The widow's place : Mrs. Norris in Mansfield Park
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“The most hateful character in Jane Austen’s novels,” “a vicious pest,” “Austen’s most nearly psychotic creation.” Such is the critical consensus on Mrs. Norris of Mansfield Park: that she is hateful, vicious, and psychotic (Lauber 519; Duffy 72; Edwards 55). But this instinctive dismissal, even going as far to suggest that her evil “requires no demonstration” (Lauber 519), prevents a deeper examination of her character. This reductive view fails to consider Mrs. Norris’s social status, especially in relation to the late eighteenth century, and prevents readers from examining her complicated role in relation to the novel’s protagonist, Fanny Price. In this paper, I make three contributions to the critical debate concerning Mansfield Park. First, I call attention to a much-neglected context of the novel, namely eighteenth-century expectations of widows. As historians such as Richard Wall and Olwen Hufton have shown, early modern widows and single women often lived together for societal and economic reasons. Because it was feared that never married women or widows would meddle with others, especially impressionable young women, widows and single women were encouraged to live together. In addition, they benefited from being able to share the costs of housing and food, among other things. This social context is directly relevant to Mansfield Park, and in particular to the depiction of Mrs. Norris. Second, I show how Mrs. Norris rejects her societally approved place as a widow and usurps other roles. Critics such as Laura Fairchild Brodie have argued that the Mansfield Park society excludes Mrs. Norris from the life of the park to such a degree that she feels that she must justify her existence. I argue, however, that Mrs. Norris makes choices that push her farther from society. When she refuses to live with Fanny as her society wishes, she must adopt other roles because she has rejected what Austen and her contemporaries would have regarded as her normal place. Third, I demonstrate the direct relationship between Fanny’s rise and Mrs. Norris’s fall in the novel. Critics have long explained Mrs. Norris’s exile as an example of her being punished for her bad choices. While I concur with this argument, I believe it needs to be expanded. I argue that Austen sharply contrasts Mrs. Norris’s rejection of her place with Fanny’s acceptance of hers. Austen then shows how Fanny’s acceptance leads to her advancement into the Mansfield family, while Mrs. Norris’s refusal to act as she ought leads to her exclusion. In fact, the advancement of one and diminution of the other are in counterbalance. By creating this direct relationship, Austen uses Mrs. Norris to show the importance of single women and widows entering their societally supported places.