The Depth of Mansfield

I’m still not done ruminating about Mansfield Park (and therefore talking about it, as that’s how I do my thinking). Mansfield, as June Sturrock says, is a highly complex novel. In fact, it’s the most complex of all of them. It’s also, not coincidentally, the fattest; Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, the two slimmest volumes, together are only just a little thicker than Mansfield on its own.

The thing that struck me the most about Mansfield in this reading is how ambivalent the story is about the Crawfords. When I first read this story, years ago, I unequivocally hated them, and wanted them out of Fanny’s life as quickly as possible. And then I didn’t read the book again for years; between the Crawfords and Mrs Norris, it was just too painful. But when I picked it up again a while ago, I discovered that the Crawfords really aren’t so bad – in fact, they’re really nice people. I understood what Edmund sees in Mary Crawford, and that Henry Crawford really is a pleasant man, all told. And then I read it again least week, and found that, no, there’s something really objectionable about those two after all.

Mansfield is not a simple good guy/bad guy story, as some of the others are. Yes, yes, I know, “bad guys” in Austen are so mild they barely rate the term, generally speaking. But they’re there. Wickham is wicked, simple as that. Darcy is, simply, good. Collins is stupid. Mr Elliot is charming, but really wicked underneath. But Henry Crawford? Yes, he’s just as wicked as Willoughby and Wickham, though not woefully whiny, for a wonder (sorry, those w’s are running away with me). He goes and ruins a married woman from sheer pique, and a close relative of the heroine, at that. He purposely sets out to break Fanny’s heart (well, okay, to “make a small hole” in it – but still, he’s aiming to hurt her, just for fun). Deep moral depravity, really. But then he falls in love with Fanny himself – he’s genuinely caught in his own snare, and what’s more, it does him good. Austen herself says that if things had turned out differently, Fanny could have converted him, as it were – in other words, there is enough good in this man that he’s not irreclaimable.

And the same goes for Mary Crawford. She really is the nicest woman in the story, apart from Fanny herself (and perhaps Susan, but as she’s pretty much a nonentity we can forget about her). Mary is nice, pretty, kind, considerate, fun (and funny!), and, like her brother, not irreclaimable: she’s well on her way to accepting Edmund in spite of herself – despite his not having obeyed her command to drop his chosen career in favour of something more fashionable. Again, had things turned out differently, she would have accepted Edmund, become a parson’s wife, lived in the country, and eventually adopted his opinions as her own – she’d be converted to Edmund and Fanny’s way of thinking, and would become a good person. After all, she’s not far away from being one already.

The tricky bit about Mansfield is that Austen herself isn’t clear on what she thinks of the Crawfords – or at least she doesn’t make it clear. With Wickham and Willoughby, one knows (as Elizabeth says of Darcy) exactly what to think. With the Crawfords, nope. I keep waffling back and forth on it. Bad guys – nice guys – pleasant people – awful people – good guys in embryo but then corrupted – irredeemably corrupted from the start, bad core overlaid with goodness – heck, I don’t know! They just refuse to fit into a nice pigeon-hole.

And apparently that debate has been going on since the moment the book was written. Some of Austen’s relatives wanted Fanny to marry Henry Crawford, which makes me howl in protest – no way, Fanny would be miserable! But then, maybe not… I don’t think Austen herself would have argued as strenuously against Crawford as I am inclined to. She certainly doesn’t in the book.

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3 thoughts on “The Depth of Mansfield

  1. I am always deeply suspicious of claims that the “good” one will redeem/convert/save the “bad” one. Isn’t it more likely that Henry would’ve gotten bored with Fanny’s goodness after a while, and ended up having affairs on the side? I mean, he would have stayed fond of her, to be sure, and respected her mind, but not enough to really change. And Mary … I can see her constantly reminding Edmund of how much she sacrificed for him, constantly moaning about what a miserable life it is, stuck in the country as a parson’s wife, and poking sly fun at all the people of their parish, and generally making his life miserable.

    It’s one of the few area where a Bronte sister gets it right, I think: Jane Eyre does NOT marry Rochester and save him. He has to figure out his salvation all on his own, and only afterward does she return and agree to marry him.

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    • Yup, I’m with you. I do think both Fanny and Edmund would be miserable married to Crawfords. They’d really suffer from the gap in values, and their spouses wouldn’t get at all what’s there to suffer about. I’m profoundly grateful that the ending is what it is! But it’s just not as clear-cut as with the other books; with MP you can actually have a debate about it.
      And yes, good point about Jane Eyre.

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      • Yeah, we’re never left in much doubt as to whether Elizabeth could have been happy with Wickham, or Anne with Mr Elliott (or even Captain Benwick), etc. We are given a small measure of doubt in Willoughby’s case, but even there it’s pretty clear that Brandon turns out to be a much better husband than Willoughby could have been.

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