In the introduction to the Broadview edition of Mansfield Park (Peterborough: Broadview, 2003) June Sturrock says that with the ending of the story, Austen “refuses the readers the comforts of romance” (17). Say what? Edmund finally falls in love with Fanny, upon which “[his] happiness … must have been great enough to warrant any strength of language in which he could cloathe [sic] it”, and as for Fanny, “there was happiness … which no description can reach” (466). That’s not romantic?
Sturrock says she isn’t the only one who thinks like that. According to many critics the novel is “problematic”, “perplexing”, “complex” (11). Which, of course, it is – especially complex. But un-romantic? And the ending “disturbing”, as Sturrock insists it is? Hmm. I would almost bet that the critics who think this way about Mansfield are the same ones who find Marianne Dashwood’s happy ending with Colonel Brandon hard to swallow.
This is where I conceived of a suspicion (confirmation pending further research): my guess is that the idea of “romance” by which those critics measure Austen’s stories is much more in line with the romance, or rather ROMANCE, of the Romantic era than with the “rational happiness” Austen has her characters obtain. Much more Wuthering Heights: “Oh Heathcliff!! Oh Catherine!! Our feelings like storms upon the moors carry us away, causing us to lose our heads and make everyone’s lives around us a misery! Oh, OH!!” (and so forth). Romance isn’t romance unless it completely sweeps you away, and for the reader to believe in such strength of feeling, he/she has to be able to see it happening.
And that’s the thing about Mansfield: we see Edmund falling for Mary Crawford, and then having his heart shattered into pieces. It’s one of the points that make this book rather unusual among Austen’s writings: the focus is on the story of the hero. Even though it is firmly told from Fanny’s viewpoint, it’s Edmund’s love story and heartbreak that dominates. And then in the last few pages of the book, just like with Marianne, Austen tells us in a few bald sentences that he changes his mind, recovers from his broken heart, and falls in love with Fanny much more deeply than he ever was with Mary Crawford. Happily ever after, The End.
What? He recovers from his heartbreak? Yes, he does. So does Marianne. And not only that – if you are willing to believe Austen, they live happily ever after, “as secure as earthly happiness can be” (468), with the second person they fall in love with.
And perhaps that’s the main issue here. I wonder if those readers who find the endings of of these stories “disturbing” aren’t, perhaps, subscribing to Marianne’s original philosophy that one cannot, ought not, recover from a first love; that “second attachments” are an impossibility. And the thing is that Austen never makes any effort to convince us emotionally of the validity of these “second attachments”. She just tells us that it is so, she doesn’t show it (apparently nobody told her of the “show, don’t tell” rule). In Marianne’s relationship with Colonel Brandon, we never get to see the same storm of emotion that Willoughby engenders in her, and the same for Edmund’s feelings for Fanny vs. those for Mary. And, presumably, because the readers can’t see it, they can’t believe it.
They, like Marianne in the beginning of the book, don’t approve of second attachments, because for the last two hundred years we’ve been taught that being overwhelmed with emotion is the hallmark of “true love”. There’s no doubt that emotion was there, in abundance, when Marianne loved Willoughby and Edmund adored Mary Crawford. Those loves have the Romantic’s stamp of authenticity – they were ROMANCE. The reader is never shown that Colonel Brandon and Fanny inspire that kind of blinding love, therefore they can’t be the real thing. Marianne and Edmund can’t be truly happy with them – can they?
I believe they can, and apparently, so did Austen. It’s romance of a different flavour, that’s all – not overhelming, shout-in-capitals ROMANCE, but love. “With so much true merit and true love … their home was the home of affection and comfort”, Austen says of Edmund and Fanny (468). I would say there’s plenty of “the comforts of romance” in that, Dr. Sturrocks.