Taken for Granted and Remorsefulness
Being Taken In
How much of a role does deception play in courtship? In marriage? In Volume I of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, Henry and Mary Crawford engage in a conversation with their sister, Mrs. Grant, concerning this very question. The conversation occurs soon after the Crawfords arrive at the parsonage to stay with Mrs. Grant, and becomes an early introduction into the characters’ beliefs, as well as their opinions of the Bertrams. The passage not only employs dramatic irony, it foreshadows the romantic turmoil that lies ahead and also gives the reader a closer look at the characters’ beliefs concerning marriage and courtship.
The passage displays two instances of dramatic irony. The first is Henry’s assertion that “Miss Bertram is very much attached to Mr. Rushworth,” which is followed by his declaration that he “think[s] too well of Miss Bertram to suppose she would ever give her hand without her heart” (34). Both of these statements reflect his opinion of Maria Bertram’s motives, but they also hint that he favors her. His sisters view these statements as evidence that he has been “taken in” or, in other words, deceived (34). As the reader may already know at this point, Henry’s initial assumptions are, in fact, false. This is an example of dramatic irony: because there is “a discrepancy between a character’s perception and what the reader or audience knows to be true” (Murfin and Ray 224). This dramatic irony is seen again in Mary’s thought that Tom Bertram “had more liveliness and gallantry than Edmund, and must, therefore, be preferred; She knew it was her way” (Austen 35). Mary’s other words and actions in this part of the novel reveal that she doesn’t just want Tom because he is lively and gallant, but also because he is the eldest of the Bertram sons and will, therefore, inherit the estate. This early deduction and decision on Mary’s part to “prefer” Tom over Edmund is, just like Henry’s initial opinion of Maria, soon proven false. Mary turns out to favor Edmund for the simple reason that Tom was out of town for a long period of time. When the reader encounters this change in Mary’s decision, he/she is reminded of Mary’s early resolution and how easily it was forgotten. This isn’t the only instance in which Mary betrays her own beliefs about how women should behave during courtship.
In this passage, Mary expresses her view that being “taken in” is a natural part of any marriage, where it is, of all transactions, the one in which people expect the most from others, and are least honest themselves (34). This statement is evidence of her belief that marriage is a “maneuvering business,” where people must deceive each other in order to gain favor and acceptance. This assertion, however, is inverted later in the novel when Mary continues to bluntly voice her disgust about clergymen and their salary, yet Edmund, who is determined to become an ordained minister himself, continues in his pursuit of her. Even though she is being brutally honest about her views, he isn’t discouraged, and still seeks her hand in marriage. She doesn’t try to hide her true feelings, even though they are distasteful and offensive to Edmund, and yet none of this keeps Edmund from chasing after her. This disproves her early sentiment that marriage is initially based on deception and that all married (and soon-to-be married) couples deceive eachother in hopes of gaining the other’s favor.
The passage also sheds light on Mrs. Grant’s views on marriage. She believes that all married couples will eventually disappoint one another, but that human nature motivates them to seek consolation in other “scheme[s] of happiness” (34). The use of the word “scheme” in her statement hints at her opinion that marriage is indeed based at least partly on deception, even though she asserts the opposite notion in her argument. Her remark correlates with her own married life: it is obvious that her husband is lacking in many areas, including his treatment of her, his work ethic, and his extreme fondness for alcohol. Her assertion that, when faced with disappointments in marriage, one must look elsewhere to find happiness, is obviously inspired by her experiences in her own marriage. In a way, she is trying to rid Mary and Henry of their ignorance on the trials of married life by giving them a glimpse into her own.
In Mrs. Grant’s words, she is trying to “cure” Mary and Henry of their naivete. She sees that Henry is already being deceived by Maria about her motives and that Mary is still unaware of the trials that marriage and courtship bring. In her own words, she wants to “cure [them] both” (35), and believes that Mansfield can assist her in doing so. Later, it becomes obvious that Mansfield will indeed “cure” their ignorance, but only by subjecting them to disappointment and heartache. As the reader knows by the end of the novel, Henry runs off with Maria, only to find it impossible to live with her after their initial facades wear off and they are exposed to one another’s real personalities. Mary’s fate is just as depressing, mainly because her own belief in the importance of deception in courting contrasts directly with Edmund’s (not to mention the fact that she is more interested in his money than anything else). Mary believes that at least some of Edmund’s personality is a disguise, especially in her assumption that his determination to become a clergyman can be easily discouraged. Edmund, however, remains truthful in his words and actions, and as a result Mary ends up digging her own grave, so to speak. In a way, Mansfield Park really does “cure” Henry and Mary of their naivete, but not without subjecting them to instances of disappointment and heartache along the way. The cliche phrase “they learned it the hard way” certainly appears applicable in this situation.
This short passage gives the reader a deeper look into Mary and Henry’s motives as they enter into courtship with the Bertram youths, foreshadowing future events and their consequences. It also offers a brief glimpse of Mrs. Grants emotional struggle in her own marriage, and her desire to convince the Crawfords that no marriage can be happy without a great deal of effort. The dramatic irony in the passage is used to set both Henry and Mary up for falls later in the novel, when their initial assumptions are proven wrong and, as a result, they wind up alone.
Austen, Jane. Mansfield Park. Ed. Claudia L. Johnson. New York: Norton, 34-35.
Murfin, Ross, and Supryia Ray. “Irony.” The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms. 2nd ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003.
Family Man and Morality: A Study of Edmund
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.
Money and Morality in Mansfield Park
A character’s views on morality and material gain seem to form the distinction between being a “good” or “bad” character in Austen’s novel Mansfield Park. By conducting a character analysis of Lady Bertram, Mary Crawford, and Sir Thomas, one can glean the true, didactic purpose of Mansfield Park, especially when the values of these characters are contrasted with the pristine morality of Fanny Price. Sir Thomas, for instance (despite his already morally questionable slave plantations in Antigua), magnanimously offers releasing Maria Bertram, his daughter, from her engagement to the dull yet wealthy Rushworth. However, once Maria opts to remain in her engagement, the insincerity of Sir Thomas’ offer becomes apparent, since he feels “happy to escape the embarrassing evils of such a rupture, the wonder, the reflections, the reproach that must attend it, happy to secure a marriage which would bring him such an addition of respectability and influence” (Mansfield Park, Ch. 21). Not only is he relieved to avoid the embarrassment breaking off an engagement would bring, he is also relieved that the wedding will continue because it will bring him influence, power, and money. Thus, Sir Thomas prioritizes material gain over the happiness of his daughter. This mentality strikes again when he tries to force the marriage of Fanny and Henry Crawford. When Fanny says that she could not make Henry happy and that she would be miserable for the rest of her life, Sir Thomas replies:
“… I had thought you peculiarly free from wilfulness of temper, self-conceit…The advantage or disadvantage of your family…never seems to have had a moment’s share in your thoughts on th is occasion. How they might be benefited… throwing away from you such an opportunity of being settled in life…Fanny, that you may [never be] addressed by a man of half Mr. Crawford’s estate, or a tenth part of his merits” (Mansfield Park, Ch. 32).
Sir Thomas cannot fathom why Fanny would put principles/happiness over material gain, and interprets her refusal as, at best, a bout of ungratefulness and, at worst, a temporary fit of hysteria. When viewed with a contemporary eye, this situation can only be seen in Fanny’s favor. However, one can only wonder whether Fanny putting affection over avarice would indeed be seen as a selfish act during the Victorian era. Sir Thomas’ wife, Lady Bertram, puts this belief much more plainly than her husband does. Lady Bertram, in speaking with Fanny, says “if you were married to a man of such good estate as Mr. Crawford…you must be aware, Fanny, that it is every young woman’s duty to accept such a very unexceptionable o ffer as this” (Mansfield Park, Ch. 33). Even these two opinions could be dismissed as the outdated beliefs of the older generation, but in analyzing the mindset of Mary Crawford, we start to wonder if Fanny might be the only one in the wrong, or the only one in the right. I would argue that Mary Crawford is the main foil character used to highlight Fanny’s pure morality. Mary Crawford, though clearly intellectually superior to Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram, is a staunch believer in marrying for money; she is of the opinion that “everybody [should] marry if they can do it properly: I do not like to have people throw themselves away; but everybody should marry as soon as they can d o it to advantage” (Mansfield Park, Ch. 4). Mary Crawford seems to be of the opinion that, if marriage does not serve the purpose of material gain, then it has not been done “properly”.
Fanny, however, is unlike all of the Bertrams and Crawfords. After her uncle’s scolding on the matter of marriage to Henry Crawford, her principles are not shaken. In fact, she “trusted, in the first place, that she had done right: that her judgment had not misled her. For the purity of her intentions she could answer; and she was willing to hope, secondly, that her uncle’s displeasure…would abate farther as he…felt, as a good man must feel, how wretched… and how wicked it was to m arry without affection” (Mansfield Park, Ch. 32). She wholeheartedly believes in the direction of her moral compass. Though superior in morality, Fanny’s principles make her dull company: she looks down on her cousins for engaging in theater/entertainment. However, since Fanny ends up in mutual love with Edmund while Mary ends up cast out of Mansfield Park and the Bertrams socially disgraced, perhaps Fanny’s iron-clad morality was the only true path. By giving Fanny her happy ending and the rest of the characters misfortune, Austen seems to support the idea that putting material gain before morality can only end in disaster.
Individuating Female Marital Constraints
The eighteenth-century novel seemed often to be the place in which people would attempt reform society. The novel gave writers a medium through which they could provide both entertainment and a place in which they could attempt to reform people’s views. Although often times these writers were only slightly allowed to delve into something outside of the status quo of the time, they were often even more successful because of this penchant to stay within boundaries. In other words, because these authors weren’t too radical in their writings, the readers were therefore abler to swallow these ideas. Austen uses this technique in Mansfield Park to show the readers some of the wrongs of the marriage institution, as well as the way in which women were constrained in the society at the time. In order to do this, Austen uses a technique which Armstrong, in Desire and Domesticity, defines as individuating a collective body—making a societal wrong shown through an individual case in order to reform it. By using this technique of individuating women’s constraints in marriage, we are able to first sympathize with Fanny, and then with the female society as a whole by seeing the emotional impact on the individual.
Fanny, throughout the novel, is shown to be one with the least amount of influence and voice in the novel, once even defined as a “creep-mouse” by her cousin, and treated as a servant by others (Austen, 168). It is at the crucial part of her life, and possibly the most crucial portion of the book, in which she must raise her voice against her potential suitor, Henry Crawford, as well as her family, in which she truly achieves a greater amount of agency. This increased sense of agency is brought to a climax in Chapter 35, in which Edmund comes to Fanny to encourage her to accept Henry’s marriage proposal. While Edmund is encouraging the marriage, Fanny says of this, that “it ought not to be set down as certain that a man must be acceptable to every woman he may happen to like himself” (Austen, 391). Fanny’s assertion, here, that women need not be forced into a marriage conveys a small part of Austen’s critique of the business-like marriages of the day. Instead, Austen shows here that women should be the ones in charge of their own fate, rather than society dictating that they should be forced into a love-less marriage simply because society, as well as their own families, have pressured them into it. Austen is critiquing female constraints in marriage as a whole through this individual case. Fanny says that she “should have thought…that every woman must have felt the possibility of a man’s not being approved, not being loved by someone of her sex,” which implies this contradiction to the reality of society (Austen, 391). Not only does Fanny’s literal emphasis of the words give more power to her words—something that she normally lacks—but in the fact that she speaks out at all makes the words that much more powerful. Here, Austen is showing the power that women should possess. Being that Fanny almost never speaks out against societal norms, this point of departure from her normal self adds much more power to her words than if she was constantly speaking out. Her emphasis of the word “should” gives an importance to what she is saying, and is on the brink of urgency. Had she been any other character, the word to use here may have been “must,” yet the word “should” lends more credibility to who Fannie is. She cannot give a more forceful opinion, or else be recognized as straying from the societal norm—this being a woman being subservient to men and having little to no say in their matters.
In order to explain and validate what Austen is doing, Armstrong contends that eighteenth-century novelists attempted to reform what people thought of sexuality. Of this, she says that the “struggle to represent sexuality took the form of a struggle to individuate wherever there was a collective body” (Armstrong, 468). In other words, the rise of the novel sought to show an individual circumstance in order to fully convey the struggles of the whole. The individual’s circumstance then gives emotional support and sympathy towards the whole of the population. In order to show the whole, the rise of the novel gives way to individualizing the societal norms, such as the female constraints shown in this novel. Armstrong goes on to say that “Rather than refer to individuals who already…carried on relationships according to novelistic conventions, domestic fiction took great care to distinguish itself from the kind of fiction that predominated in the eighteenth [century]” (Armstrong, 469). Mansfield Park, as a form of domestic fiction, questions the roles that men and women played in relationships through cases such as Fanny’s. Fanny’s exclamation that women should be able to say no to a potential suitor brings to light some of the wrongs of the patriarchal existence that she lives in.
Leading up to this event, Fanny’s subservience and general lack of power is shown earlier in the chapter, evoking in the reader the same sort of sympathy for Fanny’s lack of power that is seen throughout the novel. “Oh! never, never, never; he never will succeed with me,” says Fanny to Edmund during the first part of their conversation, which the readers hope that Fanny is gaining more agency and more of a voice (Austen, 385). This is contradicted immediately by Fanny’s willing subservience to Edmund—she quickly changes this firm decision to saying that she thinks that she shall never marry Henry and that she thinks she shall never return his love (Austen, 385). Her firm decision is quickly turned irresolute by Edmund’s assertion that her decision to never marry Crawford is “so very determined and positive,” which was apparently “not like [herself], [her] rational self” (Austen, 385). In this, Edmund is asserting that her wanting to turn Henry Crawford down is irrational, as if a woman’s own opinions were only rational if they agreed with a man’s, or simply society in general. Austen seems to be critiquing the way in which men made women feel as though their views and feelings were invalid unless they were similar to their own. Once Edmund makes this statement, the narrator conveys that Fanny was obliged to “sorrowfully correct herself’ (Austen, 385). This description from the narrator gives the reader a small sight into Fanny’s mind, showing the reader the great pains, mentally, that Fanny is forced to take in order to fit into the patriarchal-run society. She is constrained to what Edmund—and the rest of the family around her—want to hear, much like other women of the time were forced to deal with. Fanny’s penchant to only subtly go against the patriarchal norm of society can be explained in Armstrong’s theory. Armstrong postulates that “domestic fiction could represent an alternative form of political power without appearing to contest the distribution of power that it represented as historically given” (Armstrong, 471). Fanny only goes so far as to speaking out against Edmund because of the way in which Austen was forced, as an author, to keep the status quo of the time. She must do this in order to survive as an author, and in doing so, the reader is more likely to accept these views because they are not too radical. By subtly integrating some radical views at the time, Austen is thereby able to gain some supporters because her work only slightly contests the views of the day.
This oppression of the proposed marriage between Fanny and Henry is attended to during her explanation, to Edmund, of why the match would be unfavorable to her. After telling Edmund repeatedly of why she did not want to marry Henry Crawford, he claims that their tempers are similar. To this, Fanny contests that the difference between their personalities are “infinitely too great” and that “his spirits often oppress [her]” (Austen, 387). Although Fanny says this fairly nonchalantly, it seems as though Austen is attempting to imply the oppression of the marriage itself. Oppression meaning here something akin to “to (mentally) overwhelm or weigh down a person,” meaning that his spirits (or personality) distressed her, Austen uses this meaning in order to conceal a deeper meaning to this word (OED). Rather, she here is trying to convey that Henry has a penchant to “govern harshly; to tyrannize; to engage in oppression” (OED). Fanny conveys the oppressive nature of men in the patriarchal society of eighteenth-century Britain through speaking about his oppressive personality and temper. This oppressive nature is seen again, when Edmund states that Henry Crawford has “chosen his partner, indeed, with rare felicity” (Austen, 388). The word “chosen” is used here to put pressure on the fact that men felt above women, that they indeed were the ones to choose their partners, who would thereby submit to them. It is this choosing of a wife that Fanny so opposes when she claims that women must not reciprocate romantic feelings towards every man who flirts with her. Rather, it is the choice of both parties which should make the decisions—should being the operative word here, which is put pressure on by Fanny, as mentioned before. “Chosen” puts an insistence on Fanny’s approval, giving the power of the relationship (or lack thereof) to Henry.
Armstrong’s Desire and Domestic Fiction details some of the reasons why the characters of the novel were vying for Fanny to accept Henry, and therefore to submit to society—and Edmund’s—wills. Armstrong claims that “the rise of the novel hinged upon a struggle to say what made a woman desirable”—thus, Edmund was attempting to show submissiveness as a desirable trait in women (Armstrong, 468). Austen criticizes this aspect of novels at the time by actually contradicting this through Fanny’s rejection of Edmund’s persuasions. Being that we already sympathize with Fanny, the reader is thereby trained to sympathize with Fanny’s wishes as well. This allows the reader to see that a woman being independent is much more desirable than what the patriarchal norm of society deemed as desirable. As Armstrong asserts, “narratives which seemed to be concerned solely with matters of courtship and marriage in fact seized the authority to say what was female” (Armstrong, 468). Austen seems to use this allowance in that she forces the reader to reevaluate what they think of as desirable in a woman. It is complicated, though, by the way in which we have already sympathized with Edmund at certain points in this novel. Perhaps Austen does this in order to mask her intentions, and only reveal slightly what is truly desirable in a woman, else be ostracized and criticized for completely going against the norm.
The constraints that were put upon females and marriage is shown through Fanny’s case. In showing the wrongs of the society by showing its impact on an individual, we can see more clearly how it truly affects women in general. By taking this issue from a collective body and showing it in individualistic terms, we are thereby able to put emotion to the issue and humanize concern. What gives the readers the notion that this is important in a global sense, though? It is the way in which we can relate these happenings to the society of the time. In Austen critiquing the constraints that were put on Fanny, a timid creature already, she is more so using Fanny in order to show but one part of a larger whole of women at the time. Fanny is dealing with the pressures of her family, and (more importantly), the pressures that Edmund is putting on her—to deal with this, she is only able to submit to Edmund’s wishes. These roles seem to fit perfectly into the societal norms that were prevalent at the time—women were often conveyed as timid and subservient to men, while men and the entirety of the patriarchal society put pressure on women, which they were often forced to submit to.
Cheering for Crawford
If ever Jane Austen set out to depict the moralistic chasm between Regency society and pre-Victorian propriety, she did so with Mansfield Park. To accomplish this, her characters are divided among these diverging ideologies. The majority succumb to their unscrupulous fancies while the few but faithful are governed by their sense of duty. This distinction is as acute as it is unwanted, for the plot revolves around characters labouring to convert one another. Henry Crawford, a wealthy, congenial gentleman, makes this pastime his principal entertainment. As to his methodology, where theatricals end and reality begins is hardly distinguishable. Because Crawford is an outstanding actor with magnificent charisma, it is difficult to discern his sincerity and put off his charms. Austen uses Crawford’s person to demonstrate that authenticity determines where conviction is felt and principle is honoured. As such, he embodies one of Austen’s greater challenges to her readers, who are left with a moral predicament of whether this very amiable actor should be cheered for or chastised. Henry Crawford is somewhat of an anomaly as a dashing rogue, for the first description of his mien is that he was “not handsome, but had air and countenance; manners both lively and pleasant.” (35). He is further described by his sister Mary as the “most horrible flirt that can be imagined,” (36) and has a flock of admirers who are “dying” to marry him. For all of their efforts to “reason, coax or trick him into marrying” (36), however, he cannot be persuaded to abandon his freedom as a bachelor. As we are told, “to anything like a permanence of abode, or limitation of society, Henry Crawford had, unluckily, a great dislike.” (35). This is a very critical piece of information in establishing his character because it shows that he will evade the bonds of matrimony as long as his youthful autonomy is sufficiently amusing. That is, the moment he finds himself unable to woo a woman, who needs to be of strong moral character if she is able to resist him, is the time he is most likely to think himself in love. He is a conquistador of challenges, not honest courtships, and as such he has not enough compassion to feel any conviction for his actions.Aside from this vibrant independence, Crawford’s next greatest character trait is determination. Whatever he sets his sights on must be achieved at all costs, which is where his skill as a performer becomes his most valuable asset. He exercises this talent with the commitment of a mother to her beloved child and the alacrity of a playful puppy. He also takes great care to spend his time rewardingly, so that he will never lack the gentleman’s “wholesome alloy of labour” (204). “Recreation and indulgence” are fine, but as he says of himself “…I do not like to eat the bread of idleness.” (204). Equally true, he despises drinking the wine of deferment, for he is not at Mansfield Park for a week before he sets out to enamour the Miss Bertrams. The height of his pursuit pinnacles when he is assured that both of their hearts are held in his hands, and we see that his dedication wanes as soon as his vanity has been satiated. Thus, his attentions are shallow and selfish, and not at all as they seem to his hopeful admirers. It is in his early acquaintance with the Bertram family that Crawford’s acting debut is made. Even though he is disinclined to matrimony, his affable faÃ§ade gives the appearance of wanting to engage the ladies’ most permanent affections. His actual intentions are made perfectly clear from the narrative, that “He did not want them to die of love; but with sense and temper which ought to have made him judge and feel better, he allowed himself great latitude on such points.” (37). Austen here begins her illustration of the propriety in exercising conviction. The reader knows that Crawford has enough good judgement, but his moral failure is an inability to consider exercising it as his duty. His pretensions as a performer jeopardize his integrity because he assumes them to be inconsequential, and perhaps even shared, by others. To him, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” With this mentality, he bears no concern for the sincere feelings of others, who can but watch him waltz through Mansfield Park as the greatest tempter since the serpent of Eden.Crawford’s real duplicity as an actor comes into even better focus with the Sotherton episode. The Bertrams and the Crawfords set out to view Mr. Rushworth’s large estate at Sotherton. By this time Maria Bertram is all but formally engaged to marry Mr. Rushworth, a bumbling, boring gentleman. It is Crawford who engages her affections, however, and he is quite cognizant of his influence. Despite the indecency of his behaviour, he continues to lure Maria even while in the chapel, where he takes the intimate privilege of whispering, “I do not like to see Miss Bertram so near the altar.” (79) His romantic innuendo is reinforced by the “look of meaning” that follows his speech. (79) Later on, he persuades her to continue their promenade alone by squeezing past a locked gate. As improper as it is, the inducement is too great for Maria when he sardonically remarks, “And for the world you would not get out without the key and without Mr. Rushworth’s authority and protection, or I think you might with little difficulty pass round the edge of the gate, here, with my assistance; I think it might be done, if you really wished to be more at large, and could allow yourself to think it not prohibited.” (88). Were this casual speech directed towards a sister or a friend, there would be no implications to consider. What Austen wants her audience to read into, however, is the underlying promotion of indecorum. As Ian Littlewood says of this event (and also of acting in general), its propriety “is concerned with what they mean here, to this group of characters in this particular context…[it] represent[s] an attempt to bypass the permissible limits of expression, to find a way of doing what you ought not to do or what you ought not to say.” That Crawford instigates this misconduct as an unaffected suitor is evidence of his good performance. Moreover, it demonstrates how his initial designs for the acquaintance, where the Miss Bertrams would no more than like him, gives way to his own shallow principles and indelicacy.The theatre interlude at Mansfield Park also amplifies Crawford’s theatricality. Having lived in London and been exposed to more such entertainment, he really has the best concept of good stage presence. He is also the most remarkable actor in the private troupe. He is deficient in capacity to act both as a lover and as another character, however, and Julia Bertram perceives his pretentiousness. Realizing that he is exposed to her as a fraudulent suitor, he endeavours to restore their coquetry “by the usual attack of gallantry and compliment.” (143). When his half-hearted attempts fail he gives up altogether, for he was “too busy with his play to have time for more than one flirtation” (143). The more Julia understands how he operates, the more she realizes that his attentions were awarded at the expense of her own. This reversal of courtship roles reflects its inauthenticity. As it is, she learns too late how he is merely acting to have a proper esteem for her and her expectations.Although displeased to lose one admirer, Crawford capitalizes on his opportunity to entertain himself with Maria’s hero worship. Their dalliance is most overtly shown through the course of their rehearsals for the play. The more he and his “indefatigable” partner practice, the more he indulges his liveliness with a lust for theatrical intrigue. Maria’s acting, on the other hand, is a manifestation of her true feelings for him. The poor girl is too much in love to realize that, for all of Crawford’s “looks of devotion” and “pressing her hand to his heart” (154), he sought no more than the gratification of his own selfish vanity. Austen’s ironic situation of role-playing, where Crawford is a blackguard and Maria is a fallen woman, is also significant in light of foreshadowing. The fact that she uses Sir Thomas, who is a symbol of decorum, to cast a dark cloud upon the theatre is evidence that she believes propriety should triumph misconduct, as when Maria and Crawford are ultimately punished.Crawford’s most brilliant performance comes by his attempted seduction of Fanny Price, the novel’s timid but resolved heroine. When he returns to Mansfield Park and finds Maria and Julia absent, his attentions turn towards Fanny as the object of his amusement. His conceit is so flattering, in fact, that he believes he can make Fanny fall in love with him in a mere fortnight. As he dramatically confides in his sister, “I cannot be satisfied without Fanny Price, without making a small hole in Fanny Price’s heart.” (204). By his sister’s diagnosis, Fanny’s real attraction is her not caring about him, of which he laments, “I never was so long in company with a girl in my life – trying to entertain her – and succeed so ill! Never met with a girl who looked so grave on me! I must try to get the better of this.” (206). To Crawford’s dismay his efforts are ineffective; to his credit he believes Fanny to be more worth pursuing than any other woman he has known. Thus, he tenaciously persists, and soon there is less of a distinction between the excellent theatricals of a talented actor and the sincere infatuation of a maturing admirer. Even the reader can acknowledge that he seems a changed man. Fanny, however, has an infallible moral barometer that detects the insincerity of Crawford’s professed devotion. As we are told, “It was impossible for [Fanny] to be insensible of Mr. Crawford’s change of manners. She had long seen it. He evidently tried to please her – he was gallant – he was attentive – he was something like what he had been to her cousins: he wanted, she supposed, to cheat her of her tranquillity as he had cheated them…” (234).Fanny’s suppositions prove true when Crawford runs off with Mrs. Rushworth. Even more shocking is when he refuses to marry her after the scandal, and Mrs. Rushworth is cast out of her husband’s house and her reputation is stamped with a scarlet letter. Austen’s sentence for Crawford permanently condemns him to belong to the cruel race of Regency actors like himself. Ironically, then, for all of his forward thinking he becomes the starling who cannot escape. The question yet remains, however, if Crawford’s character is always acting throughout the whole of the novel or if, for a brief respite in the midst of his obsession with Fanny, he did inadvertently fall in love. It is a popular contention of critics that she could have been his saving grace had she but accepted his hand. Indeed, it is worth considering that her soul of discretion could refine his heart for pleasure. This prospect is appealing, for every reader likes to see the reform of a wayward man, particularly if it is a testament of the power of love. In the end, seems more plausible that Crawford simply made a choice to walk the wide and winding road where his acting was more appreciated. All of this lends to the conclusion that Austen finds theatricality a dangerous influence on those without sound principles. The world of drama may be entertaining, like Crawford, but society is not made to function upon immodest lover’s vows. Crawford perhaps deserves a standing ovation for his consistency in presentation, but it seems that Austen would not recommend cheering for Crawford as a whole.
Being Taken In
Being Taken In How much of a role does deception play in courtship? In marriage? In Volume I of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, Henry and Mary Crawford engage in a conversation with their sister, Mrs. Grant, concerning this very question. The conversation occurs soon after the Crawfords arrive at the parsonage to stay with Mrs. Grant, and becomes an early introduction into the characters’ beliefs, as well as their opinions of the Bertrams. The passage not only employs dramatic irony, it foreshadows the romantic turmoil that lies ahead and also gives the reader a closer look at the characters’ beliefs concerning marriage and courtship. The passage displays two instances of dramatic irony. The first is Henry’s assertion that “Miss Bertram is very much attached to Mr. Rushworth,” which is followed by his declaration that he “think[s] too well of Miss Bertram to suppose she would ever give her hand without her heart” (34). Both of these statements reflect his opinion of Maria Bertram’s motives, but they also hint that he favors her. His sisters view these statements as evidence that he has been “taken in” or, in other words, deceived (34). As the reader may already know at this point, Henry’s initial assumptions are, in fact, false. This is an example of dramatic irony: because there is “a discrepancy between a character’s perception and what the reader or audience knows to be true” (Murfin and Ray 224). This dramatic irony is seen again in Mary’s thought that Tom Bertram “had more liveliness and gallantry than Edmund, and must, therefore, be preferred; She knew it was her way” (Austen 35). Mary’s other words and actions in this part of the novel reveal that she doesn’t just want Tom because he is lively and gallant, but also because he is the eldest of the Bertram sons and will, therefore, inherit the estate. This early deduction and decision on Mary’s part to “prefer” Tom over Edmund is, just like Henry’s initial opinion of Maria, soon proven false. Mary turns out to favor Edmund for the simple reason that Tom was out of town for a long period of time. When the reader encounters this change in Mary’s decision, he/she is reminded of Mary’s early resolution and how easily it was forgotten. This isn’t the only instance in which Mary betrays her own beliefs about how women should behave during courtship. In this passage, Mary expresses her view that being “taken in” is a natural part of any marriage, where it is, of all transactions, the one in which people expect the most from others, and are least honest themselves (34). This statement is evidence of her belief that marriage is a “maneuvering business,” where people must deceive each other in order to gain favor and acceptance. This assertion, however, is inverted later in the novel when Mary continues to bluntly voice her disgust about clergymen and their salary, yet Edmund, who is determined to become an ordained minister himself, continues in his pursuit of her. Even though she is being brutally honest about her views, he isn’t discouraged, and still seeks her hand in marriage. She doesn’t try to hide her true feelings, even though they are distasteful and offensive to Edmund, and yet none of this keeps Edmund from chasing after her. This disproves her early sentiment that marriage is initially based on deception and that all married (and soon-to-be married) couples deceive eachother in hopes of gaining the other’s favor. The passage also sheds light on Mrs. Grant’s views on marriage. She believes that all married couples will eventually disappoint one another, but that human nature motivates them to seek consolation in other “scheme[s] of happiness” (34). The use of the word “scheme” in her statement hints at her opinion that marriage is indeed based at least partly on deception, even though she asserts the opposite notion in her argument. Her remark correlates with her own married life: it is obvious that her husband is lacking in many areas, including his treatment of her, his work ethic, and his extreme fondness for alcohol. Her assertion that, when faced with disappointments in marriage, one must look elsewhere to find happiness, is obviously inspired by her experiences in her own marriage. In a way, she is trying to rid Mary and Henry of their ignorance on the trials of married life by giving them a glimpse into her own. In Mrs. Grant’s words, she is trying to “cure” Mary and Henry of their naivete. She sees that Henry is already being deceived by Maria about her motives and that Mary is still unaware of the trials that marriage and courtship bring. In her own words, she wants to “cure [them] both” (35), and believes that Mansfield can assist her in doing so. Later, it becomes obvious that Mansfield will indeed “cure” their ignorance, but only by subjecting them to disappointment and heartache. As the reader knows by the end of the novel, Henry runs off with Maria, only to find it impossible to live with her after their initial facades wear off and they are exposed to one another’s real personalities. Mary’s fate is just as depressing, mainly because her own belief in the importance of deception in courting contrasts directly with Edmund’s (not to mention the fact that she is more interested in his money than anything else). Mary believes that at least some of Edmund’s personality is a disguise, especially in her assumption that his determination to become a clergyman can be easily discouraged. Edmund, however, remains truthful in his words and actions, and as a result Mary ends up digging her own grave, so to speak. In a way, Mansfield Park really does “cure” Henry and Mary of their naivete, but not without subjecting them to instances of disappointment and heartache along the way. The cliche phrase “they learned it the hard way” certainly appears applicable in this situation. This short passage gives the reader a deeper look into Mary and Henry’s motives as they enter into courtship with the Bertram youths, foreshadowing future events and their consequences. It also offers a brief glimpse of Mrs. Grants emotional struggle in her own marriage, and her desire to convince the Crawfords that no marriage can be happy without a great deal of effort. The dramatic irony in the passage is used to set both Henry and Mary up for falls later in the novel, when their initial assumptions are proven wrong and, as a result, they wind up alone.Works CitedAusten, Jane. Mansfield Park. Ed. Claudia L. Johnson. New York: Norton, 34-35.Murfin, Ross, and Supryia Ray. “Irony.” The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms. 2nd ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003.
Jane Austen’s Use of Theater in Mansfield Park
“All the world’s a stage/ And all the men and women merely players.”-As You Like It II.vii.139A large portion of the plot of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park (Austen, 1814) describes the young gentlemen and ladies of the estate preparing a performance of the play Lovers’ Vows (Inchbald, 1798). A play full of controversial subjects, it features ideas of love, illegitimacy, a disgraced woman, class differences, and imprisonment. When Sir Thomas Bertram, the patriarch of Mansfield Park, returns home from the West Indies to find his children and their friends acting out such controversial ideas, he immediately puts a stop to their antics, seeing “all the impropriety of such a scheme among such a party, and at such a time” (Austen 204). Although throughout Mansfield Park the young characters’ participation in the theatrics is portrayed as taboo, overly sexual, and improper, Jane Austen is not condemning the theater or Lover’s Vows. Rather, Austen uses the theater as a forum through which she makes criticisms on society. Similar to her young characters, Austen is able to approach taboo subjects under the guise of theatrics. Mansfield Park examines the weighty subjects of imprisonment, slavery, and sexual misconduct, but does so in a light manner via theatrics, preserving Austen’s own propriety.Fanny emerges the dullest of heroines: meek, quiet, proper, and frightened. She is a surprising choice for Austen, who tends to favor more aggressive, outspoken female leads like Emma Woodhouse, Elizabeth Bennett, and Marianne Dashwood. What Fanny lacks in interest to the reader, however, is more than made up for in the characters of Miss Crawford and Miss Bertrams. Mary Crawford is the anti-heroine; she is equal to Fanny in perception, intelligence, and physical beauty (once Fanny fully blossoms), but the opposite regarding behavior. The Mary-Fanny dichotomy is exemplified in Edmund’s regard for the two of them. He finds them similarly attractive although their personalities branch out in such opposite directions. Where Fanny is timid and submissive, Mary is outspoken and manipulative. Mary is sexually overt and obsessed with money and position. Although Mary is the much more interesting of the two characters, Fanny is presented as the central figure to aid in Austen’s careful critique of society and the aforementioned controversial topics. She provides Fanny as the voice of decorum, modesty, and respectability in the face of constant impropriety; she is the only one guiltless in the performing of Lover’s Vows. Austen exonerates herself from the suggested impropriety of the book by having such a sterile character as the lead.While Mansfield Park centers around Fanny, Lovers’ Vows portrays a more realistic version of who is a heroine and who is a understudy. Fanny waits in the wings and is in service to the other actors, akin to her real station in life. The other characters are the stars acting with unabashed gusto. Fanny and Edmund are the only sincere main characters in Mansfield Park, and this is represented in their reluctance to perform. Maria Bertram, Julia Bertram, Henry Crawford, and Mary Crawford, however, all have hidden agendas involving marriage and wealth which are revealed towards the end of the novel. Since they are constantly performing in life, the transition to the stage is virtually seamless. The book parallels the plot of the play; Maria becomes a fallen woman and is shunned by her family and society (like her character Agatha) when she runs away with Henry Crawford. Edmund, true to his role of Anhalt in Lover’s Vows, falls in love and marries his pupil, Fanny, in the end. Also, the class barrier which Anhalt worries will prevent him from wedding Amelia is indeed what causes the actors of those parts, Edmund and Mary, not to wed.Paralleling the plot aside, the play is used by the actors as an awkward form of sexual indulgence. Maria Bertram and Mr. Crawford’s physical attraction is gratified in front of everyone, including her fiance, camouflaged as rehearsal. Mary Crawford and Edmund are similarly gratified, although their actions are less perverse. Nonetheless Fanny has to witness their mutual attraction and becomes sandwiched between their flirting when they both request her help in rehearsing. In practicing Lover’s Vows, the borders separating real life and the theater are obscured until they are virtually indistinguishable.Austen further drives home this point with the structure and style of Mansfield Park. The book often assumes the tone of a play script. Austen infuses what appear to be stage directions into the dialogue, as in when Crawford is talking while playing cards (note the parentheses), “You think with me, I hope -(turning with a softened voice to Fanny). Have you ever seen the place?” (Austen 255). Also, characters take on speeches that are essentially monologues. Crawford’s exiting speech in chapter 34 is an acted oration, complete with stage directions. Previously in that chapter he reads a speech from Shakespeare, and his words as he leaves the room are Austen’s farce of a Shakespearian monologue. Crawford fancies himself Romeo, saying,”Yes, dearest, sweetest Fanny Nay – (seeing her draw back displeased) forgive me. Perhaps I have as yet no right – but by what other name can I call you? Do you suppose you are ever present to my imagination under any other? No it is ‘Fanny’ that I think of all day and dream of all night. You have given the name such reality of sweetness, that nothing else can now be descriptive of you.” (Austen 348)Not exactly “a rose by any other name”, but it suits Crawford’s ego and grandiose manner (Romeo and Juliet II.ii.45). Shakespeare often removes his characters from society and places them in an isolated setting in order to create a focus on individual human relationships and allow chaos to ensue. For example, in Othello (Shakespeare, 1604) the plot transitions from Venice to the island of Corsica, and in The Tempest (Shakespeare, 1611) the characters are removed from society and washed on the shore of an island. In both cases the drama unfolds in these remote surroundings. Similarly, Austen’s use of Sotherton provides an isolated setting in which illicit behavior becomes excusable. The garden scene at Sotherton is wrought with sexual innuendo and misbehavior by all of the young characters except for Fanny. Mary describes a “serpentine course”, a phrase that alludes to the Garden of Eden and sexual temptation (Austen 120). Edmund and Mary disappear behind the trees promising Fanny “to be back in a few minutes”, but do not emerge again for nearly an hour (Austen 120). Miss Bertram and Mr. Crawford spend the entire day flirting in front of Miss Bertram’s fiance, Mr. Rushworth. Crawford, facetiously referring to Miss Bertram’s engagement, proclaims in a theatrical reference, “You have a very smiling scene before you” (123). When the three happen upon the locked iron gate, Miss Bertram wants so badly to go through to the other side that Mr. Rushworth reluctantly walks back to the house to get the key (a rather phallic reference). Once he is gone, Miss Bertram wriggles over the side of the gate per the suggestion of Mr. Crawford. The two run off into the woods, again leaving Fanny behind to sit in the heat of the sun and the latent heat of sexuality.The hot outdoors contrasts with the coolness of the chapel witnessed in the preceding scene. Here is another episode in which Austen uses theatrics to describe a facet of life; this time, marriage. As the group tours Sotherton’s chapel, Julia exclaims to Mr. Crawford, “Do look at Mr. Rushworth and Maria, standing side by side, exactly as if the ceremony were going to be performed” (Austen 113). Austen comments not only on the acting of Miss Bertram in being engaged to Mr. Rushmore, but on the theatrics of marriage in general; of a man and woman playing parts rather than experiencing genuine emotions. While Austen is not condemning the institution of marriage as completely feigned, she is criticizing the fact that often marriage is not about love but rather fulfilling a role.Austen’s extensive use of the theater in Mansfield Park is not a criticism of theatrics but rather a comment on human nature. People act, and are expected to fulfill specific societal roles. These roles are constraining and a hindrance to freedom, especially to women of Austen’s time. Fanny meets much condemnation from her relatives when she refuses Crawford’s marriage proposal. This is not because he is a great man but because she is expected to accept the role of wealthy wife when it is offered to her, regardless of the factor of love. While the phrase “all the world’s a stage” is pertinent as much now as when Shakespeare composed it, it especially applies to the decorum-obsessed society of Jane Austen (As You Like It II.vii.139). In Mansfield Park Austen tames the dueling beasts of theater and life in a masterpiece assessment.BibliographyAustin, Jane. Mansfield Park. Ed. June Sturrock. Ontario: Broadview, 2001.Inchbald, Elizabeth. Lover’s Vows. Five Romantic Plays 1768- 1821. Ed. Horace Walpole, et al. London: Oxford University Press, 2000.Shakespeare, William. As You Like It. William Shakespeare: The Complete Works. Ed. Wilbur L. Cross & Tucker Brooke. New York: Metrobooks, 2002.Shakespeare, William. Othello. William Shakespeare: The Complete Works. Ed. Wilbur L. Cross & Tucker Brooke. New York: Metrobooks, 2002.Shakespeare, William. Romeo and Juliet. William Shakespeare: The Complete Works. Ed. Wilbur L. Cross & Tucker Brooke. New York: Metrobooks, 2002.Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. William Shakespeare: The Complete Works2E Ed. Wilbur L. Cross & Tucker Brooke. New York: Metrobooks, 2002.
Mansfield Park: Jane Austen’s Departure from “Light, Bright, and Sparkling”
The novels of Jane Austen primarily reveal satirical glimpses into the inner workings of Nineteenth-century England’s upper classes. With a mocking overtone, the author ridicules the plight of young women as they desperately seek a worthy husband. Ultimately, the heroine happily weds the man whom she loves, and the corrupted character is condemned to live unhappily ever after. However, the plot of Austen’s novel Mansfield Park differs slightly from her typical formula. Although the book narrates the story of Fanny Price, a young woman attempting to discover her place in the social order through marriage, the writer delves deeper into the era’s current issues. Austen touches upon the ethics of possessing slaves and sexual self-awareness. She displays the constructive and damaging effects of Fanny’s demure nature. The author also hints at the devastating effects which alcoholism can cause a family. Unlike the author’s other novels, marriage is not directly on the forefront in Mansfield Park. Atypically Jane Austen, the book is refreshingly socially aware and discusses issues of consequence, not simply the insignificant gossip of dinner parties and wedding arrangements. In Mansfield Park, the author confirms her legitimacy as a writer through her ability to weave the current social issues of the time with the story of a painfully shy young woman struggling to balance the wishes of others with her own virtues.In the opening chapter of Mansfield Park, the author describes the reality of urban poverty. The mother of Fanny Price writes a letter begging her well-to-do sisters to rescue one of her children, for she and her husband, an impoverished, drunken sailor, cannot afford to properly care for all of their ten children. In addition to acknowledging poverty, the author also suggests the detrimental effects of alcohol on a family. Alcoholism is introduced in Fanny’s father, and later in the novel, Tom Bertram places serious financial strain on his family with his drinking problem. Through drinking, Tom incurs sizeable debts which force his father to tend to his plantations in Antigua, where he owns slaves.Mansfield Park presents Austen’s first effort to address serious moral issues. Sir Thomas’s slaveholdings in the Caribbean support the lavish lifestyle of the Bertram’s, yet the writer suggests that trafficking humans may hold a moral liability. Fanny raises a question about her uncle’s holdings in the West Indies, and though her query is not hostile, a “dead silence” ensues (166). Although Austen only describes slavery as an undertone in the novel, she still makes a statement about its ethics.The author again raises a moral question in her novel when she describes the licentious sexual behavior demonstrated by the characters. Austen utilizes symbolism when Henry Crawford and Maria Bertram squeeze around a locked gate at Southerton. The two creep around a previously forbidden area, which is an allusion to a sexual act. The spikes on the gate threaten to rip Maria’s dress, which foreshadows how Maria will eventually destroy her social reputation through her adultery with Henry. Additionally, the author uses symbolism when Fanny attempts to find a chain for the cross pendant which she received from her brother William. The chain given to her from Henry does not fit through the pendant’s clasp, yet the chain from Edmund is a perfect fit, suggesting that Edmund is the only proper match for Fanny.Sexuality is discussed further with the play the young adults attempt to perform. Lover’s Vows is a play brimming with sexual references. The play is ironic in the fact that it literalizes the events brewing at Mansfield Park. Henry and Maria act in scandalous scenes with one another, as do Edmund and Mary. The play’s theme of overt sexuality can be construed as unquestionably immoral when Sir Thomas’s intervention brings the performance to a halt. Interestingly, Fanny refuses to act in the play. Her refusal to participate signifies not only her disapproval of the play; on another level, it also shows that she is unwilling to be false about her emotions.Acting is presented in two different lights at Mansfield Park. The play-acting in Lover’s Vows represents the underlying emotions of the young adults. However, acting also signifies assuming a character that is not sincerely oneself. Henry and Mary Crawford are both adept at acting insincerely. Throughout the novel, Mary “acts” to win a place in Edmund’s heart, yet her true self is exposed near the book’s conclusion when she declares her wish for Tom to die so that Edmund may inherit his fortune. Likewise, while Henry is wooing Fanny, he is also “acting.” Although he plays the part so well that he convinces himself that he loves Fanny, his true nature is revealed when he eventually seduces Maria and elopes with her. Thus, Fanny’s refusal to act is significant, for her refusal demonstrates her sincerity on all levels of her being.In Mansfield Park, Austen also addresses the inner turmoil which Fanny experiences. Fanny is a victim of the “Cinderella Complex,” for she feels as if she belongs to a family which does not fully welcome her. She struggles with her shyness and is often torn between remaining passive or asserting her opinion. Fanny is hurt when Edmund is attracted to Mary, yet she will not admit to herself that she is in love with him. When Edmund asks for Fanny’s opinion of Mary, she replies with silence and fails to state her beliefs. On one occasion, Fanny and Edmund are gazing at the stars as he tries to justify Mary’s poor qualities. When Fanny tries to change the subject, Edmund leaves. Upon her rejection of Henry’s proposal, she cannot explain to her uncle that Henry’s inappropriate behavior with Maria and his overall insincerity are what caused her to refuse him. In her attempts to please everyone else, she consequently ignores her own needs and wants.However, Fanny’s virtue ultimately triumphs over her timidity. No amount of entreaties can coerce her into participating in the improper Lover’s Vows, and not even Edmund can convince her to accept Henry’s proposal. Although she has difficulty articulating her emotions, Fanny, in the face of criticism, remains confident in her convictions. Ultimately, Fanny’s unwavering allegiance to herself enables her to marry Edmund, the only man she has ever loved all along.Mansfield Park is the most pragmatic and least romantic of all Austen’s novels. In this story, she writes of more than simply marriage, romance, and social status. The book touches upon the miserable reality of urban poverty and the effects of alcoholism on the family. She alludes to the moral accountability of slavery, the effects of fleeting lust on permanent reputation, and the ultimate consequences of insincerity. Complicated even by the standards of Jane Austen, Mansfield Park discusses the social issues of the time, yet the book also shows, through the outcome of Fanny Price, that virtue and loyalty to oneself ultimately triumph.
“The Charm is Broken”: Sexual Desire and Transgression in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park
In a letter to her brother dated 1814, Jane Austen boasted about a compliment she had received from a friend on her most recent work, Mansfield Park: “It’s the most sensible novel he’s ever read” (263). Austen prided herself on creating literature that depicted realistic characters and honest situations, but perhaps more importantly, she strove to create fiction that was moral and instructional as well as entertaining. So what does sensible say about the sexual? In Mansfield Park, the answer appears blaringly before us, as we repeatedly witness sexuality and desire represented in the darkest of terms, and often resulting in the most sinister of outcomes. Those who emit a sexual persona or awareness are to be seen as dangerous, and those whom possess sexual desire are inevitably the ones in danger, and are often punished for their untamed emotions and erratic behavior. The Bertrams and Fanny Price reside at Mansfield Park peacefully enough until their quiet, domestic world is turned upside down by outsiders, all of who, in their own ways, threaten to upset the lives of the inhabitants with a passion, desire, and sexuality that is new to them. In this essay, I would like to examine the relationships that arise from connections with these outsiders, what role sexuality and desire play in them, and what Austen’s treatment of them says about sexual transgression and desire in a larger sense as well. It seems only natural to begin with the two most prominent intruders in Mansfield Park, Henry and Mary Crawford. As jaded individuals accustomed to the fast-paced (and amoral) life of the city, Mary and Henry view Mansfield Park and its residents with a sort of novelty interest, regarding them almost as if they’re playthings set out for their amusement. Mary is “remarkably pretty” (35) and wins the Bertrams over with “her lively dark eye, clear brown complexion, and general prettiness” (37) and her brother, after just a few visits, is declared, “most agreeable young man the sisters had ever known” (37). Henry (who I will discuss in greater length momentarily) sees Maria and Julia as conquests, women to be won over just for the sake of doing so. Mary, however, is sincere in her emotions toward Edmund (at least, as sincere as Mary Crawford could ever be), but the combination of Edmund’s desire for her and her own seductive nature makes her a precarious character. Perhaps Mary’s biggest problem is that she is too knowledgeable for her own good. Her skepticism and cynical attitude often seem out of place at the naïve and sheltered Mansfield Park, particularly when compared to the ideological views of Edmund. Unlike Edmund, who is strikingly ignorant about the matter, Mary becomes preoccupied with understanding Fanny’s position in society, and subsequent availability, inquiring, “pray, is she out, or is she not?” (42). Later, she remarks to Edmund, unaware that he is soon to be ordained, upon the apathy she feels (and blindly assumes others feel, as well) about attending church:”Cannot you imagine with what unwilling feelings the former belles of the house of Rushworth did many a time repair to this chapel? The young Mrs. Eleanors and Mrs. Bridgetsstarched up into seeming piety, but with heads full of something very differentespecially if the poor chaplain were not worth looking atand, in those days, I fancy parsons were very inferior even to what they are now” (78) These instances, both tinged with sexual overtones, demonstrate that Mary’s worldliness and sophistication are dangerous attributes, because they are not representative of good manners or refinement, but a thin veneer that, when peeled away, reveals narcissism, superficiality, and a lack of morals. Although never told in so many words, we have a tacit understanding that Mary’s knowledge extends past the limits of what a proper young woman out to know aboutincluding, of course, sex and desire. It is this combination of awareness and corruption that makes Mary Crawford so ominous, and consequently, means danger for Edmund. Edmund’s reckless longing for Mary, while it does reveal a weakness on his part, also seems to serve as a reiteration of her menacing nature. Repeatedly we, along with Fanny, must suffer through Edmund’s oblivious veneration of Mary, which quite clearly has sexual implications. After all, his attraction to her is initially, and primarily, a physical one: “it is her countenance that is so attractive” (56). Later, at the end of a conversation with her, Edmund watches Mary walk away, in “ecstasy of admiration of all her many virtues” (101). This passion clearly has negative connotations and consequences. Because of Mary’s charm, or more accurately, because of Edmund’s “bewitched” state, he frequently forgets himself, his family, and his duty. Edmund’s lack of composure is most apparent in the strain that it puts on his relationship with Fanny. In Jane Austen and the War of Ideas, Marilyn Butler states, “Edmund, who has always been considerate of Fanny, is now seduced by his physical delight in Mary in forgetting her” (223). Once Edmund realizes Mary’s callous and manipulative disposition, he alludes to his awareness as if he had has been released from a siren’s spell: “the charm is broken. My eyes are opened” (412).While Mary Crawford is both tempting and threatening to Edmund, Henry Crawford is equally, perhaps even more so, a danger to Julia, Maria, and later to Fanny. We quickly learn from Mary that Henry’s favorite hobby is wooing women he has no sincere interest in: “he is the most horrible flirt that can be imagined. If your Miss Bertrams do not like to have their hearts broke, let them avoid Henry” (36). Tragically enough, however, both Julia and Maria are soon taken in by his charismatic persona and sex appeal, and, for the first time in their lives, the sisters find themselves at odds with one another. From the beginning of the novel, we are informed of Julia and Maria’s vanity and weakness of character, which inevitably foreshadow the disastrous events to come. Maria, “so surrounded by admirers, must be difficult in her choice” (33) accepts a marriage proposal from the foolish but wealthy Mr. Rushworth who endures humiliation and disgrace because he allows his eyes instead of his brain to guide him in his decision: “he was from the first struck with the beauty of Miss Bertram” (32). This act alone makes us skeptical of Maria, but Austen pushes us to become even more incredulous as we see her shamelessly unable to restrain herself from returning Henry Crawford’s flirtations, despite her engagement and her sister’s obvious interest in him. Maria lacks sexual self-discipline because Henry is irresistible, but also because she is used to and enjoys being flattered and admired.In one of Austen’s more symbolic moments, we see a grim prediction of Maria’s transgressive nature and inevitable ruin. During an outing at Rushworth’s estate, a fraction of the party find themselves trapped in a garden that has a locked gate, and are instructed to wait while Rushworth goes to fetch the key. Maria, however, lacks the patience for this, and attempts to squeeze through the gate in order to go off alone with Henry. When Fanny begs her to wait until the gate is properly unlocked, Maria says, “Prohibited! Nonsense!” I certainly can get out that way, and I will!” (88). This attitude seems to encapsulate Maria’s life philosophy: she has little, if any, conscious of right or wrong, and does not seem to feel that it is any concern to her. This selfishness and immorality inevitably lead Maria to public a sexual scandal and public dishonor. When she tires of her husband, whom she married for money and not love, she is easily won over again by Henry’s advances. Lionel Trilling duly notes in “Mansfield Park” that it is this relationship with Maria in which Henry’s sexual charisma catches up with him: “he becomesthe prey to his own charm, and in his cold flirtation with Maria Bertram he is trapped by his impersonation of passionhis role requires that he carry Maria off from a dull marriage to a life of boring concupiscence.” (133). Both are weak characters, and allow their depravity to take whatever forms it mightin this case, their downfall is desire that goes so unchecked that it unavoidably turns into acting outside of social norms. Maria’s lust for Henry, and Henry’s disingenuous return of her affections lead to elopement, a shocked and hurt family, and a divorce for Maria. Julia’s constant attempts to catch up to (and outdo) Maria (she quickly scrambles over the fence when she discovers that Maria and Henry have gone off alone together) are often ignored by Henry and thwarted by the somber realization that her sister is the preferred one. Although Julia ends up eloping with Yates (who appears, like Rushworth, to be a rather simple and ridiculous man), and this exploit is obviously deemed sexually transgressive by society, it doesn’t seem that Julia’s act was the result of anything related to sex or desire, but rather, the reaction of a girl who has been overlooked and craves attention. We cannot help feeling a certain sympathy for Julia when we are told that her family has an easier time forgiving her than her sister: “Julia escaped better than Mariato a favorable difference of disposition of circumstanceher beauty and requirements had held but a second place. She had always used to think of herself a little inferior to Maria” (422).No one but Fanny seems to notice Henry’s indiscretions towards Julia and Maria (Edmund might, but his impression of Henry is quite obviously influenced by Mary). Consequently, when he turns his interest toward her, she resists wholeheartedly, and unlike her cousins, who were quickly charmed into thinking him attractive, “still continued to think Mr. Crawford very plain” (42). Henry, unused to such reluctance, only becomes more intrigued by and passionate about Fanny. He declares to his sister that, “it would be something to be loved by such a girl, to excite the first ardors of her young, unsophisticated mind!” Fanny’s inexperience is alluring (and most likely, fascinating from Henry’s jaded viewpoint) because it means that she is untaintedvirginal in every conceivable way. Naturally, Henry appears to be a shady figure because of his indiscretions with Maria and Julia, but his corruption seems to soar to a new level altogether as he actively pursues the disinclined Fanny. Although the climax of his pursuit would most obviously be the marriage proposal, the pinnacle of his flirtations toward her are revealed during the necklace incident. Fanny unwittingly accepts a necklace from Mary to wear to the ball, without having any idea that it was a gift from Henry. Once Fanny becomes aware of who truly gave her the necklace, she feels awkward and violated, having let a piece of jewelry from an unwanted admirer sit around her neck all evening without having any idea of the more scheming and sexual intentions for which it stood. The production of the play, Lovers’ Vows, is perhaps the sole episode in the book that is most abundant with sexual desire and transgression. While their father is away, Tom, Maria, Julia, at the suggestion of Yates and the delighted approval of the Crawfords, decide to put on a play to pass the time. They begin with elaborate plans for a building a stage, which turn out to be excessive in both cost and production, and then proceed to disrupt the house, both literally by rearranging the furniture and taking over the billiards room, and also figuratively by engaging in an activity of which they know Sir Thomas would not approve. The play accentuates the sexual tensions and desires that have surfaced earlier in the novel by allowing, as Butler says: “a license for what would normally be entirely improper. Their scenes together permit physical contact between the sexes (as when Henry holds Maria’s hand) and a bold freedom of speech altogether outside the constraint imposed by social norms.” (232)Although Edmund protests against the play in the beginning, his resistance gradually fades in order to take place alongside Mary in the production. Fanny bitterly cites Edmund’s lapse of good judgment as “all Miss Crawford’s doing. She had seen her influence in every speech, and it was miserable” (140). Austen again peaks our suspicion about Mary Crawford when we hear of her intention “to rehearse it (the scene) with Edmundby ourselvesagainst the evening” (149). The notion of the rather worldly and aggressive Mary Crawford rehearsing a romantic scene alone with her love interest seems far from innocent. Other characters reveal their sexually charged agendas during the rehearsals as well. Henry Crawford snubs Julia, and consequently, strengthens his flirtation with her sister, by proposing the part she wanted to play go to Maria. Maria, instead of declining to participate on account of her engagement, sees nothing wrong with accepting the part offered to her. Julia, hurt and perhaps, desperate to be noticed and flattered, flirts with Yates. Fanny, the sole member of their party who staunchly refuses to condone the play or participate in it, notices that, during rehearsal, Maria acts “too well” (147), implying that the emotions that directed toward Henry’s character are most likely more than just acting. Fanny also notes that “Mr. Crawford was considerably the best actor of all” (147), allowing Austen to suggest that Henry too effortlessly takes on whatever role is required of him for us to have faith in the possibility that he may evolve into something more than the glib showman he appears to be. Thus, the play is dangerous because it allows sexuality to be acted out, desire to be demonstrated, in a public arena. Furthermore, it brings out the more conniving attitudes and selfish natures of the individuals involved. We are to be wary of those who are so oblivious that they regard the play as nothing more than a harmless pastime (such as Yates and the Crawfords), and feel concern for those (such as Edmund) who are persuaded to take part in it against their better judgment. It is only Fanny who realizes that the play is inappropriate, and remains firmly against for the duration of the rehearsals. This emphasizes Fanny’s level-headedness, her self-righteousness, modesty, and perhaps even prudishness. But does Fanny’s condemnation of the play seem to be a condemnation of sexuality and passion? Although we are aware of her unwavering desire for Edmund throughout the novel (most commonly expressed through modest blushes and an intense jealousy toward Mary), it would never occur to anyone reading Mansfield Park to suspect Fanny Price of possessing sexual desire or impure thoughts. Butler compares her feelings to Edmund to her emotions toward William, saying that they have a “childish quality” (248). Given Fanny’s naivety and the nature of her earnest yet unassuming devotion, this description seems quite accurate. Nina Auerbach is even more daring in her speculation of Edmund and Fanny’s relationship, likening Fanny (perhaps, a bit brutally) to Frankenstein’s monster, and calling her “a charmless heroine who was not made to be loved” (64). In “Jane Austen’s Dangerous Charm” Auerbach contends that Fanny does not aim as high as love or romance, but her goal is merely for equal companionship. This notion does seem to be supported by the text: Fanny does not appear to be concerned with love or desire, but sameness: she dislikes Mary because she threatens to create the “danger of dissimiliarity” (57) between Edmund and herself, and later rejects Henry on the grounds that “we are so totally unlike” (314).Incest has been a much-debated topic in critical discourse concerning Fanny and Edmund’s relationship. This notion of a brother/sister marriage is not entirely shocking in the context of other relationships in Austen’s novels: Emma, after all, marries her “brother”, Mr. Knightley, who is twenty years her senior and has watched her grow up right in front of his eyes. Mansfield Park, however, is the only novel of Austen’s novels that directly and consciously addresses this social taboo. When Sir Thomas expresses hesitation toward Fanny’s presence at Mansfield Park because he fears the possibility of one of his sons falling in love with her, Mrs. Norris argues, “do you not know that of all things upon earth that is the least likely to happen; brought up, as they would be, always together like brothers and sisters: It is morally impossible.” (4)Not only is the union possible, but by the end of Mansfield Park, it seems the only plausible solution. After the tumultuous experience Edmund has with Mary, a quiet marriage with Fanny naturally sounds attractive. Furthermore, there is no one left for Edmund but Fanny: immediately before we are told of their marriage in the last chapter, the previous one ends by stating, “Fanny’s friendship was all that he (Edmund) had to cling to” (417). In Jane Austen and the Fiction of Culture, Richard Handler and Daniel Segal accurately note that, “neither the social rules defining a desirable marriage nor even the most uniformly held social rules defining a possible marriage control human interactions.” (42)Although both Edmund and Fanny end up getting what they want (Edmund a wife, and Fanny, Edmund), and we can envision a happy marriage for them, it is not one of passion or sex or anything that would require more than a PG rating. In Mansfield Park, sexual desire often results in the loss of control, impaired judgment, and thoughts and actions that are guided by emotions rather than logic or rationality. We are told what is immoral and what not to do (play sexual games, flirt insincerely, lose oneself in passion or lust, etc.) but we are not given proper examples of how to conduct ourselves. Instead, Austen leaves us, rather uneasily, stranded between the platonic relationship of Fanny and Edmund, and the debauched affairs of the other characters, wishing for some sort of happy medium. Bibliography: Auerbach, Nina. “Jane Austen’s Dangerous Charm”. Mansfield Park and Persuasion. Judy Simons, ed. New York: Macmillan, 1997. Butler, Marilyn. Jane Austen and the War of Ideas. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975. Handler, Richard and Daniel Sega. Jane Austen and the Fiction of Culture. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1990. Le Faye, Deirdre, ed. Jane Austen’s letters, 3rd. ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.Trilling, Lionel. “Mansfield Park”. Jane Austen: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ian Watt, ed. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1963.