The Miss Bertrams

The Miss Bertrams
This post is a continuation of my series on the characters of Jane Austen's Mansfield Park which I explored in my novel, Fanny, a Mansfield Park Story . I expect to post one more entry in this series -- extra points if you can guess which character ...

Maria and Julia Bertram are presented in Mansfield Park as a contrast to the heroine, Fanny Price. Mary Crawford is also presented as a contrast to Fanny, but in a different way. While we have plenty of reason to dislike Mary Crawford, there are moments in which she expresses real affection for Fanny. We never see that from her female cousins. The closest we get is when Julia defends Fanny by observing in response to an accusation from her aunt that “Fanny is as little upon the sofa as anybody in the house.” Another less obvious contrast is apparent in this scene in the way Julia openly contradicts Mrs. Norris -- something Fanny would never do.

The Miss Bertrams are spoiled, selfish, and vain and these characteristics are the direct result of the way they are raised. They are constantly praised, validated, and taught they are superior to everyone. They have a good relationship with one another but only because it hasn't been tested. When it is, it falls apart. Their mother does not participate in their upbringing -- she seems to feel that she's done enough by pushing them into the world! Their father is pretty much absent, even when he's at home. And the other main influencing adult in their life, Mrs. Norris, only nurtures and encourages these negative traits.

Lady Bertram's having given up her house in London and opting to remain in the country all year is a key plot point -- not only to the isolation of Fanny but to the upbringing of the Miss Bertrams. They are isolated as well. Isolated from competition, from disappointment, from other women who might outshine them, and from the lessons to be learned by exposure to all of the above. In short, they are the proverbial 'big fish in a little pond.' And the narrator makes that clear when they start attending social events, telling us they were, “fully established among the belles of the neighbourhood … they possessed its favour as well as its admiration.” And Miss Bertram manages to snag the richest guy around: Mr. Rushworth.

When Mr. Crawford shows up, the Miss Bertrams don't think he's handsome; and while he's rich by the standards at the time his fortune is no where near as impressive as Mr. Rushworth's. But their feelings rapidly change. This change of course, is the result of Mr. Crawford's personality and charm. There's nothing wrong with that in and of itself -- a man who isn't good looking can certainly be charming without being a scoundrel -- but we later learn that their change in feelings is likely the result of his deliberate efforts to make them like him with no intent of acting honorably after creating such feelings, or at the very least -- if he doesn't set out purposely to "make a small hole" in their hearts -- he enjoys their attentions and even encourages the affections of both.

I noted in my first post in this series that Mr. Crawford and Maria are basically playing the same game but she's no match for him precisely because of her lack of worldliness and London experience. Julia is playing too, but she is saved by her inferiority as the younger sister -- her sense of superiority is not as great as Maria's and her feelings of inferiority actually give her room to judge a little better than her sister both during the play and at the end of the novel.

Maria seemed pretty satisfied to be engaged to the richest man in the area until she met Mr. Crawford and decided she wanted him too. The narrative describing Maria's perspective on meeting Crawford shows that she expects him to fall for her even though she's engaged. We are privy to her thoughts: "Mr Crawford must take care of himself," and we are immediately told that, "Mr. Crawford did not mean to be in any danger!" It's all a game for him. Ironically, the same thing that happens to Maria later happens to Crawford when he expects Fanny to fall for him but he falls in love with her instead. And his choice of Fanny -- who Maria has been raised to view as worthless and inferior -- must feel to Maria like adding insult to injury after his desertion. Both Maria Bertram and Henry Crawford are victims of their own game. Meanwhile, Fanny isn't even playing.

The problem for Maria is that the game becomes real when she develops real feelings which make her vulnerable, while Mr. Crawford never sees it as anything but a game. When given the opportunity to get out of marriage to a man she despises, she doesn't take it because she doesn't want to give Crawford the satisfaction of ruining her prospects, with the additional motivation of wanting to get away from her family home now that her father is back to restore order and decorum. Maria is used to getting what she wants and eventually she does get Mr. Crawford, but only temporarily -- and it costs her everything! The only satisfaction for her, we are told, is knowing she had divided him from Fanny after all. Her satisfaction must have been short-lived; and, I imagine, would have been of little consolation in her exile with Mrs. Norris.

Julia also expects Crawford to fall in love with her. We are told, “Miss Bertram's engagement made him in equity the property of Julia, of which Julia was fully aware; and before he had been at Mansfield a week, she was quite ready to be fallen in love with. ” The wording is interesting in that it says nothing about her own feelings and reveals her vanity in expecting him to fall in love with her. She has the support of Mrs. Grant who also expects her brother to marry Julia and tells him so. He, in turn, makes it clear to his sisters he is not the least bit interested in marriage and I have always thought his attentions to Maria may have been motivated, in part, by his wanting to avoid any appearance of attachment to Julia after Mrs. Grant shares her expectation. (Then again, I find myself asking whether it really matters -- he's not the sort to do the honorable thing if she is misled by his attentions anyway.)

So, Julia is drawn in by her feelings of entitlement to his attentions, to playing the same game; but it becomes complicated when her engaged sister gets in the way by competing for his attentions. She's pretty triumphant when she gets to sit with him on the way to and from Sotherton; but when he later shows a decided preference for Maria she realizes she's lost the game and wisely extricates herself from it both during the time of the play and later when she removes herself from Maria's house in London, which gives us some hope for her good sense. She ends up better than her sister (although that's not saying much). Her motivation for precipitously marrying Mr. Yates was similar to her sister's motivation for marrying Rushworth - to escape Mansfield - and her husband isn't much of an improvement over her sister's, so there is reason to fear she may end up committing a similar mistake at some point. In the end she's humbled and wants to be received and forgiven by her family, and maybe that's Austen's way of letting us know that she's actually learned something.

The narrator tells us a lot in the last chapter about the errors made in the upbringing of these girls, ironically from the point of view of their father, to whom the narrator seems to assign ultimate responsibility. For Austen, the buck stops with Sir Thomas - even though they are daughters - rather than with their mother, who has woefully neglected them. Mrs. Norris is not their parent so although her influence played a large part in forming their characters, it would have fallen on their parents to stop or correct the effect of such influence.

In response to my previous post about the Ward sisters, there was some discussion about how those young ladies of the previous generation were raised. We don't really know much about it, but we can see from the text that none of them is particularly warm and they don't seem to possess the qualities Sir Thomas was hoping his daughters would somehow attain. We see more warmth in the manipulative and morally deficient Mary Crawford - the character set up to be the heroine's rival - than is ever exhibited by any of the former Miss Wards or either of the Miss Bertrams.

In the end, we can only hope Julia will do well in her ill-judged marriage. As for Maria, I think we can all agree with Austen that she bore a disproportionate share of the punishment for a sin she did not commit alone. The narrator's explanation at the end of the novel of how the manner of Maria's upbringing led to her downfall makes me wonder how much we can really blame her. The only explanation we are given for Crawford eloping with Maria after their affair was that, "he could not help it." Maybe that explanation applies to Maria as well; given the way she was raised, could we really expect anything different? Likewise, Crawford's actions are also attributed to his upbringing; indeed, it is a constant theme in Austen. But at what point do these young people become responsible for themselves? At what point do we expect them to learn to behave properly in spite of a faulty upbringing? Even Mr. Darcy had to be berated by the woman he loves in order to realize his upbringing had been deficient and seek to correct his conduct. At least he had the maturity to do so. Maria Bertram and Henry Crawford, not so much; although I would argue she didn't have much of an opportunity to do so and neither of them had much of a motivation. What do you think?
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Published on May 16, 2021 11:52 Tags: fanny-price, jane-austen, mansfield-park
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