While Edmund first shows himself to be compassionate and morally grounded as a character, he also shows that these qualities, as well as his own perceptions, are capable of being corrupted, mainly due to his romantic attachment to Miss Crawford in spite of her questionable moral foundations; these distortions of both Edmund’s values and his social awareness lead Edmund to become ignorant of Fanny’s affections toward him and makes him unconcerned with Fanny’s well-being to boot: Edmund’s lack of regard towards Fanny makes him largely to blame for the decline in physical and mental health she experiences throughout the novel.
Fanny’s first encounters with Edmund while transitioning into life at Mansfield Park show something contrary to the detachment Edmund exhibits later in the novel. In these encounters, the reader learns quite a large amount about Edmund’s good character in only a few pages. Edmund establishes his kind nature to the reader by helping Fanny write a letter to her sorely missed brother: “He continued with her the whole time of her writing, to assist her with his penknife or his orthography, as either were wanted; and added to these attentions, which she felt very much, a kindness to her brother, which delighted her beyond all the rest.” (17). Edmund did not have to console Fanny, let alone help her write a letter to her brother, yet he kindly did so anyway. The reader also learns about Edmund’s “strong good sense and uprightness of mind” (21) from Sir Thomas’ point of view, confirming the notion that Edmund is a morally upright young man by nature. Finally, the narrator enumerates that “his [Edmund’s] attentions were otherwise of the highest importance in assisting the improvement of her mind, and extending its pleasures.” (22). Even the narrator is outright telling the reader that Edmund remains of vital importance to Fanny’s mental health and learning potential, which leaves Edmund with quite a lot of responsibility over his cousin.
Edmund makes evident his continuing devotion to Fanny’s care as well as his first big misstep with such a responsibility in how he handles Fanny’s new horse. Edmund’s provision of a new horse for Fanny further demonstrates his goodwill, especially because of the fact that he traded one of his own horses for it: “this third [horse] he resolved to exchange for one that his cousin might ride…the whole business was soon completed.” (36). This is a great moment in their relationship, but this same horse soon turns to be a problem after the story introduces Mary Crawford. The whole reason Edmund bought the horse was for Fanny to exercise and remain in good physical condition instead of wasting away at the house, but Edmund seems to lose sight of this when Miss Crawford comes into the picture. He hints to Fanny about how “Miss Crawford would be glad to have her for a longer time,” even though he knew of Fanny’s wavering health. While Edmund did not intentionally cause Fanny to fall ill, especially without his knowledge of the torturous chores that her aunts would assign to her if she had been left without the ability to ride, Edmund still cannot escape some responsibility for the lack of consideration he had for his cousin in this instance. His ignorance of Fanny’s demeanor has big consequences for Fanny.
Continuing this trend, the Lover’s Vows fiasco sheds light on an even bigger failure of Edmund’s moral sensibilities and his commitment to Fanny’s well-being. In justifying his role in the play, Edmund attempts to reason that by taking the part in the play, he is really doing Sir Thomas a favor by not letting strangers into the household, but this decision that Edmund makes no doubt has ulterior motives, namely that Mary agreed to do the play and Edmund “…was obliged to acknowledge that the charm of acting might well carry fascination to the mind of genius; and with the ingenuity of love…” (120). Edmund’s justification of the play for this reason can only display that his moral foundation has the capacity to be tampered with, especially if the person doing the tampering is a charming young woman. It seems that Edmund is so infatuated with Mary Crawford that he not only knowingly goes against what his father would have wanted, but he also blatantly ignores Fanny’s discomfort with the line rehearsals between himself and Miss Crawford. Fanny had already displayed her vexation with the idea of a play, thus Edmund knew better than to ask for her opinion on rehearsed lines with Mary, and even worse is the fact that both Edmund and Mary mistook Fanny’s anxiety and discomfort for exhaustion. This can also be explained by Edmund’s intoxicated attraction to Mary; perhaps if he was more soberly dedicated to Miss Crawford’s affections, he might have been able to understand how Fanny was suffering.
Fanny’s suffering is only exacerbated with Henry’s proclamations of love for her. Perhaps the worst failure of Edmund’s blurred judgmental vision manifests itself in his haste to condone and even support the relationship and possible marriage of his cousin Fanny to Henry Crawford. It is clear that his motives are not simply that he wishes Fanny the best, but rather, he makes the ordeal about himself: “‘A counteraction, gentle and continual, is the best safeguard of manners and conduct.’ Full well could Fanny guess where his thoughts were now. Miss Crawford’s power was all returning.” (323-324). In a time where Edmund is supposed to be giving Fanny sound advice about her choices moving forward, he instead decided to ruminate on his own relationship with Mary Crawford! Even worse is Edmund’s approval of Sir Thomas’ plan to send Fanny back to Portsmouth in order to make her wan Henry. The reader knows that Edmund is aware of Fanny’s poor medical state, but still looked at the plan, “…considered it in every way, and saw nothing but what was right.” (341). Not only is he supporting the manipulation of his cousin into marrying someone she does not love, he is also threatening her physical health by sending her to an overburdened and impoverished family with a careless mother and alcoholic father. In effect, he would be willing to condemn her to adverse conditions and unstable emotional environments just to quell the tension between herself and Mary, the two people he holds dearest. This is the most damning proof towards Mary’s perversion of Edmund’s kindness and morality that would cause Fanny direct physical and mental distress.
Fanny recognizes the blinding effects that Mary has on Edmund’s good judgment very early, but because of her own soft-spoken nature, feels powerless over the situation and forces herself to agree with Edmund on “How well she walks! And how readily she falls in with the inclination of others!” (105). At first glance, this might just be chalked up to a quiet jealousy and dismissed as insignificant, but this is a theme that occurs often throughout the novel. This theme finally reaches a climax when the author portrays Fanny resigning herself to Edmund’s satisfaction with Miss Crawford’s unscrupulous disposition and even the inevitability of their marriage:
…the more she recollected and observed, the more deeply was she convinced that every thing was now in a fairer train for Miss Crawford’s marrying Edmund than it had ever been before. — On his side, the inclination was stronger, on her’s less equivocal. His objections, the scruples of his integrity, seemed all done away—nobody could tell how; and the doubts and hesitations of her ambition were equally got over—and equally without apparent reason. It could only be imputed to increasing attachment. (340)
It is only after Edmund snaps out of his delusional attachment to Mary that he is finally able to perceive Fanny’s love. The narrator makes it quite clear, even without regard to dates, that as soon as Edmund stopped thinking about Mary, he was eager to marry Fanny: “Edmund did cease to care about Miss Crawford, and became anxious to marry Fanny, as Fanny herself could desire.” (436). Edmund was able to redeem himself from his past ignorance and misdeeds, with his penance being the pain he endured while recovering from his relationship with Mary. It is also made optimistically clear that his marriage to Fanny would prevent his compassion and morality from being shaken thereafter.
While Edmund’s redemption is touching, it must be understood that had he been attentive to Fanny’s passions towards him earlier in his youth, the outcome to all of the aforementioned situations would have been very different. Had he not been distracted, his knowledge of her affections would have led to reduced strains on her physical and emotional health, regardless of whether or not he had decided to return said affections, as he would not have been charged with doing so. The responsibility that Edmund had towards his cousin was a large one, but such is the price of being kind and morally upright; both of these traits connote responsibility, which is something that no one is capable of doing perfectly, as conveyed by Edmund. Instead of perfection, the message Edmund does reveal to the reader is the possibility of redemption from the omission of responsibility. Where Edmund was less than kind or immoral, he made up for it with some sort of apology or penance, which seems to be the kind of example Jane Austen wants to make of Edmund for her readers.