Friday, July 10, 2009

Hostage to good breeding

I have sometimes had to deal with a certain type of person who can make me regret my good-naturedness, my willingness to give way, forgive and forget. A literary exemplar of this type is Mrs. Norris in Mansfield Park. Sweetly manipulative, smoothly offensive and so misunderstood when someone expects her to do what she had said she would.

By being associated with Mrs. Norris, you can be drawn into situations where you feel you're being taken advantage of. By association, you can get a bad reputation when she turns spiteful towards one of your friends. You don't know what to do or say, since for a while she's been all sweetness and light. But lower your guard, and suddenly the monkey's on your back again.

Mrs. Norris of course always thinks of herself as the little match girl, more to be pitied than despised. She will never admit she's stepped out of line. She would rather cut her throat than eat crow, and won't even acknowledge what's on the plate the waitress has just slammed down in front of her. Mrs. Norris is aggrieved, and refuses to see that what is coming to her is exactly what she ordered.

For several years there have been panhandlers in Cologne, young punk-like beggars, who sidle up to you and put on a display of hyperpoliteness and deference, talking on and on until they finally get to the pitch. Many people don't know what to do, because they're not accustomed to being taken hostage to their good breeding in this manner. They end up giving something, just to escape from themselves.

Me, the instant I recognize what's going on (which is almost immediately), I say "buzz off" (or something yet more disobliging, depending on the weather) and continue on my merry way. I'm not going to let some bozo turn my good-naturedness into a bear trap. And yet that is exactly what has happened. I feel forced to be nasty for an instant, in order to stay nice. I resent this very much. Mrs. Norris also presents a challenge to good-naturedness. I find that my own approach is a more flexible immune strategy than good breeding.


empty said...

Although I mentioned Mansfield Park elsewhere the other day, I have not reread it in a while. I remember it as the least engaging of JA's books. Why? Partly because of the cultural divide between our world and that one where "amateur theatricals" are so dangerous. Partly because of the personalities of the characters: as I remember them, the good guys are on the insipid side while the rest are not-very-interesting caricatures. But how is it that I had almost forgotten about the fascinating and maddening Mrs Norris?

I am now trying to imagine, if Jane Austen had been born 200 years later, what she might produce in the way of an e-epistolary novel!

AJP CROWN said...

I think Grumbly is imagining the same e-epistolary thing.

AJP CROWN said...

(Only not by Jane Austen.)

empty said...


I'm very glad that although you've stopped blogging you haven't disappeared.

I have been a little unsure about what to do with the fact that it still possible to comment at your blog even though it is not exactly open for business. Are you going to close it?

I have also been wishing that I had an email address for you; I couldn't seem to get one from your blog, but maybe I'm just being stupid.

About Jane Austen: My main point was something like this. She reveled in the dramatic possibilities of miscommunication, and she lived in a time and place where life moved at a slower pace and where codes of behavior were comparatively strict. Imagine the same mind working with material from a world where "communication" is instant, and where social divisions are much less clear, and where people get in each other's faces in ways that she could never have imagined.

AJP CROWN said...

You're right about Jane Austen in the same sense as people who wonder what might have happened if Schubert -- okay, not Schubert -- if Jimmi Hendrix hadn't died: in other words possibly nothing, and we're very lucky to be left with what work we have.

My email address is

Yes, you're very welcome to comment. The last comment is a very dreary one by nijma that I'm thinking of eliminating because it's depressing me. I'm not closing the blog, I'll probably post something new soon just to get rid of the taste of the other stuff. Until school starts in late August I'm spending less time at the blogs and more time with the family.