Monday, 30 May 2016

The loathsome Mrs. Norris in Jane Austen's 'Mansfield Park'

Mrs. Norris (in Mansfield Park) had to settle for marriage to the Revd. Mr. Norris, a friend of her brother-in-law, who gave him the living of Mansfield. A selfish, parsimonious woman, she devotes her energies to appearing the opposite:

As far as walking, talking, and contriving reached, she was thoroughly benevolent, and nobody knew better how to dictate liberality to others: but her love of money was equal to her love of directing, and she knew quite as well how to save her own as to spend that of her friends. 

Childless herself, she habitually condemns her younger sister for having too many children on a small income. 

When Fanny is to visit her parents in Portsmouth, travelling at her uncle's expense, it occurs to Aunt Norris that she could hitch free transport to a seaside holiday. She quickly fabricates reasons why it would make sense for her to go. The awfulness of this leads Jane Austen to write an uncharacteristically-short paragraph:- 

William and Fanny were horror-struck at the idea. 

But Mrs. Norris drops the plan when she realizes she would have to pay her fare on the return trip! 

Mrs. Norris is treated with the usual Austen irony, as in: 

...no other attempt was made at secrecy, than Mrs. Norris's talking of it everywhere as a matter not to be talked of at present. 

Jane Austen seems to loathe Mrs. Norris so much that she can hardly bear to mention her without damning her behaviour: even when she attends to the fire, she ‘injures’ it: 

…aunt Norris, who was entirely taken up at first in fresh arranging and injuring the noble fire which the butler had prepared. 

Yet Mrs. Norris is important to the plot. She causes things to happen. Like Mrs. Bennet, she lacks social graces but is a driving force. It is, after all, her idea to bring Fanny Price to Mansfield Park in the first place; and how wrong she is when she assures Sir Thomas that love between Fanny and one of her male cousins will not arise! She avoids having Fanny boarded with herself, deliberately moving into a house too small to accommodate her niece, though it has a spare room for 'a friend'. 

In believing the young Bertrams would never fall in love with Fanny, she has a point. When Edmund first meets Fanny, he is a mature sixteen-year-old at Eton, shortly to go to Oxford. It is unthinkable that he should feel any sexual attraction towards a puny, timid, ten-year-old female cousin. 

When the theatricals are planned, Mrs. Norris surprises Edmund by not opposing the scheme and uses the activities as a pretext for living at the expense of her sister for a few weeks, by moving into her home so 'that every hour she might be at their service'. 

A recurring pleasure of the narrative is the exposure of meanness and cruelty. We enjoy seeing the detestable Mrs. Norris suffer a series of defeats. Immediately after she assures Fanny that no carriage will be provided to take her on her first formal visit to the Parsonage, Sir Thomas says, 'Fanny, at what time would you have the carriage come round?'

Elsewhere, Sir Thomas begins to announce to William his resolution to hold a dance at Mansfield Park. Before he can complete the sentence, Mrs. Norris interrupts to say she knows what he has in mind – that a dance would be fine if his daughters were at home, but that it is impossible in their absence. Sir Thomas assures her the dance is intended for Fanny and William and has nothing to do with their cousins. Mrs. Norris is reduced to silence and vexation. Such moments are delicious. 

Aunt Norris (in Chapter 16) insists that, if Fanny is to have the use of the former school-room, she must be allowed no fire, even in winter. When, long afterwards, Sir Thomas discovers this ('There was snow on the ground, and she was sitting in a shawl'), he is shocked, telling Fanny that Aunt Norris has carried her principles 'too far'. Even though he is angry with Fanny at the time for rejecting Crawford's proposal, he has a fire lit every day. 

Mrs. Norris is singled out for reprimand after encouraging the theatricals at Mansfield Park. Sir Thomas can excuse the young people for their thoughtlessness, but surely a person with the supposed wisdom and influence of Mrs. Norris should have pointed out the impropriety of the scheme to them? She is as near 'being silenced as ever she had been in her life'! Yet she still contrives to pilfer the green baize curtains from the stage!