Sex in the Park: Mansfield Park
No matter how many times I read Mansfield Park, how excellent and complete the narrative, how much I sympathise with Fanny Price, her plight, her desires, her goodness and her motives and no matter that I know that Fanny finally landing Edmund Bertram is just and ought to be gratifying, I still really want her to marry Henry Crawford. If for nothing else but the chance of a promising sex life which, let’s face it, isn’t very likely with Edmund. But I guess that’s kind of the point. Mansfield is undoubtedly Austen’s most smiting and moralistic work. In the other novels, faults of judgment are corrected with a life lesson; Emma’s quest to win back Miss Bates’ trust after mocking her publicly, for example, in Emma or Captain Wentworth’s finding himself insuperably tied to Louisa Musgrove in Persuasion, and faults of character are dealt with by the distaste for them engendered in the reader, and the assumption of an unpromising future, such as Wickham and Lydia’s early fizzling marriage in Pride and Prejudice or the Thorpe family’s seemingly likely decline into ruin and disgrace in Northanger Abbey. But in Mansfield Park, the narrative goes much further in the punishment of those who act on motives such as greed, vanity and, especially, inappropriate sexual attraction. Oh yeah.
Even from her infancy the evils of an ill-judged sexual alliance are working against our heroine. The marriage of her aunt Lady Bertram to the wealthy baronet Sir Thomas had given rise to hopes that the other two sisters would likewise do well for themselves from the connection to a nobleman with considerable influence, power and wealth and from the opportunity to meet and captivate rich men themselves by socializing in Sir Thomas’ circles. Alas, Sir Thomas’ very domesticated habits were never likely to produce many such opportunities and though the eldest secured a home for herself with Mr Norris in the Mansfield parsonage, Fanny’s mother though ‘quite as handsome’ as her newly minted sister, threw herself away on a ‘Lieutenant of Marines, without education, fortune, or connections’ and into a thankless life of poverty, toil and child bearing without management, cleanliness or manners, with almost no education for her children and without even respectability for herself or her family. Such was Fanny’s early life in Portsmouth and the circumstances that made Mrs Price not unwilling to give Fanny up to the Bertrams. The poverty of the Price family is a continual influence over Fanny, even when enveloped in the elegance and serenity of Mansfield Park, as she is never able to shake off the coils of dependency. She can never be an equal there and is always to be grateful and humble, to be handy at all times and yet never in the way, to be servile and yet cheerful, self denying and never complaining. Mrs Norris would say of her successor Mrs Grant that ’a fine lady in a country parsonage was quite out of place’ so too is a fine lady out of place as a drunkard seaman’s wife in Portsmouth.
There is no sexual deviance under the roofs of the Mansfield rooms, naturally. Woe betide the unthinking young Master or Miss who has misbehaved under Sir Thomas’ delicate watch. The extravagant ways of his son and heir Tom Bertram causes Sir Thomas much grief, and his drinking, gambling, partying and general gadding about like a young, rich & fashionable man about town has cost so much money as to necessitate the selling of the chief Mansfield living to Dr Grant. But Tom’s antics never include the lecherous. There is never a hint of womanizing, of a seduction or even of flirtations. Tom could have been as sexually careless as Sense & Sensibility’s blackguard Willoughby if he’d chosen to and without any real consequence, but never in his father’s reproaches or in his own stories is any such behavior alluded to. Similarly, the others who dwell peacefully at Mansfield all have their faults, except Fanny of course, but none of these faults are of a sexual nature. The girls are chaste; the wives are well behaved, Edmund is intellectual and the old boys are respectable. Because sex is the defining moral point of Mansfield Park, the line that deems a character irredeemable once it has been crossed. Their great moderator Sir Thomas is called away to far off Antigua and his departure is followed by the arrival at the parsonage of the delightful and charming Mary and Henry Crawford, brother and sister to Mrs Grant. They’re captivating. They have charisma. They’re the Mulder and Scully of literature. And, delightful and charming though they are, the Crawfords’ vanity, self-obsession and potent sexuality wreck havoc with the once dormant desires of the residents of Mansfield.
Maria Bertram is of course the character who suffers the worst change of circumstances and the most dire consequences for her sexual misdemeanors inMansfield Park, and it is with the arrival of these dashing and careless Crawfords that she begins to act on motives of sexual attraction and jealousy. Maria has, rather understandably, no love for her fiancé, the thick-headed and decidedly un-sexy Rushworth, to whom she has become engaged because he is very rich and very manageable. Maria cannot marry her catch until her father’s return and it’s no surprise that a flirtation with ‘the most agreeable’ and ‘so well made’ Henry Crawford is a welcome distraction from the tedious attentions of her dull fiancé. But the kicks she gets out of triumphing over her sister at Crawford’s displayed preference, out of his compliments and insinuations, out of his longing glances and lingering touches, draw Maria past her ability to control her desires and her actions. As their flirtation reaches indecorous and indecent heights, as the time of Sir Thomas’s return to England and thereby, her unwelcome wedding to Rushworth, draws closer, Maria begins to expect a proposal from Crawford that will satisfy her every inappropriate hope, that is, to free her from one cumbersome fiancé and supply her with a sprightlier one. Crawford makes no such proposal, withdraws in fact, on Sir Thomas’ arrival, from the neighbourhood and Maria is left to become a hurt and bitter Mrs Rushworth.
Some months after the happy event, when the Crawfords and Rushworths meet in society in London, Henry Crawford finds the woman who so lately could not resist his charms cold and reserved. Unwilling to be got over, however much he does not love her, Crawford persues another, more licentious flirtation with Maria, one that results this time in a sex scandal and a search party. When Maria leaves her husband’s house in hopes of a life with Crawford, necessitating a search and rescue from sin mission on the part of the Bertram men, she leaves behind her her respectable family life, her wealth, her position in society and even her freedom. With the subsequent media circus, divorce from Rushworth, and with Crawford showing no inclination or intention to marry her, Maria is left with no options, no resources, with an irredeemably muddied reputation; she is a personage stripped of virtue and sullied by sin. Though too kind to cast her off into the abyss, Sir Thomas will not tolerate the disgraced Maria in the untainted halls and shrubberies of Mansfield Park. He installs her in a country cottage in a distant county and the unlucky young woman is to pass her life, once so brimming with potential, shunned by her family and former friends, and with the officious Aunt Norris as her constant companion, you can well believe that she would truly feel the punishment doled out for her violation of sexual mores by Mansfield Park.
Despite their attractiveness & appeal to everyone at Mansfield par Fanny, in Henry & Mary Crawford’s shadowy background, there always hovers the spectre of the sexual misconduct of their friends & relations. The Crawford’s parents, including the one they share with Mrs Grant, are dead and the siblings have been reared by their uncle & aunt, the Admiral & Mrs Crawford. The opinions and behaviour of the elder Crawfords, whose marriage was unstable, unhappy and mutually disrespectful, set the tone for the younger from an early age, and their principles were formed, as Mrs Grant so aptly puts it, “in a bad school for matrimony in Hill Street”. Upon Mrs Crawford’s death, the Admiral promptly installs his mistress into the same household, prompting Mary to seek a home at the parsonage with Mrs Grant, where Henry accompanies her. Their very entrance into the Mansfield Park narrative & neighborhood is a result of the amoral sexual liason forged by their guardian, and moreover, among their friends & their society, there are many circumstances where lax sexual principles are the norm. Throughout the narrative Mary tells of her girlfriends attempting alternatively to seduce or trick Henry into marriage, and tells tales of his aggressive flirtations & intrigues amongst their acquaintance. “If your Miss Bertrams do not like to have their hearts broke, let them avoid Henry”, is her warning to Mrs Grant. Mary too has formed a limited opinion of the opposite sex, and one may not infrequently perceive that she views an opportunity for aggrandizement, & greed, as normal motives for marrying. She speaks of friends in London, particularly of Mrs Fraser & Lady Stornaway, during her residence at Mansfield and upon eventually meeting them, Edmund represents the former as “a cold-hearted, vain woman, who has married entirely from convenience” and the latter as “the determined supporter of everything mercenary and ambitious”. The message is clear. The Crawford siblings, though brilliant, clever and charming, are in possession of some corrupted sexual mores.
Due to his wealth, status and power, there is little in the way of physical punishment that could be handed down to Henry Crawford for his adulterous affair with Maria. Unlike his unfortunate guilty partner, there is no one with the power to shut him up in a far off cottage for the rest of his life, nor would society want them to. The sexual conduct of men was not judged by the same standards. Indeed, during Mary and Edmund’s final interview, where she hopes for a marriage between the sinners, she only speaks of Maria’s being able to recover her reputation, of her not being admitted into society, of her situation inciting compassion, because Maria’s situation is one of powerlessness and Henry’s is –unchanged. His uncle may well have had some financial power over him but, given the Admiral’s own lechery, it’s not likely that his nephew’s would be a reason for him to exercise it. Crawford’s income, his freedom and his character are preserved, no doubt suffering nothing worse from his fellow man than a few less invitations.
It would have been justifiable however and not entirely unexpected for Sir Thomas or Edmund to challenge Crawford to a duel for his dishonorable conduct with their kinswoman. We know that in Sense & Sensibility there is a meeting between Willoughby & Colonel Brandon after Willoughby’s seduction and abandonment of Eliza and in Pride & Prejudice also, Mrs Bennet expresses a fear that her husband will duel with Wickham, the seducer of their daughter Lydia. But the Bertram men are not the dueling type, decorum weighs more for them than ego, and no such meeting befalls Crawford.
And though he suffers no physical or financial consequences, it is in the narrative’s power to deal a more serious and lasting blow to Henry Crawford, in the loss of Fanny. Had he not acted on motives of vanity and lust, in ‘the esteem and tenderness of Fanny Price, there would have been every probability of success and felicity for him.’ It is with Fanny as his wife that Crawford would have become the man he had potential to be, and given his lack of respect for any woman but her, there is little chance of marital happiness for him with another. The narrative makes it clear that before the scandal broke publicly, Crawford had hoped to get clear of Maria and marry Fanny, whom he is very much in love with, but in Mansfield Park, consequence must be reaped from sowing so very many seeds. For Henry Crawford there is ‘wretchedness’ in the outcome, and the knowledge that it was he who robbed him of his own future happiness, perhaps for life. Here there is ‘self-approach’, ‘vexation and regret’, and even Mary has the clarity to observe that her brother has ‘thrown away such a woman as he will never see again’.
I have to wonder if the Crawfords are not Austen’s way of offering a reflection for the reader. Their attractiveness is undeniable and the narrative clearly states that happy marriages would have come to pass between Henry and Fanny, and Edmund and Mary, had the vanity and desires of Henry not overpowered his better feelings. Perhaps, as Mary is forced to see herself stripped of Edmund’s regard in their final interview, we the reader are forced in the final passages of Mansfield Park, by Austen’s skill as an interpreter of human desire, to acknowledge that even though she made the Crawfords wicked, she still made us want them.
During Mary’s very introduction into the narrative she betrays her ill-judging notions on sexual conduct when she talks lightly and laughingly of Henry’s skills as a flirt and as a heart breaker to Mrs Grant, without a murmur of concern for the women he misuses. She declares that ’everybody should marry as soon as they can do it to advantage’, and quickly surmises that Tom Bertram’s wealth and the estate and title that would be his upon Sir Thomas’ death, would exactly suit her matrimonial ideals and without any romantic inclination, she turns on the charm. She cleverly draws amusing stories from him in order than she may appear so winningly amused, and feigns an interest in his taste for horse racing. In the house chapel at Sotherton Mary shocks (the admittedly easily shocked) Edmund and Fanny by dwelling on what she believes to be commonly accepted female sexual fantasies. ‘The former belles of the house of Rushworth’ she imagines there pretending to pray with ‘seeming piety, but with heads full of something very different–especially if the poor chaplain were not worth looking at’ during the family church services of former days. Even while Edmund and Mary are developing feelings for one another, she mocks and mourns his choice of a sexually neutralized profession as a clergyman, rather than soldier, sailor or lawyer, and tells him repeatedly without disguise that she intends to marry a rich man, all of which he blindly assigns to wrongness in speech rather than in morals.
Fanny of course sees and experiences the reality of Mary’s lax sexual principles. She observes Mary standing by happily while Crawford meddles with Maria and Julia, causing bad feelings between the sisters, destabilizing Maria’s engagement with Rushworth, and leading Maria seriously astray. When there are no Miss Bertrams to meddle with, Mary even sanctions Crawford’s cold plan of a flirtation attack on Fanny, stating that ‘a little love, perhaps, may animate and do her good’ and working even as Crawford’s agent to get the infamous necklace around Fanny’s innocent throat.
Whilst Mary’s questionable remarks and her culpability in the attack on Fanny could, without further missteps, have be set down as thoughtless and indecorous rather than amoral, towards the end of the narrative and at a distance from Mansfield, she betrays her truly unethical notions about sexual alliances. In her letter to Fanny at Portsmouth, she does not attempt to conceal her greedy glee at the prospect of Tom Bertram’s illness leading to death, shifting the inheritance of Mansfield to Edmund and justifying, in her mind, a marriage between them. When of course the affair between her brother and Maria dashes these happy hopes, Edmund is finally undeceived as to the nature of her true sexual morality. She views the crime of the adulterers only as folly and the only shame being that they were caught, not that they have sinned, against God, against the law and against the sexual and social mores of the era.
I would happily bet money that every reader of Mansfield Park asks themselves, after the flight of Maria and Crawford, the elopement of Julia Bertram with Yates and the life threatening illness of Tom Bertram, before they have reached the concluding chapter that reveals all, ‘But what’s going to happen to Mary Crawford?’ And though she does not sink to actual sin, it is her complete lack of sexual principles that costs her Edmund Bertram. The experience of Edmund has made her discontent with lesser men, however rich, and it is doubtful that her new standards for domestic happiness can be met by another.
Interestingly, shallow, greedy, manipulative and even amoral as she is, Mary is yet the most alluring young female of the narrative, even while Fanny is the most admirable. Complete as they are as characters, Fanny cannot tantalize, Julia cannot interest and Maria cannot charm but Mary can do all of these. Austen’s other major works also feature ladies who cannot get the man they want. But when Pride and Prejudice’s Caroline Bingley can’t manage to snag Darcy, when Isabella Thorpe is denied Captain Tilney in Northanger Abbey or when Elizabeth Elliot’s hopes of her cousin are disappointed in Persuasion, the reader cannot care. Not only do we not care but we feel a kind of justice in the punishment they receive for the pain they cause our heroines. This isn’t the case with Mary Crawford for me. She’s no Fanny, it’s true. Fanny is the bright light in a rather dark story but Mary, unlike Austen’s other disappointed ladies is likable and, being intelligent, in a partnership with Edmund she must have improved. But how can a narrative like Mansfield Park, whose stance on sexuality is so staunchly unbending, reward the amoral principles and even, at times, the machinations of Mary Crawford, with an adoring Edmund and a happy marriage? It cannot.