Two weeks ago, I wrote the latest in an intermittent series of posts over the past year or so, in all of which I vent my spleen at Edmund Bertram, every time I realize some _new_ aspect of his character which dismays me:
Today, I discovered another complaint to lodge against Edmund, to wit: it’s bad enough that when push comes to shove, he almost always makes the wrong choice by wimping out on a duty that a morally strong man would have performed—and in particular, as I have argued, he consistently fails in his duty to protect Fanny, even though her attitude toward him as a girl was that “she regarded her cousin as an example of everything good and great, as possessing worth which no one but herself could ever appreciate…”
But what makes this failing even worse is that Edmund inadvertently and cluelessly adds insult to injury by actually styling himself as a strong advocate for...setting good moral examples! This unfortunate trait in Edmund is subjected to a merciless irony by JA, by her putting into his mouth hollow words in this vein on (at least) two separate occasions:
First, Exhibit A: Edmund persists in lecturing his sister Maria for wanting to participate in the amateur theatricals, after she at first responds less than enthusiastically to him:
“I am sorry for it," was his answer; "but in this matter it is you who are to lead. You must set the example. If others have blundered, it is your place to put them right, and shew them what true delicacy is. In all points of decorum your conduct must be law to the rest of the party."
Of course the words have barely ceased to echo in the green room before he himself rationalizes why _he_ will participate---and what’s more, he promptly proceeds to encourage-actually, to push--Fanny to participate too! And is this because he has had a moral epiphany? Of course not! So Edmund gets an “F” in example-setting, but an “A” in unconscious hypocrisy, for this “performance”.
Now, don't get me wrong---I personally don’t think that it _was_ immoral for anyone to participate in Lover’s Vows, but that is not the point—_Edmund_ considered it immoral, and yet in the end of the day he set precisely the opposite example, adopting, promoting, and rationalizing the very behavior he had initially criticized so strongly-and why does he do this? Because he’s a wuss, but also because he’s not thinking with the brain inside his skull, but is directed by a less elevated form of cognition.
And then, not long afterwards, we have Exhibit B, when Edmund explains to Mary Crawford the importance and worthiness of the country clergyman:
“...it is not in fine preaching only that a good clergyman will be useful in his parish and his neighbourhood, where the parish and neighbourhood are of a size capable of knowing his private character, and observing his general conduct…And with regard to their influencing public manners, Miss Crawford must not misunderstand me, or suppose I mean to call them the arbiters of good-breeding, the regulators of refinement and courtesy, the masters of the ceremonies of life. The manners I speak of might rather be called conduct, perhaps, the result of good principles; the effect, in short, of those doctrines which it is their duty to teach and recommend; and it will, I believe, be everywhere found, that as the clergy are, or are not what they ought to be, so are the rest of the nation."
The irony of that last sentence is that Edmund has inadvertently hoisted himself on his own rhetorical petard. I.e., since he, in his conduct, is often not what _he_ ought to be, it turns out to be absolutely true that his failure to set a good example contributes to there being nobody else at Mansfield Park (except Fanny) who demonstrates moral scruples on a consistent basis! He turns out to be a lousy role model.
And Mansfield Park, standing in metaphorically for England as a whole, lends to the negative ironic judgment on Edmund a devastating national significance. The judgment rendered by JA on her own country is that because of the failure of the Anglican clergy to set a good moral example, this has contributed to the general breakdown of morality in the entire English nation. And that is why we not only have the example of Edmund Bertram, but also the gluttonous bon vivant Dr. Grant, to show us that JA really means it!
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