Mary Crawford rocks up at Mansfield Park, home of Sir Thomas Bertram and family, and starts to have some fun. She’s the new girl, not in town but from Town, who brings to the country folk of Northamptonshire more than a whiff of the sophistication and worldly attitudes of the metropolis of London.
We love her — what’s not to love? Mary embodies the qualities which ride high in contemporary preferences. She’s attractive, entertaining, witty, lively, quick-thinking, flirtatious.
She’d be great on a night out — and is indeed good fun and amusing company on the many, many nights in at Mansfield Park. Mary Crawford is star-role material.
But we’re not meant to think this. The heroine of the novel is shy, timid Fanny Price (so self-effacing you have to ask Fanny who?), the poor relation who is tolerated but not generally admired.
The reel thing
Fanny nurses a secret love for her cousin Edmund. Oh, don’t we see it coming. Not at first, mind. Mary’s original choice is the older brother Tom, heir to the estate.
Nothing wrong with that. The importance of income and inheritance in Austen novels cannot be overestimated. And Mary is charmingly self-mocking about her feeling that she would like the older brother better, ‘She knew it was her way.’,
But she turns her attention to the younger son Edmund, and reels him in, hook, line and sinker, while Fanny looks on helplessly. Such is Mary’s power that she almost manages to mesmerise him into overlooking the fundamental differences in their values — almost.
Mary’s vivacity illuminates the novel and encourages us to overlook her faults. When she orders her harp to be sent from London, she presents the difficulties involved as an entertaining story. Silly her, she should have known that messages are sent by tortuous word-of-mouth in the country!
As for a horse and cart to convey the instrument, who would have thought that all conveyances would be in use for the late hay harvest! How unlike London, where money can buy everything!
Mary laughs at herself, but the underlying contempt for, or at least impatience with what she sees as the quaint and backward ways of country customs alert us to her character’s delicate balance between self-awareness and self-absorption that confuses Edmund and the reader.
When the harp is finally in her possession, she uses it to great advantage to enhance her aura of charm and sophistication, particularly when she plucks its strings, and the strings of Edmund’s heart, while prettily positioned against a window opening on to the garden and lawn, full of summer loveliness.
Mary’s good with words, and comes up with an off-the-cuff literary parody about Sir Thomas just like that. She says of a poor (in both senses) actor, ‘if his rents were but equal to his rants!’
She has some great one-liners: ‘I must move. Resting fatigues me,’ and on hearing that there is no longer a domestic chaplain: ‘Every generation has its improvements.’
Her aura is dazzling and dynamic. ‘I am not born to sit still and do nothing. If I lose the game, it shall not be for not striving for it.’
This determination to take responsibility and forge your own fate is very much to contemporary taste. She says about marriage, ‘A large income is the best recipe for marriage I ever heard of.’
Ah. There’s the key. That remark, said tongue-in-cheek with a bit of a twinkle, could been made by Elizabeth Bennet, who was not slow to acknowledge the power of Pemberley. But coming from Mary, it is tinged with the cynical pragmatism which in the end marks her character as selfish and amoral.
Mary’s amusing take on life displays a flexible attitude to ethical matters. She uses guile and manipulation to further her own interests. Her view of marriage makes Charlotte Lucas’s view in Pride and Prejudice seem romantic.
When Mary hears that her brother Henry wants to marry Fanny, she says he would be a good husband, even when he stopped loving Fanny. You could call that mature and realistic, or you could find it a dismal reflection of a heart which is essentially hard.
Mary’s view of Henry’s affair with the married Maria Bertram is they shouldn’t have been found out. And if Henry had married his first choice Fanny, he and Maria would have been satisfied with a long-standing flirtation conducted during familial visits.
But it’s a close call, and we are kept on our toes as we witness examples of Mary’s kindness, her perception of Fanny’s feelings, her genuine appreciation of Edmund’s good qualities. Some readers think — you may be one of them — that Austen loses a bit of control in this novel.
The contrast between the two young women is marked, and is the core of narrative tension as we are irresistibly drawn to the compelling Mary while knowing that we should disapprove of her.
Austen constantly needs to wrench the narrative to remind us that Mary is not an admirable character, and has to fight against her instinct to let Mary be the heroine.
On the other hand, it could be said that Austen is in complete control. She has created a complex anti-heroine, and has some fun leading us up the (Humprey Repton-designed) garden path as she plays with our responses.
She brings us to the point of thinking how gullible we were to be so nearly taken in, as Edmund was, by a captivating presence.
We recognise Mary. She’s the one who will lovebomb you with friendship, lend you her high-end lipstick from some exclusive store, then help herself to your boyfriend.
She will lie to you, sometimes, she claims, for your own good. Her main drive is survival, and she will do what it takes to make her way in the world. She’s the friend who is bad for you. Your parents, your friends, warn you about her. You stop being friends.
But every now and then, the sound of laughter or the faint trace of perfume in the air makes you think of her, and you wonder where she is and what she’s doing now.