Finishing Mansfield Park

November 24, 2020

Spoilers ahead

I was engrossed by “Mansfield Park” from beginning to end.  Of the thousand thoughts I’m having, probably questions about Henry Crawford are the most difficult to answer.  That may be no surprise to those who have read the novel. 

Henry flirts with two sisters, just like Frederick Wentworth had. And Henry does a great and lasting good to a sibling of the woman he loves, just as Darcy did. But there is all the difference in the world.

Let me get into some of these issues by starting with a list of major changes that I saw between the movie and the novel.

  • Fanny’s beloved sibling William is missing from the movie.  Her close relationship with Susan is stretched back all the way to childhood and thus fills in for the missing William in some ways.  William’s absence doesn’t generally change very much, but it has a big impact on Henry Crawford’s proposal to Fanny; more specifically, on her rejection of him.
  • Fanny recites some lines about history books that Catherine Morland had spoken in “Northanger Abbey.”
  • Lady Bertram is turned into an opium addict in the movie.  Her sister is Fanny’s mother, whom Austen describes as no less indolent by nature than Lady Bertram, so in the novel there are no hidden reasons for her laziness.  Fanny would know of any addiction because she spends countless hours tending to Lady Bertram; yet Fanny respects and adores her throughout the novel, in fact more at the end than ever before.
  • Sir Thomas sends Fanny to her parents in anger in the movie, as a total rejection of her for refusing Crawford.  In the book he sends her to her parents as a sly way to get her to miss Crawford and to rethink his offer; but he never rejects her or considers doing so.  His character in the movie is thrown under the bus generally, especially by the scenes concerning slavery.  Austen has her own criticisms of him, as a parent, but those don’t really appear in the movie.
  • The movie marries off the Crawfords in the end, picturing them with partners who are just as philandering as themselves.
  • In the movie Fanny agrees, almost inaudibly, but implicitly to marry Crawford, and then changes her mind; whereas in the novel she is always clear, both to him and to herself, that she will never have him.  So the movie gives Crawford some additional reason for straying back to Maria, a straying which Austen leaves mostly unexplained.  But I think this change has the effect of partially excusing what he does, or at least softening it and making it seem like he, though a lech and still revealed as someone whom Fanny was right in never trusting, betrays her because he and Maria are both forlorn and grabbing for whatever happiness is available.  I don’t know that Austen sees him that way (she definitely doesn’t see Maria that way).  She doesn’t have Fanny angering him by agreeing to marriage and then changing her mind; their last meeting in the novel, before Crawford’s betrayal, shows Fanny doing nothing especially rejecting or unusual to him. 

I think Austen gives us enough of an explanation for Crawford’s action.  She says that he went after Maria, not out of affection for her, but because he took offense that she was not as warm as ever to him:

He saw Mrs. Rushworth, was received by her with a coldness which ought to have been repulsive, and have established apparent indifference between them for ever; but he was mortified, he could not bear to be thrown off by the woman whose smiles had been so wholly at his command: he must exert himself to subdue so proud a display of resentment; it was anger on Fanny’s account; he must get the better of it, and make Mrs. Rushworth Maria Bertram again in her treatment of himself.

And Austen had shown us Crawford declaring openly to his sister that he’ll be going after Fanny for reasons having to do with his pride: 

“I do not quite know what to make of Miss Fanny. I do not understand her. I could not tell what she would be at yesterday. What is her character? Is she solemn? Is she queer? Is she prudish? Why did she draw back and look so grave at me? I could hardly get her to speak. 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. Her looks say, ‘I will not like you, I am determined not to like you’; and I say she shall.”

But if Henry acts mainly on pride, that doesn’t mean that he didn’t fall in love with Fanny, or that he was being dishonest when he felt that she was now bringing things up in him that he had never known.  If you play with love, you might get burned by love in return.  And Henry, at least, got very warmed by this fire.  But if we’re to take seriously Fanny’s unwavering distrust of him, I think we have to take it as certain that his pride was stronger than anything else in him – and that this could be detected. 

He tried to change, but couldn’t, at least not in this situation and at this time.

What I found most surprising was Austen seeming to argue that Crawford could have won Fanny over:

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.

Is Austen speaking here abstractly, simply portraying Crawford’s prospects and the thoughts that should have formed his decision-making?  It sounds like she’s saying that Fanny could have eventually given her consent. 

If so, that doesn’t mean she thinks it would have been a good decision for her.

There is a great passage describing Maria’s wedding to Rushworth after her first disappointment with Crawford:

In all the important preparations of the mind she was complete: being prepared for matrimony by an hatred of home, restraint, and tranquillity; by the misery of disappointed affection, and contempt of the man she was to marry.

We are supposed to laugh and to regard this marriage with little more than scorn.  But the misery of disappointed affection turns out to drive much of the plot here.  Crawford moved from Fanny, who may have come to seem too much work for him, onto Maria; who herself had moved from Crawford to Rushworth and then back, after a disappointing time in marriage, to Crawford; even Edmund has to be disappointed first in Mary before turning to Fanny and realizing what he has there.

Marriage really is a maneuvering business.

“Why have you no fire to-day?” (woodcut illustration by Joan Hassall)

If I hadn’t seen the movie first, I might have been surprised, too, at how Fanny not only doesn’t end up with her original family but comes to embrace Mansfield Park as an ideal home and environment.  The set-up is to make us think that this precocious, sensitive girl is unjustly taken out of her element and made into a misfit among the unfeeling upper classes.  But that is not how Austen comes down.  She doesn’t sentimentalize poverty, and describes it, particularly the noise of a small, overcrowded and busy home, as if she’s seen it first-hand. 

Here everybody was noisy, every voice was loud . . . . Whatever was wanted was hallooed for, and the servants hallooed out their excuses from the kitchen. The doors were in constant banging, the stairs were never at rest, nothing was done without a clatter, nobody sat still, and nobody could command attention when they spoke.

Those are some of the passages I appreciate most in the novel, though it is maybe a little surprising the degree to which Austen extols everything about Fanny’s upper-class culture and its manners so decisively, and lets us know that that environment is infinitely better for her than a home mired in poverty.  The novel’s great twist is that Fanny is a misfit not in unfeeling Mansfield Park but rather in her original home, and may have been a misfit even when she had been taken from it.

I appreciate the realism, and it’s surprising only in the sense that I’ve known Austen previously as the satirical critic of the upper-class.  It turns out she is not willing to sentimentalize anything.

So what nickname should I give this Austen novel?  The One With the Play?  The One With Religion?  The One With(out) the Slavery?  The One With Poor People?

There’s actually a lot distinguishing MP from other Austen novels, I can’t pick a tag.

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