The Vanity of Mrs. Norris

SEPT / OCT 2013: BY LIANNE M. BERNARDO

mansfiled

She may not possess nefarious magical powers used for ill. She may not live in an eerie castle or have a deadly criminal past. Her goal in life is not world domination. But Mansfield Park’s Mrs. Norris is so mean and false in her attitudes and impressions that she makes people’s lives—namely her niece, Fanny Price—ever the more difficult and unhappy.

Mrs. Norris loves money. On the one hand, her preoccupation for it is understandable because unlike her sister, Lady Bertram, she didn’t marry a wealthy man. Mr. Norris was a parson and friends with Sir Thomas; while they are not “contemptible” towards one another, the union appears to be one of convenience and obligation. Mrs. Norris learned to manage a frugal household not only to accommodate their needs but also to make “a yearly addition to an income which they had never lived up to.”

While she is economical when it comes to her own household, Mrs. Norris has no problem “spend[ing] that of her friends.” Despite bearing little love for her own sister, Mrs. Norris is constantly at Mansfield Park, managing the household and always ready to enjoy the comforts of their home. Her love for money and the comforts of the upper class can be seen in the way she treats her nieces, Maria and Julia, whom she reminds every so often of how many of their accomplishments are the result of their socio-economic status.

Coupled with her love and concern for money is “her love of directing.” She especially likes to tell people of her role in certain developments or subject matters, saying things like “owing to me” to credit herself in the discussion. She enjoys her role as confidante to her brother-in-law, influencing and advising him, so much so that it seems she is closer to Sir Thomas than his own wife. She is greatly proud of Maria’s engagement to Mr. Rushmore, a wealthy man. When Tom Bertram and his friend Mr. Yates decide to put on a production of Lovers’ Vows during Sir Thomas’ absence, she places herself in charge of helping put together the set. Her pride in her own schemes is so great that she becomes upset whenever someone revises it, like when Edmund offers to stay at home so Fanny can join Mrs. Norris and his siblings in visiting the Rushmores.

These characteristics come together to form one particular vice that resonates in Mrs. Norris’ character throughout the novel: vanity. On the outset she seems “thoroughly benevolent” and likes the appearance of “being the most liberal-minded sister and aunt in the world.” But her actions don’t support her words; although she is the one who proposes the idea of bringing Fanny to Mansfield Park and agrees to share custody in raising her, Mrs. Norris later talks her way out of her obligation of bringing her into her home, arguing that she is in no position to care for a young person with her reduced income and widowed state. Her desire to look useful also compromises her responsibility as an adult such as failing to put a stop to the makeshift play—knowing that Sir Thomas won’t approve—and setting a proper example of kindness and right conduct to her nieces.

Mrs. Norris’ treatment of Fanny over the course of the novel shows how contradictory her actions are to her words as well as how uncaring she can be. She has “no affection for Fanny” and has “no wish of procuring her pleasure at any time,” to the point that she will deny her simple comforts such as the use of a carriage to take her to dinner at the Grants’ home or a pleasant conversation with Lady Bertram while working on a hem. She constantly reminds Fanny that she is socially “beneath” them and she should be thankful for Sir Thomas’ generosity. She both encourages and exacerbates Fanny’s timid, introverted nature by telling her time and again, “wherever you are, you must be the lowest and last.” Saying such things also reinforces Fanny’s status as an outsider in the Bertram household, despite spending her formative years in their tutelage. Like the stepmother in Cinderella, Mrs. Norris is very bossy toward Fanny, putting her to task with chores around the house. She often scolds Fanny, especially whenever she catches her in a moment of rest. Mrs. Norris has absolutely no regard for Fanny’s well-being, leaving her out to work on the garden in the sun despite knowing that her health is generally fragile.

Mrs. Norris’ unkind behavior eventually pays her in kind. Upset by Maria’s downfall and blaming Fanny for refusing Henry Crawford’s proposal, Mrs. Norris leaves Mansfield Park to take care of her niece. Rather than feeling sad by her departure, her relations are relieved and she is “regretted by no one at Mansfield.” Sir Thomas lost his good opinion of his sister-in-law after he returned from Antigua and “felt her an hourly evil.” Although Maria was her favorite, she had no genuine love for her, or vice versa on Maria’s part. In the end, Mrs. Norris and Maria were stuck together in the countryside; even Jane Austen supposed in the narration “that their tempers became their mutual punishment.”

Mrs. Norris is a miserly woman whose love for money and appearing resourceful and generous contributes to her poor behavior toward other people, especially her niece, Fanny. She actively seeks to keep Fanny from truly enjoying the company of the family who took her in. In a way, she also contributes to the dysfunction of the Bertram household through her reinforcement of snobbish attitudes of social standing, especially among her nieces. Mrs. Norris leaves some “bitter remembrances behind her,” but the people who were most affected by her behavior—namely Fanny—survived her company without reciprocating her meanness. ♥

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