In Mansfield Park, Sir Thomas Bertram is a complex character whose goals and standards conflict to create internal chaos and self-delusion. Jane Austen imbues him with multiple sets of values (visible as early as the first chapter) and uses the narrative technique of revealing the character’s thoughts, as well as specific diction, to exhibit his crisis of values. This crisis is especially apparent when Sir Thomas evaluates his daughter’s engagement to Mr. Rushworth and when Sir Thomas faces the consequences of his parenting decisions at the end of the book.
Austen presents Sir Thomas Bertram’s multiple sets of values when initially introducing him to the reader in the first chapter. Sir Thomas possesses the moral characteristics of generosity towards others, love of his family, and, above all, an adherence to duty, order, and reason. However, Sir Thomas is also a pragmatist who wishes to increase his wealth, refine his social connections, and gratify his own ego. These seemingly conflicting sets of values are visible in Sir Thomas’s dealings with his in-laws and in his debate with Mrs. Norris about sponsoring Fanny, Mrs. Norris’s and Lady Bertram’s niece, and improving the Prices’ financial and social situation. His motivation stems “from principle as well as pride, from a general wish of doing right, and a desire of seeing all that were connected with him in situations of respectability” (3-4). However, Sir Thomas’s allegiance to his pride is emphasized. After the Ward sisters start to quarrel, Mrs. Price makes “very disrespectful reflections on the pride of Sir Thomas” which “put an end to all intercourse between them for a considerable period” (4). In the original situation, all of Sir Thomas’s sets of values coincide, allowing him to offer aid to the young couple without internal debate. He can improve his family connections, fulfill his moral obligation to help others, and bask in the afterglow of doing a good deed. Yet, after Sir Thomas’s pride is hurt, this balance is upset. Even though an act of charity would still bring almost all the positive results as in the initial situation, Sir Thomas’s ego is not gratified, placing his values in conflict and preventing him from acting. However, Mrs. Price’s pitiful plea for assistance smoothes Sir Thomas’s ruffled feathers, equilibrium is restored, and he can again offer aid. Helping the Price family now will again satisfy all Sir Thomas’s sets of values.
When Sir Thomas considers the option of sponsoring Fanny, his values are again in conflict. The economic considerations of raising another child and the prospect of his daughters associating with an “inferior” battle with Sir Thomas’s wish genuinely to help Fanny (as well as soothe his ego). “He debated and hesitated, —it was a serious charge; —a girl so brought up must be adequately provided for” (6). Sir Thomas shows his blatant class bias and social ambition by noting that “‘[s]hould her disposition be really bad . . . we must not, for our own children’s sake, continue her in the family’” (10). Sir Thomas is anxious that his own daughters be considered above his new dependent:
“There will be some difficulty in our way, Mrs. Norris,” observed Sir Thomas, “as to the distinction proper to be made between the girls as they grow up; how to preserve in the minds of my daughters the consciousness of what they are, without making them think too lowly of their cousin; and how, without depressing her spirits too far, to make her remember that she is not a Miss Bertram.”
After Mrs. Norris’s barrage of counterarguments and flattery, Sir Thomas consents to sponsor Fanny and commits to “‘do our duty by her’” (9). Once he makes the decision to fulfill his duty, Sir Thomas follows it through to its natural conclusion.
Austen shows the reader Sir Thomas’s multiple sets of values in the beginning of the story (via his semi-altruistic acts of charity) and sets a precedent for patterns to expect later in the novel. As Virginia Woolf notes, Austen uses this technique to reveal her characters not only in Mansfield Park but in The Watsons as well: “We have been made to see that if Emma acted so in the ballroom, how considerate, how tender, inspired by what sincerity of feeling she would have shown herself in those graver crises of life which, as we watch her, come inevitably before our eyes” (19). Austen depends on a similar reader response in Mansfield Park. By showing that Sir Thomas possesses multiple sets of values, Austen gives the reader a basis to interpret his reactions to situations later in the novel. Each of these values is present in his character, not always compatible, and each is a viable motivator. Therefore, when Sir Thomas’s actions are inconsistent with one set of values, this precedent allows readers to see that he is not entirely betraying his moral code but is merely shifting allegiance. Sir Thomas’s actions are simply consistent with a different set of values. The precedent for one set of values dominating is already set by Sir Thomas’s reaction to Mrs. Price’s rude letter.
This phenomenon is present as well when Sir Thomas evaluates Maria’s engagement to Mr. Rushworth. In the beginning of the passage Austen definitively states Sir Thomas’s observations and alludes to the set of values foremost in his mind, those of a concerned parent. Even though Maria’s future marriage would elevate Sir Thomas’s social status and influence by association, Sir Thomas cannot ignore Rushworth’s character and his daughter’s reaction towards her fiancé. Sir Thomas’s moral values are outraged by such a match, despite its fulfillment of his more materialistic goals:
Not all his good-will for Mr. Rushworth, not all Mr. Rushworth’s deference for him, could prevent [Sir Thomas] from soon discerning some part of the truth—that Mr. Rushworth was an inferior young man, as ignorant in business as in books, with opinions in general unfixed, and without seeming much aware of it himself. (200)
Austen then moves into Sir Thomas’s feelings and finally into his actual thoughts. These thoughts are stated like narrative axioms but are always reactions to “given” statements. In this example, the gradual transition into thought moves from the narrator stating that Sir Thomas knows that Mr. Rushworth is an idiot to Sir Thomas himself feeling “grave on Maria’s account” to his internal opinion that “[s]he could not, did not like him” (200). By this point, Austen is depicting Sir Thomas’s internal reasoning.
Austen relies on specific word connotations to convey Sir Thomas’s struggle of values. Austen uses the key words “must,” “ought,” “could,” and “would” to show Sir Thomas’s attempts to reconcile his observations of Maria’s behavior with his own motivation. All Sir Thomas’s sets of values must be satisfied in order for him to act in clear conscience, and in this case, they conflict completely with one another. Sir Thomas’s moral values prevent him from marrying his daughter to a fool whom she does not love. At the same time, his social and economic values prevent him from letting such an opportunity slip through his fingers. After all, regardless of his faults as a person, Rushworth is both wealthy and well-connected. With his psyche in deadlock, Sir Thomas endeavors to alter the state of affairs (in his head at least) to satisfy all his conflicting values. Austen’s use of the key words illustrates Sir Thomas’s efforts to change the parameters of the situation to suit his needs.
The conflict between his sets of values is visible in the text. In the beginning of the passage, Sir Thomas notes Maria’s “careless and cold” (200) behavior towards Mr. Rushworth. At this point in the story, Sir Thomas’s concern for his daughter’s welfare is most prominent. Taking into consideration Maria’s behavior, he reasons that she must agree with his own low opinion of Rushworth. “She could not, did not like him” (200). The word “could” indicates how greatly Rushworth’s failings horrify Sir Thomas. It seems impossible to him that his daughter can like such a fool, and any regard for Maria, as well as common sense, requires Sir Thomas to break the engagement on her behalf. Two sentences later, Sir Thomas notes that “[a]dvantageous as would be the alliance, and long standing and public as was the engagement, her happiness must not be sacrificed to it.” This line shows that Sir Thomas’s economic and societal status considerations are at the forefront of his thoughts, even though his sense of parental duty dominates slightly in the syntax. The word “would” shows that Sir Thomas is thinking about the future profit from the match. Austen’s use of “must” in this case shows Sir Thomas’s vain attempt to retain continuity in his motivation and to place his daughter’s interests first. If Sir Thomas had only one set of values, he would be compelled to break the engagement immediately or else he could easily allow Maria’s future to be sacrificed for his benefit without having to justify his decision to himself.
After Sir Thomas speaks to Maria and finds that she does not want him to break the engagement, his values shift again. Maria’s response provides the excuse Sir Thomas needs to adhere to his economic and social values. Unfortunately, this pursuit of capital and status is incompatible with his sense of parental duty, and Sir Thomas spends the rest of the passage trying to placate this outraged set of values. Fervently he tries to mentally reconcile them all. First, he dwells on the pain he would suffer if the engagement were broken; it is “an alliance which he could not have relinquished without pain” (201). This statement has a grain of truth in it, allowing Sir Thomas to segue into larger alterations of reality. Then, Sir Thomas hypothesizes that certain qualities, which would drastically improve the marriage with respect to his sense of parental duty, are present or will appear eventually.
Austen uses the words “could,” “must,” “ought,” and “would” to show Sir Thomas’s desperate assumptions spiraling upward. Though his more materialistic values are firmly in control, Sir Thomas’s conscience and moral values are kicking and screaming. He resorts to painting unsubstantiated hopes of a rosy future. Sir Thomas reasons that Mr. Rushworth “must” and “would” become less idiotic, even though the facts do not support that assumption. Again, Austen uses the key words to illustrate how Sir Thomas takes advantage of the unknown future in order to make the situation agree with his moral set of values. Concerning the fate of his daughter, Sir Thomas concludes that if Maria “could” be so sure of her decision, she “ought to be believed” (201). If she “could” live with a husband she did not respect, “there would certainly be everything else in her favor.” However, Sir Thomas’s involvement in his daughter’s life is so minimal that he has absolutely no concept of Maria’s temperament. In this case, looking on the bright side involves simply filling in the details. Claudia Johnson concurs:
Still a bit queasy about authorizing Maria’s marriage, Sir Thomas consoles himself with the (inaccurate) observation that Maria’s disposition is, like his wife’s, so placid that she will never be unhappy with the lot to which he is anxious creditably to assign her . . . . Of course Sir Thomas’s confidence that Maria will cooperate in an alliance advantageous to himself without any ill is preposterous. (264)
The culmination of Sir Thomas’s assumptions is a nod to his own pride. Maria must be marrying Mr. Rushworth because of the short distance between Sotherton and Mansfield, a “nearness” that “must naturally hold out the greatest temptation, and would in all probability be a continual supply of the most amiable and innocent enjoyments” (201). This delusional view is the icing on the cake.
In order to confirm the reader’s observations, Austen returns the narrative to the third person perspective, noting:
Such and such-like were the reasonings of Sir Thomas—happy to escape the embarrassing evils of a rupture, the wonder, the reflections, the reproach that must attend it, happy to secure a marriage which would bring him such an addition of respectability and influence, and very happy to think anything of his daughter’s disposition that was most favorable for the purpose. (201).
This passage shows that Sir Thomas’s self-delusions have worked perfectly. He can avoid the social and economic consequences of breaking the engagement as well as enjoy the resulting benefits without further justification or consideration for his moral values. Sir Thomas allows the marriage to proceed, setting into motion the near downfall of Mansfield Park.
In Volume III: Chapter xvii, Austen revisits Sir Thomas’s shifting sets of values. At this point in the story, Sir Thomas’s sense of duty and parental regard resurface to feel the sting of the consequences of his judgment. Sir Thomas’s negligence as a parent leads to the disgrace of Maria at the hands of Henry Crawford. Austen’s ultimate judgment of Sir Thomas’s motives has been passed. Because of parental neglect, Sir Thomas is denied the wealth and social standing of the Rushworth connection, for which he sacrifices his sense of moral right. Frustrated in the goals of his other values, the penitent Sir Thomas returns to his reasonable, dutiful, and moral set of values. As Tanner states: “With his repressive, indelicate inflexibility, Sir Thomas nearly brings about the ruin of Mansfield Park, and it is only at the end that he finds himself truly ‘sick of ambitious and mercenary connections’ and more and more appreciative of ‘the sterling good of principle and temper’” (152).
Yet, Austen leaves the reader certain clues that call into question the permanence of Sir Thomas’s reliance upon one set of values. On the first page of the chapter, the narrative reveals Sir Thomas’s reflections that “he ought not to have allowed the marriage” (461). This is strikingly similar to the sentiment expressed in Volume II: Chapter iii. Austen uses a structure that parallels the Rushworth engagement debate, repeating the pattern of repressing the moral set of values into complacency. “These were reflections that required some time to soften; but time will do almost every thing” (461-62). Sir Thomas focuses purely on the good that comes from the situation, or at least the lack of total misfortune. As Sir Thomas mentally moves from considering Mr. Yates’s potential for improvement to Edmund’s true goodness, his competing values are accommodated as he mentally lessens the blow of his own guilt and disgrace. Though Austen’s narrator comments that “the anguish arising from the conviction of his own errors in the education of his daughters, was never to be entirely done away” (463), Sir Thomas reverts to his economic and societal set of values. The most telling example occurs when Austen uses the narrative to show Sir Thomas’s thoughts on Maria: “Maria had destroyed her own character, and he would not by a vain attempt to restore what never could be restored, be affording his sanction to vice . . . ”(465). Sir Thomas seemingly casts off all responsibility for Maria’s situation and refuses to associate with such a fallen woman. However, Austen’s use of “would” and “could” tell the true story; Sir Thomas convinces himself that his idealized picture shows the true nature of the situation because he does not want to shoulder his share of the moral blame and does not want his social standing to be harmed. At the same time, Sir Thomas does still feel guilt and wishes to prevent such a thing from happening to someone else. In this situation, all Sir Thomas’s sets of values are in agreement, making them appear as one.
Austen’s depiction of Sir Thomas’s inner struggles illustrates the
complexity and depth of her characters. Because
Sir Thomas possesses multiple sets of values, Austen condemns him to a level of
inner turmoil which he would never suffer externally in his own home.
In his vain quest to pursue the goals of all his sets of values, Sir
Thomas Bertram does little to credit “the view and patronage of Mansfield
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Oxford: OUP, 1986.
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“Jane Austen.” In Jane Austen: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Ian Watt.
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