Misguided Concealment

This is sixth in a series of guest posts written by “Sophie” of A Reasonable Quantity of Butter in celebration of Mansfield Park’s bicentennial.

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In many novels, much of the drama revolves around a concealment. These passages are especially irksome because great harm often comes from the concealment, and it would be so simple for the informed character to say something and avert the catastrophe.

Often these concealments arise from some romantic fancy. In Far From the Madding Crowd, Gabriel Oak conceals Sergeant Troy’s former relationship from Bathsheba out of a mistaken sense of obligation to Fanny Robin. In Bleak House, Lady Dedlock conceals her past from her husband, even though speaking out would completely disarm her enemy, because she fears losing her husband’s esteem. Other characters feel that it would be wrong to speak ill of someone, even when not speaking injures another person—a person who really has a right to know.

Whereas I have come to expect misguided concealments in novels such as those by Dickens and Hardy, I was surprised to meet one in Mansfield Park.1 Happily, it has no effect on the outcome of the story, but it is still there!

Fanny Price keeps important information from Edmund. As Edmund’s only confidant, she knows that, although he is deeply in love with Mary Crawford, several things would keep him from proposing to her: Mary’s love of money, love of prestige, and contempt for Edmund’s profession. In fact, these did at one point decide Edmund against marrying her. After his ordination, he purposely stayed away from Mansfield to avoid seeing Mary, intending to return only after she left.

Fanny is uncertain as to how much Mary’s fondness for Edmund may have overcome her worldly notions, and she must, in any case, leave Edmund to his own judgment. What good would it do to convey doubts and suspicions to a mind accustomed to excusing them? And what right had she to do so—would it not be only indulging her own envy?

But while in Portsmouth, Fanny receives confirmation of her fears in writing from Mary.2 There, in Mary’s own handwriting, is evidence that she loves money and position in society to the point of wishing Edmund’s brother dead, and looks forward to Edmund’s profession being concealed as a past disgrace!

Despite any attending awkwardness, I think Fanny should have forwarded Mary’s letter to Edmund. He had a right to know.

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1There is a misguided concealment in Emma, which is crucial to the plot, but Austen handles it much differently than the other authors mentioned. Also, in Pride and Prejudice, Jane and Elizabeth choose not to publish Wickham’s true character because he is leaving soon.

2“Poor young man! If he is to die, there will be two poor young men less in the world; and with a fearless face and bold voice would I say to any one, that wealth and consequence could fall into no hands more deserving of them. It was a foolish precipitation last Christmas [Edmund’s ordination], but the evil of a few days may be blotted out in part. Varnish and gilding hide many stains. It will be but the loss of the Esquire after his name. With real affection, Fanny, like mine, more might be overlooked.”—Mansfield Park, Chapter XLV

If Only

This is fifth in a series of guest posts written by “Sophie” of A Reasonable Quantity of Butter in celebration of Mansfield Park’s bicentennial.

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37th copyMansfield Park is a tragedy. Its readers often exclaim, “If only!”

The “if only” usually refers to the marriages of Fanny & Henry, Mary & Edmund. What happiness for them all! What fun for the readers to enjoy Henry’s and Mary’s felicity, and to see Fanny and Edmund learn to laugh at themselves, as Mr. Darcy did in Pride and Prejudice.

But this is impossible. As Austen wrote the story, tragedy was inevitable. Although she convinces us that Fanny and Henry could be truly happy together, she states that Fanny would only have married Henry after “a reasonable period from Edmund’s marrying Mary.”1 And, sadly, it seems that Edmund and Mary would not have been happy together.

In contrast to Henry, who, within a short time of falling in love with Fanny, began to change his actions2, Mary did not change for love of Edmund, although her affection continued for many months. In conversation, Henry moderated his tone and topics to Fanny, but Mary sharpened her tongue against Edmund. She ridiculed his principles rather than trying to understand them.

Also, Mary despised Edmund’s profession and would have been discontent with his income. Whereas marriage to Fanny would have been Henry’s moral salvation, marriage to Mary would have been Edmund’s moral condemnation. And Henry’s moral salvation—through Fanny, at least—could only happen by that sacrifice of Edmund.

And we all know what happens when neither of these couples marry. A tragedy.3

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1Chapter 48, Mansfield Park.

2I chose “actions” as distinct from “principles”. Henry did think about serious subjects more seriously while courting Fanny, but ultimately did not change his principles.

3Although Edmund did suffer deeply, this was a tragedy primarily for the Henry and Mary, as, ultimately, Fanny and Edmund lived happily ever after.

Fanny Was Right

This is third in a series of guest posts written by “Sophie” of A Reasonable Quantity of Butter in celebration of Mansfield Park’s bicentennial.

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“[Sir Thomas’s] displeasure against herself she trusted . . . would now be done away. She should be justified. Mr. Crawford would have fully acquitted her conduct in refusing him”1

To Sir Thomas, Henry’s and Maria’s elopement vindicated Fanny’s refusal. In this, Sir Thomas’s judgment was shallow. Fanny did not reject Henry because she foresaw scandal and disgrace. Henry did not need to be wicked enough to run off with someone else’s wife in order to be a bad choice for Fanny. Her refusal was formed on standards which Sir Thomas did not share and events of which he was not aware. These standards needed no later proof to validate them.

26th copyAt the time of Henry’s proposal, Fanny’s knowledge of him was overwhelmingly bad. At almost every meeting, Henry flirted and trifled with an engaged woman—a circumstance which Sir Thomas never learned of. Henry also spoke flippantly about matters which should have commanded his respect. When Fanny said, “I cannot approve his character. . . . I am persuaded that he does not think, as he ought, on serious subjects”2 she had every reason to think so. It would have been foolish to entrust herself, and any children she might have, to such a man, no matter how rich or charming he was.

There was also the fact that Fanny did not love Henry. Among the characters, Sir Thomas alone would disagree that it is wrong to marry someone you do not love. When Edmund tells Fanny, “You did not love him; nothing could have justified your accepting him”3, he is only saying what most people would believe. Even worldly-minded Mary and Henry censure any woman who, “would ever give her hand without her heart.”4 Marrying without love is a wrong not only against yourself, but also against the one you marry.5 To marry Henry when she was in love with another would have been doing him a double wrong.6

Not only did Fanny not love Henry, she did not even like him. His society was irksome to her—both as a suitor and as a friend.“His attentions were always—what I did not like”7 & “his spirits often oppress me”.8 This is the only reason for rejecting Henry that Fanny felt comfortable telling her uncle. But Sir Thomas did not understand the nature of liking: “There is something in this which my comprehension does not reach.”9,10

Fanny’s rejection of Henry is not evidence that she was a prig or a prophet. Rather, it shows that she had common sense and common justice. No matter how imperfect her knowledge of him was, or how he may have changed afterward, Fanny was right to refuse Henry.

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1Mansfield Park, ch. 47

2Ibid., ch. 35

3Ibid., ch. 35

4Ibid., ch. 5

5Austen censures Rushworth for marrying a woman who he knows doesn’t love him:

“[Maria] had despised him, and loved another; and he had been very much aware that it was so. The indignities of stupidity, and the disappointments of selfish passion, can excite little pity. His punishment followed his conduct,” ch. 48

6Austen’s characters do not marry out of a silly sense of duty, especially when their hearts are otherwise engaged (not like Laura Fairly in The Woman in White).

7Mansfield Park, ch. 32

8Ibid., ch. 35

9His speech continues, “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.”, ch. 32

10I am reminded of Aunt Stanbury in He Knew He Was Right: “I never heard of such a thing in my life. Not love him! And why shouldn’t you love him? He’s a gentleman. Everybody respects him. He’ll have plenty to make you comfortable all your life!”

Well-Suited

Today is the last day of May, but it is not the end of Mansfield Park’s bicentennial year. This is a guest post by “Sophie” of A Reasonable Quantity of Butter. She is writing several more guest posts in celebration of Mansfield Park’s bicentennial, which will be posted throughout June. Also check out other continuing celebrations.

Each time I read Mansfield Park, I am disappointed that Fanny and Henry do not marry. Henry is charming and lively, and becomes down-right attractive when he starts to take life seriously. Fanny and he really seem to make a good couple. Austen took care that her readers would feel this way.

22nd copyThe first glimpse of this is after the proposal, when the family is sitting in the drawing room after dinner. Henry reads aloud, and his reading is so compelling that all Fanny’s determination to ignore him fails her, and her eyes are fixed on him. “His acting had first taught Fanny the pleasure a play might give, and his reading brought all his acting before her again . . . with greater enjoyment.”1 Considering that Fanny’s pleasures in life were few, shared literary taste was a strong tie.

Afterwards, when Fanny talks over Henry’s proposal with Edmund, he says, “[Henry] is lively, you are serious; but so much the better: his spirits will support yours.”2 Although the remark stems from Edmund’s infatuation with Mary, we at once see the justice of it. Fanny needs someone who can make her laugh and can help her stand up to the Aunt Norrises of the world. And Henry needs someone whose sobriety and stability could keep him from the errors of hasty action. Their temperaments complement each other.

In Portsmouth, Fanny discovers that Henry shares her love of nature: “They often stopt with the same sentiment and taste, . . . he was sufficiently open to the charms of nature, and very well able to express his admiration.”3 Fanny had often felt that others did not share her fascination, and that Edmund was her only companion in this, but in Henry she found another sympathizer.

While talking together, Henry points out to Fanny that they have a common interest in the poor. While her interest stems chiefly from compassion, his is steadied by a sense of justice and good management. “It was pleasing to hear him speak so properly; here he had been acting as he ought to do. To be the friend of the poor and the oppressed! Nothing could be more grateful to her . . .”4

Henry also shows during his visit to Portsmouth that he would work well with Fanny’s family. He respects them even when they are not respectable, and shows an instinctive delicacy towards Fanny’s feelings regarding them. When he is gone, Fanny reflects how much she would like to be able to invite her sister to live with her, and she “could fancy his entering into a plan of that sort most pleasantly.”5

Paradoxically, Austen takes as many pains before Henry’s proposal to prove that Fanny and Henry were ill-suited, as she takes afterward to prove them well-suited. And then she turns and destroys the castle in the air that she was building.

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1Chapter XXXIV

2Chapter XXX, I am not suggesting that spouses are morally responsible for the actions of each other, only that good couples are better together than apart. Good couples grow together in great part by helping each other grow.

3Chapter XLI

4Ibid.

5Chapter XLIV

Henry in Love

“Sophie” of A Reasonable Quantity of Butter has agreed to write several guest posts for my blog in honor of Mansfield Park‘s bicentenary. They will be posted over the next month or so.

The 9th of May was the bicentennial of Mansfield Park’s publication. To celebrate, I walked up to the library to borrow the book for the first time with my own card, conscious that Fanny’s feelings were echoing in my own heart, “amazed at being anything in propria persona; . . . to be a renter, a chuser of books!”

This was not my first reading. I had read Mansfield Park at least twice since my graduation; but the complexity of the novel rewards revisiting.

Henry in Love

Reading through Mansfield Park this month, perhaps for the fourth time, I realized what it meant that Henry Crawford was in love with Fanny. I’m not sure what I thought before —perhaps that his love sprang only from vanity, lust, novelty, or the pleasure of discovery and pursuit. Now I think that I know.

Frontispiece copyHenry wanted to hold Fanny’s hand. He wanted her to lean on his arm while they talked of plans for their future. Hearing her opinions fascinated, excited, and engrossed him. Her conversation was intelligent and informed and eager to be more so. When they spoke together they were conversing, not flirting.

Henry trusted Fanny completely, and felt that with her he would have a family security which he had not known before, as he had been orphaned and raised by a dysfunctional couple. She made him feel like a man—that he needed to be responsible and mature in order to care for her and inspire her respect.

Fanny’s principles gave new life to Henry’s own good nature. Possessions and interests became duties through Fanny’s eyes. This perspective gave Henry new zeal when he visited his estate. Kindness and ability as a manager he already had, but Fanny’s vision gave him purpose.

While other women had flattered his vanity, Fanny animated his life. Not only were his eyes pleased with her beauty, but his mind and spirit were satisfied. It was easy to imagine her as his wife.

Mansfield Park is a tragedy—the tragedy of how Henry Crawford “lost the woman whom he had rationally, as well as passionately loved.”

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Using the word “spirit” in a non-religious sense feels awkward to me, but I think the use is appropriate. It means “the nonphysical part of a person that is the seat of emotions and character”, which is exactly what I mean here.