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Austen 2014: Mansfield Park, Volume 2

In the novels we've already read this year, Austen frequently explores the very close relationships between sisters, perhaps unsurprisingly given her own very close connection with her sister Cassandra. Austen, however, also had a number of brothers, but, while she has featured brother/sister pairs previously, notably in Northanger Abbey, her closest look at the bonds that can form between them occurs in Mansfield Park. There are two prime examples here, both of which come to the fore in this section: William and Fanny Price and Henry and Mary Crawford. Notably, Austen estranges the Bertram brothers and sisters from each other, so that, while they interact with each other as a group--especially during Sir Thomas' long absence in Antigua--only Maria and Julia have a close one-on-one relationship, though that is strained much at times. Still, Tom seems to feel no special consideration for his two sisters, nor they him, and Edmund appears to be viewed by all as the dull, respectable member of the family. So, I will look instead at the pairings that Austen does highlight.

In this volume, we finally meet the much-loved sailor William Price, and we see Fanny, perhaps for the first (and only?) time in the novel, experience pure unadulterated joy in being able to visit with her long-absent brother. William himself, I feel, is drawn rather roughly, not actually saying much, and generally being described as open, lively, and engaging. His is certainly coarser than the other men who inhabit the novel, but that is to be expected. A midshipmen sailor, as William is, can hardly be thought of as a "gentleman" in the parlance of the time. But he is a very young man, and his promotion to lieutenant (which the British insist on pronouncing with an invisible "f") should considerably help his fortunes and sets him on the road to an improved social status. What is most interesting about William Price, however, is the affection for him held by his sister. Even though their separation has been roughly five years*, Fanny and William are still as close as any other brother/sister pairing in Austen. William understands and appreciates Fanny's nature in a way that many of those around her do not, and, perhaps in exchange for this, Fanny treasures William's happiness above even her own--though, perhaps given Fanny's nature, it is more to the point to say that she treasures William's happiness as highly as she does Edmund's.

It is their connection which inspires Austen to make this authorial aside:

Excepting the moments of peculiar delight, which any marked or unlooked-for instance of Edmund's consideration of her in the last few months had excited, Fanny had never known so much felicity in her life, as in this unchecked, equal, fearless intercourse with the brother and friend who was opening all his heart to her, telling her all his hopes and fears, plans, and solicitudes respecting that long thought of, dearly earned, and justly valued blessing of promotion; who could give her direct and minute information of the father and mother, brothers and sisters, of whom she very seldom heard; who was interested in all the comforts and all the little hardships of her home at Mansfield; ready to think of every member of that home as she directed, or differing only by a less scrupulous opinion, and more noisy abuse of their aunt Norris, and with whom (perhaps the dearest indulgence of the whole) all the evil and good of their earliest years could be gone over again, and every former united pain and pleasure retraced with the fondest recollection. An advantage this, a strengthener of love, in which even the conjugal tie is beneath the fraternal. Children of the same family, the same blood, with the same first associations and habits, have some means of enjoyment in their power, which no subsequent connexions can supply; and it must be by a long and unnatural estrangement, by a divorce which no subsequent connexion can justify, if such precious remains of the earliest attachments are ever entirely outlived. Too often, alas! it is so. Fraternal love, sometimes almost everything, is at others worse than nothing. But with William and Fanny Price it was still a sentiment in all its prime and freshness, wounded by no opposition of interest, cooled by no separate attachment, and feeling the influence of time and absence only in its increase.

I place this hear, because I find it to be interesting to consider in the light of the other brother/sister pairing highlighted in the text: the Crawfords. Mrs. Grant, though a half-sister to both, and though she genuinely loves them, is not unusually close with either. Mary and Henry, on the other hand, are very close. Extremely close. Almost creepily close at times, to some readers. While I don't feel that way myself, their relationship is an interesting one, and an intense one. Henry is, indeed a devoted brother, though he is unwilling to sacrifice his freedom and settle at Everingham in order to give her a permanent home. In almost every other way, however, he is a model brother. Just the same, Mary assists her brother in his attempts to win Fanny Price, going so far as to, I believe, lie to Fanny about the necklace she is given for the ball. Mary archly observes that perhaps Fanny is hesitant to accept because she suspects the Crawfords of being in a conspiracy. Fanny, being Fanny, shrugs this off, not wanting to be accused of what for her is the worst sin: ingratitude. However, doesn't arranging this little necklace giving seems *exactly* like what the Crawfords would cook up in order to strengthen Henry's claim on Fanny' heart? This is what is so fascinating about Henry and Mary Crawford.

In a way, they reinforce each others personalities, so that they're both funnier and livelier when they're together, but they're also, bluntly, worse people, because each excuses the faults of the other. The are bother tremendously selfish creatures, and neither seems wiling or interested, in helping cure the other of this fault. As Mary puts it to Fanny during the horse incident, "Selfishness must always be forgiven, for there is no hope of a cure." This may as well be the Crawford family motto, and their behavior is often guided by this principle. Volume Two of the novel, however, begins to create changes in both Mary and Henry's characters. They each fall in love with a resident at Mansfield, and, as a result, begin to, for lack of a better term, reform themselves to better please their beloveds. We see very little mutual encouragement of these changes, and the scene where Henry confesses to Mary that he is going to marry Fanny, while touching in some ways, shows that, for Henry, his love for Fanny is still fundamentally about *him*, and Mary, who otherwise shows an understanding of the good marrying someone like Fanny will do for Henry, makes no mention of that fact at all. In the end, it's still always about Henry and Mary Crawford.

Of course, there is one more "brother and sister" pairing in the novel which is vital and pervades every page. Not biologically brother and sister, Edmund and Fanny are still, essentially, siblings. He is several years older, but since she first arrived at Mansfield, he has taught her, guided her, protected her, encouraged her, and in short, behaved as a big brother ought to the youngest child in the family. He even refers to Fanny as being like a sister--much closer and dearer to him, certainly, than his actual sisters. And yet, Fanny's deepest wish is to marry him. This is...well, weird. And not just to our modern sensibilities. Even at the time, it was a concern, as we see Sir Thomas muse on the notion of cousins marrying several times and showing clear disapproval of the concept. Austen seems to have been drawn to this arrangement, however, perhaps by the same ideas which prompted her rhapsody of fraternal love quoted above. Not only in Mansfield Park, but also in Emma, the hero and heroine have known each other nearly all their lives, and reference is made to them being like brother and sister. If the fraternal and conjugal are different, yet both supply great happiness, what would happen by combining them? We'll definitely deal with this more in Emma, whose ending is more decidedly happy than that of Mansfield Park, which kind of defaults to the marriage of Edmund and Fanny as opposed to presenting it as an outgrowth of romantic love, as in her earlier novels. Still, sort of makes you want to go back and re-examine that idea about Mary and Henry Crawford, doesn't it?

My final post on Mansfield Park, focusing on the characters of Mary and Henry Crawford (no, not about that), will be coming soon. And then, by Thanksgiving weekend, we'll be on to Emma... 


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