I agree it's interesting we haven't seen so many defenses of Henry when we have had so many of Mary Crawford. Perhaps one reason for this is thus far in the book his actions have been that of a base scoundrel, a cool calculating Valmont or Lovelace who amuses himself by exposing the vulnerabilities of the women he comes across. Austen has also been very careful not to let us see him act the part of a lover (which apparently he is very good at indeed--when he played Frederick Fanny couldn't keep away) lest we fall for him as many readers fall for the irremediably shallow and selfish Willoughby. Doubtless these are venal faults, but marry such a man and they will loom large. Austen had by this time learned that if you allow a reader to get inside the mind of a character and live there for a while the reader will eventually identify with that character, sympathize with him or her, and especially if he or she is physically attractive or entertaining or can play the part of a pleasant kindly emotional person, identify with him or her. She put this knowledge to work in the next novel in her presentation of Emma who has some serious faults which we are not meant to overlook. In this novel Henry has thus been kept at a distance from us.
In this week's chapters she switches and Henry is brought to the fore. Not only this--not only do we hear him talk at length, interact with others, and get inside his mind--but we also begin to see another side or different aspects of his character. This is not to say, as has been suggested on this list, that suddenly at some point in this novel Austen changes her characterization of either Henry or Mary. All has been prepared for in book; the complex groundwork of a persuasive presence is there. In Henry's case we have been quietly led to see how kind he is to his sister. Over the long haul (Elinor Dashwood's criteria) he is loyal to her, courteous, helpful; he visits her, gets her harp for her, makes her life pleasanter--of course only up to the certain point. He will not live in one place for her, and if he could have managed it, the part of Amelia would have gone to Julia. But in some fundamental ways we see he loves her, values her, does not use her; very importantly he does not lie to Mary. He is also intelligent; he can distinguish moral behavior and understanding--that's why he's so good at conquests and knows which women to go after. I suggest he is the only one in the novel as bright and sensitive as Fanny Price; he just has used his brains differently up to now.
Why does he begin to move in another direction? Nothing unreal here, nothing extravagant, nothing deeply traumatic engenders the slow transformation Austen begins to trace in Henry. The everyday truth she relies on is some people bring out the best in others and some the worst. This was to be fundamental to Emma. Harriet brought out the worst in Emma; she was bad for Emma; Miss Bates too brought forth some of Emma's unpleasant qualities; Mr Knightley brings out the best. As many of us do Emma's behavior is a function of the people she's with. The idea here is also the old courtly love one found in many a Petrarchan sequence and in Shakespeare: when the lover loves his lady, she brings out the best in him. Maria Bertram brought out the worst in Henry; she had precisely those qualities which aroused his casual appetite without making him feel the least respect for her; she was also in precisely the kind of situation (desperate, engaged to marry a man she despised for money) which made her vulnerable and at the same time provided a cover he could escape through.
Fanny brings out the best in Henry. In order to please her he has to appear kind, sensitive, and active on behalf of the most vulnerable; he has to use his talents to create beauty (as in his speeches from Henry VIII) without going further and to make a weapon for himself to take over someone else's personality. Character is habit. If we are able to act in a certain way, understand its value, and keep to it, after a while we become that. I'd like to point out that in all the emotional fuss about Edmund remembering to get a necklace for Fanny which Mary Crawford is so touched by and which so overwhelms Fanny with deep gratitude that for a moment her love for Edmund is almost is in danger of being discovered by him (luckily though he's so obtuse and then he's diverted by the information that Mary gave Fanny a necklace which so touches him), in all this emotional fuss, I say, we forget someone else also remembered to buy Fanny a necklace. Someone else also was aware she had not even one chain--I imagine the Bertram girls had boxes full very like Mary. Since the giving of the necklace is a hidden thing and we only see Mary giving it, and then later when we discover that Henry gave it, we only discover it through Mary and Mary presents the gift as a kind of trick (for that's how she sees it) which was to expose Fanny's love for Henry, we never give Henry any credit for going to the same trouble as Edmund does. He never speaks of it. He is tactful and doesn't go around boasting about his good deeds. (Austen gets it both ways here: she can keep Henry enigmatic and it fits his character too.)
In fact I would say that Henry proposes to do for Fanny what no-one has thus far. To make her the equal of those around her. It may be said his willingness to marry her shows strong disinterest--especially when compared to Mary's reluctance to marry Edmund on the strength of the interest of her 20,000 pounds and his 700 a year. We must be careful not to overdo here. Henry is much richer than Mary, and the woman always takes on her husband's rank, though to be sure Mary all alone still has 1000 a year and 1700 between herself and Edmund is almost as much as Brandon has alone, and that's considered Big Money, and Henry's willingness to marry a nobody with nothing, no connections and no fancy manners to impress anyone (she can't even play piano or ride very well, has no cutthroat appetite to win out in card games) is a striking merit on his side.
This is not to say he stops being Henry, not for a minute. The scene at the card game is splendid. Each character comes out beautifully, and perhaps now all the aspects of Henry most of all. He is insouciant and a snob; he will not listen to the idea Edmund has a limited income. He is polite to Sir Thomas, but clearly the idea that Edmund is to become a sort of Chaucerian parson is not what he is prepared to believe in. We can see how much smarter he is than Mary, and how much more acute his understanding of what decent moral behavior is in the sense of thought-out (Mary is capable of spontaneous kindness), and how Mary could have written that foolishly frank letter to Fanny salivating over the illness of the older Bertram brother in Mary's obtuseness when she brings up before both Edmund and Fanny the day at Sotherton and Henry's behavior there as something to admire, as useful. She is so amused by her own irony:
Only think how useful he was at Sotherton! Only think what grand things were produced there by our all going with him one hot day in August [a Wednesday alas :)], to drive about the grounds and see his genius take fire. There we went, and there we came home again; and what was done there is not to be told! (Chapman II:7, 244).
Mary is also amused because she knows what was done was anything but useful towards the improvement of Mr and Mrs Rushworth's coming estate, that she forgets how Edmund will take this (if you want someone to spend money on you you don't point out how ridiculous is some other individual for being led on, conied by an improver); she seems not to grasp that something distasteful and ugly did take place and is in her words. Henry does, and he does in part because he looks into Fanny's eyes and reads a notion of a better self there:
"Fanny's eyes were turned on Crawford for a moment with an expression more than grave--even reproachful; but on catching his, were instantly withdrawn. With something of consciousness he shook his head at his sister, and laughingly replied, "I cannot say there was much done at Sotherton; but it was a hot day, and we were all walking after each other, and bewildered." As soon as a general buzz gave him shelter, he added, in a low voice, directed solely at Fanny, "I should be sorry to have my powers of planning judged of by the day at Sotherton. I see things very differently now. Do not think of me as I appeared then" (II:7, 244-5).
Lest anyone think I'm saying Henry and Fanny ought to have been married I will end this posting by saying flatly no. We have been given much and will continue to be given much information to suggest they would not have suited in the long run. He is really attracted to her because she is hard to get; he continues to be attracted because she continues not to respond. Had he gotten her to Everingham and gotten his way with her completely (as Mary say, a statement which always scares me a little), the restlessness of his character would have made him bored. That he can equally be utterly amoral as moral would have appalled Fanny.
Here I would like to point is the real problem that would arise in a marriage between Fanny and Henry. Fanny is she won't play games--like Speculation. She is insufficiently calculating to know how to hold this guy to her, and she's above it: 1) she's naive and only acts in terms of what she sees as sincere and good motives, for which Austen fondly laughs at her and loves her; and 2) when he asks her at Portsmouth what should he do next, go to Everingham to help his tenants or go to London, she refuses to pick up the proferred hand of cards and play them as the one in charge. She wouldn't have dreamed of using sex to bind him to her; she wouldn't have used her children. The high moral ground is after all very hard to stand on continually.
Yes they would have rubbed along, and with their mutual intelligence and imagination and shared tastes too they might have been less miserable on a day-to-day basis than the character Anhalt tells the character Amelia (in that play) most married people are. But it would have been a profound mismatch: it would have made him chafe and unlike Mr Bennet he would not have been content with walks in the country and books in his library; Fanny would not be poor as Marianne would have been, but like Jane Fairfax she would have discovered such distances between herself and this man and such a variety of amoral capabilities as would have alienated her and left her miserable, as Anne Elliot would felt had she been led once again to follow Lady Russell's advice and married Mr Elliot.