"[T]his was not a case of fortitude or of resignation only. A submissive spirit might be patient, a strong understanding would supply resolution, but here was something more; here was that elasticity of mind, that disposition to be comforted, that power of turning readily from evil to good, and of finding employment which carried her out of herself, which was from nature alone. It was the choicest gift of Heaven..."
-- Anne Eliot's thoughts about Mrs. Smith's innate personality in Persuasion
The book opens with just such a clash. The marital fortunes of the three Ward sisters vary a great deal, and so do their tempers and personalities. The imprudent marriage of Frances Ward leads to an "absolute breach" between the sisters. Mrs. Norris, as Austen says with delightfully wry understatement, has a "spirit of activity" and she sends a scolding letter to Frances. Frances, nettled, writes back an angry letter which Mrs. Norris "could not possibly keep to herself."
Lady Bertram, the former Miss Maria Ward, has a "temper remarkably easy and indolent." In giving up her sister Frances, she is guided, as she is in all things, by the meddling Mrs. Norris. The personality dynamic between Mrs. Norris and Lady Bertram has significant consequences throughout the story.
The word "personality" wasn't around in Austen's time, nor was the term "nature versus nurture," but the concepts certainly were. In addition to analyzing people in terms of their "tempers," the term “disposition” was frequently used to describe innate personality.
Austen herself remarked in a letter about her great-nieces: “How soon, the difference of temper in Children appears! — Jemima has a very irritable bad Temper (her Mother says so) –and Julia a very sweet one, always pleased & happy.-I hope as Anna is so early sensible of its defects, that she will give Jemima’s disposition the early & steady attention it must require.” Likewise, when discussing her brother Charles's daughters, she wrote: "[Cassy] ought to be a very nice Child - Nature has done enough for her - but Method has been wanting... She will really be a very pleasing Child, if [her parents] will only exert themselves a little. - Harriet is a truely sweet-tempered little Darling."
- A mysterious foreign lady in the 1794 novel Memoirs of Mary tells Miss Montague: “My natural disposition is haughty—sometimes imperious… your gentleness... shall be the mirror in which I will correct my own impetuosity.”
- Lady Eltondale in the 1817 novel Manners might have been “almost, faultless—But a cold, selfish disposition blasted the fair promise; it was, ‘a frost, a chilling frost,’ that withered every bud of virtue!”
- Poor little Julia in the 1818 novel Castles in the Air is bullied because she is "more diffident and timid in disposition, [and] she had been accustomed to yield in every particular to the caprice of her elder sister…”
- Sir Owen in Bear and Forbear Or, The History of Julia Marchmont (1809) cherished “a hope that he should have a companion as deserving as she was amiable… The sweetness of Julia’s disposition, and her forbearing temper, were the more acceptable to Sir Owen, as he was, though kind, forgiving and generous, himself of an impatient temper, and not accustomed to meet contradiction.”
I have mentioned that Austen rarely editorializes directly. But in Mansfield Park, she clearly and repeatedly lays out the problem with Maria and Julia Bertram; Maria and Julia's moral education has been lacking. (I have excerpted these passages from the novel in a separate post here).
What went wrong with the Bertram girls? Austen sets up the situation, explains the problem to us directly, and shows how the various tempers and dispositions of her characters lead to tragedy.
The first problem is that Lady Bertram, who ought to have been superintending her daughters' education, neglects her duties. "To the education of her daughters Lady Bertram paid not the smallest attention. She had not time for such cares. She was a woman who spent her days in sitting, nicely dressed, on a sofa... Had she possessed greater leisure for the service of her girls, she would probably have supposed it unnecessary, for they were under the care of a governess, with proper masters, and could want nothing more."
Maria and Julia's natural dispositions are to be strong willed and selfish. Their aunt Mrs. Norris flatters and spoils them.
Further, Austen explains why their father--a well-meaning, intelligent, but stern man--fails to recognize the problem. “In everything but disposition [Maria and Julia] were admirably taught. Sir Thomas did not know what was wanting, because, though a truly anxious father, he was not outwardly affectionate, and the reserve of his manner repressed all the flow of their spirits before him.” When in the presence of their formidable father, his daughters are obedient, quiet, and well-behaved and he thinks this is a reflection of their true dispositions.
Enter Henry Crawford, with his sunny, lively, temper. He's personable and intelligent but he's also cynical and vain. He amuses himself by flirting with Maria and Julia.
When Sir Thomas returns from Antigua, we hear more about Maria's "disposition" --that is, her innate personality. Sir Thomas realizes that Maria's fiancé Mr. Rushworth is a dullard and that Maria doesn't show him affection or respect. "She could not, did not like him." But Maria assures her father that she doesn’t want to break off the match. This is a turning point in the novel. Maria might have concluded it was wrong to marry a man she didn't like. SIr Thomas might have insisted that Maria take some time to examine her feelings.
Once again Sir Thomas is blind to the true state of affairs. He has no idea that Maria is motivated by greed as well as pride. "Henry Crawford had destroyed her happiness" but she doesn't want him "to think of her as pining in the retirement of Mansfield for him, rejecting Sotherton and London, independence and splendour, for his sake." Sir Thomas is “very happy to think anything of his daughter’s disposition” that could benignly explain why she could be content to marry Mr. Rushworth. He rationalizes to himself that Maria, who he thinks is a cool and reserved sort of girl, is just not the falling-in-love type: “if Maria could now speak so securely of her happiness with him, speaking certainly without the prejudice, the blindness of love, she ought to be believed. Her feelings, probably, were not acute; he had never supposed them to be so.”
This blindness about Maria extends to Mrs. Norris, who was in “triumph” after Maria married Mr. Rushworth, because, Austen tells us, she did not have “the smallest insight into the disposition of the niece who had been brought up under her eye.”
As Maria Bertram Rushworth leaves on her honeymoon, Austen is scathing: "In all the important preparations of the mind [Maria] was complete: being prepared for matrimony by an hatred of home, restraint, and tranquility; by the misery of disappointed affection, and contempt of the man she was to marry. The rest might wait. The preparations of new carriages and furniture might wait for London and spring, when her own taste could have fairer play."
Again and again, Austen addresses the reader directly when she discusses the dispositions of Maria and Julia. She wants us to understand their faults and the consequences arising from them. I'm going to return to this point later in this series, when I look at some modern scholarly interpretations of Mansfield Park.
When Sir Thomas and Mrs. Norris are discussing bringing Fanny to come live at Mansfield, the question of Fanny's disposition is important to him: “Should her disposition be really bad,” said Sir Thomas, “we must not, for our own children’s sake, continue her in the family; but there is no reason to expect so great an evil.”
When Fanny arrives, Mrs. Norris is disappointed in her weepiness. "I wish [hope] there may not be a little sulkiness of temper—her poor mother had a good deal."
Luckily, Fanny “showed a tractable disposition."
As we have seen, Austen believed that parents should try to overcome the defects in the dispositions of their children. Parents in this era could turn to many guidebooks, called conduct books, if they wanted advice about how to raise their children. In her Strictures on the Modern System of Female Education (1799), best-selling author Hannah More warned parents that if their daughters were not naturally sweet tempered, they must acquire sweetness of temper.
“An early habitual restraint is peculiarly important to the future character and happiness of women. A judicious, unrelaxing, but steady and gentle curb on their tempers and passions can alone ensure their peace and establish their principles…. [Girls] should be led to distrust their own judgment; they should learn not to murmur at expostulation, they should be accustomed to expect and to endure opposition. It is a lesson with which the world will not fail to furnish them… It is of the last importance to their happiness… that they should early acquire a submissive temper and a forbearing spirit.”
Austen was not the biggest Hannah More fan around, but her heroine Fanny Price is turned out on the model of the submissive, forbearing female More prescribes. Even Henry Crawford recognizes her gentle qualities. "Was there one of the family, excepting Edmund, who had not in some way or other continually exercised her patience and forbearance?"
When Sir Thomas invites Henry Crawford to breakfast before he and William depart from Mansfield, Fanny is disappointed: "She had hoped to have William all to herself the last morning... But though her wishes were overthrown, there was no spirit of murmuring within her."
Fanny wants to avoid a private conference with Mary Crawford, but when Mary asks for one, Fanny's "habits of ready submission... made her almost instantly rise and lead the way out of the room."
As for distrusting her own judgement, Austen explains why Fanny never confronts Edmund, or her cousins Maria and Julia, about Henry Crawford's underhanded flirtations. Her lack of confidence in her own judgment holds her back from saying more about it to Edmund beyond a hint. "Fanny supposed she must have been mistaken, and meant to think differently in future; but with all that submission to Edmund could do, and all the help of the coinciding looks and hints which she occasionally noticed in some of the others, and which seemed to say that Julia was Mr. Crawford’s choice, she knew not always what to think."
Podcasters Harriet and Ellen discuss Fanny's strange mixture of timidity and interior moral judgement in the second episode of their "Reading Jane Austen" podcast series on Mansfield Park.
Fanny Price's disposition is so tender that she suffers dreadfully on her cousins' behalf when Sir Thomas returns home and catches them engaged in private theatricals. "Her agitation and alarm exceeded all that was endured by the rest, by the right of a disposition which not even innocence could keep from suffering." Indeed, Austen tells us that "Fanny’s disposition was such that she could never even think of her aunt Norris in the meagreness and cheerlessness of her own small house, without reproaching herself for some little want of attention to her when they had been last together."
Edmund is the only person who takes the time to appreciate Fanny's better qualities. While Maria and Julia initially report that Fanny is "prodigiously stupid," Edmund knows better. "He knew her to be clever, to have a quick apprehension as well as good sense.”
Not only is she clever, she is very observant. Fanny's cleverness and "apprehension" are also innate qualities, like her disposition. Although Maria and Julia seldom spare a thought for their cousin, she is always watching and feeling for them as they jealously compete for Henry Crawford’s attentions. Austen makes it clear that Fanny's got more horsepower under her hood than anyone realizes.
Previous post: "Give a Girl an Education" Next post: The Natural Understanding
Also see "Till I am Seventeen," and "What Austen Said About Maria."
The term "disposition" was also used as we use the word "tendency:" "The Grants showing a disposition to be friendly and sociable, gave great satisfaction in the main among their new acquaintance."
Scholar Mary Nardin has many insightful things to say about Hannah More and Mansfield Park in this article published in the JASNA journal Persuasions.
In my novel A Contrary Wind, a variation on Mansfield Park, Fanny Price starts to view the world--and herself--differently once she leaves Mansfield. She grows in self-esteem and confidence. Click here for more about my books.