Margaret C. Sullivan is the author of Jane Austen Cover to Cover: 200 Years of Classic Covers (Quirk Books, November 2014), which includes the two cover images of Mansfield Park shown below, plus dozens more covers of all of Jane Austen’s novels and juvenilia, encompassing two centuries of publication. You can see a few of the covers in these recent articles she wrote for The Guardian and The Huffington Post. I’m especially interested in the cover of Emma that features Mr. Elton instead of Mr. Knightley, and the cover of Pride and Prejudice that shows Lydia Bennet “tenderly flirting” with soldiers at Brighton. Margaret is also the author of The Jane Austen Handbook (Quirk Books, 2007) and There Must Be Murder, a novella sequel to Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. She’s the founder of AustenBlog.com and loves to write metafiction about Jane Austen’s characters, such as the absolutely hilarious “League of Jane Austen’s Extraordinary Gentlemen” series – if you haven’t read it yet, I encourage you to do so, as soon as you finish reading her guest post on Henry and Mary Crawford. And then after that, you’ll want to read the dialogues she wrote to accompany some of the most absurd Austen covers ever produced.
A few days ago, I ordered my copy of Jane Austen Cover to Cover from my friends at Jane Austen Books – Amy Patterson of JA Books is writing next week’s guest post on Mansfield Park – only to find, about an hour later, a message from my friends at Bookmark Halifax, one of my other favourite independent bookstores, saying they had just received a copy of the book and it made them think of me. I guess it’s obvious that the book is irresistible for Austen fans. I’m tempted to buy that copy at Bookmark, too, as I’m sure I could find a good home for it. In Jane Austen’s time, it was considered improper for unrelated young persons of the opposite sex to correspond unless they were engaged. This social convention seems pretty strong; for instance, in Sense and Sensibility, when Marianne Dashwood corresponds openly with Willoughby, Elinor Dashwood takes it as a sign that Marianne and Willoughby are engaged, and is hurt that Marianne has not confided in her about the engagement. In Emma (do we need spoiler alerts? If so, spoiler alert!), Jane Fairfax takes great pains to hide her correspondence with Frank Churchill, because if the fact of their correspondence became public, so would their engagement. In Mansfield Park, although Fanny Price and Edmund Bertram are cousins, they don’t seem to correspond when he is away from Mansfield. Fanny treasures the unfinished note Edmund meant to leave for her with the chain for her cross as “the only thing approaching to a letter which she had ever received from him” (Chapter 27).
In my re-read of Mansfield Park earlier this year, the ways that other characters used and manipulated Fanny—and they are legion—seemed to catch my attention more than in previous reads. While I’m not especially fond of Fanny, I do feel sorry for her, and these incidents made me grind my teeth in anger. (It’s amazing how a book written 200 years ago can play on one’s emotions so strongly, isn’t it?) One incident in particular stood out for me: Mary Crawford’s letters to Fanny that are sent not in affection or even in friendship but with the sole intention of manipulating Fanny and imposing upon her.
[Fanny] had reason to suppose herself not yet forgotten by Mr. Crawford. She had heard repeatedly from his sister within the three weeks which had passed since their leaving Mansfield, and in each letter there had been a few lines from himself, warm and determined like his speeches. It was a correspondence which Fanny found quite as unpleasant as she had feared. Miss Crawford’s style of writing, lively and affectionate, was itself an evil, independent of what she was thus forced into reading from the brother’s pen, for Edmund would never rest till she had read the chief of the letter to him; and then she had to listen to his admiration of her language, and the warmth of her attachments. There had, in fact, been so much of message, of allusion, of recollection, so much of Mansfield in every letter, that Fanny could not but suppose it meant for him to hear; and to find herself forced into a purpose of that kind, compelled into a correspondence which was bringing her the addresses of the man she did not love, and obliging her to administer to the adverse passion of the man she did, was cruelly mortifying. Here, too, her present removal promised advantage. When no longer under the same roof with Edmund, she trusted that Miss Crawford would have no motive for writing strong enough to overcome the trouble, and that at Portsmouth their correspondence would dwindle into nothing.
– From Mansfield Park, Chapter 38 (www.mollands.net)
While Marianne Dashwood might not worry too much about how her letters to Willoughby are perceived by others, it is highly unlikely that Fanny Price or Edmund Bertram would agree to engage in anything clandestine, and both the Crawfords know it. Henry Crawford could not correspond with Fanny Price, but Mary Crawford could, and Henry could then add a few lines to it; Mary could not correspond with Edmund Bertram, but she could correspond with Fanny, who could be expected to read the letter to Edmund; both Crawfords use this unwelcome correspondence to engage in a socially forbidden activity.
It’s not surprising that Fanny understands exactly what the Crawfords were up to, and finds the situation unpleasant. It is, however, surprising that Edmund doesn’t seem to have rumbled to it—or worse yet, is okay with it. It is just like Mary Crawford to take advantage of the situation. To outside observers, she is obeying all the rules, and also bestowing a kind, condescending attention on poor little Fanny Price by bestowing upon her such charming, witty correspondence, but Mary’s real intentions are more insidious—manipulating Fanny once again to gain her ends and her brother’s.
Henry Crawford’s relationship with Fanny began with pure manipulation, which even he does not attempt to rationalize: he seeks to entertain himself by “making a small hole in Fanny Price’s heart.” Henry ends up falling in love with Fanny, or at least he thinks he is, and is so blinded by self-delusion that he fails to recognize Fanny’s gift of observation, or realize that she knows exactly how he had treated Maria Bertram and is able to guard herself against him.
Henry learns what is most important to Fanny—her brother William and his naval career—and performs the ultimate act of manipulation: he gets William his promotion to lieutenant. It’s such an important thing for William, and so easy for Henry to bestow almost on a whim, and for his own ends. How can Fanny Price, he thinks, loving sister that she is, be anything other than grateful; and how can she turn down a marriage proposal from the author of this all-important act? And yet, she does; nonetheless, he follows her to Portsmouth. Today, some might see Henry’s behavior as a form of stalking. Certainly his complete refusal to take “no” for an answer is troublesome in a modern context. (I won’t go down the rabbit hole of rape culture, but there might be a dissertation in there for some smart graduate student.) Even in the context of the time, it seems ungentlemanly at best to continue to pester a lady when she’s made her opinion very clear. In fact, it seems most . . . Mr. Collinsish. Not a very romantic comparison!
Another surprising aspect of that passage is the rather weary cynicism of it—one does not think of Fanny Price in that way, but in this re-read I noticed several incidents where Fanny, in her inner monologues, expresses feelings of active resentment, especially towards Mary Crawford. I find I like her the better for it. Jane Austen wrote that she did not like her heroines to be “pictures of perfection,” and Fanny would be a revoltingly saintly picture of perfection indeed if she did not at least occasionally despise the people who use and manipulate her just because they can.
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