The Case Against Mary Crawford, Part I

Mary Crawford is good-humoured, friendly, obliging, affectionate, energetic, lively, playful, and charming. (See my previous post: “Sometimes How Quick to Feel!”) So, what is so reprehensible about her?

At the beginning of her acquaintance with the Bertrams, Mary speaks ill of her uncle to them. She and her brother were raised by their uncle and aunt, Admiral and Mrs. Crawford, after the deaths of their parents. Fanny considers, “she ought not to have spoken of her uncle as she did.” She thinks it ungrateful, but Edmund disagrees.

“Ungrateful is a strong word. I do not know that her uncle has any claim to her gratitude; his wife certainly had; and it is the warmth of her respect for her aunt’s memory which misleads her here. She is awkwardly circumstanced. With such warm feelings and lively spirits it must be difficult to do justice to her affection for Mrs. Crawford, without throwing a shade on the Admiral. I do not pretend to know which was most to blame in their disagreements, though the Admiral’s present conduct might incline one to the side of his wife; but it is natural and amiable that Miss Crawford should acquit her aunt entirely. I do not censure her opinions; but there certainly is impropriety in making them public.” (Chapter VII)

Her uncle was an unprincipled man, and it was necessary for Miss Crawford to leave him (he had brought his mistress to live with him), but it is indecorous to speak ill of one’s family to comparative strangers. To be on the receiving end of such confidences is uncomfortable.

Unlike Jane Austen’s heroines, Mary Crawford is not interested in nature. “She had none of Fanny’s delicacy of taste, of mind, of feeling; she saw Nature, inanimate Nature, with little observation; her attention was all for men and women, her talents for the light and lively.” (Ch. VIII). Miss Crawford admits to Fanny while they are sitting together in a garden, “I am something like the famous Doge at the court of Lewis XIV.; and may declare that I see no wonder in this shrubbery equal to seeing myself in it.” (Ch. XXII). While it is not wrong to be indifferent to nature, it is a shortcoming. In her inattention to nature, Mary differs from Elizabeth Bennet, to whom she is sometimes compared. Though Lizzy is playful and lively, with plenty of attention for men and women, she also appreciates nature, as is shown by her pleasure in the parks at Rosings and her delight in the natural beauty of Pemberly. When her aunt and uncle invite her to tour the Lakes with them, Lizzy exclaims,

“What are young men to rocks and mountains? Oh! what hours of transport we shall spend! And when we do return, it shall not be like other travellers, without being able to give one accurate idea of anything. We will know where we have gone—we will recollect what we have seen. Lakes, mountains, and rivers shall not be jumbled together in our imaginations; nor when we attempt to describe any particular scene, will we begin quarreling about its relative situation.” (Pride and Prejudice, Ch. 27)

Mary is discontent and “unused to endure” (Ch. XXIX). Quiet to her is not peace. “What was tranquillity and comfort to Fanny was tediousness and vexation to Mary.” (Ch. XIX). She requires society, fashionable society for her happiness. When she first comes to Mansfield, Mrs Grant’s “chief anxiety was lest Mansfield should not satisfy the habits of a young woman who had been mostly used to London.”

Miss Crawford was not entirely free from similar apprehensions, though they arose principally from doubts of her sister’s style of living and tone of society; and it was not till after she had tried in vain to persuade her brother to settle with her at his own country house, that she could resolve to hazard herself among her other relations. (Ch. IV)

Her sister’s home is not as secluded and rustic as Miss Crawford anticipated. “Miss Crawford found a sister without preciseness or rusticity, a sister’s husband who looked the gentleman, and a house commodious and well fitted up” and “was glad to find a family of such consequence [as the Bertrams] so very near them” (Ch. IV). Later, she tells Fanny,

“I am conscious of being far better reconciled to a country residence than I had ever expected to be. I can even suppose it pleasant to spend half the year in the country, under certain circumstances, very pleasant. An elegant, moderate-sized house in the centre of family connexions; continual engagements among them; commanding the first society in the neighbourhood; looked up to, perhaps, as leading it even more than those of larger fortune, and turning from the cheerful round of such amusements to nothing worse than a tete-a-tete with the person one feels most agreeable in the world. There is nothing frightful in such a picture, is there, Miss Price? One need not envy the new Mrs. Rushworth with such a home as that.”  (Ch. XXII)

Her description of life in the country shows that riches, excitement, and fashionable society are still her ideas of happiness. She means, indeed, to be too rich to have any trouble: “I mean to be too rich to lament or to feel anything of the sort. A large income is the best recipe for happiness I ever heard of. It certainly may secure all the myrtle and turkey part of it.” (Ch. XXII). This is just what happened to Lady Bertram. Her marriage gave her enough money that she has seldom felt trouble, or had cause to lament, ever since. Of course, Mary could never became torpid like Lady Bertram.

Miss Crawford mocks that which ought to command respect. When she hears that the late Mrs. Rushworth left off having prayers read morning and evening in his chapel,

“Every generation has its improvements,” said Miss Crawford, with a smile, to Edmund. … “At any rate, it is safer to leave people to their own devices on such subjects. Everybody likes to go their own way—to chuse their own time and manner of devotion. The obligation of attendance, the formality, the restraint, the length of time—altogether it is a formidable thing, and what nobody likes; and if the good people who used to kneel and gape in that gallery could have foreseen that the time would ever come when men and women might lie another ten minutes in bed, when they woke with a headache, without danger of reprobation, because chapel was missed, they would have jumped with joy and envy. 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. Bridgets—starched up into seeming piety, but with heads full of something very different—especially if the poor chaplain were not worth looking at—and, in those days, I fancy parsons were very inferior even to what they are now.” (Ch. IX)

She carries the “right of a lively mind … seizing whatever may contribute to its own amusement or that of others” (Ch. VII) too far. Edmund, however, thinks that Miss Crawford has “great discernment …. [f]or so young a woman”. He tells Fanny, “She certainly understands you better than you are understood by the greater part of those who have known you so long; and with regard to some others, I can perceive, from occasional lively hints, the unguarded expressions of the moment, that she could define many as accurately, did not delicacy forbid it.” (Ch. XXI). Fanny has experience of these “unguarded expressions of the moment”.

Fanny went to [Miss Crawford] every two or three days: it seemed a kind of fascination: she could not be easy without going, and yet it was without loving her, without ever thinking like her … and deriving no higher pleasure from her conversation than occasional amusement, and that often at the expense of her judgment, when it was raised by pleasantry on people or subjects which she wished to be respected. (Ch. XXII)

Indeed, after Miss Crawford makes fun of her uncle early on in her acquaintance with the Bertrams, Fanny “was a little surprised that [Edmund] could spend so many hours with Miss Crawford, and not see more of the sort of fault which he had already observed, and of which she was almost always reminded by a something of the same nature whenever she was in her company” (Ch. VII).

One of Miss Crawford’s greatest faults is that she is self-centered. In one instance, she deprives Fanny of the use of Edmund’s mare (the “first actual pain” she causes Fanny). She wants to learn to ride.

Miss Crawford made her first essay with great credit to herself, and no inconvenience to Fanny. … The second day’s trial was not so guiltless. Miss Crawford’s enjoyment of riding was such that she did not know how to leave off. … [T]o the pure genuine pleasure of the exercise, something was probably added in Edmund’s attendance and instructions, and something more in the conviction of very much surpassing her sex in general by her early progress, to make her unwilling to dismount. (Ch. VII)

She apologizes to Fanny. “I am come to make my own apologies for keeping you waiting; but I have nothing in the world to say for myself—I knew it was very late, and that I was behaving extremely ill; and therefore, if you please, you must forgive me. Selfishness must always be forgiven, you know, because there is no hope of a cure.” (Ch. VII, emphasis mine). To give her credit, she did not know how much damage she was doing to Fanny, as she was unaware at the time of how much Fanny depended on riding for her health.

Like George Eliot’s Rosamund Vincy, she seeks to move the man who loves her from his chosen, his loved, path, another instance of her selfishness. She is thinking only of herself when she wishes Edmund Bertram to change his profession, something he is obviously attached to. She is a siren, seeking to lure him from his calling. “Angry as she was with Edmund for adhering to his own notions [of becoming a clergyman], and acting on them in defiance of her (and she had been so angry that they had hardly parted friends at the ball), she could not help thinking of him continually when absent …” (Ch. XXIX) She rejoices in the signs of his weakness. “His sturdy spirit to bend as it did!  Oh! it was sweet beyond expression.” (Ch. XXXVI). I can imagine Edmund, after being married to Mary for a while, saying with Lydgate, “It is impossible for me now to do anything—to take any step without considering my wife’s happiness. The thing that I might like to do if I were alone, is become impossible to me. I can’t see her miserable.” (Middlemarch, by George Eliot, Chapter LXXVI).

After Miss Crawford has spoken lightly, mockingly, of chaplains and the idea of a “whole family assembling regularly for the purpose of prayer”, she finds out that Edmund is to be a clergyman. “She looked almost aghast under the new idea she was receiving.” (Ch. IX). She says, “If I had known this before, I would have spoken of the cloth with more respect” (Ch. IX), but she shows no more consideration afterwards. From this time she begins her struggle to move Edmund from his calling — mocking and belittling the profession he has chosen.

“But why are you to be a clergyman? I thought that was always the lot of the youngest, where there were many to chuse before him. … For what is to be done in the church? Men love to distinguish themselves, and in either of the other lines distinction may be gained, but not in the church. A clergyman is nothing.” (Ch. IX)

“It is fortunate that your inclination and your father’s convenience should accord so well. There is a very good living kept for you, I understand, hereabouts.” (Ch. XI)

“Oh! no doubt [a clergyman] is very sincere in preferring an income ready made, to the trouble of working for one; and has the best intentions of doing nothing all the rest of his days but eat, drink, and grow fat. It is indolence, Mr. Bertram, indeed. Indolence and love of ease; a want of all laudable ambition, of taste for good company, or of inclination to take the trouble of being agreeable, which make men clergymen. A clergyman has nothing to do but be slovenly and selfish—read the newspaper, watch the weather, and quarrel with his wife. His curate does all the work, and the business of his own life is to dine.” (Ch. XI)

The evening [of the ball at Mansfield Park] had afforded Edmund little pleasure. Miss Crawford … had absolutely pained him by her manner of speaking of the profession to which he was now on the point of belonging. They had talked, and they had been silent; he had reasoned, she had ridiculed; and they had parted at last with mutual vexation. (Ch. XXVIII)

Miss Crawford finds herself so in love with Edmund that, even though he has become a clergyman against her wishes, when she finds out that his elder brother is very ill and may die, she still wishes to marry him. She writes to Fanny,

It was a foolish precipitation last Christmas [that is, Edmund being ordained], 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. (Ch. XLV)

After reading the letter in which Mary writes this, Fanny muses, “Edmund would be forgiven for being a clergyman, it seemed, under certain conditions of wealth; and this, she suspected, was all the conquest of prejudice which he was so ready to congratulate himself upon. She had only learnt to think nothing of consequence but money.” (Ch. XLV).

_______________________________

Notes:

This post is part of a series on the character Mary Crawford from Jane Austen’s novel Mansfield Park. The first post, ‘Sometimes How Quick to Feel!’, is about the good side of Mary’s character. The second two, ‘The Case Against Mary Crawford’, Part I and Part II, discuss Mary’s faults. The last post, ‘This Is What the World Does’, briefly considers how she became the woman that she was.

Screencaps of the 2007 ITV production of ‘Mansfield Park’ with Hayley Atwell as Mary Crawford from angelfish_icons.

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2 comments on “The Case Against Mary Crawford, Part I

  1. drush76 says:

    Guess what? I still like Mary Crawford a lot better than Fanny Price.

    • Miss Sneyd says:

      Isn’t Jane Austen amazing‽ She draws you right into her stories. Her characters are complex and fascinating, and Mary Crawford is one of the most complex of them.

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