Mary Crawford

In writing my book, Fanny, A Mansfield Park Story, I enjoyed getting into the heads of Austen's original characters, including Mary Crawford, who many readers find more likeable and relatable than Fanny Price, the heroine.

All of Austen's characters are brilliantly drawn, but I have always felt that Mansfield Park includes some of her most complex characterizations. Both Crawfords are masterfully complex. There are moments when we love and moments when we despise them both. We love Henry's concern for Fanny at Portsmouth and his heartfelt, though not wholly appropriate, offer to take her home; and we despise him when he actually says the words, "I cannot be satisfied without making a small hole in Fanny Price's heart." Likewise, we love Mary Crawford when she comes to comfort Fanny after Mrs. Norris accuses her of ingratitude in front of a room full of people, making sure to add the reminder: “considering who and what she is.” -- without question Miss Crawford's shiniest moment. In contrast, we are appalled when she openly suggests to Fanny that it would be a great thing if Tom Bertram were to die and even suggests that Fanny agrees with her.

In a way Miss Crawford is similar to Lady Susan – we like her in spite of her moral vacuity. She is portrayed as fun, witty, and exciting in contrast to Fanny's gentle, quiet, serious manner. Both women tend to be judgmental, but Fanny comes off as moralizing while Miss Crawford seems jaded and disillusioned. And the least heroic hero ever, Edmund Bertram, of course, excuses and dismisses Mary Crawford's faults even when he sees and recognizes them. He insists on believing that she is naturally good and her moral deficiency is due only to the manner of her upbringing. That may be true, but regardless of the cause, she is what she is and is unlikely to change. So while readers tend to like Miss Crawford they also have a hard time fathoming Edmund's blindness when it comes to her morality.

I have often heard Mary Crawford compared to Elizabeth Bennet. In my opinion there is little similarity. Elizabeth is not mercenary, as she proves by refusing the very eligible Mr. Darcy. Meanwhile, Mary comes to Mansfield intending to marry the eldest son, Tom Bertram, but she falls in love with Edmund instead and there is a constant tension between them arising from her objection to his choice of profession. And while we are told that once she had fallen in love with Edmund she would have turned down Tom if he had asked, we also know that in a letter to Fanny she openly wished for Tom's death so that Edmund would be the heir to Mansfield Park. She fell in love with the younger son, but wasn't necessarily prepared to accept him until his elder brother fell ill.

In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth asks, "What is the difference in matrimonial affairs between the mercenary and the prudent motive?" The question is omnipresent in Austen's writing. We know that Mary Crawford has twenty thousand pounds which alone would generate enough income to support them both in comfort, and would be added to Edmund's income from Thornton Lacey. Meaning, she could marry the man she loves without being imprudent. But she wants more. She wants to be rich, not just comfortable. And, being a clergyman's wife is not fashionable enough for her; she seems almost to consider it an embarrassment. Indeed, Mary makes some rather insensitive remarks about clergymen then claims she would not have said them had she known Edmund was to be ordained; but in later scenes she continues to make the same kind of remarks.

Mary is selfish and inconsiderate. Elizabeth is neither. Even when Elizabeth despises Darcy, she stops herself from making sarcastic remarks that she thinks might hurt his feelings. And Elizabeth exhibits none of the “feminine lawlessness” that Mary employs to flirt with Edmund. Elizabeth certainly doesn't shy away from an argument but she doesn't take on an irrational position just to flirt, the way Mary (and incidentally, Caroline Bingley) does.

Even if modern readers aren't bothered by Mary Crawford's negative comments about clergymen, we do see how she manipulates Edmund to act in the play against his own judgment and manipulates Fanny into accepting a gift from her brother. And Austen gives Miss Crawford perhaps the most coarse joke in all her books – the “rears and vices” comment. Elizabeth, on the other hand, is never coarse, inconsiderate, or manipulative.

The reader sees the events of the novel through Fanny's eyes, and therefore hopes for Fanny's happiness, but readers also like Mary Crawford (often, but not always, more than they like Fanny); and we are reminded constantly that the outcomes that would make them happy are mutually exclusive. It is a tension arising so naturally from the characters and their situations that we almost forget it was created intentionally. In Pride and Prejudice, we are never rooting for Miss Bingley; we never like her more than we like Elizabeth. Austen creates a new scenario in Mansfield Park where the “other woman” is portrayed as more appealing than the protagonist.

I have never understood the appeal of Mary Crawford but I suppose if Edmund likes her in spite of the faults he clearly sees in her character, we cannot blame the reader for liking her too – though I do have a hard time forgiving Edmund for it! Maybe modern readers relate to her because she believes she should and can have everything – she wants both the cosmopolitan London lifestyle and a man who is antithetical to that lifestyle. She wants to have it all, but doesn't everyone?
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Published on February 14, 2021 16:40
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message 1: by Amelia (new)

Amelia Logan For more discussion on this topic, please join us in the Jane Austen group forum here:

message 2: by Christina (last edited Mar 05, 2021 11:32AM) (new)

Christina Morland Amelia, fantastic post! (And I write that being one of those people who a.) likes Mary Crawford and b.) compares her to Elizabeth Bennet!) You make some really persuasive points about how, if there are similarities between Mary and Elizabeth, they are quite superficial.

What makes me think of them together is their willingness to laugh at life's little absurdities. Yet, as you point out, Mary laughs without any real conviction to ground her, whereas Elizabeth does have a guiding philosophy, which ultimately keeps her from being mercenary or cruel.

Part of what has appealed to me about Mary is what we don't know about her--specifically, the origins of the enmity she feels for her uncle. I've always read the admiral as a womanizer--someone who was very careless of his wife's feelings, and Mary has never been able to forgive him for this.

The conversation between Fanny and Edmund, early in their acquaintance with Mary, when they are criticizing her for speaking so freely of her uncle--well, that's a difficult moment for me in MP.

Ultimately, Edmund and Fanny end up blaming Mary's aunt for not raising Mary well, as if she is the real problem, rather than the admiral. And they make very little allowance to Mary's circumstances: she has just had to leave her uncle's home because he brought in his mistress (without marrying her, right?) to be his hostess.

We could chalk up Fanny and Edmund's disapproval to a Regency value set that included discretion and respect for family -- but does not Elizabeth Bennet do a little bit of Mr. Collins bashing in front of Darcy (and in Mr. Collins's own home at Hunsford)?

I think the real reason Austen includes Mary's comments about the admiral is that they provide a great foil for Fanny's discretion; she has so much reason herself to complain or make fun of her aunts and uncle, yet she never does. And we get to see in that conversation between Fanny and Edmund that Edmund disapproves of Mary's behavior -- and still he pursues her.

From a literary perspective, this is a brilliant move by Austen: we readers know right away that Mary is not good for Edmund, but he doesn't know it, so we get to watch (along with poor Fanny) all the heartache that will ensue for both of them.

But from a character standpoint: well, in that moment, I really don't like Edmund and Fanny, and I am rooting for Mary Crawford. Later, she proves herself unworthy -- not because she dares to criticize her uncle (who deserves criticism); not because she wants to take part in the play; but because she is unwilling to take a good honest look at herself and make a choice about what matters most to her.

And Fanny -- she grows as a character, and so I can grow to love her. I think her dislike of Mary is, early on, rooted as much in her jealousy as it is in her recognition of Mary's faults. Fanny after Plymouth is much more secure in herself, and she sees herself and Mary with clearer vision. She has come to understand that basic tenet of stoicism: she can control only herself, not others. I really do admire her by the end of the book. And I can even forgive Edmund for being blind because he, too, recognizes by the end of the book how she is his superior!

This is all a very long way of saying again that I loved your post, and I'm looking forward to reading your novel one of these days!

All the best,

message 3: by Amelia (last edited Mar 07, 2021 02:06PM) (new)

Amelia Logan Thanks for your response, Christina, and for your wonderful insights about Miss Crawford. I have to admit I have very little patience for her and I have never found her as appealing as so many readers seem to do, so it's great reading your perspective.

I agree there are some things in her background that make her sympathetic, but Fanny has had it at least as bad (though in different ways) and manages to behave herself (as you pointed out).

I also agree modern readers are more likely to question why Fanny and Edmund seem to think it's so wrong for her to speak ill of her uncle. I never thought what she said was that bad and we know he is just a terrible person so maybe Edmund and Fanny are being a little overly fastidious here. And Fanny's accusation of ingratitude I think particularly interesting. Both she and Miss Crawford are raised by uncles and Fanny seems to think Miss Crawford should feel the same level of gratitude as herself. But Fanny is penniless and Miss Crawford is not -- her fortune generates an income, did her uncle have control of that income while he was her guardian? And then to try to blame it all on her poor mistreated aunt, is a bit of a stretch for me. So I agree with you that their conversation has to be read within the cultural and social standards of the time period. As for Elizabeth, she does say some unflattering things about Collins when Darcy visits her alone but I think she's figured out that Darcy pretty much shares her opinion about Collins.

I completely agree with you, much as I dislike Mary, she does have very good reason to have ill feelings towards her uncle. she has just had to leave her uncle's home because he brought in his mistress (without marrying her, right?) yes, that is exactly right.

I find it interesting that you feel like Fanny has grown as a character by the end of the novel. I have always thought that unlike all the other novels where there is personal growth by the heroine, there is an inverted dynamic in MP where Fanny pretty much stays the same and everyone around her grows -- even Sir Thomas. She is never wrong (the opposite of Emma who is never right!)

I too am glad Edmund finally realized Fanny's superiority in the end, but I still don't think he deserves her.

Thanks again for your insightful comments.


message 4: by Christina (last edited Mar 07, 2021 02:12PM) (new)

Christina Morland Thanks, Amelia, for taking the time to read my rambling response to your lovely post! I think you're right that Fanny's core convictions never change, and this is part of what makes her such an admirable character. The growth I see in Fanny -- well, maybe it's actually my growth as a reader! On this most recent reread of Mansfield Park, I felt as if Fanny became a little less narrow-minded in her view of the people around her. She recognizes that her uncle isn't the frightening, forbidding man she thought he was -- that instead, he just didn't know how to deal with children, and now she's not a child, but a young woman who can speak rationally with him. She moves from an almost blind worship of Edmund (and his opinion) to a more nuanced love. I mean, when he decides to participate in the play -- I think she understands, then, that her own convictions are stronger than his (but still she loves him because he is innately compassionate, and I think this is an important value to her). She even recognizes the nuance in Henry Crawford's character -- which is, I imagine, a major part of your novel, which I'm very much looking forward to reading!

Okay, enough rambling from me. Thanks again, and best of luck with writing!

message 5: by Amelia (last edited Apr 13, 2021 12:35PM) (new)

Amelia Logan Thanks for explaining it further. I always thought it was Sir Thomas who softened and learned to be more tolerant and more approachable. She does soften towards Crawford in Portsmouth because his behavior towards her has changed and she just misses home so much and is pretty miserable. As for Edmund, she is disappointed in him for the play and for a lot after that, mainly having to do with his attraction to Mary; so a lot of it may be attributable to jealousy. I like your characterization of her feelings changing from "blind worship" to "a more nuanced love" - it makes me want to go re-read it with that in mind.

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