It’s true that after writing about my mom and researching borderline personality, I’m inclined to see the disorder lurking behind every frowning face. But I can’t go so far as to diagnose Mrs. Norris of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park (which I’m blissfully reading for the first time) with BPD; for one thing, she’s entirely too happy in her negativity. People with BPD suffer terribly. Still, this remarkable character – now one of my Austen favorites – brings to mind some qualities that overlap with the disorder. She’s an object lesson, for me, in some behavior I strive now to avoid.
Mrs. Norris is self-absorbed. She gleefully snatches dissatisfaction from the jaws of happiness. She dithers, she complains, she finds fault, she criticizes. She finds the dark cloud for every silver lining. In this passage, she reacts to an unobjectionable evening at a neighbor’s home:
“The meeting was generally felt to be a pleasant one, being composed in a good proportion to those who would talk and those who would listen; and the dinner itself was elegant and plentiful, according to the usual style of the Grants, and too much according to the usual habits of all to raise any emotion except in Mrs. Norris, who could never behold either the wide table or the number of dishes on it with patience, and who did always contrive to experience some evil from the passing of the servants behind her chair, and to bring away some fresh conviction of its being impossible among so many dishes but that some must be cold.”
You know the type. The one who under-tips the waitress for some miniscule infraction no one else even perceived. The one who finds the sun too hot and the wind too heavy on a breezy summer day. The one who derails a heartfelt discussion with a non sequitur related to herself. Along those lines, here’s another wittily relevant passage from the novel. A young sailor home from the sea is regaling his relatives with tales of adventure, and the family listens rapt, except for Mrs. Norris. “With such means in his power he had a right to be listened to; [but] Mrs. Norris [would] fidget about the room, and disturb everybody in quest of two needlefuls of thread or a secondhand shirt button in the midst of her nephew’s account of a shipwreck or an engagement.” Mrs. Norris is always about Mrs. Norris.
I used to think finding fault made me discerning. I thought it wise to focus on what was wrong. I thought I was gazing bravely on the bleakness of the universe and on human frailty (sometimes, even my own!). Pollyannas were contemptible to me.
Though endless sunniness can be a bore, I see now that negativity really rains on everyone else’s parade. Cathartic complaining is healthful and even fun, but I’m learning from the positive examples in my life and also the Mrs. Norrises that a little warmth, sunshine, and turning a blind eye can accomplish lots of good.