Twenty-fifth in a series of posts celebrating 200 years of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. For more details, open Your Invitation to Mansfield Park.
Syrie James, hailed as “the queen of nineteenth century re-imaginings” by Los Angeles Magazine, is the bestselling author of nine critically acclaimed novels, including Jane Austen’s First Love, The Missing Manuscript of Jane Austen, The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen, The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Brontë, Dracula My Love, Nocturne, Forbidden, Songbird, and Propositions. Her books have been translated into eighteen languages, awarded the Audio Book Association Audie, designated as Editor’s Picks by Library Journal, named a Discover Great New Writers Selection by Barnes and Noble, a Great Group Read by the Women’s National Book Association, and Best Book of the Year by The Romance Reviews and Suspense Magazine.
Syrie’s article “Jane’s First Love?” about Edward Taylor, a young man upon whom Jane Austen admittedly “fondly doated,” appeared in the July/August 2014 issue of Jane Austen’s Regency World Magazine. With Diana Birchall (whose guest post for “An Invitation to Mansfield Park” was called “The Scene-Painter”) Syrie co-wrote “The Austen Assizes” for the JASNA AGM in New York in 2012 and “A Dangerous Intimacy: Behind the Scenes at Mansfield Park” for the Montreal AGM last month. Syrie is a life member of the WGA and JASNA and lives in Los Angeles. You can find her on Facebook, Twitter, and at syriejames.com.
On their way to Montreal, Syrie and her husband took a cruise from Boston to Quebec City, and when they stopped in Halifax, I got to have the pleasure of showing them around the city on a glorious fall day. We started at the Public Gardens, where the dahlia garden was a highlight, and then toured the Citadel, from which we enjoyed the fantastic views of the city and the harbour. A couple of weeks later, we explored the Montreal Botanical Garden together on an equally beautiful fall day. Syrie and I share a fascination with the strength of character Fanny Price demonstrates when she resists the attempts of all her relatives and friends to persuade her to marry Henry Crawford.
“Am I to understand,” said Sir Thomas, after a few moments’ silence, “that you mean to refuse Mr. Crawford?”
“Refuse Mr. Crawford! Upon what plea? For what reason?”
“I – I cannot like him, sir, well enough to marry him.”
“This is very strange!” said Sir Thomas, in a voice of calm displeasure. “There is something in this which my comprehension does not reach. 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. His sister, moreover, is your intimate friend, and he has been doing that for your brother, which I should suppose would have been almost sufficient recommendation to you, had there been no other. It is very uncertain when my interest might have got William on. He has done it already.”
“Yes,” said Fanny, in a faint voice, and looking down with fresh shame; and she did feel almost ashamed of herself, after such a picture as her uncle had drawn, for not liking Mr. Crawford.
“You must have been aware,” continued Sir Thomas presently, “you must have been some time aware of a particularity in Mr. Crawford’s manners to you. This cannot have taken you by surprise. You must have observed his attentions; and though you always received them very properly (I have no accusation to make on that head), I never perceived them to be unpleasant to you. I am half inclined to think, Fanny, that you do not quite know your own feelings.”
“Oh yes, sir! indeed I do. His attentions were always – what I did not like.”
– From Mansfield Park, Chapter 32 (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1892)
I admire Fanny Price, and nowhere more than in this scene, where – although greatly distressed – she refuses to marry Henry Crawford, despite the angry disapproval of her uncle.
The hallmark of every Jane Austen novel is the contrast between superficial appearances and true character – the ultimate lessons being that first impressions can be misleading, surface qualities are not real, and a person’s deeds, not their words, are the true window to their moral character.
This theme is prevalent in every page of Mansfield Park, where everyone except Fanny seems to be blinded by appearances. Even we, the reader, are blinded on a first perusal of the novel. Fanny appears to be frustratingly mousy and timid, while Mary and Henry Crawford at first glance are far more charming and interesting. But when all is said and done, we realize that Fanny is not mousy at all.
I love Fanny because she stands up for what she believes in and won’t let anyone persuade her to do otherwise. Most young ladies in her position, I think, would have accepted Henry Crawford in a heartbeat. Fanny is a poor relation, with apparently few if any marital prospects. Henry is handsome, rich, and charming, and he showers her with attention. Everyone at Mansfield Park wants Fanny to marry Henry – Sir Thomas is adamant, Mary expects it, and even Edmund thinks it’s a good idea – and I bet most readers are at first rooting for that connection. (I know I did on my first reading!) Jane’s sister Cassandra apparently campaigned to have Fanny marry Henry, a suggestion Jane thankfully did not follow.
But Fanny, unlike everyone else, is perceptive enough to see the real man beneath the charade. “I am so perfectly convinced that I could never make him happy, and that I should be miserable myself,” a weeping Fanny tells Sir Thomas. She, alone, knows Henry to be a callous flirt who finds “no one essential to him” and whose habits are such “that he could do nothing without a mixture of evil.” Henry calculatingly preys on Fanny’s feelings by arranging for her brother William’s promotion, immediately following this news with a marriage proposal. Fanny sees Henry’s romantic overtures “all as nonsense, as mere trifling and gallantry, which meant only to deceive for the hour” – and with good reason. When Henry’s personal challenge to win Fanny fails, he succumbs to his darker nature and runs off with Mrs. Rushworth.
Fanny refuses Henry Crawford’s proposal because she doesn’t love or respect him, and knows he cannot love her in return. No doubt, Jane Austen was drawing on her own personal experience when writing this sequence. As every Janeite knows, Jane famously accepted her one known marriage proposal from Harris Bigg-Wither, a wealthy, stuttering young man five years her junior who she’d known since childhood, only to recant the next morning.
There were many reasons why Jane might have felt compelled to marry Harris. The Austens were very close with the Bigg-Withers; Alethea and Catherine Bigg, Harris’s sisters, were two of Jane’s dearest friends. At age twenty-seven, Jane was already considered a spinster – and as Sir Thomas says to Fanny, you are “throwing away from you such an opportunity of being settled in life, eligibly, honourably, nobly settled, as will, probably, never occur to you again.” Indeed, by marrying Harris, Jane would have become the future mistress of Manydown Park, a large Hampshire house and estate in the neighborhood she loved, and where she had grown up. Marrying Harris would have given financial security to Jane and her parents and Cassandra for the rest of their lives.
But Jane didn’t love Harris – perhaps didn’t even like him very much. And as Jane wrote in her unfinished novel The Watsons, “To pursue a man merely for the sake of situation, is a sort of thing that shocks me; I cannot understand it. Poverty is a great evil; but to a woman of education and feeling it ought not, it cannot be the greatest. I would rather be teacher at a school (and I can think of nothing worse) than marry a man I did not like.”
Only imagine what Jane must have felt – the deep emotional struggle she must have endured during that long, sleepless night after Harris’s proposal, as she agonized over her decision – and the pain and mortification of announcing that she could not marry Harris after all. Did Jane’s mother and father sharply criticize her decision when she rushed back to Bath? Were they as unfeeling as Sir Thomas was to Fanny? We do not know.
One thing is certain: Jane didn’t listen to what anyone else wanted. She followed her own heart and conscience, and demonstrated great inner strength and courage when she turned down Harris’s proposal, just as Fanny does when she refuses Henry Crawford. I admire them both for the choice they made. In this scene in Mansfield Park, Jane Austen is telling us something important: that she admires Fanny Price, because she possesses the moral conviction, good sense, and strength of character required of a true heroine.
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