books, Fiction, Henry Crawford, Jane Austen, Juliet McMaster, literature, male sirens, Mansfield Park, Mansfield Park 200th anniversary, Mary Crawford, Sharon Hamilton, sirens, temptation, The Odyssey
Twenty-ninth in a series of posts celebrating 200 years of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. For more details, open Your Invitation to Mansfield Park.
I first met Sharon Hamilton at the University of Alberta when I was an undergraduate, and later connected with her again at Dalhousie University, where she was working on her Ph.D. in English when I began my master’s degree. I remember the exact moment at which we discovered our shared love of Jane Austen – at a dinner celebrating the birthday of a mutual friend – and Sharon exclaimed, “You’re a Janeite, too!” Sharon and I also share a love of Prince Edward Island’s landscape and beaches as well as its literature.
Sharon is a writer and researcher who divides her time between Ottawa, Ontario and Spring Brook, PEI. She specializes in American literature and she has published and given lectures on the work of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, H.L. Mencken, Emily Dickinson, Willa Cather, and many other writers. Her essay “Teaching Hemingway’s Modernism in Cultural Context: Helping Students Connect His Time to Ours” will be published next year in Teaching Hemingway and Modernism, edited by Joseph Fruscione (Kent State University Press). Her guest post on Mansfield Park is partly inspired by her response to the post Juliet McMaster wrote in the summer for this series, “Is Edmund Bertram right about anything?”
Edmund watched the progress of her attention, and was amused and gratified by seeing how she gradually slackened in the needlework, which at the beginning seemed to occupy her totally: how it fell from her hand while she sat motionless over it, and at last, how the eyes which had appeared so studiously to avoid him throughout the day were turned and fixed on Crawford – fixed on him for minutes, fixed on him, in short, till the attraction drew Crawford’s upon her, and the book was closed, and the charm was broken. Then she was shrinking again into herself, and blushing and working as hard as ever; but it had been enough to give Edmund encouragement for his friend, and as he cordially thanked him, he hoped to be expressing Fanny’s secret feelings too.
– From Mansfield Park, Chapter 34 (London: Penguin, 1966)
It is no surprise that such an interesting, thought-provoking entry should come from Juliet McMaster, who I have had the great pleasure of knowing as a teacher. (Here’s the link to her guest post.) Also not surprising, given Jane Austen’s Shakespeare-like ability to write a text that operates on so many levels, is the realization that all the entries in the conversation about this post (see the comments section here), however apparently contradictory, are I think, equally true.
What I would wish to add to this conversation is the question (lifted from Tina Turner), “What’s love got to do with it?” In other words, I believe that what Edmund ultimately feels for Mary Crawford (and what the young female characters in the novel generally feel for Henry) isn’t love, it’s lust. It is, as we know, very common for Austen to place in her novels characters with extraordinary sexual magnetism: think of Wickham and Willoughby. Even in her juvenilia, in Jack and Alice, Austen describes Charles Adams as “so dazzling a beauty that none but eagles could look him in the face.” The interesting thing about Mansfield Park, is that while Austen often places male figures of extreme physical attractiveness in her works, in this novel the snake in the garden, who exercises the common Austen-novel function of tempting others to lust (not love), is both male and female: Mary and Henry.
Thanks to Homer, we generally associate the destructive (and implicitly sexual) call of the siren with women, owing to the female sirens in The Odyssey whose song lures sailors onto the rocks, where their ships are destroyed. It is nevertheless the case that in Greek tradition – as I believe Austen was well aware – sirens were both male and female, just as they are in this novel. In the Greece-obsessed Regency world Austen lived in (think of the female hair and clothing designed to look like Greek statues), there would have been many occasions to view actual Greek vases, and as classicists explain (see Jessika Akmenkalns, “Sirens,” review of “Wining, Dining, and Dying in Ancient Greece,” CU Art Museum, University of Colorado), many of these vases pictured male sirens. (You can find a good picture of a male siren in the collections of the J. Paul Getty Museum.)
We get a strong hint that this is exactly what Austen had in mind though her depiction of Henry Crawford reading Shakespeare, during which he pulls Fanny in completely (siren-like) through the seductive sound of his voice, which draws Fanny’s attention until her eyes are completely “fixed” on him and she cannot drop them away until he stops reading, and the “charm was broken.”
The siren-like sexual pull exerted by both Mary and Henry is why I believe all the comments made in response to “Is Edmund Bertram right about anything?” make sense. Whereas, especially in a novel written in a Regency world, we can actually appreciate a woman who permits herself to experience sexual attraction without love as, for example, in the case of Elizabeth and Wickham – because isn’t this, in a way, something we can embrace as a kind of proto-feminism? – we cannot appreciate in the same way (or, on some levels, even respect) a male character who allows himself to be so seduced. I think the comments about our difficulties in embracing Edmund as a hero relate both to his poor judgment (as noted here) and to the fact that there is nothing progressive, only disappointing – and, let’s face it, historically rather common – about a male figure who falls into lust.
Dr. McMaster’s defenses of Edmund too, though, also make sense: especially the theory that this novel keeps presenting us with evidence that, at some level, in his heart, he always knows he is in love with Fanny, even as he is lured by the siren sound of Mary. His various cares of Fanny are the novel’s way of showing us that siren sounds, while powerfully seductive, are always being countered by that still small voice that tries (in spite of all) to protect us from ourselves – the moral love in the universe that will always attempt – if only we will listen! – to keep us away from the rocks.
To read more about all the posts in this series, visit An Invitation to Mansfield Park. Coming soon: guest posts by Sara Malton, Margaret C. Sullivan, Amy Patterson, and Theresa Kenney.
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Arnie Perlstein said:
I think you oversimplify things when you refer to Mary and Henry Crawford as “sirens”, as if their power is a kind of black magic. What makes it much more complicated and interesting is to examine how they each work their magic on Fanny and Edmund—Mary is so attractive in part because she is extraordinarily perceptive, witty, kind, and brave. Henry is so attractive to Fanny in part because he has such a complex extraordinary personality, one which can perform Shakespeare so extraordinarily–this implies a depth of insight and feeling.
Jane Austen’s grasp of human personality was so profound, it does a grave injustice to her characterizations of Mary and Henry Crawford to make them sound like voodoo practitioners or witches casting a spell.–that’s the easy answer that JA seduces her passive readers to follow, but the harder and more rewarding trail is to struggle with the idea that extraordinary people can sometimes be a very complicated mix of good and bad qualities, and that in many ways they can be much more interesting people than those who follow a path of self-deluding hypocrisy, like Edmund.