When you remember the characters of Austen’s “Mansfield Park,” who do you think of first? It’s kind of a no-brainer. We all know the story is centered around Fanny Price and her clergyman love, Edmund Bertram.
But what pushes Fanny and Edmund’s moral and sensible personas to the forefront? The supporting characters present a cavalcade of deadly sins, including immorality, hubris and bad behavior. Maria cheats with Henry Crawford, unable to stand her foppish, silly husband Mr. Rushworth who she married solely for his money. Sir Thomas tries to force Fanny into a marriage she does not want. Lady Bertram is insipid and lazy. Her sister, Mrs. Norris is a class-obsessed skinflint. And Mary Crawford, clearly the main antagonist, is a shrew whose mercenary capabilities know no bounds. We even have Dr. Grant, a gluttonous parson.
And while we love Fanny and Edmund, we love these funny, shocking, hopelessly flawed characters even more. While Fanny and Edmund are the structure of the novel, the supporting characters are the foundation.
Another prominent foil is the oldest son, Thomas Bertram. A free-spirited young man who has a passion for all things decadent, he frustrates his father who tries incessantly to get his son, who is set to inherit Mansfield Park and other family holdings, onto the straight and narrow. He even takes Thomas away from all the temptations to work with him on his plantation in Antigua. But Thomas returns, his ways unaltered. He plunges the family into debt, forcing his father to sell the church position that would have belonged to Edmund.
Thomas’ character is the perfect foil to his brother, highlighting a classic character archetype in stories going all the way back to Cain and Abel; the good brother and the evil one. Because of Thomas’ bad boy antics, Edmund shines like an angel with gossamer wings.
But because this is Austen, the bad brother got a happy ending. Thomas is redeemed after recovering from a grave illness. That is where the story of Thomas Bertram ends in “Mansfield Park.” Nothing more is said directly, but it is implied Thomas became a dependable young man his father is proud of.
That’s it. We learn nothing more of Thomas, a character with tremendous potential in his own right.
I tried to give him a chance to live up to that potential in my novella “Becoming Sir Thomas.” At the time of his father’s death, Thomas is ready to live up to his responsibilities as the patriarch of Mansfield Park. But he also has his own ideas about how he wishes to run the estate and its holdings in order to proceed successfully into the new modern century. One of most important things to Thomas is stripping the Bertram holdings from the taints of slavery. Wanting to sell the Antigua business, he finds himself in a quandary when he discovers the plantation has lost its value. Because of this, he discovers he is nearly bankrupt and risks losing everything, including Mansfield Park.
But there is a way out. Mary Crawford comes back, offering him a solution. But that solution comes at a heavy cost, not only to himself and Susan Price, Fanny’s sister and the girl he loves and wants to marry, but to the entire Bertram family. The need to make this life shattering decision forces Thomas to look critically at his family and his future, and to ascertain what is truly important. He feels the weight of the responsibility that his father felt, along with many generations of men that came before him. They preserved Mansfield Park at all costs. But to a modern man such as Thomas, will he do the same? I hope you will enjoy finding out!!
Next time, I’ll take you on a journey to Northanger Abbey, and to one of its minor heroines, Miss Eleanor Tilney.