Elaine Bander was the first person I asked to contribute a guest post to this series celebrating Mansfield Park. Last fall, when JASNA Nova Scotia was fortunate to have Elaine visit us to give a talk on “Jane Austen’s Fanny Price and Lord Nelson: Rethinking the National Hero(ine),” I mentioned that I had been thinking about putting something together on my blog to honour Mansfield Park. At the time, I imagined inviting a few people to write guest posts, but the party kept getting bigger and I am so pleased to be celebrating with all of you. Thank you, Elaine, for being the first to sign on!
Elaine says she’s been pondering Mansfield Park since she began writing her dissertation on Austen nearly forty years ago. Now retired from teaching at Dawson College in Montreal, she is Coordinator of JASNA’s 2014 AGM: “Mansfield Park in Montréal: Contexts, Conventions & Controversies” (October 10-12, 2014) and serves on the editorial board of JASNA’s journal, Persuasions.
I interviewed her last fall about her experience in JASNA’s International Visitor Program, her longstanding connections with The Burney Society, and her experience of discovering Jane Austen’s novels. You can read the interview here, and you can read about Elaine’s visit to Halifax and her talk on Fanny Price’s courage here. I know the AGM is going to be wonderful and I can’t wait to spend the weekend talking about Mansfield Park in person with so many of you!
It was a picture which Henry Crawford had moral taste enough to value. Fanny’s attractions increased – increased two-fold – for the sensibility which beautified her complexion and illuminated her countenance, was an attraction in itself. He was no longer in doubt of the capabilities of her heart. She had feeling, genuine feeling. It would be something to be loved by such a girl, to excite the first ardours of her young, unsophisticated mind! She interested him more than he had foreseen. A fortnight was not enough. His stay became indefinite.
– From Mansfield Park, Chapter 24 (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2006)
Henry Crawford, a disengaged, charming, compulsive flirt, begins to fall in love with Fanny Price when he perceives the warmth and depth of her feeling for her brother William. It helps that he’s bored, that Maria and Julia are gone, and that restless, gifted, undisciplined Henry, coming to the end of his duty visit to his sisters, is looking for a new project or challenge. His original “wicked project” (Mary’s words) was to make a small hole in Fanny’s heart, to woo her lightly for the sport of the hunt. Her obvious “sensibility,” however, intrigues and attracts him.
Taught by his uncle to despise marriage and to think all women venial, Henry imagines exciting “the first ardours of her young, unsophisticated mind!” He already perceives that Fanny is not like her cousins, and he will soon tell her that she has something of the angel about her. So Henry postpones his departure.
Neither a stock despoiler of virgins nor a Lovelace-like rake, Henry has “moral taste.” This expression has a history going back to the philosophical writings of Anthony Ashley-Cooper, 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury (1671-1713) and was current in the general popular culture of Austen’s time, underpinning much of the literature of sensibility and posing a philosophical opposition to more traditional morality (like Fanny’s) founded upon firm moral principles and the duty of reflection.
Meanwhile Fanny’s own aesthetic taste is powerfully attracted to Henry’s considerable acting talent, albeit without seriously affecting her moral judgment of him. During the rehearsals, she “believed herself to derive as much innocent enjoyment from the play as any of them; – Henry Crawford acted well, and it was a pleasure to her to creep into the theatre, and attend the rehearsal of the first act” of Lovers’ Vows.
When later Henry reads from King Henry VIII, Fanny responds involuntarily, against her conscious, rational judgment and will, against her very “principles,” to his acting skill: her needle falls from her hand, and “the eyes which had appeared so studiously to avoid him throughout the day, were turned and fixed on Crawford, fixed on him for minutes . . . until the book was closed, and the charm was broken.” With Henry’s charm broken, Fanny’s rational judgment reasserts itself. She resists equating aesthetic good with moral good.
Shaftesbury had claimed that just as we are naturally attracted to the beautiful, so too we have an innate sense or attraction to the good. Marianne Dashwood references a form of this belief when she defends her transgressive visit to Allenham with Willoughby: “for if there had been any real impropriety in what I did, I should have been sensible of it at the time, for we always know when we are acting wrong, and with such a conviction I could have had no pleasure.” After some reflection, Marianne admits, “Perhaps, Elinor, it was rather ill-judged in me to go to Allenham.”
Henry, however, like the rest of the characters in Mansfield Park with the exception of Fanny, does not reflect. He feels and desires. When he rhapsodizes about Fanny’s beauty, grace and gentleness of temper to Mary, the narrator tells us:
Henry Crawford had too much sense not to feel the worth of good principles in a wife, though he was too little accustomed to serious reflection to know them by their proper name; but when he talked of her having such a steadiness and regularity of conduct, such a high notion of honour, and such an observance of decorum as might warrant any man in the fullest dependence on her faith and integrity, he expressed what was inspired by the knowledge of her being well principled and religious. (Chapter 30)
Henry cannot even name the qualities he admires in Fanny. As a sensible man and a gifted actor who envies Edmund and William their professional commitments, he values Fanny aesthetically and morally, but without serious reflection. Characteristically, he rejoices in the role of chivalrous lover and protector of friendless Fanny.
Then why does he elope with Maria Rushworth? I don’t think he has fallen out of love with Fanny, or into love with Maria, whom he rather despises. Nor do I think he is simply a compulsive seducer of women. I have always imagined that his conceit-driven, casual flirtation with Maria leads to some exciting, secret, physical fondling, which prompts desperate Maria to show up on Henry’s doorstep one evening declaring that she has left Mr. Rushworth and has put herself under Henry’s protection. Henry, too much of a gentleman to turn her away, must then accept the consequences of his own unreflective behaviour: the loss of Fanny, whom he had had the moral taste to appreciate.
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