of course, Tom Bertram could die—his fate is in the hands of Jane Austen herself, and she and none but she has raised the possibility of his popping off at all. There is no law against her killing off a character to let her hero succeed to his position. Tom Bertram could die. But he doesn’t. He gets very, very sick, and his life is in jeopardy, but he recovers to live a long life and inherit his father’s property. It seems most extraordinary that Jane Austen should imperil him at all, considering that very few readers care two figs for Tom Bertram. However, I would argue that Tom undergoes perhaps the biggest change of any character in Mansfield Park although all his character growth happens offstage, through narration. In Tom as in other characters in other novels, Austen uses illness as a trigger, an occasion, for change—but why must Tom change? Why can’t he die and leave Edmund to inherit Mansfield Park, as Mary Crawford wishes him to do?
Jane Austen’s project for this novel seems to include as a most important element the imagining of a different end. She so insists on this element that readers, too, get engaged in alternate plot making. (I would contend that Austen’s suggesting other alternatives is one of the main reasons for readers’ dissatisfaction with the novel, unbeknownst to them.) Even her own sister Cassandra wanted Fanny to marry Henry, and many a modern reader has wished the same thing. If we are alert to Austen’s method, however, by the close of the novel, we should finally be able to observe that she has been directing the plot so that the characters within her little world may participate in the universal acknowledgment of an eternal truth: as she aphoristically concludes in her last description of Sir Thomas’s change at the end of the novel, his “joyful consent” and “high sense of having realised a great acquisition” in Fanny and Edmund’s engagement “formed just such a contrast with his early opinion . . , as time is for ever producing between the plans and decisions of mortals, for their own instruction, and their neighbour’s entertainment” (546). This axiom is not a throwaway line but a moral toward which Austen has directed most of the plot and subplots. She creates narrative pressures like musical cadences, and then introduces apparent discord. When Austen stubbornly refuses to grant Mary’s wish for Tom to die and Edmund to succeed him, she both creates narrative pressure to do away with a seemingly unimportant character whose death would elevate the future spouse of the heroine and simultaneously resists that narrative pressure. So why must Tom remain alive?
Tom is a character who evinces Fanny’s observations about the passage of time and change; however, any member of the cast might have served that purpose. The illness Tom suffers, on the other hand, sets him apart from everyone else and is the occasion for this change, which the narrator tells us explicitly is compounded by the shock of his sister Maria’s fall from grace and which subsequently fosters the growth of his fraternal relationship with his brother, Edmund. Friendship, neglect, religious faith, fraternal ties, and brotherly love play such important roles in this metamorphosis and are such central themes of the novel that we see his near-death as integral to the novel’s project. Austen also illustrates the ideal relationship between the gentry and the clergy, institutions the two young men could embody in the future. But perhaps most important, she invites us to think about poetic justice and the potential distortions of moral order that a man-made meritocracy would introduce.
Why should Tom get sick?
Tom Bertram cannot die because Jane Austen has a plan; his illness is a crucial part of that plan. Sarah Emsley has proposed that “the final action [of Mansfield Park] is the rejection of a marriage proposal from an immoral suitor.” In her essay on tragic action in Mansfield Park, she suggests that Aristotle’s understanding of a tragedy with a good outcome is a model worth considering if we wish to comprehend the nature of Austen’s project. She adds that in this case the “estate is not purified through death, but through the new understanding of morality at Mansfield that comes after Maria’s elopement with Henry Crawford, an understanding that is made possible largely through Fanny’s principled resistance to Henry.” I would add, however, that, as in Sense and Sensibility, in Mansfield Park Austen comes very close to purification through death. Although the comic ending of the novel grants Fanny Price her heart’s desire, as Sense and Sensibility grants Elinor hers, Austen brings someone close to death to achieve an unexpected grace for that more misguided character. Tom is one of the very few characters in all of Austen’s works who ever undergoes so radical a change. It is not too much to say that she makes the entire outcome of the novel hinge upon his reform rather than his death. His story, which seems so peripheral at a casual first reading, is deeply interwoven into Fanny and Edmund’s, and even Mary and Henry’s.
Tom Bertram and Mary Crawford
Tom begins the novel as a conventional, young petty aristocrat with no repulsive vices and no affecting virtues. He is not interesting to the reader or to Mary Crawford, who first sets her sights on him as her quarry and soon abandons him as an object—seemingly because he bores her. Because she prefers a younger brother for his personal qualities when for every other reason she ought to prefer the elder, Mary’s valuing of Edmund devalues Tom. Her assessment of Tom as he lies on what she imagines to be his deathbed at the end of the novel shows absolutely no signs of any attachment at all: “‘from what I hear, poor Mr. Bertram has a bad chance of ultimate recovery. I thought little of his illness at first. I looked upon him as the sort of person to be made a fuss with, and to make a fuss himself in any trifling disorder, and was chiefly concerned for those who had to nurse him’” (502). Her understanding of what is valuable in a person’s nature in terms of affection, responsibility, moderation, and self-effacement makes her demonstrate far greater concern for Edmund and Fanny. Austen never shows us Mary flirting with Tom; Tom seemingly never finds the clever and handsome young visitor attractive enough to pursue, in spite of his appreciation of her manners, a sentiment the author uses to ironic effect: “‘Those who are showing the world what female manners should be,’ said Mr. Bertram gallantly, ‘are doing a great deal to set them right’” (58). Tom, like his father, confuses manners with virtue. Tom’s friendships will turn out badly, but the author also denies him a romance. When it comes to love and friendship, Tom is a failure.
Tom is also capable of wishing ill upon his neighbor: “On Mr. Norris’s death, the presentation became the right of a Dr. Grant, who came consequently to reside at Mansfield, and on proving to be a hearty man of forty-five, seemed likely to disappoint Mr. Bertram’s calculations. But,” as Tom says to himself upon meeting the new parson, “‘no, he was a short-neck’d, apoplectic sort of fellow, and, plied well with good things, would soon pop off’” (27). Dr. Grant does pop off conveniently in the final pages of the novel, unmourned glutton that he is, taking away with him any pretext for the return of the Crawfords and allowing Edmund and Fanny to move into a larger home closer to Mansfield Park when they are expecting their first child. Austen grants Tom’s early malicious wish; contrasting this boon with the one she refuses to Mary Crawford, I take it that Austen not only likes Tom but also finds his desire for Dr. Grant’s death less serious, less malignant.
In also wishing for a convenient death, Mary Crawford, the novel’s potential heroine, is linked narratively to Tom more assuredly than through her early desire to marry him. Austen again subverts a conventional storyline to foreground another concern. The reader is compelled to ask, Why do Tom and Mary reflect each other in this way? Perhaps Austen thinks of Mary’s wish as a kind of comeuppance for Tom, though he probably never knows of it. This is what it is like to be seen as dispensable, a pawn in a selfish plot. Although the narrative link makes the two seem made for each other (as does their common fascination with determining who is in and who is out), marriage to Mary would reinforce bad habits of thought, as John Dashwood’s marriage to Fanny Ferrars does in Sense and Sensibility. Mary and Tom could be a couple who get along admirably, as the John Dashwoods do, but Austen seems more interested in their similarity than in their compatibility. If Tom starts the novel with a kind of callousness that allows him to wish for someone else’s death, Mary ends the novel with that sort of callousness, even after every opportunity for change that love and the quiet life in the country have offered her. Mary’s departure at the end of Mansfield Park may be a kind of allegorical freeing of Tom from this element in his character, from the tendency to see others as tools to advance his own self-satisfaction. If Mary cannot escape from herself, Tom can. As we shall see, he is freed into a future that includes love of others. Again, the author seems to think enough of Tom as a character, likes him enough to grant him this destiny Austen only allows to characters with mature moral scope: the ability to change.
Change and ordination
Tom changes most explicitly in regard to his younger brother, Edmund. Austen might have used Tom’s death to invert the social order, or at least to promote her oft-noted interest in meritocracy. Instead she makes the tale of his survival a story about brothers who end the novel in a relationship that transforms their earlier antagonism into mutual affection and support. Edmund has changed somewhat in this regard as well, but Austen does not draw our attention to his change in attitude toward his older brother. Instead, she focuses on Tom’s new attachment to his younger brother.
A popular moral writer, Anglican pastor Thomas Gisborne, suggests in his An Enquiry into the Duties of the Female Sex, a book Austen had read with approval, that brothers will not vie over property and privileges as long as they are on parallel courses. If their desires and duties do not intersect, fraternal concord will be the result (387-88; qtd. by Fergus 71-72). Austen, however, brings Edmund and Tom into collision and near collision several times in the novel although they have clearly distinct roles to play in their future and although Edmund does not seem ever to covet Tom’s. The issue is always moral authority, and Edmund has it although Tom claims it. Edmund loses it briefly over the play and Mary Crawford, and Tom triumphs in secret with his sister Maria, but he has not gained it himself:
It was, indeed, a triumphant day to Mr. Bertram and Maria. Such a victory over Edmund’s discretion had been beyond their hopes, and was most delightful. There was no longer anything to disturb them in their darling project, and they congratulated each other in private on the jealous weakness to which they attributed the change, with all the glee of feelings gratified in every way. Edmund might still look grave, and say he did not like the scheme in general, and must disapprove the play in particular; their point was gained; he was to act, and he was driven to it by the force of selfish inclinations only. Edmund had descended from that moral elevation which he had maintained before, and they were both as much the better as the happier for the descent. (185)
Is there a passage in Austen where invidious glee has greater expression? All Tom and Maria wish for is Edmund’s descent from moral elevation. The siblings do not achieve unity through this descent because Edmund still has misgivings and is not really on their side, but what Tom wants is to have his feelings gratified: his feelings spring from a dislike of Edmund’s moral superiority. If Edmund acts from selfishness, he is one of them. The narrator’s comment that the two are “the better” as well as “the happier” is a clear case of Austenian irony. Tom resents those things that make Edmund better than him, though he is younger: selflessness and adherence to principle.
Investigating a political issue well worn already by her day in England, Austen works out the competition between the secular and ecclesiastical authority through a fraternal relationship that blossoms from this unpromising beginning. Austen has throughout the novel portrayed the responsibility of the first son to the estate and to the family as reflecting each other: being remiss in one arena generally implies remissness in the other, a point she makes for instance with Henry Crawford and his estate, Everingham. Tom is not financially responsible—but if Edmund has the spiritual welfare of his flock as his primary responsibility, Austen is saying that Tom should have the material welfare of his family and community as his. The aforementioned Gisborne is just one of the most popular of many writers emphasizing that the first duty of a private gentleman is the upkeep of his estate—in particular ensuring that the land is productive (51)—but Edmund alone observes that the hay must be got in, whether Mary Crawford wants her harp or no (68). What will Tom be like supervising his family and his estate? We know, because it is already happening: he will be like Sir Walter Elliot in Austen’s last completed novel, Persuasion, and drive it into the ground.
Tom is a bad steward of his father’s—some day to be his own—estate. However, his habit of spending too much is purely conventional for eldest sons; in “Characterization in Mansfield Park,” Peter Giotta reveals the role George Colman’s play The Heir at Law fulfills in inspiring Austen’s design of Tom’s character. When he argues for doing this play instead of Lovers’ Vows, Tom unknowingly announces that he is not much but a reprise of a dramatic stereotype of the spendthrift heir of an estate. In eighteenth century drama and prose, however, this character, who was often the hero, usually repents. Since so many others of the Mansfield party end up in roles that somehow echo their own concerns and desires, Tom’s wish to play lesser, comic roles in The Heir at Law and then the rhyming butler in Lovers’ Vows seems to be an alert from the narrator that she thinks Tom unsuited to his role as heir. Austen carefully uses her references to drama to shape Tom as a character and to inform the reader about his shortcomings. If we go by eighteenth-century dramatic expectations, he should be the hero; instead, he wants to be the clown.
Tom is also blind—as blind as Edmund, or even more so, to the moral qualities of the men he introduces to his sisters, and in case we don’t see the point Austen is making about Henry Crawford here, she repeats the same pattern in a less dark version with Mr. Yates and Julia. Tom has failed at all the things he as eldest brother should be mindful of.
Tom will later prize the very selflessness he finds disgusting and obtrusive in Edmund. Austen prepares us for the change by letting the readers know in his sickness and loneliness that “Tom’s extreme impatience to be removed to Mansfield, and experience those comforts of home and family which had been little thought of in uninterrupted health, had probably induced his being conveyed thither too early, as a return of fever came on, and for a week he was in a more alarming state than ever” (495-96). Uninterrupted health allows strong and youthful people to feel self-sufficient and arrogant; Austen allows us to see that Tom undergoes illness because, as Gisborne writes in The Duties of a Clergyman, “Sickness naturally disposes the mind to seriousness and reflection; and, by withdrawing its attention and loosening its attachment from the objects of the present world, fits it for estimating according to their real importance the concerns of that which is to come” (335).
The 2007 BBC film production of Mansfield Park with Billie Piper as Fanny and James D’Arcy as Tom has Edmund and Fanny reading the racing news to Tom as he recovers in bed, a choice that directly contradicts what Austen says in her narrative about Tom’s illness and recovery. Austen makes Tom sick, makes his friends abandon him, makes him come to the threshold of death, but not to make us weep over poor Tom and then shrug off the illness as if it were a mere interruption in the career of his festive youth. Instead, she grants him a proper threshold into another way of looking at life, the threshold that illness provides. The narrator confirms this intention:
There was comfort [for Sir Thomas] also in Tom, who 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 learnt to think, two advantages that he had never known before; and the self-reproach arising from the deplorable event in Wimpole Street, to which he felt himself accessary 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 effects. (534)
Tom does not merely survive; he improves in every way. Rarely in her works does Austen so clearly link suffering with wisdom; she clearly means it to provide the schooling that was lacking in the Bertrams’ upbringing. Tom can take on his role as head of the estate in the future with a deeper knowledge than his principled father ever had of the importance of virtue and selflessness.
Moreover, Mansfield Park acts as a kind of anti-fairy tale in reinforcing through Tom’s survival that the consequence of Edmund’s role does not depend on his ownership of the estate. Edmund has enunciated that consequence in the visit to the chapel at Sotherton: whatever is of most importance in human life, is under the care of the pastor:
“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. No one here can call the office nothing. If the man who holds it is so, it is by the neglect of his duty, by foregoing its just importance, and stepping out of his place to appear what he ought not to appear.” (107-08)
Edmund excludes from his list of those important things not only wealth and rank but also material comforts. Austen does not appear to want to reverse that statement at the closure of her novel, as comfortable as Edmund and Fanny are going to be anyway. Keeping Edmund as a clergyman, she has him model his role as protector and confidant, fulfilling his priestly character in conjunction with his role as brother. He does not “neglect his duty,” or “forego its just importance” to “step out of his place to appear what he ought not to appear.” Thus Tom can change and come to value those things Edmund represents. Valuing Edmund allows Tom to be a better landowner because, as the narrator will point out, he now knows how to live for others as well as for himself (534).
Tom and the Crawfords’ (and our) alternate novel: Desiring death
By cheating death, Tom foils the most outrageous and the most convenient suggestion to provide the novel with a conventional happy ending. Many of the novel’s characters voice ordinary narrative expectations. Above all, Tom, Mary, and Henry are Austen’s ordinary readers; they expect the world to function a certain way, and they attempt to nudge the author in that direction. Oddly enough, that direction is often toward poetic justice and meritocracy. What does the Mansfield Park that Austen suggests but does not grant look like?
In fact, there are many other versions possible. In Tom’s alternate novel, he need never feel guilt about cheating his brother of some of his fortune because the obstacle to Edmund’s reception of the living will conveniently die. But that version, of course, is not an alternate novel, because Dr. Grant does die at an opportune moment. By then, however, Tom is no longer fleeing guilt. In Mary’s alternate novel, Tom will die, and thus she need never choose between love and social status because Edmund will come equipped with both. He will marry her as soon as she becomes compliant—or so she thinks. In Henry’s alternate novel, Sir Thomas will remain becalmed on his voyage long enough for the Mansfield players to perform their play; we might wonder ourselves what other events might ensue should that happen, but Henry does not seem to. Even Fanny fears for a very long time that the novel will end with Mary Crawford wed to Edmund, and never more so than when Tom is ill: she is “more inclined to hope than fear for her cousin—except when she thought of Miss Crawford—but Miss Crawford gave her the idea of being the child of good luck, and to her selfishness and vanity it would be good luck to have Edmund the only son” (498). Fanny’s trepidation leads her to imagine a force other than the providential imagination of the author guiding the novel, a force that will favor Mary. Why else should Austen mention this fear and the reason for it except that she wishes the reader to think of the same possibility? It is not the ending Fanny wants, but she does not dare to think or say explicitly what she truly wishes for. Austen nonetheless has let every reader know clearly what that conclusion is; the challenge is to accept the outcome that Austen designs to correct “authorial” interventions from her characters. Austen reveals these designs to be dangerous by showing that, in the end, they require mortal peril or even death to be satisfied.
The characters who want the alternate novel would assume godlike authority over life and death if they could. Mary cannot be dictated to by a watch, so she will become goddess of time (111). Henry would like to govern the winds and becalm Sir Thomas for a convenient period: “‘Not that we would have endangered his safety by any tremendous weather—but only by a steady contrary wind, or a calm. I think, Miss Price, we would have indulged ourselves with a week’s calm in the Atlantic at that season’” (263). Tom has even thought that he or someone could assist fate in plying Dr. Grant with “‘good things’” to hasten his inevitable apoplectic end (27). Mary of course adds in her letter to Fanny when inquiring after the sick Tom that she has never assisted fate in sending someone off to his eternal reward: “‘To have such a fine young man cut off in the flower of his days, is most melancholy. . . . I really am quite agitated on the subject. Fanny, Fanny, I see you smile, and look cunning, but, upon my honour, I never bribed a physician in my life’” (502). But who is not troubled by Mary’s suggestion and her Isabella Thorpe-like attribution to Fanny of complicit smiles? Her joke brings to mind the Gothic novel, the machinations in Ann Radcliffe’s A Sicilian Romance or The Mysteries of Udolpho. Austen thus hints at another narrative path she might follow. Would not the best comeuppance for Tom be for someone else’s death wish to come true as well? Austen allows us to begin to align Mary Crawford with Radcliffe’s evil countess Maria de Vellorno: Mary Crawford may not poison young men who are obstacles to her, but she has read the books where Marias do such things, and, more important, so has her creator. However, Miss Crawford’s merry suggestion that Tom might convenience her and the admiring world by raising Edmund to the secular consequence he merits and Tom does not constitutes the most dramatic reversal of her governance of proceedings. In allowing Mary to make her outrageous suggestion, Austen indicts both the character and the reader, for we do not think as Austen thinks as we hasten to the conclusion.
Austen’s uncanny knowledge of the ways the reader might misread her novel is not so hard to fathom when we realize she has strewn the novel with breadcrumbs leading the unwary reader down wrong paths, the paths of conventional novelistic trajectories. By this means, Austen refashions the concept of poetic justice so that she may re-emphasize the importance of the roles both young men will play in English society and de-emphasize wealth and political power as the proper reward of her virtuous heroine.
Tom’s return to health is not merely an affirmation of the status quo. Austen does not leave the political order intact to make her point about the spiritual order; because of his early heedlessness, Tom’s survival could in fact mean the death of the Bertram estate. Austen allows him a rebirth through illness, consequently giving us reason to hope that the secular and the spiritual can be aligned as they have not been throughout the entire novel. That reason is the fraternal love that develops between Tom and Edmund in the closure of Mansfield Park. And because it is brotherly love between a future landowner and a priest, the reader can see that, in spite of recent arguments to the contrary, Mansfield Park is a novel about ordination after all.
Fraternal love conquers all
This love is an unexpected but necessary part of the plot as Austen shapes it. Certainly, the Bertram family, for all Sir Thomas’s emphasis on family time and exclusion of outsiders, is not close. The ideal at the time, however, was quite different from what the Bertrams exhibit. Susan Allen Ford reminds us of these contemporary ideals in her essay “‘Exactly what a brother should be’? The Failures of Brotherly Love.” She cites the Rev. William Dodd’s definition of fraternal love, in his Sermons to Young Men of 1771, as “certainly one of the most natural propensities of the human heart”:
Born of the same parents, brothers and sisters hang at the same breast, and drink the same milk; fed beneath the same roof, they share the same united and tender cares, the same ideas are impressed, and they are taught to regard each other as cemented by ties of the most endearing and indissoluble sort. No wonder . . . that a mutual and increasing prepossession for each other gains upon the heart; while custom unites with nature, and both are strengthened by parental wisdom and solicitude. (qtd. in Ford 103-04)
The Bertrams may look like a model family before Maria’s adultery, but clearly, like the Ward sisters, the siblings do not exhibit customary or even natural prepossession for each other.
In fact, Austen emphasizes throughout Mansfield Park how little family members actually feel for each other, for they are enclosed in little worlds bounded by selfishness and inattentiveness. Only Julia and Maria have a close relationship at the outset; in fact they think and speak as one (20-21). That unity, however, also allows them to desire the same object once it comes into view, Henry Crawford, and thus is, ironically, a source of their division. Tom and Edmund rarely speak of or seem to think of their sisters, who likewise—and Fanny notes this with disapproval—do not think it worth their while to abandon London to visit Tom even when he is so very sick they think he might die. The brothers’ own relationship is cool. I have already mentioned Tom’s dismissal of his responsibility for virtually impoverishing Edmund through his debts, and Edmund chafes at being junior to an older brother who is clearly his inferior in intellect and character. Tom resents Edmund’s interference, but the reader is perhaps inclined to see it as necessary, given Tom’s inattention to both filial and fraternal obligations.
If we view this fraternal dynamic as a commentary on the relationship between landowner and priest in the Anglican community, we see the political tension of which Austen is creating a mirror. Edmund’s virtue and erudition, his moral seriousness, compel Mary Crawford, outside of her mercenary motives, to elect him the ideal holder of the estate. Austen is clearly thinking of this option and proposing it through Mary: “‘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’” (502). Fanny evaluates this large hint as to how the plot might go as follows: “Edmund would be forgiven for being a clergyman, it seemed, under certain conditions of wealth; and this she suspected, was all the conquest of prejudice, which he was so ready to congratulate himself upon. [Mary] had only learnt to think nothing of consequence but money” (505).
Fanny does not comment on that part of Mary’s statement that has to do with poetic justice: “wealth and consequence could fall into no hands more deserving of them.” Mary’s letter, however, when viewed from the perspective of its role in the development of the plot and themes of the novel, is clearly about poetic justice. Like Henry, she sees herself as its instrument in her appreciation of Fanny, but both would strew the path to elevation with sacrifices: Mary with Tom’s death, Henry with the mortification and anger of the Bertram sisters, whom he will have snubbed as the evil stepsisters of his Cinderella (344).
Instead, in the final chapters of the novel, Austen elevates family love, and more particularly fraternal love, the opposing virtue to envy, the vice so evident in the rivalries that dominate the Price and Bertram families and that governs so many of the actions of the main villain (that is, Aunt Norris). Genuine love will dominate over the abuse of marriage in all its varieties in the novel, but above all as we see that abuse exemplified in Mary’s utilitarian view of men (valuable above all for their wealth and station) and in Henry’s utilitarian view of women (for sexual use, as in the case of Maria, or for self-flattery, as is largely the case with his devotion to Fanny). Austen almost immediately brings Mary’s fancies of a future wealthy marriage to Edmund crashing down, as Henry himself destroys his self-aggrandizing dream of showing an envious Bertram family the kind of woman who can really attach him (344).
The narrator begins to explore the real family feelings and attachments that have nothing to do with wealth or station as Fanny contemplates the grief that Maria’s adultery will inflict upon her relatives: she thinks of all of them, but Edmund above all, as she watches “Edmund trying to bury his own feelings in exertions for the relief of his brother’s” (519). For the first time, too, we hear of Tom’s being truly affected by something outside himself: “Tom’s complaints had been greatly heightened by the shock of his sister’s conduct, and his recovery so much thrown back by it, that even Lady Bertram had been struck by the difference” (522). In other words, emotional trauma has worsened his already acute illness. Tom’s deep distress at his sister’s trespass strikes the reader as the more affecting when we remember not only that Maria does not bother to separate herself from her London friends and Henry Crawford to return to see him, perhaps for the last time, but that she also has her affair while he is in danger of death. As an astonished Fanny hears from Mary Crawford in a letter, “‘Mrs. R. knows a decline is apprehended; [Henry] saw her this morning: she returns to Wimpole Street to-day’” (503-04). Only Julia mentions that she will come home if wanted though she makes no move to leave London—and Tom never asks for her (501).
Finally, Edmund’s notes to Fanny reveal an important change in Tom’s relationship with his younger brother:
when able to talk or be talked to, or read to, Edmund was the companion he preferred. His aunt worried him by her cares, and Sir Thomas knew not how to bring down his conversation or his voice to the level of irritation and feebleness. Edmund was all in all. Fanny would certainly believe him so at least, and must find that her estimation of him was higher than ever when he appeared as the attendant, supporter, cheerer of a suffering brother. There was not only the debility of recent illness to assist; there was also, as she now learnt, nerves much affected, spirits much depressed to calm and raise, and her own imagination added that there must be a mind to be properly guided. (498)
The narrator describes Edmund’s role in guiding Tom’s mind as Fanny’s addition to Edmund’s narrative of his services to Tom. What Edmund emphasizes in his letters, then, is Tom’s depression and agitation. That Edmund is “all in all” is not Tom’s phrase but Fanny’s; she reads between the lines with more than just an admirer’s discernment. As Edmund reveals Tom’s difficulty with the presence of his parents, he also reveals, without meaning to do so, how much Tom wants him and only him in the sick room. With the “genuine strength of feeling” Fanny knows him to have (511), Edmund “attend[s], support[s], [and] cheers” him, proving to Tom—who has just suffered from the negligence of the London friends whose company he had previously preferred—what real friendship is. The narrator briefly confirms Fanny’s perception of Tom’s new regard for Edmund: when Edmund returns to Mansfield, having fetched Fanny from Portsmouth, “Edmund was almost as welcome to his brother, as Fanny to her aunt” (518).
Healthy and protective when Tom is suffering and weak, Edmund—even while dealing with the severest, the only, romantic disappointment of his young life—still appears to the reader as the superior of the two young men. But his task is to prevent that gap from opening up that would allow the author to slip him, with those strengths, into the seat of secular power. Edmund reveals his strength in nursing and advising the sick; Tom must be preserved to lead Mansfield Park once his also-converted father departs this life. Austen resolutely refuses to join with Mary Crawford in wishing “‘wealth and consequence’” to be conferred upon her hero, although she has constructed the story so we agree with her estimation of their relative merits. Mary’s invitation to Fanny to join with her in her “‘natural,’” “‘virtuous and philanthropic’” “‘feelings’” on the matter could almost be an invitation to the reader:
“I put it to your conscience, whether ‘Sir Edmund’ would not do more good with all the Bertram property, than any other possible ‘Sir.’” (503)
Austen knows he would; we know he would; Mary and Fanny know he would. However, Austen does not want to confirm Mary’s elevation of the landowner over the priest in this roundabout way. She believes landowners should also be virtuous, and she believes priests should not be landowners. They should value the same things and care for each other from the heart. So Tom should not die; he must not die; nor is he awarded wealth and consequence, for they were to be his to start with. Rather, at the end of the novel a changed Tom receives the gift of a new appreciation of the goods Edmund has always espoused as well as a priest in his parish who is not only his most loyal supporter but also a loving brother.
At the beginning of the novel, Tom is “just entering into life, full of spirits, and with all the liberal dispositions of an eldest son, who feels born only for expense and enjoyment” (19). An author might indeed dispose of such a worthless creature to advance a more worthy successor. However, Tom Bertram cannot die because Austen wants to show the power brotherly love might have not only in the family but also in the political world, where church and state vie for status. Although critics have neglected Tom, arguing that he “remains an essentially marginal figure” though he is the “heir of the estate” (Sales 106), his creator says, Tom “became what he ought to be, useful to his father, steady and quiet, and not living merely for himself” (534). From the demanding Jane Austen, that is high praise indeed and confirms that, by the end of the novel, it is not only Edmund who deserves to be entrusted with a great responsibility.
Austen, Jane. Mansfield Park. Ed. John Wiltshire. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2005.
Emsley, Sarah. “The Tragic Action of Mansfield Park.” Persuasions On-Line 28.1 (Win. 2007).
Fergus, Jan. “‘Rivalry, Treachery between sisters!’ Tensions between Brothers and Sisters in Austen’s Novels.” Persuasions 31 (2009): 69-88.
Ford, Susan Allen. “‘Exactly what a brother should be’? The Failures of Brotherly Love.” Persuasions 31 (2009): 102-14.
Giotta, Peter. “Characterization in Mansfield Park: Tom Bertram and Colman’s The Heir at Law.” Review of English Studies 49.196 (1998): 466-71.
Gisborne, Thomas. An Enquiry into the Duties of Men in the Higher and Middle Classes of Society in Great Britain. 2 vols. London, 1795.
_____. An Enquiry into the Duties of the Female Sex. London, 1797.
Sales, Roger. Jane Austen and Representations of Regency England. New York: Routledge, 1994.