kept it away long enough to prevent the engagement from being formed before the elopement of Henry and Maria.

So Tom is important in moving the plot forward at several pivotal points. But as a character, aside from his service as a plot device, there's not much to him. He is often away from home and when he is at home he talks about himself and his own exploits both past and future. He does have one delightful scene in which he grabs Fanny and drags her to the dance floor without bothering to ask her permission, in order to escape from Aunt Norris' attempts to rope him into playing cards against his will; and then actually remarks to Fanny about how rude it is for Aunt Norris to try to force him to do something without realizing that he's just done the same thing to Fanny. Except of course Fanny did want to dance, which is the only thing that allows the reader to be more amused than angry. It is altogether a pretty hilarious scene and shows how Fanny is thought of by Tom – as someone he can use at his convenience.

William of course is a much more likeable character than Tom. His main plot purpose is to provide an avenue for Henry to do a good turn by Fanny right before proposing to her. In order to develop the meaningfulness of that gesture, he is shown to be of great importance to Fanny from the beginning as the most beloved of her brothers and sisters. He is the one Fanny is missing as a little girl when Edmund finds her upset; and he is the one Edmund helps her write her first letter to. When William takes Fanny back to Portsmouth and has to be off immediately, he specifically tells his mother to look out for Fanny in a very sincere way. And of course Fanny and William have already planned their future together, notably not at Mansfield Park. William is very important to Fanny. We are told her heart is divided between him and Edmund.

We also know William is his mother's favorite and I wonder if he is perhaps as his father was at his age. The Mr. Price we get to see is not very appealing at all, but the portrayal of his eldest son gives us a glimpse perhaps of the young man who might have induced Miss Frances Ward to marry "to disoblige her family." A more youthful, more energetic, more spirited, and less coarse Mr. Price, full of adventure, may have turned her head and her seven thousand pounds in his direction.

Tom and William are similar in some ways and very different in others. I have to admit I've always loved William and never gave much thought at all to Tom (which perhaps might be evident by the end of chapter one of my book). William is obviously a much better brother than Tom. During their years apart, William writes Fanny long letters about his adventures and is as happy to see her when they are finally reunited as she is to see him. He loves Fanny and is solicitous of her comfort. And as grateful as he is to Henry for securing his promotion, William never urges Fanny to accept him; instead he doesn't mention it at all to her out of respect for her feelings. Edmund, however, urges her to accept him.

Tom on the other hand, seems to care very little for Edmund and not much more for his sisters. He is most concerned with his own pleasure in putting on a play and does not share Edmund's scruples regarding his sisters' participation. He dismisses Edmund's concerns and states that he's capable of looking after his sisters, but he does not see all the danger that is so very obvious to Fanny. In his defense, though, Edmund doesn't see it either. Tom presides over the play, spending his father's money and making changes to the house, while Maria carries on a flirtation with Henry that eventually leads to the ruination of her reputation and Edmund's hopes. Edmund says at the end of the novel that all the mischief began during the time of the play -- which was almost entirely Tom's doing -- and Tom shares this sentiment at the end when he reflects that the origin of the intimacy between Maria and Henry was his "unjustifiable theatre."

William, is a brilliant character and one can imagine Austen drew upon her two naval brothers in creating him. He is loving towards his sister, spirited, and adventurous, but industrious, respectful, and well-mannered. He seems to be well liked by everyone. When he returns to Mansfield after Maria and Julia have gone, he is included in the hunting party with the other gentlemen and Henry lets him borrow a horse. This is in stark contrast to Fanny's exclusion from the riding parties of the previous summer when Miss Crawford used her horse. And I love the line in which William is speculating about his future adventures while traveling to Portsmouth with Fanny where the narrator tells us that William, who has just been made a Second Lieutenant, "was not very merciful to the First Lieutenant." I find this line kind of hilarious although I suppose it's not very different in sentiment from Mary Crawford's speculation about Tom Bertram's prospects of survival, which obviously disgusts me -- maybe because Tom is actually sick at the time while as far as we know, the First Lieutenant of the H.M.S. Thrush is perfectly well. The only mention of William in the novel's closure is the assurance of his "good conduct and rising fame." And this is told, oddly enough, from the point of view of Sir Thomas, as his benefactor.

Tom's wrap-up is also told from his father's point of view but is given in more detail. We are told that he "gradually regained his health, without regaining the thoughtlessness and selfishness of his previous habits. He was the better for ever for his illness. He had suffered, and he had learned to think: two advantages that he had never known before ... He became what he ought to be: useful to his father, steady and quiet, and not living merely for himself." This transformation seems a little unrealistic to my mind, but it's not Austen's only example of such a change. Marianne Dashwood and Louisa Musgrove both underwent substantial change after illness and it makes me wonder whether Austen knew someone who had experienced something similar.

William and Tom are certainly different sorts of brothers. Both have important roles in the story and both have scenes which are hilarious, but we never get much into the head of either. Like Lizzy Bennet, I have no brothers myself, but if I did I think I'd want him to be more like William than Tom. Would you like to have either of them for a brother?
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Published on April 04, 2021 10:49 Tags: edmund-bertram, fanny-price, jane-austen, mansfield-park, tom-bertram, william-price
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message 1: by Amelia (new)

Amelia Logan For further discussion on this blog post, please join us here:

message 2: by Christina (new)

Christina Morland Enjoyed reading your thoughts on both William and Tom! Great point about William not urging Fanny to marry Henry Crawford, in spite of what Crawford had done to help him get the promotion. That, and William's concerted efforts to remain in contact with Fanny, do indeed prove him a wonderful brother

As for Tom--well, I'm certainly glad he's not my brother! (Makes me feel a little more sympathy for Edmund, though!) Whether or not Tom's change-of-heart near the end of the novel was realistic, it certainly fits with Sir Thomas's realization, when he "saw repeated, and for ever repeated, reason to...acknowledge the advantages of early hardship and discipline, and the consciousness of being born to struggle and endure" (Chapter 48). This seems to be a central test Austen puts to many of her characters: when faced with some kind of hardship, how to they respond? Do they learn and grow?

The comparison to Marianne Dashwood is interesting to me. What is more compelling to me about Marianne's shift in perspective is that it was also accompanied by having made a mistake in judgment about Willoughby. In other words, it wasn't just the fever. I wonder if for Tom it was both the illness and Maria's actions that made him change his behaviors?

Thanks for another thought-provoking post!

message 3: by Amelia (last edited Apr 28, 2021 06:13PM) (new)

Amelia Logan I wonder if for Tom it was both the illness and Maria's actions that made him change his behaviors?

Yes! We are explicitly told as much in the last chapter:

"the self-reproach arising from the deplorable event in Wimpole Street, to which he felt himself accessory by all the dangerous intimacy of his unjustifiable theatre, made an impression on his mind which, at the age of six-and-twenty, with no want of sense or good companions, was durable in its happy effects."

message 4: by Christina (new)

Christina Morland Amelia wrote: "I wonder if for Tom it was both the illness and Maria's actions that made him change his behaviors?

Yes! We are explicitly told as much in the last chapter:

"the self-reproach arising from the d..."

Hah! I love it when I channel Jane Austen and then pretend I was the one who came up with the idea! ;-D I'm off to read your next post. I've loved reading your thoughts on Mansfield Park. If you had told twenty years ago that I'd be thrilled to read about this book, I'd have laughed and laughed. Well, I'm laughing now, too, but only at myself!

message 5: by Amelia (new)

Amelia Logan Christina: Yes, that was pretty awesome! I'm glad you are such an enthusiast for MP, it is really a great book!

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