Printer Friendly


Forget the Name of the Father. Think about your uncles and your aunts.
--Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Tendencies

Mansfield Park is a novel dominated by a powerful uncle, Sir Thomas Bertram, and thus would seem to offer a prime oppod yet, as Eileen Cleere has shown, the novel has largely been read as an anartunity for readers to "Forget the Name of the Father" (Sedgwick 59). Anlysis of paternal--not avuncular--power. In an influential reading of the novel which departs from this tradition, Cleere argues that through its representation of the uncle's diffuse forms of power the novel recasts economic imperatives as affective ones. Thus the end of Mansfield Park does not enshrine older, pre-modern forms of kinship, as is often argued, but represents the way family and economy would merge under capitalism. This essay identifies another implication of "think[ing] about... uncles and aunts" in Mansfield Park: the space it offers for exploring the novel's "unheterosexual" energies, and thus for reevaluating characters who are excluded from its marriage plot, like Tom Bertram (Sedgwick 59; Miller 16).

In The One vs. the Many: Minor Characters and the Space of the Protagonist in the Novel, Alexander Woloch makes a compelling case for taking minor characters seriously in Austen, arguing that Austen's novels build their "thematic architecture" through character comparisons, and thus that minor characters are often important but "unequal partners in a dialectic that could not take place if attention were limited to the protagonist herself (43). Mansfield Park possesses a less charismatic heroine than Austen's other novels, as well as starker contrasts between characters, which may explain why secondary figures in this novel have been more thoroughly limned than in Austen's others. While numerous studies have analyzed Mary Crawford (with both Lionel Trilling and D. A. Miller going so far as to treat her as the true protagonist of the novel), and much work has been done on Sir Thomas and Mrs. Norris, Tom Bertram remains the forgotten figure in the novel, and one of the most under-studied characters in Austen's canon. (1)

And yet, in the world of the novel, Tom is one of the most important and powerful figures, socially and structurally. He is the heir to his father's title and an estate which, according to Mary Crawford, is "so well placed and well screened as to deserve to be in any collection of engravings of gentlemen's seats in the kingdom" (35). He will also inherit all his father's assets, including colonial properties like his plantation in Antigua. He plays a number of important functions in the novel's plot, too. Tom's gambling debts necessitate that Sir Thomas sell the Mansfield living to Dr. Grant, thus without Tom's bad behavior, Mary and Henry Crawford would never have come to Mansfield. It is Tom who brings Mr. Yates into the family circle, and who engineers the family's production of Lover's Vows. It is Tom's life-threatening illness that causes Sir Thomas to invite Fanny back to Mansfield. Tom's importance is also felt in the phantom plots the novel entertains: if Tom had died, as Mary Crawford intended him to, there would be no impediment at all to her marriage with Edmund. Indeed, the narrator tells us that "within a reasonable period of Edmund's marrying Mary" Fanny would have happily married Henry Crawford (317). In other words, it all might have been different, if not for Tom Bertram.

This essay takes Tom as its subject, reexamining the critical assumptions that have caused him to be left out of readings of the novel. In Tom--who transforms from a carefree bon vivant to the earnest assistant of his father, and, significantly, uncle to Fanny's future child--we can read a capsule history of the cultural shift the novel depicts with regard to manhood and family. Borrowing from D. A. Miller, I understand Tom as an "unheterosexual" figure who cannot be accommodated by the "revised" family at Mansfield without total transformation (Miller 16; Cleere 128). His reformation, I argue, represents the purging of his threat to the economy of the family, which is organized around heterosexual marriage. Because it doesn't forward the marriage plot, Tom's energy--directed as it is towards other men--ultimately has no place "within the view and patronage of Mansfield Park" (Mansfield Park 321). I read Tom's trajectory as a homosocial bildungsroman, wherein his moral growth is measured by the quality of his same-sex relationships; in contrast to the pattern of the traditional heteronormative bildungsroman, this growth ultimately entails his exclusion from the narrative.

I. Tom Bertram and Marriage: "It would only do to be talked of." (2)

The first line of Pride and Prejudice holds that "a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife" (43). Despite the knowing narratorial wink contained in this statement, in Pride and Prejudice it turns out to pretty much be true. Not so in Mansfield Park, where rich single men display a wide array of responses to the prospect of marrying. We are presented with a group of men in varying stages of courtship: one engaged (Mr. Rushworth), one courting (Edmund), and one wrapped up in multiple simultaneous liaisons, which may or may not lead to marriage (Henry Crawford). That the novel's most eligible bachelor--in terms of rank and fortune--is not on this list should strike us as curious. Most of the novel's characters favor marriage as an institution. Sir Thomas repeatedly endorses early marriages for moral reasons, while Mary Crawford is as enthusiastic for pragmatic reasons: "everybody should marry as soon as they can do it to advantage" (32). And yet, the prospect of Tom marrying is brought up only to be foreclosed: it is Mary Crawford who initially thinks he "might do" as a husband, but soon learns from the Bertrams that she shouldn't count on his seriousness (35). When she attempts to use his interest in horse racing to get closer to him, she finds she has misunderstood his passion for the sport and his pleasure in company with an interest in her: "the family did not, from his usual goings on, expect him back again for many weeks... [and though] much was said on his side to induce her to attend the races, and schemes were made for a large party to them... it would only do to be talked of (35-36).

Indeed, no one in the Bertram family seems to hold any expectation that Tom will marry. Sir Thomas's attempts to change Tom's behavior early in the novel do not, as one might expect, involve trying to get him to marry and settle; rather, he ropes Tom into the masculine pursuit of managing his Antigua estate. The enlistment of Tom in this imperial enterprise bears a resemblance to Sir Thomas's decision to send Fanny home to Portsmouth when he wants her to marry Henry Crawford, which he figures as "medicinal project upon his niece's understanding" (250). His medicinal project for Tom, however, takes him not to the altar, but to the anti-domestic space of the plantation: "Sir Thomas found it expedient to go to Antigua himself, for the better arrangement of his affairs,... [and] he took his eldest son with him, in the hope of detaching him from some bad connections at home" (25).

Though Austen most often uses "connections" to describe the family bonds created by marriage, the word undoubtedly carries the stink of sex. (3) We may assume that Sir Thomas wishes to disconnect Tom from his gaming friends and whatever else, sexual or otherwise, which comes along with the "extravagance" of Tom's to which the text refers (19). That said, if women are included in the social spaces in which Tom revels, which my reading does not assume, they are categorically women who are not socially recognized as ladies, such as servants and sex workers. If these "connections" of Tom's do involve sex, it is manifestly not sex that is likely to lead to marriage, either because it is queer or otherwise socially unrecognizable. Though Tom's social spaces are less immediately marked for condemnation, they bear a resemblance, in their "extravagance," to those of Admiral Crawford, whose famously "vicious" conduct is implied to be both hetero-and homosexual (19; 30). Thus Tom's social world is marked as potentially queer early on, both by its celebration of sociability (and perhaps sexuality) that is pointedly not tending towards marriage or procreation, and by its affinity to more "vicious" (that is, sexually dangerous) forms of upper-class male leisure.

In fact, as I will show, the text consistently tags Tom with markers of homosocial desire. Tom's world is conspicuously organized around his relations with and attachments to other men. (4) His most defining characteristics throughout the novel are his commitment to male amity and the pleasure he takes in exclusively male environments. Though the narrator's reference to Tom's "bad connections" might invite us to imagine him as a participant in some form of illicit sexuality, all that the novel makes clear is that Tom has no interest in marrying. Thus, while we cannot pinpoint his sexual identity (at the risk of using an anachronistic term), we can identify him as a resolutely homosocial figure. In fact, he's the only represented character who is not heavily implicated in the marriage plot, being neither involved on his own behalf, nor interested at all in the fates of others. As Tom says later, with a frustrated sigh, courtship is awfully "tire[some]" unless one "be all in love" (84).

Despite all this, no critical attention has been paid to Tom's homosociality. Even critics who consider queer or homosocial themes in Austen's novels neglect him entirely. Though D. A. Miller argues that Austen's narrator derives its "divine omniscience" from its location outside the marriage plot, he does not identify Tom as a figure with similar ironic distance from that plot (56). (For Miller, it is Mary Crawford who keeps marriage at bay through irony, despite the fact that Tom can also comment, quite wittily, on the conventions of courtship.) George E. Haggerty, who offers a queer reading of Fanny, sees Tom's plot as a cautionary tale, meant to demonstrate the "consequence of youthful carelessness" (180). Even Jill Heydt-Stevenson, who locates sexual double entendre throughout Austen's canon, fails to speculate at all about what Tom might be doing during all those nights he spends in London. (5) And yet if we read allegorically, it certainly seems possible--even likely--that Tom's "neglected fall" and subsequent fever may reference a sexual 'fall' that brings on a sexually transmitted disease (289). Mansfield Park contains various transgressive energies, despite its seeming surface stillness. That Tom's contribution to the novel's exploration of sex, power, and abuse remains unrecognized by scholars who work to identify its subversive undercurrents is surprising, since Tom's difference is marked by the text in myriad ways, both formal and thematic.

For example, Tom's speech, when we get to hear it, is peppered with specific references to male friends. Such detail is not usually a feature of Austen's realism. While her early short works abound with particular details, her mode of description in the novels is famously elliptical. It is surprising, then, when during his conversation with Mary and Edmund early in the novel, Tom seems bent on name-dropping the men in his circle: "Edmund, you have heard me mention my friend Charles Anderson"; "I went down to Ramsgate for a week with a friend last September--just after my return from the West Indies--my friend Sneyd--you have heard me speak of Sneyd, Edmund" (37). In both cases, Tom's motive seems to be to inform Edmund, not Mary, of the breadth and consequence of his male acquaintance. When Tom and Henry Crawford discuss the latter's trip to Bath, Tom tells Henry that "it is early for Bath.--You will find nobody there" and then immediately asks "whose stables" Henry uses while in the city (133). Though Bath is a leisure capital for both men and women, Tom does not ask which assemblies Crawford frequents, or which musical entertainments he enjoys, but whose stables he uses. For Tom, whose mental map of Bath is organized around the places where men congregate, this is crucial information.

Tom's knowledge of the theater and other stages of male sociability infuses his speech, which is referential and particular. He is also a skilled rhetorician, capable of wit as well as argument. When Yates tells the story of how the Ecclesford theatricals broke up (thanks to the death of a grandmother), Tom quips that "Lovers' Vows were at an end, and Lord and Lady Ravenshaw left to act My Grandmother by themselves" (87). My Grandmother (1793/4) by Prince Hoare was a short musical comedy piece, usually performed after another play as an after-piece. Demonstrating his familiarity with contemporary theater, Tom jokes that the Ravenshaws are forced to endure an "after-piece instead of a comedy" (87). Tom's joke plays on the double meaning of "after-piece," here both a form of entertainment and a funeral, as well as on the artificiality he attributes to the Ravenshaws, who are forced "to act" the part of grieving relatives while actually being "comfort[ed]" by the "jointure" they will be left in the will (87). When he and Edmund argue over the propriety of acting, Tom invokes famous passages from Shakespeare and John Home's Douglas, a Tragedy (1756), all of which were popular recitation passages for young men practicing elocution in the period. More often than not, however, Tom's referentiality is not so much rhetorical strategy as verbal tic. Unlike his peers, Tom obsessively references particular friends (Tom Oliver, the Oliver brothers, Charles Maddox, Sneyd, Yates, and others) and particular places (Ramsgate, Weymouth, Ecclesford, and Bath).

The accumulation of particular detail, an unusual characterization strategy for Austen, has the unexpected effect of blurring, rather than fixing, Tom's personality. Of Austen's old maids, Miller writes that "the unendurable garrulity typical of these characters, by stimulating our impatience to get on with the story, confirms our assent to [their] representational limits" (37). "We take the enforcement of these limits into our own hands," by "ruthlessly skim[ming]" their speeches, as impatient as their fellow characters for them to shut up (37). Something similar happens with Tom in Mansfield Park, where his style of speech, like that of the tiresome Miss Bates of Emma, actually encourages readers to read him badly. This explains both why we do not remember Tom as an important character (buried as he is under so many references) and why critics have failed to think about him seriously (since he practically demands that the reader disregard him). Ultimately Tom's references accumulate so much that they resist coherent symbolic meaning. For example, we read that during the family theatricals Tom "proposed [performing] the Heir at Law" "for about the fifth time," "doubting only whether to prefer Lord Duberley or Dr. Pangloss for himself (Mansfield Park 93). Coleman the Younger's The Heir at Law (1797) tells the story of an undeserving heir who squanders his fortune, only to be replaced by a worthier other (who ultimately turns out to be the 'true' heir after all). This plot obviously bears a resemblance to Tom's own story, but those resemblances are obscured by Tom's misidentification of the characters to whom he should (it seems) relate (see Giotta 466-71). Rather than play the wayward or deserving heir, Tom wants to perform either Lord Duberley or Dr. Pangloss, both buffoons. There is also the complicated history that playwrights Inchbald and Coleman shared in life, of which Austen was probably aware, to further confuse the reference. (6) Thus Tom's references are either so overdetermined as to be rendered obscure, or so devoid of context as to reveal nothing about him (as when, during a conversation on female manners, he declares, apropos of very little: "you have heard me mention my friend Sneyd"). The picture of Tom which results is one that lacks detail; beyond the fact that he stays frenetically busy while at home and that he is part of a vibrant social world away from Mansfield, we know little about him.

What we do know is that the nodes of that social world are all male. Tom's year is organized around a number of stages of male sociability: the races at Weymouth, his yearly visit to Bath, and his hunting at Mansfield. In fact, the narrator tells us with sarcasm, hunting is the "dut[y]" which "cali[s] [Tom] earlier home" from Antigua than his father (81). He communicates his return through exclusively male channels, and he disseminates this information in a way that reveals his priorities: "first in a letter to the gamekeeper" and "then in a letter to Edmund" (81). As these details suggest, Tom's world is unusually porous in terms of class. Though we can imagine that other male characters in Austen have contact with their servants, we rarely read about them doing so. By contrast, we are repeatedly told of Tom's contact with servants and employees. He is always speaking to the butler, or his groom, or the scene painter hired for the family theatricals, often by name. He is happy, for example, to oblige his family with his company, but first he must talk to the gamekeeper to ensure that the grounds are adequately stocked for fall hunting. In a parallel to the novel's representation of cross-class male comradery in the navy, leisure activities like shooting and racing are seen to bring men of various classes into meaningful contact.

Tom's longest speech of recorded dialogue--a skillful and revealing attempt to turn his father's attention from Lover's Vows when he first arrives from Antigua--relies heavily on the shared male experience of hunting:
"[The story of the theater] will be soon told," cried Tom hastily, and
with affected unconcern; "but it is not worth while to bore my father
with it now. You will hear enough of it to-morrow, sir. We have just
been trying, by way of doing something, and amusing my mother, just
within the last week, to get up a few scenes, a mere trifle. We have
had such incessant rains almost since October began, that we have been
nearly confined to the house for days together. I have hardly taken out
a gun since the 3d. Tolerable sport the first three days, but there has
been no attempting anything since. The first day I went over Mansfield
Wood, and Edmund took the copses beyond Easton, and we brought home six
brace between us, and might each have killed six times as many; but we
respect your pheasants, sir, I assure you, as much as you could desire.
I do not think you will find your woods by any means worse stocked than
they were. I never saw Mansfield Wood so full of pheasants in my life
as this year. I hope you will take a day's sport there yourself, sir,
soon." (125)

Here Tom characterizes Lover's Vows as an entertainment to be desired only when hunting cannot be had, thus appealing to his father's expectations of how the heir of Mansfield should spend his time. It was the rain, you see, which kept him inside, and the play was initiated in a selfless attempt to amuse the ladies. He speeds through a history of the bad weather, followed by an account of a successful day of shooting, which is then topped by a dutiful appeal to his father's rights as a landowner: "we respect your pheasants, sir." He ends by inviting Sir Thomas to join in the hunting. Though this gambit doesn't work, it reveals that Tom's instinct with regard to his father is not to speak to him in the language of sentiment or ethics--as we can imagine Edmund might--but to turn the topic to a shared (because male) leisure activity. Right down to his interaction with those closest to him, Tom's sense of the social world is not defined by the events of courtship, but by those of male bonding: hunts, rides, races, games, and other social events that exist exclusively in the male realm. Whenever the possibility of Tom's marrying--or even participating in the realm of courtship at all--comes up, the narrative quickly forecloses the possibility. What is more, these moments often foist Fanny into the space in the courtship plot left empty by its absent leading man.

II. Tom "Becoming Minor" (7): "A trifling part, but the sort of thing I should not dislike" (8)

The section of the novel that describes the production of Lover's Vows is the only one in which Tom's structural importance within the family is matched by narrative dominance. In the beginning of this section Tom is at the height of his powers: he easily vanquishes the concern about the play's propriety that Edmund tries to drum up amongst the others, arguing that Edmund should "manage [his] own concerns" while Tom "take[s] care of the rest of the family" (90). When Edmund scolds him about the potential damage the theater poses to the house, Tom recurs to his structural position, reminding his brother: "I have quite as great an interest in being careful of [Sir Thomas's] house as you can have" (90). And yet by the end of Volume I, Tom has begun to lose his position within the family, and to be replaced by none other than his mousy cousin Fanny. This is not because Sir Thomas's return from Antigua displaces Tom, as might be expected, but because as Tom moves more decisively away from the marriage plot, Fanny moves into it. Another way to say this is that after the family theatricals, marriage becomes the primary topic of the novel, and Tom, who isn't interested in marriage, responds by beating a hasty retreat.

Many studies of Mansfield Park take the production of Lover's Vows to be a centerpiece of the novel's moral argument. Indeed, in the last summary chapter, the narrator identifies this "unjustifiable theater" as one cause of Maria's eventual elopement (313). While everyone agrees that Elizabeth Inchbald's Lover's Vows (1798), itself an adaptation of Augustus von Kotzebue's Das Kind der Liebe (1780), would have been well-known to Austen's readers, critics continue to disagree about the meaning of the reference. (9) The plot of Inchbald's adaptation contains many seeming analogues for the characters of Mansfield Park, but these connections are often confused and open-ended. For instance, though Mary Crawford plays the sexually forward Amelia, who chooses to marry her poor clergyman tutor (played by Edmund) over a rich aristocrat, her love for him is based on his tutelage of her. She loves him because he has shaped her mind. Thus Amelia reflects elements of both Mary Crawford and Fanny Price's experience with Edmund, the soon-to-be clergyman whom they both love. The same can be said for the play's reference to Mansfield Park's seduction plot. In Lover's Vows the already-seduced Agatha lives in poverty and shame. The play begins when her adult son Frederick discovers her penniless and tries to rescue her. In the Mansfield version, Maria plays Agatha to Henry's Frederick. This casting not only foreshadows their later affair, but allows them to explore the erotic fantasy of Maria as an already-fallen woman. Not only does playing a mother and son give them an excuse to practice together in close physical proximity, but it sentimentalizes and eroticizes female fallenness.

If most of the characters function in Lover's Vows in ways that are overdetermined, Tom's contribution is comically devoid of referential meaning. That Tom is superfluous is underscored by his choice of parts: while his sisters squabble over the role of Agatha, Tom settles on being the "rhyming butler" right away (93). He advocates for Lover's Vows as the family's choice, after he has unsuccessfully lobbied for The Heir at Law, precisely because it contains enough dramatic parts to please his friends and a comic part to please himself. "Here are two capital tragic parts for Yates and Crawford, and here is the rhyming butler for me," he declares (93). Though it is a "trifling part," he admits that it is "the sort of thing [he] should not dislike" (93). By the time Edmund has joined the theater troupe and rehearsals are underway, Tom has taken on multiple roles, significantly including the husband of the character he wants Fanny to play. This section of the novel paints Tom in a frenzy of activity that almost competes with that of Mrs. Norris. He watches the scene painter, impatient for the backdrops to be done, feeling the "miseries of waiting" (114). He crops and revises the script to redistribute lines, telling his collaborators that "a few characters too many must not frighten us. We must double them" (93). He essentially plays stage manager from the moment he lands on the idea of performing Lover's Vows. And yet, despite his many roles, Tom is often bored during the preparations for the play. For Edmund, Mary, Henry, Maria, and even Mr. Yates, who has designs on Julia Bertram, the play represents a courtship ritual; like the continual scene "practicing" of Henry and Maria, it is a thinly veiled cover for sexual exploration. Though they are all agitated by the play's preparations, it is only Tom who is bored, because it is only Tom who is uninterested in marriage.

It is for this reason that Tom fails to regard the significance of his attempts to force Fanny into the play, which symbolically draw her into the marriage market from which he remains aloof:
"Fanny," cried Tom Bertram, from the other table, where the conferences
were eagerly carrying on, and the conversation incessant, "we want your
Fanny was up in a moment, expecting some errand, for the habit of
employing her in that way was not yet overcome, in spite of all that
Edmund could do.
"Oh! We do not want to disturb you from your seat. We do not want your
present services. We shall only want you in our play. You must be the
cottager's wife." (102)

Symbolically, this is the moment at which Fanny's labor value within the family is reinterpreted as conjugal value. Inured to her role as an unpaid domestic servant, Fanny misunderstands Tom's request. Tom does not want her to do an errand--as a household servant would--he wants her to participate in the play, as a lady of the family would. Indeed, Fanny's moral problem with acting suggests that she interprets being asked to act the lowly role of the cottager's wife not as an emblem of her position outside of the marriage market, but as an invitation to join its realm of signs and subterfuge. The necessary falsehoods of courtship rituals (such as the open secret that they are not simply acting a play but using it as a medium to test their feelings) are repellent to Fanny. Although she is asked to play the "most trivial, paltry, insignificant part," which was only thought fit for the Ecclesford governess to play, her admittance into the realm of acting suggests that Fanny's position at Mansfield is beginning to change (95). Tom, on the other hand, grows more and more "trivial, paltry, [and] insignificant" from this moment on.

III. The Unheterosexual in the Marriage Plot Novel

In a tour de force reading of another minor Austen character, D. A. Miller describes Robert Ferrars of Sense and Sensibility as an "unheterosexual" (16). "This man [is] a more radical enemy of matrimony" than Austen's seducers, Miller argues, because he "would prevent it from ever getting started" (14). The "unheterosexual" is pointedly not an identity that can be plotted along the homo/hetero axis; rather, he is a figure who threatens the marriage plot not (or not only) because of his lack of interest in women, but because of his lack of interest in marriage. As Miller puts it, "we can't safely be more precise than that" (16). In fact, Miller doesn't characterize the "unheterosexual" as an identity, but as an "attitude" (16). For Miller this all leads to his contention that style exists just to the side of conjugality, and that, as figures who are excluded from this realm, the "unheterosexual" and the "spinster" are able to inhabit what he terms "Absolute Style" (47).

In my reading, Tom is an "unheterosexual," a point which is proven forcefully by the fact that his transformation does not entail conscription into the marriage plot, but his resolute exclusion from it. Though Tom reforms, he remains committed to male amity and exclusively male activities. The difference is that at the end of the novel, these activities are not those of leisure but those of stewardship and management. The novel's final portrait of Tom shows him thoroughly entrenched in the roles he initially sought to shake off:
There was comfort [for Sir Thomas] also in Tom, who gradually regained
his health, without regaining the thoughtlessness and selfishness of
his previous habits. He was the better for ever for his illness. He had
suffered, and he had learned to think: two advantages that he had never
known before, and the self-reproach arising from the deplorable event
in Wimpole Street, to which he felt himself accessary by all the
dangerous intimacy of his unjustifiable theater, made an impression on
his mind which at the age of six-and-twenty, with no want of sense or
good companions, was durable in its happy effects. He became what he
ought to be: useful to his father, steady and quiet, and not living
merely for himself. (313)

Even in a novel of surprising reversals, Tom's transformation from spendthrift heir to conscientious son is dramatic. The narrative invites us to consider its starkness through its comparison of the reformed Tom to his "creepmouse" cousin Fanny (102). The reformed Tom is--much like Fanny was throughout the novel--in delicate physical health, full of "self-reproach," committed to strict sexual-discipline, and wholly invested in the interests of Sir Thomas. Like Fanny, whose capacity for observation is linked to her outsider status, Tom can now "think" because he has "suffered." Tom was once a figure of great personal agency; in contrast to his sisters, who are perpetually stuck at Mansfield, Tom easily escapes the confines of the estate whenever he chooses. Indeed, he takes full advantage of his financial independence, cavalierly ignoring his father's advice and chastisements. By the end of the novel, however, he seems to have no identity beyond that of his father. His voice--formerly chatty and allusion-filled--is obscured by the passage, which is focalized through Sir Thomas's perspective on the events. (In fact, his last recorded dialogue, his question to Henry Crawford--"Whose stables do you use at Bath?"--occurs in the second chapter of Volume II.) Tom is, finally, "what he ought to be": silent, useful, and comforting to his father. This is all, we read, thanks to his illness.

The injury which precedes Tom's disposition-changing illness takes place in a thoroughly masculine setting, so much so, in fact, that it is completely bereft of the comfort which women and family provide:
Tom had gone from London with a party of young men to Newmarket, where
a neglected fall, and a good deal of drinking, had brought on a fever;
and when the party broke up, being unable to move, had been left by
himself at the house of one of these young men, to the comforts of
sickness and solitude, and the attendance only of servants. (289)

That Tom is left in a house with only servants to care for him suggests that the households of the young men he fraternizes with are exclusively male. There is no sister--even one of dubious influence like Mary Crawford--to keep the house of Tom's host and manage the care of an ailing guest. It is only when faced with illness that Tom comes to appreciate the pleasures of domesticity, "those comforts of home and family which had been little thought of in uninterrupted health" (290). Even then, however, he does not desire a romantic companion to tend to him, but Edmund. We read that for Tom during his illness, "Edmund was all in all" (290). Though the reformed Tom is still associated with homosocial bonds, they are no longer marked by hunting, gaming, and drinking, but rather by another breed of exclusively male activity: managing the estate, working for his father, and being responsible for the family's interests.

While what Tom "ought to be" is not explicitly established by the narrator's final reference to him, at this point in the novel we know the values that the Mansfield family endorses: domesticity, inwardness, and responsibility (313). The suggestion that he has become "steady and quiet" further fills out Tom's new character; rather than ending the novel as the steward of a new community as does Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice or Colonel Brandon of Sense and Sensibility, Tom's role is as his father's helper. It is possible that what a man in Tom's position "ought to be" is a patriarch, but we get no indication from the text that Tom's reform will involve marrying and creating a family of his own. The only faint specter of a domestic plot finally available to Tom is to marry Susan, which would further Fanny's interests almost as effectively as his death would. (10) Indeed, one could easily imagine Fanny--always eager, as Edmund puts it, to "cheat herself," especially when it comes to the interest of a sibling--preferring a future where her sister supplants her as matriarch of Mansfield (167). Regardless of how the Prices end up conquering the estate, however, it is clear that they will. By the end of the novel Tom has no individual desires worth naming; his have all been subsumed into those of Sir Thomas, and Sir Thomas is committed to promoting Fanny's interests.

IV. The Homosocial Bildungsroman (Or, How to Become Your Aunt)

The end of the novel suggests that all the resources of Mansfield (emotional and financial) will be projected towards Fanny's future. Tom, rather than being depicted as an asset to be invested in, has become a resource with which Fanny's future may be invested. Without directly gratifying the sentiment of Mary Crawford's that Fanny finds so hateful--the wish that Tom's death will make Edmund heir--the text encourages us to read this as a possible conclusion to the story. As Clara Tuite puts it, the wish that Tom might die is "a fantasy kept at bay by project[ion]... onto Mary Crawford" (130). In other words, because Mary thinks it, no one else has to. Tom's disease is "hectic," which is to say consumptive; we read that the family is "apprehensive for his lungs" (291). Though he recovers, in 1814 it would not have been assumed that a complaint of this kind could be fully gotten over. As Austen's other novels attest, characters who are feared to be consumptive must be constantly vigilant of their health. (This is the case, for example, with Jane Fairfax of Emma; her mother's death of consumption and her assumed predilection for the disease mean that her family and friends are unceasingly concerned for her health.) Tom, it seems, will be the bachelor uncle in fragile health who, while he lives, will seek to help Edmund and Fanny--and who will likely die without children to inherit his fortune, making Edmund and Fanny's children his heirs. We can make this assumption because, as I have shown, it is estate management and stewardship--not marriage--that mark Tom's full reformation. His bildung is extreme, but it is marked by the quality of his relationships with other men, not by his growth into a man who has relationships with women (like Darcy, for instance). Marriage--the usual marker of maturity--is replaced by male amity. Tom is no longer a man who thinks only of himself, who spends his brother's money unfeelingly, bull-dozes his way through the family, or mocks his less fortunate cousin. He ends the novel thoroughly embedded in a community to which he feels responsible, but he does so by sidestepping, rather than being conscripted into, conjugality.

The novel articulates the role of the uncle through its depiction of Sir Thomas's treatment of Fanny Price, and thus in Mansfield Park uncles are towering, somewhat fearsome figures. What are we to make, then, of the novel's conclusion, which informs us that Tom will soon be an uncle to Fanny's child? The role of 'uncle'--as embodied by Sir Thomas--hardly fits Tom Bertram. While his father is a man who relishes the sanctity and privacy of his home life, Tom is social and indiscriminate. For instance: on his return from the West Indies, Sir Thomas finds himself annoyed to be introduced to Mr. Yates "as the 'particular friend'" of his son, another of "the hundred particular friends" he laments his son has (126). It is Edmund who takes after his father, not only in his propensity for educating others but in his tastes. As he urges Fanny to marry Henry Crawford, Sir Thomas laments this difference between his two sons, demonstrated by their different feelings about marriage. Though Sir Thomas "advocate[s] for early marriages," his "eldest son" is, he admits, "little likely... to marry early" (215). "At present,... matrimony makes no part of his plans or thoughts" (215). Edmund, on the other hand, is "from his disposition and habits much more likely to marry early than his brother" (215). Sir Thomas's concern for his son's marital prospects demonstrates his domestic delicacy as well as the great measure of control he exerts over his children's lives. His removal to the West Indies early in the novel reveals how oppressed his daughters feel by his presence; only Fanny and Lady Bertram have so internalized his control that they do not experience its chafing. For them, "he was master at Mansfield Park" (251). Lady Bertram contents herself when she is confused not through her own "conviction," but from her "submission" to Sir Thomas's opinions (251). Similarly, when he "advis[es] [Fanny] to go immediately to bed" on the night of the ball, we read that "'Advice' was his word, but it was the advice of absolute power" which he wielded over her (192). Though Tom reforms, he never regains the social dominance he possessed at the beginning of the novel. Having stopped speaking entirely early in the second volume, it is hard to imagine his words ever possessing "absolute power" over the behavior of his niece or nephew.

Though Sir Thomas is the text's obvious figure of the avunculate, we should not forget the other uncle who plays an important (if off-stage) role: Admiral Crawford. Though the novel is dominated by the will and personality of Sir Thomas, it is also haunted by this figure, his seeming inverse in all things. Admiral Crawford serves as Sir Thomas's awful, licentious double, who instead of charitably bringing a poor niece into his family, casts the niece he has raised out in favor of his mistress. The two uncles foil one another in several important ways. Like Sir Thomas, Admiral Crawford becomes Fanny's benefactor (through his promotion of William Price). If Sir Thomas's initial charity to the Prices depends on a prohibition of marriage between his niece and his sons, Admiral Crawford's promotion of William is explicitly intended by Henry Crawford to help him win Fanny's hand. Both characters are colonial actors, and both wield the power of professional patronage. Their power to effect change in other characters' lives follows an almost fairy-tale logic: like the fairy godmother who grants the protagonist's wish, Admiral Crawford "ma[kes]" William Price with almost magical speed and ease (203). Similarly, we become aware during the Portsmouth section of the novel how thoroughly Fanny's life has been transformed by Sir Thomas's decision to bring her to Mansfield, and it is only through Sir Thomas's "absolute power" over Mansfield that Fanny is given the comforts, like a fire in her room, that the vindictive Mrs. Norris denies her. Admiral Crawford's domestic habits are completely different from Sir Thomas's, so much so that Henry Crawford fears "consulting him on any matrimonial scheme" since "the Admiral hated marriage, and thought it never pardonable in a young man of independent fortune" (200). And yet, like Sir Thomas, he has functionally shaped his niece and nephew in ways they will never escape. Ultimately, the novel treats the uncle as a twist of fate in a character's life: though they have the material advantage, Mary and Henry are "spoilt" by their uncle's influence, while Fanny and William are "made" by that of Sir Thomas (308; 203). As Eileen Gillooly puts it, "despite their differences, Mary is, like Fanny, a product of her upbringing," who has been "morally abandoned to the 'vicious' example of her guardian uncle" (101).

The text's representation of Admiral Crawford can be understood through two paradigms popularized by Eve Sedgwick: those of queer tutelage and triangular desire. Whatever his sexual predilections, Admiral Crawford is certainly an "Uncle" as theorized by Sedgwick in Tendencies. According to Sedgwick,
"Uncle"... was a common term for a male protector in a sexual relation
involving economic sponsorship, and, typically, class and age
transitivity. "Uncle" has been common, as well, in gradation from the
literal, as a metonym for the whole range of older men who might form a
relation to a younger man (as patron, friend, literal uncle, godfather,
adoptive father, sugar daddy) offering a degree of initiation into gay
cultures and identities. (59)

While we have no reason to assume there is a sexual relationship implied between Henry and his uncle, we do know that their relationship is triangulated through sex; we read again and again that Henry has been raised in his uncle's image, to share both his "foolish opinions" and his "vicious conduct," especially with regard to women (202; 30). The Admiral's house is represented as a veritable den of iniquity, and the early pages of the novel depict Crawford as a "man of the world" (that is, sexually experienced) (70). Indeed, it is the presence of sexual knowledge that forces Mary to leave the Admiral's house, since as an unmarried woman she will be tainted by living with the Admiral's mistress. We know that the Admiral has sex with women, but Mary's reference to "rears and vices" hints at all the non-heterosexual forms of sexuality with which she and Henry have become familiar through him (44). At the very least it reveals the sexuality (whether displaced or practiced) which suffuses the relationship between uncle and nephew. In this way the Admiral's tutelage of Henry is both a queer history of the kind Sedgwick excavates in The Importance of Being Earnest and a homosocial bonding experience triangulated through the pursuit of sex.

In his frightfully transgressive sexuality, Admiral Crawford represents a possible endpoint for the Tom of the beginning of the novel, with his "bad connections" and "extravagance" (25; 19). For Admiral Crawford is an "unheterosexual" too: if Tom has no interest in marriage, Admiral Crawford is by all accounts a committed adversary of the institution. By channeling Tom's otherness into a homosocial rather than queer transgressive plot, Austen sidesteps this possibility. His illness purges him of Admiral Crawford's "vicious" energy, rendering him "conjugally irrelevant" but crucially no longer disruptive to conjugality (Miller 36). Ultimately, he becomes what Mrs. Norris always professed to be: a helpmate to his father. Thus, Aunt Norris and her own breed of "viciousness" can be dispelled, without Sir Thomas losing his aide. Finally, Tom, an uncle without the conjugal potential to threaten his beneficiaries, becomes the ideal figure to take over Aunt Norris's role as household manager. Aunt Norris had always pretended to "save" for the sake of leaving something for her nieces and nephews; her extreme economy was justified by this supposedly above-reproach (though unnecessary) impulse. Now Tom will be able to actually do what Aunt Norris has claimed to do for years: enrich the family through his support.

In her reading of The Importance of Being Earnest, Sedgwick emphasizes the camp potential of the figure of Aunt Augusta, pointing out that this domineering woman character was often portrayed in performance by men. Sedgwick mines the slang history of the term "aunt," arguing that the term connoted a queer or even camp ("queenly") identity in the nineteenth century (59). In Austen, however, Aunt Norris seems potentially queer in her social location: she longs for true control of the castle, but will settle for being its undisputed administrator. As Margaret Doody puts it, she "wants to lead but is a social dependent" (129). She and Sir Thomas have been compared to a vicious plantation manager and its absentee proprietor, a comparison which reflects the way they bisect their power: because Aunt Norris performs the zero-sum viciousness of an "overseer," Sir Thomas is left to fashion himself as the benign paternalist (Ferguson 121)." We might also think of Mrs. Norris as a woman who is morally destroyed by her desperation for male forms of power, as Christopher Stampone argues (203). But Aunt Norris is also queer in her sheer excessiveness: she is excessive in speech, in striving, in match-making, in bartering, and in gossiping. Though she did marry, she has no children, a point which seems to emphasize her extreme aversion to spending money. One imagines that her potential desires for sex, or children, or social conformity could never have outweighed her desire to accumulate wealth through constant savings. Her ceaseless concern for savings is only the most pronounced of her extravagancies. Ultimately, her extravagant grief over Maria's banishment and her excessive rage towards Fanny cause her to be ejected from the family.

That Tom, finally purged of his own form of "extravagance," takes her place in the family economy makes sense (19). Like Mrs. Norris, he will be conjugally irrelevant to the family. Unlike his aunt, however, Tom is not malicious, and he ends the novel far more genuinely invested in the family than she had ever been. Because he is an unheterosexual, any form of power he acquires will remain unproblematic. Never desiring a marriage plot of his own, he will never compete with Fanny and thus never threaten his father's wishes for her advancement. This certainly represents an improvement for Fanny, but perhaps not for Tom. Tom's transformation represents the novel's most extreme bildung, and yet in the process he is forced out of the narrative center rather than into it. His chattiness, referentiality, and charisma all abandon him, and one of the novel's last descriptions of him casts him as a figure who is not meaningfully differentiated from his aunt or mother. After Maria's elopement, "they [Tom, Lady Bertram, and Mrs. Norris] had been all solitary, helpless, and forlorn alike" (304). This is a striking change for a man who was once perpetually active and verbose.

In Tendencies, Eve Sedgwick argues that one way to "redee[m]" the "family" would be to return to a more "inclusive definition of 'family', beginning with the relegitimation of the avunculate" (71). She associates this more "elastic" family structure with "precapitalist modes of kinship organization" and "the supposed early-capitalist extended family" that is represented by a novel like Mansfield Park (71). And yet, the fact that the novel's closure relies on Tom becoming chastened, physically weakened, and evacuated of any hint of transgressive sexuality should remind us not to romanticize past modes of family organization too much. Though Tom remains the literal heir to Mansfield, the family is no longer organized around dynastic structures like birth order. Rather, affection carries the day. This is evidenced by Sir Thomas's ultimate conclusion that Fanny is in some sense a 'truer' daughter to him than Maria or Julia. As Clara Tuite puts it, Tom is ultimately "confined to the margins of the text, as is the material support structure of the Antigua estate throughout" (130). This comparison evokes the sense that Tom might finally be a structure the family will rely on but would rather not think too much about. Indeed, Mansfield Park is a novel that continually introduces the possibility that the heir is unnecessary. It is there in Lady Bertram's surprised reflection that she "only nominally" misses her son when he is away, as well as in Mary's unintended preference for Edmund, in Tom's long narrative disappearances, and ultimately in the danger of his untimely (or perhaps fortuitous?) death (26). Tom's pleasure in the company of other men once continually drew him away from the manor. By the end of the novel, however, he must focus his interest in male amity entirely on his father and brother, using his energy not for leisure or pleasure but for estate (and perhaps empire) building. One senses, in this novel of surprising reversals, that his life may actually depend on it.



I would like to thank Talia Schaffer, Nancy Yousef, and the readers and editor of Studies in the Novel for their comments on previous drafts of this article. I would also like to acknowledge Eileen Cleere, whose essay on Mansfield Park initially provoked this analysis.

(1) I have only been able to locate two peer-reviewed articles that focus primarily on Tom Bertram: Peter C. Giotta's "Characterization in Mansfield Park: Tom Bertram and Colman's The Heir at Law," in The Review of English Studies 49.1 (1998), which historicizes Tom's references to Colman's 1797 play, and Theresa Kenney's "Why Tom Bertram Cannot Die: 'The Plans and Decisions of Mortals,'" in Persuasions 35.1 (2014), which considers the moral and narrative implications of Tom's illness. Additionally, John Wiltshire, Stephanie Markovitz, Erika Wright, and Clara Tuite have each considered Tom as a minor part of a larger pattern in Mansfield Park, which Tuite has termed the novel's "narrative of cure" (129). See Wiltshire 105-07, Markovitz 779-89, Wright 389, and Tuite 129-30. Lionel Trilling writes about Fanny Price's inadequacies compared with Mary Crawford in his essay "Mansfield Park," from The Opposing Self (206-30). D. A. Miller reads Mary Crawford as an ideal disseminator of style, comparable to Elizabeth Bennet and Emma Woodhouse, in Jane Austen, Or, the Secret of Style (42-43).

(2) This is how the narrator of Mansfield Park describes Tom Bertram's interest in bringing Mary Crawford, along with the other young people, to the races he is attending (36).

(3) The OED cites two contemporary usages of the word "connection" (also spelled "connexion") that pertain to this passage: 1. "a personal relation of intercourse, intimacy, common interest, or action" and 2. "sexual relation or intercourse; a liaison." That Austen wants readers to consider the sexual connotations of the word seems clear. The term was widely used as a euphemism for sexual intercourse in Austen's day. In Pride and Prejudice "connection" appears almost forty times, usually in reference to a character's social station and usually attributed to either the vulgar Mr. Collins (as when he proposes to Elizabeth with: "my situation in life, my connection with the family of de Bourgh, and my relationship to your own are circumstances highly in my favour") or to pre-reformation Mr. Darcy ("He really believed, if not for the inferiority of [Elizabeth's] connections, he should be in some danger") (139; 88). In Sense and Sensibility, Willoughby refers to his relationship with Eliza as "an affair, a connexion" (228). Throughout Austen's canon, the term is widely used to describe the affinal bonds formed by marriage, an institution which presumably creates both a relation of "common interest" and of "sexual... intercourse."

(4) I rely here on Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's theorization of the "homosocial" in Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (1-20).

(5) See Jill Heydt-Stevenson, Austen's Unbecoming Conjunctions: Subversive Laughter, Embodied History.

(6) See Anna Lott's "Staging A Lesson: The Theatricals and Proper Conduct in Mansfield Park," in Studies in the Novel 38.3 (2006).

(7) Here I borrow Alex Woloch's phrase for the process by which characters lose their position in the narrative (44).

(8) This is how Tom describes the rhyming butler, the part he wishes to play in Lover's Vows (93).

(9) The most influential study of theatricality in Mansfield Park is found in Joseph Litvak's Caught in the Act: Theatricality in the Nineteenth-Century English Novel (see 1 -26). William Galperin also offers a sustained reading of the Mansfield family theater in The Historical Austen (154-79). In recent years discussion of theatricality in the novel has moved beyond analyses of the Lover's Vows section, to encompass the novel's many references to theater, as evidenced by Chris Mounsey's recent "Henry Crawford as Master Betty: Jane Austen on the 'Disabling' of Shakespeare."

(10) Rose P. O'Malley develops this phantom plot in her article "Sororal Generations: Fanny Price's Sister Strategy," wherein she argues that the text encourages us to imagine Susan Price eventually marrying Tom Bertram. In this way she links Fanny and Susan's story to an evolutionary narrative in which siblings sacrifice resources for the sake of furthering their family line through a kind of non-maternal reproduction.

(11) For more on the relationship between the novel's represented family dynamics and its relation to slavery, see Moira Ferguson's "Mansfield Park: Slavery, Colonialism, and Gender" (118-39) and Elizabeth Fey's "Reformation in Mansfield Park: The Slave Trade and the Stillpoint of Knowledge" (19-34).


Austen, Jane. Mansfield Park. 1814. Ed. Claudia L. Johnson. New York and London: Norton, 1998.

--. Pride and Prejudice. 1813. Ed. Robert Irvine. Toronto: Broadview Literary Texts, 2002.

--. Sense and Sensibility. 1811. Ed. Claudia L. Johnson. New York and London: Norton, 2002.

Benjamin, Walter. The Arcades Project. 1927-1940. Trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin. Ed. Rolf Ticdmann. Cambridge, MA: Belknap P of Harvard UP, 1999.

Cleerc, Eileen. "Reinvesting Nieces: Mansfield Park and the Economics of Endogamy." Novel: A Forum on Fiction 28.2 (1995): 113-30. "connection | connexion, n." OED Online. Mar. 2018. Oxford UP.

Davidson, Jenny. Hypocrisy and the Politics of Politeness: Manners and Morals from Locke to Austen. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 2004.

Doody, Margaret. Jane Austen's Names: Riddles, Persons, Places. Chicago and London: U of Chicago P, 2015.

Fay, Elizabeth. "Reformation in Mansfield Park: The Slave Trade and the Stillpoint of Knowledge." Transatlantic Literature and Transitivity, 1780-1850: Subjects, Texts, and Print Culture. Ed. Annika Bautz and Kathryn Gray. New York: Routledge, 2017. 19-34.

Ferguson, Moira. "Mansfield Park: Slavery, Colonialism, and Gender." Oxford Literary Review 13 (1991): 118-39.

Galpcrin, William H. The Historical Austen. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2003.

Gillooly, Eileen. The Smile of Discontent: Humor, Gender, and Nineteenth-Century British Fiction. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1999.

Giotta, Peter C. "Characterization in Mansfield Park: Tom Bertram and Colman's The Heir at Law." The Review of English Studies 49.196 (1998): 466-71.

Haggcrty, George E. "Is she solemn?--Is she queer?--Is she prudish?" The Eighteenth Century 53.2 (2012): 175-88.

Hcydt-Stcvcnson, Jill. Austen's Unbecoming Conjunctions: Subversive Laughter, Embodied History. New York: Palgravc Macmillan, 2005.

Kenncy, Theresa. "Why Tom Bertram Cannot Die: 'The Plans and Decisions of Mortals.'" Persuasions Online 35.1 (2014).

Litvak, Joseph. Caught in the Act: Theatricality in the Nineteenth-Century English Novel. Berkeley: U of California P, 1992.

Lott, Anna. "Staging a Lesson: The Theatricals and Proper Conduct in Mansfield Park." Studies in the Novel 38.3 (2006): 275-87.

Markovits, Stefanie. "Jane Austen and the Happy Fall." Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 47.4 (2007): 779-97.

Miller, D. A. Jane Austen, or The Secret of Style. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton UP, 2003.

Mounscy, Chris. "Henry Crawford as Master Betty: Jane Austen on the' Disabling' of Shakespeare." Eighteenth-Century Fiction 30.2 (2017): 265-86.

O'Mallcy, Rose P. "Sororal Generations: Fanny Price's Sister Strategy." Nineteenth-Century Gender Studies 14.3 (2018): 1-13.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire. New York and Chichester, West Sussex: Columbia UP, 1985.

--. Tendencies. Durham: Duke UP, 1993.

Stamponc, Christopher. '"Obliged to yield': The Language of Patriarchy and the System of Mental Slavery in Mansfield Park " Studies in the Novel 50.2 (2018): 197-212.

Trilling, Lionel. "Mansfield Park" The Opposing Self: Nine Essays in Criticism. New York: Viking, 1955. 206-30.

Tuite, Clara. Romantic Austen: Sexual Politics and the Literary Canon. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 2002.

Wiltshire, John. Jane Austen and the Body: "The Picture of Health." Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 1992.

Woloch, Alex. The One vs. the Many: Minor Characters and the Space of the Protagonist in the British Novel. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton UP, 2003.

Wright, Erika. "Prevention as Narrative in Jane Austen's Mansfield Park." Studies in the Novel 42.4 (2010): 377-94.
COPYRIGHT 2019 Johns Hopkins University Press
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2019 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Spampinato, Erin A.
Publication:Studies in the Novel
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Dec 22, 2019
Previous Article:Me and My House: James Baldwin's Last Decade in France.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2020 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters