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Twelfth in a series of posts celebrating 200 years of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. For more details, open Your Invitation to Mansfield Park.

Jane Austen's AchievementI lived in Edmonton near the University of Alberta in the 1970s, but I was too young to attend the conference Juliet McMaster organized at the university to mark the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s birth. Fortunately, Juliet edited a collection of the papers presented at the conference, Jane Austen’s Achievement, and thus when I grew up I was able to read this wonderful book. If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you already know that I think very highly of the paper George Whalley presented, “Jane Austen: Poet,” which inspired me to explore the idea that Mansfield Park is a tragedy. (He suggests it’s a tragedy, but doesn’t follow up on the idea, so I wrote “The Tragic Action of Mansfield Park as my attempt to show why it makes sense to think of this “problem novel” as a tragedy, rather than as a failed comedy.)

Fortunately, too, I’ve been able to read and reread Juliet’s many books and essays on Jane Austen over the years (including, a couple of weeks ago, her excellent essay “Sex and the Senses” in Persuasions 34), to hear her present at many other conferences, and to benefit from her advice about my dissertation on Austen and the classical and theological virtues (she was the external examiner for my Ph.D.). I was delighted that she accepted the invitation to contribute a guest post for this series celebrating Mansfield Park.

The Beautifull CassandraJuliet is Distinguished Professor Emerita at the University of Alberta, and a frequent speaker at JASNA occasions. Author of books on Thackeray, Trollope, and Dickens, and of Jane Austen on Love and Jane Austen the Novelist, she is also the co-editor of The Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen and illustrator-editor of Austen’s The Beautifull Cassandra. I adore The Beautifull Cassandra, and Juliet’s edition, with its playful illustrations and helpful introduction to Jane Austen’s life and works, is at the top of my list of Jane Austen books for kids. I often give copies of this book and the Cozy Classics Pride and Prejudice to the young people in my life.

Juliet is giving a talk on “Female Difficulties: Austen’s Fanny and Burney’s Juliet” at the JASNA AGM in Montreal this fall, and I hear she will also be performing in “A Dangerous Intimacy,” the play by Diana Birchall and Syrie James that was commissioned for the AGM.

Fanny was the only one of the party who found any thing to dislike [in the return of Henry Crawford after only two weeks away]; but since the day at Sotherton, she could never see Mr. Crawford with either sister without observation, and seldom without wonder or censure; and had her confidence in her own judgment been equal to her exercise of it in every other respect, had she been sure that she was seeing clearly, and judging candidly, she would probably have made some important communications to her usual confidant. As it was, however, she only hazarded a hint, and the hint was lost. “I am rather surprised,” said she, “that Mr. Crawford should come back again so soon, after being here so long before, full seven weeks; for I had understood he was so very fond of change and moving about, that I thought something would certainly occur when he was gone, to take him elsewhere. He is used to much gayer places than Mansfield.”

“It is to his credit,” was Edmund’s answer, “and I dare say it gives his sister pleasure. She does not like his unsettled habits.”

“What a favourite he is with my cousins!”

“Yes, his manners to women are such as must please. Mrs. Grant, I believe, suspects him of a preference for Julia; I have never seen much symptom of it, but I wish it may be so. He has no faults but what a serious attachment would remove.”

“If Miss Bertram were not engaged,” said Fanny, cautiously, “I could sometimes almost think that he admired her more than Julia.”

“Which is, perhaps, more in favour of his liking Julia best, than you, Fanny, may be aware: for I believe it often happens, that a man, before he has quite made up his own mind, will distinguish the sister or intimate friend of the woman he is really thinking of, more than the woman herself. Crawford has too much sense to stay here if he found himself in any danger from Maria; and I am not at all afraid for her, after such proof as she has given, that her feelings are not strong.”

Fanny supposed she must have been mistaken, and meant to think differently in future; but with all that submission to Edmund could do, and all the help of the coinciding looks and hints which she occasionally noticed in some of the others and which seemed to say that Julia was Mr. Crawford’s choice, she knew not always what to think.

– From Mansfield Park, Chapter 12 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988)

This brief exchange between Edmund and Fanny occurs after Henry Crawford has returned to Mansfield after only two weeks’ absence at his own estate of Everingham. And it is interesting in showing how Fanny, the pupil, with strong powers of observation and judgement, is desperately short of confidence in her own judgement; whereas Edmund, the tutor – (and their relation has been very much that of pupil and teacher) has full confidence in his own judgement, but with much less reason.

The Oxford Illustrated Jane Austen: Mansfield ParkFanny has had the benefit of observing Henry’s flirtatious behaviour with Julia and especially Maria during the trip to Sotherton. Edmund was there too, but he didn’t see what Fanny observed, and his powers of observation are clearly inferior to hers. He is pretty thoroughly wrong about several things:

* For instance, that Henry Crawford “has too much sense to stay here if he found himself in danger from Maria” – Wrong! In fact we know that Henry finds Maria more attractive for her engagement, presumably on the “forbidden fruit” principle.

* He considers Maria quite free of attachment to Crawford, since by engaging herself to Rushworth she has proved “her feelings are not strong.” Wrong! Her feelings are in fact so strong that that despite her engagement to Rushworth (for mercenary reasons, of course) she is ready to upset the whole applecart for Crawford, as eventually she does.

Is Edmund right about anything? His comment that Crawford “has no faults but what a serious attachment will remove” could be right – and Mary Crawford too believes that if he had married Fanny he would have settled down to being a good husband and landlord. That belief is pretty questionable, of course, but it is never tested, and since it is only a might-have-been, the answer must depend on the individual judgements of readers.

Then what about his general comment on human behaviour, that “it often happens that a man, before he has quite made up his own mind, will distinguish the sister or intimate friend of the woman he is really thinking of more than the woman herself”? Wrong again, so far as Julia and Maria are concerned! From this bit of general wisdom he intends to prove that Crawford’s attentions to Maria are really because he prefers Julia – which again is arrant nonsense (as Fanny knows, but daren’t say, because of her disastrous lack of confidence in her own judgment).

But what interests me is the extent to which Edmund’s piece of wisdom may actually apply to himself. I have long believed that Edmund, even while he consciously courts Mary Crawford, is equally in love with Fanny – or indeed even more so. (Note: I argued this in Jane Austen on Love, back in 1978, but I have sometimes been challenged on it.) Certainly Edmund believes himself in love with Mary, and – through his ignorance of Fanny’s feelings – he often puts Fanny through the pain of being his confidante in his courtship of Mary. But there are many signs of his equal love for Fanny. He calls her “Dearest Fanny!” (note the superlative!), and kisses her hand “with almost as much warmth as if it had been Mary Crawford’s” (269). “Almost”? But that is Fanny’s perception more than the narrator’s pronouncement, isn’t it? He tells Fanny fervently, “I have no pleasure in the world superior to that of contributing to yours … no pleasure so complete, so unalloyed” (262).

Broadview EmmaI should concede the points against me. I have to admit that Edmund’s encouraging Fanny to accept Henry Crawford, as he certainly does, is not very lover-like. After all, the most visible sign that Mr. Knightley is in love with Emma is his jealousy of Frank Churchill. Indeed, it seems he doesn’t wake up to his own love himself until he understands his own jealousy (and the same applies to Emma, who doesn’t know she loves Knightley until she thinks he may marry Harriet). But then Mr. Knightley is certainly more knowledgeable about himself and his feelings than Edmund is about his. Edmund thinks he is in love with Mary, says he could never marry anyone else. But then why doesn’t he get on and propose to her? Should he propose in person, he wonders, or in a letter? (422). He is forever dithering. Even Fanny gets impatient at his prolonged shilly-shallying, and exclaims, “There is no good in this delay … Why is it not settled?” (424).

But to return to Edmund and my chosen passage: “A man … will distinguish the sister or intimate friend of the woman he is really thinking of, more than the woman herself.” As a general rule, this is one more place where Edmund is wrong. But as applying to himself – the rule is true and correct. Edmund does distinguish Mary, the intimate friend (as he thinks) of Fanny, more than Fanny herself. But whom does he really mean to marry, even if he doesn’t know it himself? Right! Fanny!

Dare I conclude, Q.E.D.?!

To read more about all the posts in this series, visit An Invitation to Mansfield Park. Coming soon: guest posts by Lynn Festa, David Monaghan, Diana Birchall, and Deborah Barnum. Subscribe by email or follow the blog so you don’t miss these fabulous contributions to the Mansfield Park party!