“Of all the fathers of Jane Austen’s novels, Sir Thomas is the only one
to whom admiration is given [by Austen]." - Lionel Trilling
"The catastrophe of the novel depends upon our moral sympathy with Sir Thomas"
-- Marvin Mudrick
In Jane Austen: Writing, Society, Politics, Tom Keymer points out “Austen could perfectly well have positioned [Sir Thomas] as a self-serving anti-abolitionist, or she could have made him a reformist like the hero of Mary Brunton’s Discipline (1815)...”
Yes, she could have made him a villain or a reformer, but she does neither. She tells us nothing about Sir Thomas's holdings in Antigua or how he manages them. The 1999 movie adaptation portrays him as a menacing and perverted man who forced himself on captive women, but even people who like this movie understand it is not a faithful representation of the novel.
On the other hand, some have suggested that Sir Thomas must have sold his plantation when he went to Antigua, or that after all, the income from Antigua probably didn’t represent much of the family income compared to his local rents, and so on. Yes, perhaps he was the most benevolent slaveowner in Antigua. I won't bother attempting to speculate, because while, as we have seen, emancipation versus amelioration was discussed in Austen's time, freedom versus slavery is not contentious today. No-one today would be inclined to give Sir Thomas a patient hearing on the matter. And in the end it is unproven and unprovable because he's a fictional character. I am not defending the fact of Antigua. Austen didn't tell us anything about Antigua.
So when I say I am writing in defense of Sir Thomas, I am defending the role Sir Thomas plays in the novel, because his character is crucial to the meaning and structure of Mansfield Park. Scholar Mary Nardin points out: "Sir Thomas’s failures as a parental guide drive the plot: the union he permits between Maria and Mr. Rushworth ends in divorce; the matches he promotes never occur; and the marriage between Fanny and Edmund that concludes the novel is the very marriage that he had determined to prevent when he agreed to adopt his niece."
Does Austen defend Sir Thomas? How does she intend for him to be seen?
In my opinion, Austen presents Sir Thomas as a man with flaws who made mistakes, but she does not portray him as a villain. He is excessively formal in his speech and ponderous in his thinking. Critic Adolphus Alfred Jack declared in 1899 that he was a "of a genus extinct." He seems to have been born with his wig and knee breeches; it is impossible to imagine him as a child, difficult even to imagine him courting the beautiful Maria Ward.
Austen foreshadows the consequences that arise when her characters, with their individual strengths and failings, come into contact or conflict with others, as when she tell us Maria has "contempt of the man she was to marry."
Austen's comments on Sir Thomas have more of extenuation about them. She explains why he makes the mistakes that he makes, but she does so without explicitly condemning him. For example, she gives a lengthy explanation for why he lets Maria's marriage to Rushworth go ahead. And none of her authorial commentaries about Sir Thomas touch on support for, or guilt about, slavery. Let's review them.
Sir Thomas is very much the paterfamilias of the household. In one reference to his relationship with his servants, he speaks respectfully of "my friend Christopher Jackson" the carpenter, whom he holds blameless for building a theatre in the billiard room. In contrast, Mrs. Norris harasses the servants and Maria makes a rude remark about their coachman Wilcox. Mary Crawford praises Sir Thomas as the ideal husband, and Mrs. Grant explains to Mary that his household suffers when he's away -- "nobody else can keep Mrs. Norris in order."
Henry Crawford assumes that Edmund will be an absentee clergyman. He'll throw some money at a curate to do all the work and keep most of the income for himself. As Henry says to his sister, "a sermon at Christmas and Easter, I suppose, will be the sum total of sacrifice.” Sir Thomas corrects Henry: Edmund will live amongst his parishioners, and he, as a father, would be "deeply mortified" if his son did less. Edmund chimes in with, “Sir Thomas undoubtedly understands the duty of a parish priest. We must hope his son [referring to himself] may prove that he knows it too."
The glib and worldly Henry is silenced, and "bowed his acquiescence." Today, we would counter a "little harangue" from Sir Thomas with: "Um, yeah, you know what's worse than being an absentee clergyman? Slavery, maybe?" But surely Austen intended for the reader to agree with Sir Thomas and Edmund, pompous though they may be.
Furthermore, as scholar J.A. Downie points out, Fanny -- our heroine -- sees things the way Sir Thomas sees them. Fanny knows Sir Thomas would disapprove of putting on a play, particularly one as racy as Lover's Vows, and so she thinks the young people shouldn't do it. Sir Thomas expects Fanny to treat her horrid Aunt Norris "with the respect and attention that are due to her," and Fanny expects Mary Crawford to speak respectfully of her dissolute old uncle. “[S]he ought not to have spoken of her uncle as she did. I was quite astonished."
Sir Thomas misinterprets Fanny's refusal of Henry Crawford's marriage proposal. He can't understand it; he gives his arguments in favour of the match and they are pretty sound, pragmatic, 18th-century reasons. This is the dramatic moment of rupture in the good understanding between Fanny and Sir Thomas. He, like Edmund, has been beguiled by the Crawfords, and poor Fanny is left completely alone, clinging to her principles and her own judgement of Henry's character. Yet, even as she trembles under his anger, we are told she thinks of him as discerning, honourable, and good. Later, when Sir Thomas's eyes are opened, once he understands why Fanny refused Henry, he agrees with her whole-heartedly. Their principles are the same. Their outlook on life is the same.
We are also reminded that Sir Thomas is the moral lodestar of the book when Austen tells us Lady Bertram, "did not think deeply, but, guided by Sir Thomas.... thought justly on all important points." When Maria leaves her husband and runs off with Henry Crawford, Lady Bertram "saw, therefore, in all its enormity, what had happened," Sir Thomas can't be our moral guide if we are are compelled to respond, "You know what's worse than running off with another man within a year of your wedding? Slavery, that's what." We can either accept what Austen says -- Sir Thomas is the moral guide -- or find some way to interpret her as meaning the opposite of what she says, or meaning two opposite things at once in a very complicated and nuanced way.
The quote above is a brief excerpt from a much longer passage, near the end of the novel, when Austen is summing up the story.
It begins with "Sir Thomas, poor Sir Thomas, a parent, and conscious of errors in his own conduct as a parent, was the longest to suffer." Austen then wraps up Tom Bertram's storyline -- his redemption makes him "useful to his father" -- then returns to Sir Thomas's thoughts while Edmund is consoling himself by talking to Fanny. Then another long passage about Sir Thomas thinking about his failures as a parent.
Next Austen briefly sums up Mrs. Norris, after which she returns to Sir Thomas again. Then Austen moves on to wrap up Henry Crawford, Julia, the Grants, then Mary Crawford, then back to Edmund, then back to Sir Thomas again, to assure us that he and Fanny are are the best of terms, (who cares if, he's a villain?), then we go briefly to Lady Bertram, Susan Price, and then the Price brothers, to praise Sir Thomas for his charity towards them. Fanny and Edmund's marriage and the success of the Prices form the chief consolation for broken-hearted Sir Thomas. Then we have two more brief paragraphs about Fanny and Edmund. The End.
In contrast, Mrs. Norris is curtly dismissed from the stage, without a whiff of sympathy. "She was regretted by no one at Mansfield." We are assured that her departure was a "supplementary comfort" for Sir Thomas. Most significantly, Sir Thomas's self-accusations have nothing to do with slavery. None of his remorse relates to the fact that he (probably) keeps people captive on an island to grow sugar cane for profit. If this is really a novel about slavery and the patriarchy, it makes no sense to leave this issue not only unresolved, but undiscussed. Moreover, if Sir Thomas is the villain, how can he also be the moral arbiter at Mansfield Park? If Sir Thomas is an utter villain, why is he not punished as Maria or Mrs. Norris are?
Why is Sir Thomas the most important character in the conclusion, one for whom Austen shows sympathy, not condemnation? And how can feminist critics wave all this away?
Sir Thomas, Fanny, and Edmund are the ones left standing at the end of the book, while the attractive, seductive Crawfords are rejected. Sir Thomas is one of those who Austen calls "not greatly at fault."
J.A. Downie asks, "Does Austen mean her readers to question and to reject the moral outlook espoused by all three of these central characters in Mansfield Park?" Either Austen intends us to side with Sir Thomas, Fanny and Edmund, or she intends for us to take the whole thing ironically, to see her as meaning the opposite of what she says for 159 thousand words. That's quite the sustained use of irony.
While Mansfield Park's stern moral universe is often unappealing to modern readers, I think the upside-down interpretation is completely untenable.
Next post: I've mentioned that slavery was not a taboo subject in Austen's time. I'll present some examples.
In my Mansfield Park variation, A Contrary Wind, Sir Thomas does not return home in time to stop the rehearsal of the play Lover's Vows. I took the title from Henry Crawford's remark to Fanny, "I think if we had had the disposal of events—if Mansfield Park had had the government of the winds just for a week or two, about the equinox, there would have been a difference. Not that we would have endangered [Sir Thomas's] 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.” Click here for more about my books.
J.A. Downie, "Rehabilitating Sir Thomas Bertram," SEL Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Volume 50, Number 4, Autumn 2010, pp. 739-758