Yes, well, I’m still thinking about Mansfield Park, and this is my promised next post about the “love square” between the four major characters. The other characters are nearly indispensable, of course, but Fanny Price, her cousin Edmund Bertram, and their friends Henry and Mary Crawford are the novel. Their three love stories constitute the outline and fill up the book.
Here is the praise of a reader in 1814 or 1815 named Lady Gordon: “In most novels you are amused for the time with a set of ideal people whom you never think of afterwards, or whom you the least expect to meet in common life, whereas in Miss A’s works, and especially in Mansfield Park, you actually live with them. You fancy yourself one of the family; and the scenes are so exactly descriptive, so perfectly natural, that there is scarcely an incident or conversation or a person that you are not inclined to imagine you have at one time or other in your life been a witness to, born a part in, and been acquainted with.”
I love that, because it’s so similar to how I feel about all of Jane Austen’s works. Lady Gordon had a point, though, about Mansfield Park being especially realistic. There are some heavy currents beneath the everyday situations that can make us ponder religious sincerity, worldliness, and compromise. Those deep issues seem to be something that everyone deals with at one time or another. We triumph and fail and reap the consequences; our choices in those issues often determine the course of our life, which is just what Fanny, Edmund, Mary, and Henry experienced. Do we choose the spouse, or the best friend, that draws us closer to God and His plan for us? Or do we pick the ones that seem to offer the most excitement? And while we’re asking questions, what is the true source of goodness, of morality? Does only the surface count? Or is a God-transformed heart needed?
Now, back to the book. Whose heart is the first to fall—in love? Actually, it’s Fanny’s. No one suspects it, though. They all think she is the last of the four to fall there. Putting aside the strangeness some modern readers see in a first cousin romance, Fanny’s love is beautiful. She is steadfast, she wants what Edmund wants, and she encourages him to be a better man. Edmund’s calling as a clergyman has her full approval, and in reading their heart-to-heart conversations, you get the sense that she would make the perfect pastor’s wife.
Edmund is next. He falls for Mary Crawford … and that is really a fall. We almost can’t understand how it happened. She is beautiful but worldly, sweet in the way she interacts so effortlessly with everyone, but flippant about serious matters, especially religious ones. Edmund attributes the flippancy to her upbringing and believes that there is a heart of gold underneath. If she could be trained to think more properly, she would make him a lovely partner. Her lively disposition would complement his serious one.
Edmund’s gentlemanly, upright, peaceful ways eventually make Mary fall for him. She’s never known a man so steady and honorable. He far outshines his older brother, whom she originally thought she would like to marry (because he inherits the estate). But she wants wealth and a house in London. She’s been raised to expect those things. A clergyman? What kind of occupation is that? There is no distinction there. As a result of their divergent values, they go through alternating periods of certainty and uncertainty.
Henry never thought he’d really fall in love and want to marry. He liked making “a little hole” in women’s hearts, but he thought himself safe. Until gaming with Fanny’s heart made him lose his. It’s another case of opposites attracting; he admires her gentleness, purity, and warm affection for her loved ones. He stops at nothing, not even mild deception, to win her approval. Everyone, even Edmund, believes his riches, position, and character are the best thing that could happen to Fanny, whom, you remember, comes from a poor family. Likewise, they think her personality will do him good. But Fanny strongly dislikes him. She’s seen the havoc he’s wreaked with her girl cousins, and so her heart is closed to him. But with his persistent good will, over a few weeks and months, she dislikes him less and less.
Will Edmund compromise his devotion to God’s service and marry a woman who will draw him away from that? Or will Mary change enough to be suitable for Edmund? What about Fanny … her heart is so pure; won’t her desire eventually win out? Maybe it will change? As for Henry, is his improvement superficial only? Will Edmund’s and Fanny’s respective uprightness of character transform the Crawfords if they are united in marriage? Or will the Crawfords drag them down?
The ending events of the novel bring out the final, true characters of the Crawfords, and if you don’t the know the story, you’ll have to wait and see for yourself, because they remain a mystery until then! (I do hate giving away endings.) I welcome any additions to these thoughts in the comments!