Mansfield used to be my least favourite Austen book. Not, unlike many others, because I don’t like Fanny, but because I do – I get her. No, I couldn’t stand the way Mrs Norris bullies her. She’s so mean, such a nasty person.
Austen writes quite a few bullies, and they’re always middle-aged and in a position of power. Mrs Norris is undoubtedly the worst, because she has the most ability to make the protagonist feel miserable, but Lady Catherine de Bourgh, General Tilney, and Sir Walter Elliot do their level best. Sir Walter is probably the least mean; he’s just utterly conceited and stupid, but doesn’t actively hurt Anne. General Tilney’s actions do have the potential for harming Catherine, and his kids, of course, are shaking in their boots around him. Lady Catherine is the least bothersome of the bullies, although she’s both conceited and mean, because Elizabeth very much doesn’t let it get to her. Lady Catherine’s power is mostly in her own imagination; she thinks everyone is in awe of her (and of course Mr Collins’ toad-eating confirms it every step of the way). You almost feel sorry for her when Elizabeth sasses her back and she’s faced with the fact that she has, in fact, no power whatsoever when it comes to deciding whom her nephew is going to marry. And I’ve always wanted to be a fly on the wall when she talks to Darcy on the same matter; of all the omitted conversations in Austen, this one would have been most satisfying to witness.
Speaking of omittted conversation, Austen never writes real love scenes, either, not between the protagonists. No show-don’t-tell here – she just tells it, flat out. “Go imagine it yourself, will you,” is a common way of letting the reader know that everything works out all right in the end. The only “love-making” (i.e. proposal scenes) comes from undesirable sources, such as Mr Collins to Elizabeth and Henry Crawford to Fanny. It’s as if Austen didn’t want to touch really deep emotion.
But she did write bullies – flat-character, nasty bullies. Mrs Norris is just classic in that regard – she does her bullying not only out in the open, but privately, when nobody is around to protect Fanny; and Fanny goes right along with it, believing that she deserves every bit of it. And so when the Crawfords start pushing her around, and Sir Thomas pressures her to marry Henry Crawford, she won’t stand up for herself, because she doesn’t feel she has any right to. Thank goodness this is Austen, not some tragedy-prone writer like Richardson, and both Fanny and Aunt Bully get what’s coming to them.