“Am I to understand … that you mean to refuse Mr. Crawford?”
(Mansfield Park, Chapter XXXII)
Why did Fanny Price refuse Mr. Crawford’s proposal of marriage? Was it because she disapproved of him? Or was it because she loved Edmund? I believe that it is a combination of both reasons—“love of another and disesteem of him” (Ch. XXIV). The degree to which she was influenced by either consideration must be a matter of speculation.
To begin with, Fanny never gives a reason for her refusal of Mr. Crawford, except a simple dislike of him, and the conviction of their incompatibility. She never says that she is rejecting Henry because of his morals, although that is one of her reasons. Nor does she admit to refusing him because she is in love with somebody else.
“Am I to understand,” said Sir Thomas, after a few moments’ silence, “that you mean to refuse Mr. Crawford?”
“Refuse Mr. Crawford! Upon what plea? For what reason?”
“I—I cannot like him, sir, well enough to marry him.”
“This is very strange!” said Sir Thomas, in a voice of calm displeasure. “There is something in this which my comprehension does not reach. Here is a young man wishing to pay his addresses to you, with everything to recommend him: not merely situation in life, fortune, and character, but with more than common agreeableness, with address and conversation pleasing to everybody. And he is not an acquaintance of to-day; you have now known him some time. His sister, moreover, is your intimate friend, and he has been doing that for your brother, which I should suppose would have been almost sufficient recommendation to you, had there been no other. It is very uncertain when my interest might have got William on. He has done it already.”
“Yes,” said Fanny, in a faint voice, and looking down with fresh shame; and she did feel almost ashamed of herself, after such a picture as her uncle had drawn, for not liking Mr. Crawford. (Ch. XXXII)
“We are so totally unlike,” said Fanny, avoiding a direct answer [to a question of Edmund’s], “we are so very, very different in all our inclinations and ways, that I consider it as quite impossible we should ever be tolerably happy together, even if I could like him. There never were two people more dissimilar. We have not one taste in common. We should be miserable.” (Ch. XXXV)
When explaining to her uncle why she is refusing Mr. Crawford, Fanny must hide her two real reasons: her love for Edmund (“His niece was deep in thought likewise, trying to harden and prepare herself against farther questioning. She would rather die than own the truth; and she hoped, by a little reflection, to fortify herself beyond betraying it.”—Ch. XXXII), and her reasons for thinking ill of Mr. Crawford’s principles. Sir Thomas asks Fanny, “Have you any reason, child, to think ill of Mr. Crawford’s temper?”
She longed to add, “But of his principles I have”; but her heart sunk under the appalling prospect of discussion, explanation, and probably non-conviction. Her ill opinion of him was founded chiefly on observations, which, for her cousins’ sake, she could scarcely dare mention to their father. Maria and Julia, and especially Maria, were so closely implicated in Mr. Crawford’s misconduct, that she could not give his character, such as she believed it, without betraying them. (Ch. XXXII)
Fanny would not have married Mr. Crawford—even had he been upright, like Edmund—if she had a hope of marrying Edmund, because she loved Edmund. But, had Edmund been out of the picture, she probably would have fallen for Mr. Crawford, even though she knew him to be unprincipled. Whether Mr. Crawford would have wanted to marry her had she not initially resisted him (which she did because of her love for Edmund, as well as her ill opinion of Crawford’s character), is another question. In all likelihood, he would have dumped her like he did Maria and Julia Bertram—and doubtless others. Fanny’s love for Edmund protected her from Crawford.
And without attempting any farther remonstrance [to her brother], she [Miss Crawford] left Fanny to her fate [of Mr. Crawford attempting to make a "small hole" in her heart], a fate which, had not Fanny’s heart been guarded in a way unsuspected by Miss Crawford, might have been a little harder than she deserved; for although there doubtless are such unconquerable young ladies of eighteen (or one should not read about them) as are never to be persuaded into love against their judgment by all that talent, manner, attention, and flattery can do, I have no inclination to believe Fanny one of them, or to think that with so much tenderness of disposition, and so much taste as belonged to her, she could have escaped heart-whole from the courtship (though the courtship only of a fortnight) of such a man as Crawford, in spite of there being some previous ill opinion of him to be overcome, had not her affection been engaged elsewhere. With all the security which love of another and disesteem of him could give to the peace of mind he was attacking, his continued attentions—continued, but not obtrusive, and adapting themselves more and more to the gentleness and delicacy of her character—obliged her very soon to dislike him less than formerly. She had by no means forgotten the past, and she thought as ill of him as ever; but she felt his powers: he was entertaining; and his manners were so improved, so polite, so seriously and blamelessly polite, that it was impossible not to be civil to him in return. (Ch. XXIV)
Later in the novel, Fanny is shown wavering in her feelings for Mr. Crawford—like the time she fancies, if they were married, how good-naturedly he would likely agree to take in her sister Susan (see the last paragraph of Ch. XLIII). The author’s conclusion is that Fanny probably would have eventually accepted Mr. Crawford if he had not run off with Mrs. Rushworth—but only after Edmund had married and if Henry had continued on the ‘strait and narrow’.
Henry Crawford, ruined by early independence and bad domestic example, indulged in the freaks of a cold-blooded vanity a little too long. Once it had, by an opening undesigned and unmerited, led him into the way of happiness. Could he have been satisfied with the conquest of one amiable woman’s affections, could he have found sufficient exultation in overcoming the reluctance, in working himself into the esteem and tenderness of Fanny Price, there would have been every probability of success and felicity for him. His affection had already done something. Her influence over him had already given him some influence over her. Would he have deserved more, there can be no doubt that more would have been obtained, especially when that marriage had taken place, which would have given him the assistance of her conscience in subduing her first inclination, and brought them very often together. Would he have persevered, and uprightly, Fanny must have been his reward, and a reward very voluntarily bestowed, within a reasonable period from Edmund’s marrying Mary. (Ch. XLVIII)
If it were not for her affection for Edmund, Fanny could not have “have escaped heart-whole from the courtship … of such a man as Crawford, in spite of there being some previous ill opinion of him to be overcome”. She is not one of those “unconquerable young ladies of eighteen … as are never to be persuaded into love against their judgment by all that talent, manner, attention, and flattery can do”. However, her refusal of his proposal of marriage has as much to do with her disapproval of his morals as her love for Edmund.
Her love for Edmund keeps Fanny from becoming too attracted to Mr. Crawford, but that does not mean that she thought well, or would have thought well, of him, had Edmund been out of the picture. She might not have escaped heart-whole, but that does not mean that she would have married him (although, I suppose, she might have). Her love for Edmund protects her heart; her firmness in her own principles protects her from accepting Mr. Crawford’s proposal of marriage. It is not until some time after his proposal that Fanny begins to waver in her opinion of Mr. Crawford. It would have taken time for Fanny to be ready to marry him, and he would have had to continue living uprightly. Her wavering comes from the changes he makes in his life—”she was quite persuaded of his being astonishingly more gentle and regardful of others than formerly. And, if in little things, must it not be so in great?” (Ch. XLII)
In closing, I will recount a short scene from the book. Edmund is talking to Fanny about her refusal of Mr. Crawford, wishing that she could love him, and regretting that Crawford had been so precipitate: “Between us, I think we should have won you. My theoretical and his practical knowledge together could not have failed.” (Ch. XXXV). That line always makes me smile. Had Edmund been trying to win Fanny, no Mr. Crawford would have been necessary!
Illustration Credits: All pictures are from the 1983 version of Mansfield Park. In the pictures, Fanny Price is represented by Sylvestra Le Touzel, Henry Crawford by Robert Burbage, Maria Bertram by Samantha Bond, Mary Crawford by Jackie Smith-Wood, and Edmund Bertram by Nicholas Farrell.