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Epistolarity in Mansfield Park: Mary's & Edmund's letters to Fanny (II)


This is written in answer to Brooke Church Kolosna's commentary on part of Mary's second letter to Fanny (Mansfield Park Chapman III:12, 415-6; Penguin 43:406-7), which can be dated as Wednesday, March 8th: Fanny receives a letter from Mary two days after Henry left Portsmouth, which letter Henry has insisted upon her writing the day after he arrived; we are told Henry spent the Saturday and Sunday in Portsmouth which occurred just before the 4th week of Fanny's stay whose anniversary is Tuesday, March 7th. I bring the dates up partly because it's easier to refer to them this way, and because the time lapses and the implied events that occurred between the letters are important.

Brooke writes:

"As you state, Mary writes with concern to Fanny about Henry's resumed relationship with Maria--she appears to not want this to occur. Why, then, does she encourage Henry to stay in London and attend a party where Mary knows he will see the Rushworths? Henry needs to go to Norfolk to attend to business, he knows that he should go, and yet his sister encourages, even demands, that he stay in London for this party. The passage I'm speaking of is in the postscript of a letter from Mary to Fanny:

"Henry I find has some idea of going into Norfolk again upon some business that you approve, but this cannot possibly be permitted before the middle of next week, that is, he cannot anyhow be spared till after the 14th, for we have a party that evening. The value of a man like Henry on such an occasion, is what you can have no conception of; so you must take it upon my word, to be inestimable. He will see the Rushworths, which I own I am not sorry for--having a little curiousity--and so I think has he, though he will not acknowledge it."

Brooke thinks the above shows Mary at her worst, but I would counter that to interpret the passage that way is to use hindsight. Remember we as readers are _supposed_ to see far more than Mary--or Fanny; that's what the technique of dramatic irony depends upon. If, however, you are like me, you didn't get it the first time through, but we do have a second chance--as in the first time through I had no idea Frank Churchill was actually engaged to Jane Fairfax, on the second reading I saw how much I had missed. Mary doesn't not get this second chance. The basic idea behind epistolary narrative, as in his preface to Clarissa Samuel Richardson wrote, is to show minds which are engaged in what is happening in the here and now and do not know what is to come:

"Much more affecting and lively... must be the style of those who write in the height of a present distress... the events then hidden in the womb of fate) than the dry, narrative, unanimated style of of a person relating difficulties and dangers surmounted, can be" (Clarissa1932 Everyman edition, Butt, I, pp xiv-xv).

We might say, should not Mary have foreseen what would be the results of such an encounter? Notice that at this point that although because Fanny is less blinded by her ego and able to distance herself from her own appetites, Fanny feels apprehensive that the meeting between Henry and Maria will be very uncomfortable for Maria and degrade him if he is driven there by curiosity or seeks some triumph, and for a moment foresees possible trouble for everyone involves, it is only for the moment; and it does not occur to Fanny that Henry will again try to conquer and subdue Mari. After Portsmouth, Fanny begins really to believe in his love for her, Fanny; Mary's fourth letter to her is at first incomprehensible. She never imagines that Maria left Rushworth for Crawford and it is Crawford with whom Maria has fled. She is genuinely startled and a bit hurt too when she hears he was making love to Maria while he held himself publicly to be an man engaged to her. Why does she only dwell momentarily on why she is apprehensive, why she would not have inveigled Henry to stay, why she would have urged him to go to Evringham? Well partly she doesn't love Henry; she loves Edmund, and as she reads the letters she dwells on what Mary says about her and Edmund far more than she dwells upon what Mary says about Henry. One very long paragraph and then another following Fanny's fleeting thought about the coming party at Mrs Frazer's are all about Edmund and Mary; her mind reverts to Henry but for these three sentences:

"Those parts of the letter whichrelated only to Mr. Crawford and herself, touched her,in comparison, slightly. Whether Mr. Crawford wentinto Norfolk before or after the 14th was certainlyno concern of hers, though, everything considered,she thought he would go without delay. That MissCrawford should endeavour to secure a meeting between himand Mrs. Rushworth, was all in her worst line of conduct,and grossly unkind and ill-judged; but she hoped _he_would not be actuated by any such degrading curiosity. He acknowledged no such inducement, and his sisterought to have given him credit for better feelings thanher own" (Mansfield ParkChapman III:418; Penguin 43:408).

It is in Mary's third letter that we find her covering up; it is written between April 24th and 28th, which is six weeks after after Mrs Frazer's party of Tuesday, March 14th (by my and Chapman's dating). If we look at Edmund's letter (Mansfield ParkChapman III:13, 420-23; Penguin 44:411-414) we see that Edmund saw nothing. When I spoke of Mary's concern to "assure Fanny that 'Henry cares for nobody but you,'" I was referring to this third letter six weeks later, and written after Mary has had news of Tom's illness in order to gain information about that illness. We are told it is after Easter (April 16th if we follow A. Walton Litz's construction), and, as the narrator tells us more than 3 months after Fanny came to Portsmouth which takes us into the 4 day span of April 24th to 28th. Mary has been content to have no communication with Edmund since March 18th (see Chapman's calendar); she has cold-shouldered him, and now suddenly she begins to think again maybe she was precipitate.

If we look at that third letter (Mansfield Park Chapman III:14, 433-6; Penguin 45:422-3), we find the first thing we are told is Mary has been silent for the kind of long time that requires an apology: "Forgive me, my dear Fanny, as soon as you can for my long silence, and behave as if you could forgive me me directly. This is my modest request and expectation" (ever Mary, no? ). We also notice that most unlike her previous two letters, she does not breath a word of Henry until a postscript, which is only written because Henry has come upon her before she could seal her letter and only because he insists and as she finds herself telling Fanny about the proposed trip to Richmond, she is suddenly wary or frightened (wrongly of course, Mary ever sees the world as if it centered on her and as if others had all the information she has) lest Fanny hear Henry is gone to Richmond after Maria, lest Fanny hear of the tryst to come or that has been had.

The postscript is of interest because there is an urgency in the last few sentences whose real import Fanny doesn't get. Fanny too lives within the compass of her mind--and which of us doesn't? Fanny sees Mary's offer to come and get her in terms of what she has seen of Henry in Portsmouth (more on this in a separate post) and sincerely believes Mary's offer is a product of Henry's desire to come and get her; period. She sees in it also their characters, as rich people, their casual assumption of the power to do as they wish. Faced with Henry's sudden entrance into the room and his response to the idea of Fanny as he watches her pen her letter, Mary sees that Henry does still yearn for Fanny, and if Fanny were to tell them to come, this would put off his visit to Richmond. Thus (according to Mary) all would be well. If Fanny does not so write, and Henry goes to Richmond, things might get let us call it inconvenient. There is also a sudden impulse in Mary to return to Mansfield and to Edmund partly motivated or inspired by Henry's presence and his renewed memories of Fanny (from his visit to Portsmouth) and his as yet strong passion to make Fanny his.

But on the second reading, we are supposed to see in Mary's urgency her knowledge of what happened at that fateful Tuesday party, of what has been happening over these long weeks, over why Maria is going--apparently alone--to Richmond and Henry is to follow her. Here are the relevant lines:

"I had actually begun folding my letter when Henry walked in,but he brings no intelligence to prevent my sending it. Mrs. R. knows a decline is apprehended; he saw her this morning: she returns to Wimpole Street to-day; the old lady is come. Now do not make yourself uneasy with any queer fanciesbecause he has been spending a few days at Richmond. He does it every spring. Be assured he cares for nobodybut you. At this very moment he is wild to see you,and occupied only in contriving the means for doing so,and for making his pleasure conduce to yours. In proof,he repeats, and more eagerly, what he said at Portsmouthabout our conveying you home, and I join him in it with allmy soul. Dear Fanny, write directly, and tell us to come. It will do us all good. He and I can go to the Parsonage,you know, and be no trouble to our friends at Mansfield Park... (Mansfield ParkChapman III:14, 435; Penguin 45:424)

As I believe Dorothy Gannon and Elaine Bander (among others) have pointed out repeatedly, again and again throughout the novel, Mary shows herself to have a shallow appreciation of people's emotions and little real understanding of her own. She is a "chameleon." I think Helen's word is perfect. Stuart Tave says of both Henry and Mary Crawford that their emotions and behavior are pleasant in an initial encounter, but do not run very deep. Mary is willing to throw over what could apparently have given her deep joy (she does love Edmund insofar as she is capable and she loves him for the intensity and strength and sincerity of his loyalty, integrity, and love for her) in order to gain a partner whom Mrs Frazer could respect. She is willing to guide her choice by the level of Mrs Frazer's mind. She actually seems puzzled over Mrs Frazer's unhappiness; after all the woman obeyed her friends, thought about it for three whole days, and the guy had money:

"Poor Janet has been sadly taken in, and yet there wasnothing improper on her side: she did not run into thematch inconsiderately; there was no want of foresight. She took three days to consider of his proposals,and during those three days asked the advice of everybodyconnected with her whose opinion was worth having,and especially applied to my late dear aunt, whoseknowledge of the world made her judgment very generallyand deservedly looked up to by all the young peopleof her acquaintance, and she was decidedly in favourof Mr. Fraser. This seems as if nothing were a securityfor matrimonial comfort" (Mansfield Park Chapman III:5, 361; Penguin 36:356-7).

The woman who could make the above speech is the same woman who cannot foresee what troubled waters she is stirring up by selfishly wanting another handsome debonair witty man about. I like Brooke's analogy with "someone I knew once who told me that she always makes sure to invite enemies to her parties, just to see what will happen" and agree this is a ugly motive. But it's that Mary thinks human emotions are a kind of game. She again and again remained untouched and inattentive to depths in Edmund or Fanny or Henry except when it is a question of Edmund's love for her or his what shall we call it solidity. Some instinct not thought out tells her that this man will stick to her and do all he can to make her happy; she sees he's smart, tender, loving--especially (and this is ironic) to Fanny. He's also handsome. But it's not enough.

So I agree with Brooke's basic assessment of the situation, but qualify it by saying given Mary's nature she could not foresee what would happen. I also think the set up of the letters, the dating, the time-frame, and all the implicit half-hidden but half-revealed (through the letters) events partly exculpate Mary because it is a rare person could have controlled events and shaped them in another direction.

A final note: as we interpret the letters we are also supposed to read and take into consideration the recipient's response to them. In my posting I neglected this. I talked only of the interlace of Edmund and Mary and how these are to be read in terms of the immediate events they recount as well as their psychologies. As all epistolary narrators do, Austen also expects us to consider the response of the reader. Fanny doesn't get it; she is apprehensive and intuits some danger here, but she is too involved with her love for Edmund to think much about it. We might remember how Austen develops this aspect of epistolary narrative in _Emma_: again and again in that novel the focus is squarely on the interpreter of the letter (e.g., Miss Bates retelling of Jane's letter about the happenings at Weymouth; Emma and Knightley responding to Frank Churchill's last missive) in such a way as to get a continual multiperspective meaning into her novel.

Ellen Moody


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