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In a letter to her brother dated 1814, Jane Austen boasted about a compliment she had received from a friend on her most recent work, Mansfield Park: “It’s the most sensible novel he’s ever read” (263). Austen prided herself on creating literature that depicted realistic characters and honest situations, but perhaps more importantly, she strove to create fiction that was moral and instructional as well as entertaining. So what does sensible say about the sexual? In Mansfield Park, the answer appears blaringly before us, as we repeatedly witness sexuality and desire represented in the darkest of terms, and often resulting in the most sinister of outcomes. Those who emit a sexual persona or awareness are to be seen as dangerous, and those whom possess sexual desire are inevitably the ones in danger, and are often punished for their untamed emotions and erratic behavior. The Bertrams and Fanny Price reside at Mansfield Park peacefully enough until their quiet, domestic world is turned upside down by outsiders, all of who, in their own ways, threaten to upset the lives of the inhabitants with a passion, desire, and sexuality that is new to them. In this essay, I would like to examine the relationships that arise from connections with these outsiders, what role sexuality and desire play in them, and what Austen’s treatment of them says about sexual transgression and desire in a larger sense as well.
It seems only natural to begin with the two most prominent intruders in Mansfield Park, Henry and Mary Crawford. As jaded individuals accustomed to the fast-paced (and amoral) life of the city, Mary and Henry view Mansfield Park and its residents with a sort of novelty interest, regarding them almost as if they’re playthings set out for their amusement. Mary is “remarkably pretty” (35) and wins the Bertrams over with “her lively dark eye, clear brown complexion, and general prettiness” (37) and her brother, after just a few visits, is declared, “most agreeable young man the sisters had ever known” (37). Henry (who I will discuss in greater length momentarily) sees Maria and Julia as conquests, women to be won over just for the sake of doing so. Mary, however, is sincere in her emotions toward Edmund (at least, as sincere as Mary Crawford could ever be), but the combination of Edmund’s desire for her and her own seductive nature makes her a precarious character.
Perhaps Mary’s biggest problem is that she is too knowledgeable for her own good. Her skepticism and cynical attitude often seem out of place at the na?ve and sheltered Mansfield Park, particularly when compared to the ideological views of Edmund. Unlike Edmund, who is strikingly ignorant about the matter, Mary becomes preoccupied with understanding Fanny’s position in society, and subsequent availability, inquiring, “pray, is she out, or is she not?” (42). Later, she remarks to Edmund, unaware that he is soon to be ordained, upon the apathy she feels (and blindly assumes others feel, as well) about attending church:
“Cannot you imagine with what unwilling feelings the former belles of the house of Rushworth did many a time repair to this chapel? The young Mrs. Eleanors and Mrs. Bridgets starched up into seeming piety, but with heads full of something very different especially if the poor chaplain were not worth looking at and, in those days, I fancy parsons were very inferior even to what they are now” (78)
These instances, both tinged with sexual overtones, demonstrate that Mary’s worldliness and sophistication are dangerous attributes, because they are not representative of good manners or refinement, but a thin veneer that, when peeled away, reveals narcissism, superficiality, and a lack of morals. Although never told in so many words, we have a tacit understanding that Mary’s knowledge extends past the limits of what a proper young woman out to know about including, of course, sex and desire. It is this combination of awareness and corruption that makes Mary Crawford so ominous, and consequently, means danger for Edmund.
Edmund’s reckless longing for Mary, while it does reveal a weakness on his part, also seems to serve as a reiteration of her menacing nature. Repeatedly we, along with Fanny, must suffer through Edmund’s oblivious veneration of Mary, which quite clearly has sexual implications. After all, his attraction to her is initially, and primarily, a physical one: “it is her countenance that is so attractive” (56). Later, at the end of a conversation with her, Edmund watches Mary walk away, in “ecstasy of admiration of all her many virtues” (101). This passion clearly has negative connotations and consequences. Because of Mary’s charm, or more accurately, because of Edmund’s “bewitched” state, he frequently forgets himself, his family, and his duty. Edmund’s lack of composure is most apparent in the strain that it puts on his relationship with Fanny. In Jane Austen and the War of Ideas, Marilyn Butler states, “Edmund, who has always been considerate of Fanny, is now seduced by his physical delight in Mary in forgetting her” (223). Once Edmund realizes Mary’s callous and manipulative disposition, he alludes to his awareness as if he had has been released from a siren’s spell: “the charm is broken. My eyes are opened” (412).
While Mary Crawford is both tempting and threatening to Edmund, Henry Crawford is equally, perhaps even more so, a danger to Julia, Maria, and later to Fanny. We quickly learn from Mary that Henry’s favorite hobby is wooing women he has no sincere interest in: “he is the most horrible flirt that can be imagined. If your Miss Bertrams do not like to have their hearts broke, let them avoid Henry” (36). Tragically enough, however, both Julia and Maria are soon taken in by his charismatic persona and sex appeal, and, for the first time in their lives, the sisters find themselves at odds with one another.
From the beginning of the novel, we are informed of Julia and Maria’s vanity and weakness of character, which inevitably foreshadow the disastrous events to come. Maria, “so surrounded by admirers, must be difficult in her choice” (33) accepts a marriage proposal from the foolish but wealthy Mr. Rushworth who endures humiliation and disgrace because he allows his eyes instead of his brain to guide him in his decision: “he was from the first struck with the beauty of Miss Bertram” (32). This act alone makes us skeptical of Maria, but Austen pushes us to become even more incredulous as we see her shamelessly unable to restrain herself from returning Henry Crawford’s flirtations, despite her engagement and her sister’s obvious interest in him. Maria lacks sexual self-discipline because Henry is irresistible, but also because she is used to and enjoys being flattered and admired.
In one of Austen’s more symbolic moments, we see a grim prediction of Maria’s transgressive nature and inevitable ruin. During an outing at Rushworth’s estate, a fraction of the party find themselves trapped in a garden that has a locked gate, and are instructed to wait while Rushworth goes to fetch the key. Maria, however, lacks the patience for this, and attempts to squeeze through the gate in order to go off alone with Henry. When Fanny begs her to wait until the gate is properly unlocked, Maria says, “Prohibited! Nonsense!” I certainly can get out that way, and I will!” (88). This attitude seems to encapsulate Maria’s life philosophy: she has little, if any, conscious of right or wrong, and does not seem to feel that it is any concern to her.
This selfishness and immorality inevitably lead Maria to public a sexual scandal and public dishonor. When she tires of her husband, whom she married for money and not love, she is easily won over again by Henry’s advances. Lionel Trilling duly notes in “Mansfield Park” that it is this relationship with Maria in which Henry’s sexual charisma catches up with him: “he becomes the prey to his own charm, and in his cold flirtation with Maria Bertram he is trapped by his impersonation of passion his role requires that he carry Maria off from a dull marriage to a life of boring concupiscence.” (133). Both are weak characters, and allow their depravity to take whatever forms it might in this case, their downfall is desire that goes so unchecked that it unavoidably turns into acting outside of social norms. Maria’s lust for Henry, and Henry’s disingenuous return of her affections lead to elopement, a shocked and hurt family, and a divorce for Maria.
Julia’s constant attempts to catch up to (and outdo) Maria (she quickly scrambles over the fence when she discovers that Maria and Henry have gone off alone together) are often ignored by Henry and thwarted by the somber realization that her sister is the preferred one. Although Julia ends up eloping with Yates (who appears, like Rushworth, to be a rather simple and ridiculous man), and this exploit is obviously deemed sexually transgressive by society, it doesn’t seem that Julia’s act was the result of anything related to sex or desire, but rather, the reaction of a girl who has been overlooked and craves attention. We cannot help feeling a certain sympathy for Julia when we are told that her family has an easier time forgiving her than her sister: “Julia escaped better than Maria to a favorable difference of disposition of circumstance her beauty and requirements had held but a second place. She had always used to think of herself a little inferior to Maria” (422).
No one but Fanny seems to notice Henry’s indiscretions towards Julia and Maria (Edmund might, but his impression of Henry is quite obviously influenced by Mary). Consequently, when he turns his interest toward her, she resists wholeheartedly, and unlike her cousins, who were quickly charmed into thinking him attractive, “still continued to think Mr. Crawford very plain” (42). Henry, unused to such reluctance, only becomes more intrigued by and passionate about Fanny. He declares to his sister that, “it would be something to be loved by such a girl, to excite the first ardors of her young, unsophisticated mind!” Fanny’s inexperience is alluring (and most likely, fascinating from Henry’s jaded viewpoint) because it means that she is untainted virginal in every conceivable way.
Naturally, Henry appears to be a shady figure because of his indiscretions with Maria and Julia, but his corruption seems to soar to a new level altogether as he actively pursues the disinclined Fanny. Although the climax of his pursuit would most obviously be the marriage proposal, the pinnacle of his flirtations toward her are revealed during the necklace incident. Fanny unwittingly accepts a necklace from Mary to wear to the ball, without having any idea that it was a gift from Henry. Once Fanny becomes aware of who truly gave her the necklace, she feels awkward and violated, having let a piece of jewelry from an unwanted admirer sit around her neck all evening without having any idea of the more scheming and sexual intentions for which it stood.
The production of the play, Lovers’ Vows, is perhaps the sole episode in the book that is most abundant with sexual desire and transgression. While their father is away, Tom, Maria, Julia, at the suggestion of Yates and the delighted approval of the Crawfords, decide to put on a play to pass the time. They begin with elaborate plans for a building a stage, which turn out to be excessive in both cost and production, and then proceed to disrupt the house, both literally by rearranging the furniture and taking over the billiards room, and also figuratively by engaging in an activity of which they know Sir Thomas would not approve. The play accentuates the sexual tensions and desires that have surfaced earlier in the novel by allowing, as Butler says:
“a license for what would normally be entirely improper. Their scenes together permit physical contact between the sexes (as when Henry holds Maria’s hand) and a bold freedom of speech altogether outside the constraint imposed by social norms.” (232)
Although Edmund protests against the play in the beginning, his resistance gradually fades in order to take place alongside Mary in the production. Fanny bitterly cites Edmund’s lapse of good judgment as “all Miss Crawford’s doing. She had seen her influence in every speech, and it was miserable” (140). Austen again peaks our suspicion about Mary Crawford when we hear of her intention “to rehearse it (the scene) with Edmund by ourselves against the evening” (149). The notion of the rather worldly and aggressive Mary Crawford rehearsing a romantic scene alone with her love interest seems far from innocent.
Other characters reveal their sexually charged agendas during the rehearsals as well. Henry Crawford snubs Julia, and consequently, strengthens his flirtation with her sister, by proposing the part she wanted to play go to Maria. Maria, instead of declining to participate on account of her engagement, sees nothing wrong with accepting the part offered to her. Julia, hurt and perhaps, desperate to be noticed and flattered, flirts with Yates. Fanny, the sole member of their party who staunchly refuses to condone the play or participate in it, notices that, during rehearsal, Maria acts “too well” (147), implying that the emotions that directed toward Henry’s character are most likely more than just acting. Fanny also notes that “Mr. Crawford was considerably the best actor of all” (147), allowing Austen to suggest that Henry too effortlessly takes on whatever role is required of him for us to have faith in the possibility that he may evolve into something more than the glib showman he appears to be.
Thus, the play is dangerous because it allows sexuality to be acted out, desire to be demonstrated, in a public arena. Furthermore, it brings out the more conniving attitudes and selfish natures of the individuals involved. We are to be wary of those who are so oblivious that they regard the play as nothing more than a harmless pastime (such as Yates and the Crawfords), and feel concern for those (such as Edmund) who are persuaded to take part in it against their better judgment.
It is only Fanny who realizes that the play is inappropriate, and remains firmly against for the duration of the rehearsals. This emphasizes Fanny’s level-headedness, her self-righteousness, modesty, and perhaps even prudishness. But does Fanny’s condemnation of the play seem to be a condemnation of sexuality and passion? Although we are aware of her unwavering desire for Edmund throughout the novel (most commonly expressed through modest blushes and an intense jealousy toward Mary), it would never occur to anyone reading Mansfield Park to suspect Fanny Price of possessing sexual desire or impure thoughts. Butler compares her feelings to Edmund to her emotions toward William, saying that they have a “childish quality” (248). Given Fanny’s naivety and the nature of her earnest yet unassuming devotion, this description seems quite accurate.
Nina Auerbach is even more daring in her speculation of Edmund and Fanny’s relationship, likening Fanny (perhaps, a bit brutally) to Frankenstein’s monster, and calling her “a charmless heroine who was not made to be loved” (64). In “Jane Austen’s Dangerous Charm” Auerbach contends that Fanny does not aim as high as love or romance, but her goal is merely for equal companionship. This notion does seem to be supported by the text: Fanny does not appear to be concerned with love or desire, but sameness: she dislikes Mary because she threatens to create the “danger of dissimiliarity” (57) between Edmund and herself, and later rejects Henry on the grounds that “we are so totally unlike” (314).
Incest has been a much-debated topic in critical discourse concerning Fanny and Edmund’s relationship. This notion of a brother/sister marriage is not entirely shocking in the context of other relationships in Austen’s novels: Emma, after all, marries her “brother”, Mr. Knightley, who is twenty years her senior and has watched her grow up right in front of his eyes. Mansfield Park, however, is the only novel of Austen’s novels that directly and consciously addresses this social taboo. When Sir Thomas expresses hesitation toward Fanny’s presence at Mansfield Park because he fears the possibility of one of his sons falling in love with her, Mrs. Norris argues, “?do you not know that of all things upon earth that is the least likely to happen; brought up, as they would be, always together like brothers and sisters: It is morally impossible.” (4)
Not only is the union possible, but by the end of Mansfield Park, it seems the only plausible solution. After the tumultuous experience Edmund has with Mary, a quiet marriage with Fanny naturally sounds attractive. Furthermore, there is no one left for Edmund but Fanny: immediately before we are told of their marriage in the last chapter, the previous one ends by stating, “Fanny’s friendship was all that he (Edmund) had to cling to” (417). In Jane Austen and the Fiction of Culture, Richard Handler and Daniel Segal accurately note that, “neither the social rules defining a desirable marriage nor even the most uniformly held social rules defining a possible marriage control human interactions.” (42)
Although both Edmund and Fanny end up getting what they want (Edmund a wife, and Fanny, Edmund), and we can envision a happy marriage for them, it is not one of passion or sex or anything that would require more than a PG rating. In Mansfield Park, sexual desire often results in the loss of control, impaired judgment, and thoughts and actions that are guided by emotions rather than logic or rationality. We are told what is immoral and what not to do (play sexual games, flirt insincerely, lose oneself in passion or lust, etc.) but we are not given proper examples of how to conduct ourselves. Instead, Austen leaves us, rather uneasily, stranded between the platonic relationship of Fanny and Edmund, and the debauched affairs of the other characters, wishing for some sort of happy medium.
Auerbach, Nina. “Jane Austen’s Dangerous Charm”. Mansfield Park and Persuasion. Judy Simons, ed. New York: Macmillan, 1997.
Butler, Marilyn. Jane Austen and the War of Ideas. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975.
Handler, Richard and Daniel Sega. Jane Austen and the Fiction of Culture. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1990.
Le Faye, Deirdre, ed. Jane Austen’s letters, 3rd. ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.
Trilling, Lionel. “Mansfield Park”. Jane Austen: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ian Watt, ed. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1963.
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