NOV / DEC 2016: BY LIANNE M. BERNARDO
In Jane Austen’s novels, the love stories are presented with such contrasts: the heroine with her hero and with the foil, a man who vies for our heroine’s hand but isn’t suitable for her for whatever reason (Sense and Sensibility’s John Willoughby, Persuasion’s William Elliot, just to name a few). This is certainly the case in Mansfield Park: Fanny Price is in love with Edmund Bertram, but “bad boy” Henry Crawford, who is the complete opposite of Edmund and Fanny in personality and character, vies for her affection. While the resulting romance is a foregone conclusion, the way that Henry Crawford’s affections played out in a way leaves him as the second fiddle, the guy who didn’t get the girl at the end.
Readers are introduced to Henry Crawford at the start of the novel as your typical rake: flirtatious, slick, charming, a man used to comfort that money can buy and used to having his way, including attracting the attention of every girl he wants. He spends the early part of his appearance attracting the attention of the Bertram sisters, earning Fanny’s disapproval in the process. But it’s after spending some time with Fanny after the Bertram sisters had gone that he begins to take notice of her. At first it’s merely a game to him, a vanity project of sorts, to “make Fanny Price in love with me” and make “a small hole in Fanny Price’s heart.” Even his sister Mary thinks it’s a bad idea but Henry, doing what he wants, seeks out Fanny anyhow with his goals in mind.
But instead the opposite happens; over the course of pursuing Fanny, he appears to fall for her. Like Fanny, the reader is wary of his intentions with every encounter they share. Indeed, Fanny herself is discomfited by the amount of attention he showers her with. But with the lengths he takes to please Fanny and win her affections, such as securing her brother a ranking position in the Royal Navy and visiting her in Portsmouth, leads one to believe that this was no longer a vanity game to Henry at this point, that he sincerely cared for Fanny and took her opinions to heart. Even his own character was changing over the course of interacting with Fanny; he became more appreciative of the countryside and more thoughtful about the people around him. Had he been as frivolous as he was early in the novel and didn’t care too much about whether Fanny cared about him in return, he would not have proposed twice. Again, one could argue that it was his ego that he was stoking by attempting a second proposal, but coupled by his acts of seeking Fanny out after she was removed from Mansfield Park indicates that he was sincere in his desire to marry her.
But in the end even Jane Austen’s narrative pondered on Henry’s sincerity of feelings towards Fanny and whether he would have been truly happy and contented had Fanny returned his affections and had they indeed married:
Could (Henry Crawford) have been satisfied with the conquest of one amiable woman’s affections, could he have found sufficient exultation in overcoming the reluctance, in working himself into the esteem and tenderness of Fanny Price, there would have been every probability of success and felicity for him. (Chapter 48)
In the end it was his own vices and weakness in character that led to his failure in “getting the girl”. Had he been a bit more patient in earning Fanny’s trust and affection, had he given Fanny more time, had he resisted temptation in flirting with Maria after encountering her again at a mutual friend’s party and not felt wounded as he was when Maria rebuffed his advances, perhaps he would have been successful. Fanny herself at the time that she parted ways with Henry was beginning to think that he was sincere in his affections and that he indeed had changed his ways: “She had begun to think he really loved her, and to fancy his affection for her something more than common.” After the news broke of the scandal involving him and Mrs. Rushmore, Fanny was astonished, “she had thought better of [Henry Crawford].”
In the end Henry Crawford not only doesn’t get the girl, but all of his character development and betterment through his time with Fanny collapses as he was “entangled by his own vanity” and tempted by “immediate pleasure.” For a moment he thought he could hide what had come between him and Maria from Fanny and the rest of the Bertrams, which not only was wishful thinking on his part, but further accentuated the contrast between Fanny and Henry’s moral characters, not to mention highlighted that he did not deserve her in the end. While Fanny’s affections for Edmund Bertram never truly wavered throughout the novel, for a brief moment in time Henry indeed appeared as a serious contender to Fanny’s heart. While everything worked out well for Fanny in the end, even Henry realized after the dust had settled what he had lost: he “[regretted Fanny] infinitely more when all the bustle of the intrigue was over” and “so lost the woman he had rationally as well as passionately loved.”