To the education of her daughters Lady Bertram paid not the smallest attention

Category: Education | Type: Discussion | Title: Mansfield Park (in Context) | Author: Jane Austen | Ch: Chapter II

A stunning indictment. The mother's role in the education of daughters (and sons up till about seven) was not only primary but exclusive. Lady Bertram has ignored her fundamental responsibility as a mother and wife.

The paragraph deserves care. Beneath the comedy's veneer is a devastating critique of a woman suspended between terminal indolence, a moral problem, and inertia (if not depression), a psychological one. The two are here self-reinforcing. Lady Bertram's indolence, which Austen's comic art treats with levity, can have tragic consequences, and Austen, while writing comically, sketches an acid portrait of the wife and husband.

As a mother of a major household with two daughters and considerable money, she has been hardly less than criminally negligent. It is as if her effort consisted in conceiving and giving four times, after she has absolved herself of any future endeavor. (Acting as foils to her are her two sisters, the childless but power-accumulating Mrs. Norris and the impoverished, exhausted Mrs. Price, mother of ten.) Lady Bertram, of whom, given her husband's wealth, not much was expected, has even so outsourced her responsibilities to the governess and deputized the self-aggrandizing Mrs. Norris for the large remainder. She has robotized herself, allowing Sir Thomas to decide "everything important."  But he too has failed, for perhaps the most important responsibility he had was to supervise his wife's management of the household and above all of his daughters.

Why has Lady Bertram been so remiss? Mary Wollstonecraft, who shares with Austen a strong belief in work and useful occupation, speculates that the mind, confronted with "Nature...[as] a universal blank," succumbs to what we'd call depression. She has this incisive footnote about once beautiful women:

They have retired from the noisy scenes of dissipation [before and during courtship]; but, unless they become Methodists, the solitude of the select society of their family connections or acquaintance, has presented only a fairful void; consequently, nervous complaints, and all the vapourish train of idleness, rendered them quite useless, and far more unhappy, than when they joined the giddy throng. (Chapter 6). 

Lady Bertram's immobile proneness may remind us of Eugenia Alabaster in A. S. Byatt's Angels and Insects. 

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