Sunday, 8 May 2016

Jane Austen's Henry Crawford in 'Mansfield Park'

Jane Austen's sister Cassandra is believed to have taken the view that Fanny should have married Henry Crawford. Even Jane wrote:

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.... Would he have persevered, and uprightly, Fanny must have been his reward - and a reward very voluntarily bestowed - within a reasonable period of Edmund's marrying Mary.

In status, Henry has more to offer than Edmund Bertram. He has good manners and conversation; and he has a country estate, Everingham, where he is a reasonably good landlord. Henry even declares he would not have theatricals at Everingham: he says so because he believes Fanny would not approve. If Fanny had accepted him, Henry would surely not have eloped with Maria Rushworth.

Sir Thomas is right when he says:

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.

Incidentally, Henry Crawford reads aloud to the company, apparently from 'Henry VIII'. If you take a look at a scene involving the Shakespeare characters mentioned (Cromwell is a servant of Wolsey), you will find it is surprisingly easy to read aloud at the first attempt, when compared with much Shakespeare. You may say, of course, that this particular text may not actually have been written by Shakespeare. It was commonplace in middle-class and upper-class homes for volunteers to read aloud from the classics for the entertainment of the company, just as it was for members of the family to play the piano or harp and to sing. We know reading aloud went on in Jane Austen's own family. In those pre-TV and other mass entertainment days, many people must have acquired a far better knowledge of good music and literature from do-it-yourself experience. In this respect, at least, they had an advantage over later generations.

The ambivalence of Fanny’s attitude to Sir Thomas is best brought out in Chapter 19 where – in a superb and sustained piece of analysis – Jane Austen explains why and how Fanny is able to feel tenderness, gratitude and even love for her uncle while at the same time experiencing the chill that his presence always seems to cast over the household.

A point in Fanny's favour is that she conceals from Sir Thomas part of the reason why Henry is unacceptable to her: she wants to be loyal to her cousins Maria and Julia, who have flirted with Henry in rehearsals of the play.

In Chapter 33 of Mansfield Park, Henry Crawford presses his case with Fanny (He was now the Mr. Crawford who was addressing herself with ardent, disinterested love; whose feelings were apparently become all that was honourable and upright, whose views of happiness were all fixed on a marriage of attachment; who was pouring out his sense of her merits, describing and describing again his affection ….); and she continues to resist him (She must be courteous, and she must be compassionate. She must have a sensation of being honoured, and whether thinking of herself or her brother, she must have a strong feeling of gratitude. The effect of the whole was a manner so pitying and agitated, and words intermingled with her refusal so expressive of obligation and concern ….). 

Compare this scene with Elizabeth’s refusal of Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice (where we also have a heroine saying ‘no’ to a man she simply does not like – a man who thinks he needs only to persevere in order to succeed) and what do you notice? In Pride and Prejudice, it is all delightfully done in direct speech. So why in Mansfield Park are we not allowed to hear a single word the couple actually say? The difference illustrates well the difference in spirit between the two novels. The fact that Pride and Prejudice so often shows rather than tells is probably one reason why many readers find it more attractive.

Also in Pride and Prejudice there is humour in this proposal scene. In Mansfield Park, the scene is tense and humourless.

There is no direct speech whatever until the following day, when Jane Austen suddenly finds it easy to tell us exactly what Sir Thomas said. The only humour is saved right until the end of the chapter, when – in one of those typically ironic Austen chapter endings - we have Lady Bertram offering to reward Fanny with a puppy.