The most masterfully crafted miser in the Austen universe is of course Nasty-Aunt Norris from Mansfield Park. Not only does she love to save her own money but she is happy to spend that of others. And such miserly attributes were also accompanied with a capacity for bossiness that made her see herself as the director of most things. “Her love of money was equal to her love of directing”. Mrs Norris didn’t start out this way, but once she had married on a lower income than she had been used to, she had to economise and once having “begun as a matter of prudence, soon grew into a matter of choice”. I shudder when I read of Mrs Norris as I know too well the satisfaction of having spent less than anticipated and the addictive qualities of wanting every purchase to be a bargain.
Nasty-Aunt Norris likes to involve herself in everything. It is her idea that the little Fanny Price should come and live with her rich relatives. And she was to congratulate herself for her benevolence at no cost to herself. She indeed saw herself as a generous soul which tells us all how seriously delusional a human being can be. When later in the novel she is asked to take in Fanny herself, she is quick to find reasons why this would be impossible. This is one penny pinching decision that Fanny would concur with.
Nasty-Aunt Norris is very happy to economise for others and in doing so put in place her own slant on the existing social hierarchy. It is interesting that those who are not at the top of the hierarchy, but enjoy limited power, are often happy to maintain the hierarchy nevertheless. Nasty-Aunt Norris always takes an opportunity to make Fanny feel inferior. Fanny is allowed to take a disused old school room as her own room, her bedroom being so small, yet Mrs Norris makes sure that it is as uncomfortable as possible by forbidding a fire. She “having stipulated for there never being a fire … on Fanny’s account”. When invited to tea with a local family, Fanny is told, “Remember wherever you are you must be the lowest and last”. Being frugal can of course be a virtue. But equally it can be a vice if married with a mean heart.