Rehabilitating Sir Thomas Bertram
Downie, J. A., Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900
Recent readings of Mansfield Park as criticism of the landed elite fail to take into consideration the radical-conservative nature of Austen's satire. Although Sir Thomas Bertram is clearly to blame for his family's moral shortcomings, Austen's treatment of him carefully balances his strengths and weaknesses. Recent misrepresentations of Mansfield Park's colonial dimension have also contributed to misleading assessments of Austen's intentions. Sir Thomas's values are shared by Edmund and Fanny Price, and the ideology of benevolent paternalism upheld by Austen in Mansfield Park, in which landlords offer both material and spiritual guidance to their dependents, remains an essentially conservative one.
Jane Austen is a satirical novelist. It may seem strange that this needs to be said, but in view of the recent proliferation of studies that have sought to privilege her social criticism, it is important to appreciate the way in which her social criticism is couched. As Alistair M. Duckworth has memorably explained, in recent years Austen has been constructed as a "progressive" author, and Mansfield Park in particular has been the site of radical revisionist readings. (1) Thus Margaret Kirkham asserts that "Mansfield Park, far from being the work of conservative quietism that much twentieth-century criticism has turned it into, embodies Jane Austen's most ambitious and radical criticism of contemporary prejudice in society and in literature," while Claudia L. Johnson contends that "Austen's enterprise in Mansfield Park is to turn conservative myth sour, as she surely need not have done were her allegiances to the world of the country house as assured as is generally agreed." (2) Critics have queued up to uncover feminist, liberal, even radical tendencies beneath the seemingly placid surface of the imagined world of Austen's novel.
In searching for the subversive beneath the apparent conservatism of Mansfield Park, however, those who represent Austen as a progressive author do not appear to me to have sufficiently considered the possibility that the reformative agenda underpinning the novel might indeed have been conservative in inspiration also, as in the satire of her eighteenth-century radical-conservative predecessors Jonathan Swift and Samuel Johnson. My larger question is whether the target of Austen's satire in Mansfield Park is patriarchy itself or merely Sir Thomas Bertram's personal shortcomings as a father. Though it might offend those who read the novel as a satire of patriarchy rather than as a satire of a failure of patriarchy in a specific instance, there are good grounds for assuming that it is the latter rather than the former. That all is not well in the imagined world of Mansfield Park cannot be gainsaid. At the end of the novel, Tom, Sir Thomas's spendthrift eldest son and heir, is recovering from a dangerous illness brought on by "a neglected fall, and a good deal of drinking" at Newmarket; Maria, Sir Thomas's eldest daughter, recently married to the wealthy Mr. Rushworth but disgraced on account of her adulterous relationship with Henry Crawford, has been divorced; and Julia, his younger daughter, has eloped with the Honourable John Yates. It is in these difficult circumstances that Sir Thomas finally comes to realize that "Fanny was indeed the daughter that he wanted." (3)
There can be no doubt that the blame for what has occurred, down to the depravity of Mrs. Rushworth, is laid squarely at the door of Sir Thomas Bertram. Yet it is important to appreciate the way in which Austen presents the case against him. "Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery," the final chapter (in)famously opens; "I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can, impatient to restore every body, not greatly in fault themselves, to tolerable comfort, and to have done with all the rest" (p. 533). Prominent among the former--those who are "not greatly in fault themselves"--is Sir Thomas: "Sir Thomas, poor Sir Thomas, a parent, and conscious of errors in his own conduct as a parent, was the longest to suffer" (p. …