Fanny Delivers the Last Blow to Edmund's Illusions About Mary Crawford

This posting is another written in response to the "Fanny Wars" which have again and again erupted on Austen-L.

I'd like to take up the one scene which most people mention as Fanny's horribly deplorable sin, revealing how malicious she "really" is, because it is the one place in Mansfield Park where Fanny can be found to be doing something which might conceivably promote her self-interest and has on this list been interpreted as mean, cruel, nasty, and superfluously spiteful (just what one might expect from a "passive-aggressive type").

I am, of course, referrring to the passage at the conclusion of Edmund's description of his last interview with Mary Crawford when Fanny at long last informs Edmund that Mary's sudden new-found willingness to listen to Edmund's marriage proposals after months at Mansfield Park where she said she would never become the wife of a rural clergyman (dreadfully dull as "all the world knows" according to Mary), and after giving him an exceedingly icy shoulder in London, is that she believes Tom Bertam may not survive. Fanny tells Edmund of Mary's letter and how Mary made it clear in that letter she was willing to hear of Edmund again and listen to him "affectionately" because now he would have money and sufficient prestige as an heir to offset her intense distaste at the idea of becoming a clergyman's wife which had previously led her to reject him as a husband.

First as Eugene McDonnell's posting alerts us, the scene is 5 pages long. It beings on p 454 of the Oxford. For four long pages Edmund speaks of his pained recognition of Mary's shallowness and indifference not only to sexual mores, but to the deeper emotions such playing with sexual mores elicits and to any permanent pain or injury to the heart or self-respect or reputation with others such playing might cause. Austen has Fanny interrupt once, and it is to the remark Mary made that it is all Fanny's fault: had Fanny married Henry none of this could have occurred; Edmund paraphrases Mary as saying:

"'I shall never forgive [Fanny]. Had she accepted him as she ought, they might now have been on the point of marriage, and Henry would have been too happy and too busy to want any other object. He would have taken no pains to be on terms with Mrs. Rushworth again. It would have all ended in a regular standing flirtation, in yearly meetings at Sotherton and Everingham.' [He continues with his thoughts] Could you have believed it possible?--Buit the charm is broken. My eyes are opened.'

Fanny then bursts out:

'Cruel!' said Fanny--'quite cruel! At such a moment to give way to gaiety and to speak with lightness, and to you!--Absolute cruelty.'

First, is Edmund hurt by this. No. He dismisses this view.

'Cruelty, do you call it?'--We differ there. No, her's is not a cruel nature. I do not consider her as meaning to sound my feelings. The evil lies yet deeper; in her total ignorance, unsuspiciousness of there being such feelings, in a perversion of mind which made it natural to her to treat the subject as she did...'(Mansfield Park Chapman III:16, 455-6).

Edmund goes on to say she talks like other people mostly do. This is how most people feel. To hark back to the play, most people don't pay attention to hurts and slights when they occur to other people, they are so wound up in their own feelings; so you got the part you wanted, and are letting go all you ever wanted to dream of yourself; you don't see the misery of the other; the other doesn't see your misery, when you are sneered at. Here real and not pretend sexuality and appetite is the question, and here Mary dismisses the pain Henry might cause everyone with his "yearly flirtation" with Maria; she also cannot conceive this kind of thing can hurt another who is not involved. Why should they give a damn? she cannot conceive Edmund should be hurt by what occurs to someone else, especially in such an area which no money or real prestige is involved. But he does care; he has been badly hurt by and for his sister, Maria; his whole family is upset. Edmund does believe sex outside marriage is foul. Fanny says Mary is cruel because she is laughing at this; but Edmund says no, she's not laughing, she just doesn't get it (to use the awful modern phrase). I would add Fanny is utterly human too, and she bursts out with the comment "cruel," because Mary is imagining her Fanny married to Henry. And this touches Fanny to the quick. She didn't want to marry Henry. She doesn't want to be used to keep Henry in line. She wouldn't enjoy that "yearly flirtation" any more than Mr Rushworth.

The second real interruption (and both are there in part because our novelist knows long discourses or reports must be broken up or the reader gets restless) is the one referred to above as the one in which everyone accuses Fanny of deliberately maliciously hurting Edmund.

First Edmund has been going on for pages and pages about how his eyes are opened. He's not about to turn back to Mary any more. And then Fanny does not burst out, but thinks a bit and then speaks, and what does the narrator say for her in narrator's discourse turning into indirect:

Fanny, now at liberty to speak openly, felt more than justified in adding to his [Edmund's] knowledge of her [Mary's] real character, by soe hint of what share his brother's state of health might be supposed to have in her wish for a complete reconciliation [it's now okay to marry the dull clergyman, Edmund, no-one will despise me, Mary, for after all, now he's the heir]. This was not an agreeable intimation. Nature [Edmund] resisted it for a while. It would have been a vast deal pleasanter to have had her more disinterested in her attachment; but his vanity was not of a strength to fight long against reason. He submitted to believe, that Tom's illness had influenced her; only reserving for himself this consoling thought, that consdiering the many counteractions of opposing habits, she had certaily been _more_ attached to him than could have been expected [seeing how she despised country life, clergymen, modest living, &c], and for his sake [that is she really was attracted to him and liked him] been more near doing right. Fanny thought exactly the same; and they were also quite agreed in their opinion of the lasting effect, the indelible impression, which such a disappointment must make on his mind (pp 459-60).

First let's note it's thrown into indirect discourse. Austen is uncomfortable with saying this ugly thing. It is true that Fanny stands to gain. But note Fanny says it only after she sees Edmund has come to feel horror at Mary, become utterly and permanently alienated from her. Let us think are there other similar situations where other Austen characters suddenly burst out and tell the full ugly truth about someone when they see that the other person knows enough so that telling no longer becomes a matter of personal gain but of solidifying a realization which could be swept away once again. Yes. Colonel Brandon. All along her knew Willoughby was just returned from seducing, impregnating and abandoning Brandon's adopted daughter. Why does he keep such vicious behavior to himself? Well, because if he told it, the reason would be to alienate Marianne and get Marianne for himself. He waits until after Marianne has the full knowledge of Willoughby for herself, and then he drops the big one [as in Randy Newman's song, "let's drop the big one now"]. Brandon goes on in indirect discourse with all these ugly truths. Now it's true he doesn't tell Marianne; he tells Elinor, but Marianne is ill, weak &c; but he tells Elinor so Marianne shall know. And it is this final big one that leads Marianne to understand that Willoughby is out. No more turning back. So in part does Fanny tell Edmund. Finis. Yes she wants Edmund for herself, as Brandon wants Marianne. Yet how little is what she tells Edmund in comparison with all he has said. It is a kind of straw on the camel's back. If Brandon's story is the H-bomb, Fanny's is the last lingering shot over the bow.

And she's human in being glad to tell to show him fully what Mary is, and human to be so upset to hear Mary speaking so lightly of her as married; but she doesn't think to tell of the connection of Tom's sickness until after Edmund has awakened himself, and there's a sense in which (as with Brandon) as Edmund thinks about it, this last shot (Brandon's bomb) will make Edmund understand he was doing the right thing to walk away from Mary (as Marianne should not walk forward to Willoughby lest he come forward again--as he does, also to Elinor); and it's not done hard or spitefully. First she waited. And we are told it is "an intimation." She doesn't say it bluntly, the way for example yours truly would have. She hangs in there to insist on it yes, to make him see that Mary's apparent sudden willingness to be willing to marry the solemn clergyman (as all her friends would see it, and Mary sees with "the world's eyes," for these are Mary's eyes too), but she clearly minced words, she said it softly, and then look she then is willing, nay happy to accept the idea and agree with Edmund he will be hurt for a long time because he loved Mary. She is willing to agree Mary is worth it. How many women could be so self-effacing to sit there and quietly agree that this guy they love so tenderly will be disappointed and hurt for a long time for the love of another woman? Note though that here the narrator's irony is directed at Fanny, but not for malice (the narrator's irony is directed at Fanny in the last phase of the novel throughout Henry's courtship of her because Fanny will not allow herself to see she is flattered by Henry's courtship and could have been led to like him had she not been put off by the early scenes at Rushworth's house where Henry did not bother to hide his cold nature from her). I hear irony in "Fanny thought exactly the same." Fanny is not listening quite; she is so eager to soothe him, so eager to apply balm to his wounds, so eager to remain his confidante, that she barely hears, but it is an act of self-effacement to be able to agree. The narrator's laughing at her kindly-like. Poor Fanny hanging on to this man for dear life.

But let's look at Edmund who, like Fanny, takes quite a beating on this list. Look at the deep emotions of this man, how vulnerable he is and caring. It is his mind this indirect discourse is meant to figure forth:

Time would undoubtedly abate somewhat of his sufferings, but still it was a sort of thing which he never could get entirely the better of; and as to his ever meeting with any other woman who could--it was too impossible to be named but with indignation. Fanny's friendship was all he had to cling to.

The penultimate sentence ends on an ironic clause; but again the laughter is kindly. He will get over it. But who, I ask, who could want Fanny to marry Henry when she could marry this man, decent, kind, who will never hurt and never forsake her. If he ends up putty in Fanny's hands, it's not her statement about Mary's change of "heart" when Tom gets sick; it's the whole thing, all Edmund has gone through since he fell in love and then the long conversation he held with Mary. Fanny's little urging to tell a truth which will help her cause is nothing in comparison with how Mary has destroyed herself in front of Edmund; it is Mary who shot herself in the feet with an assault weapon when after Edmund talked and talked "at" her (for she couldn't hear him as he wanted to be heard):

'It was a sort of laugh as she answered, 'A pretty good lecture upon my word. Was it part of your last sermon?'

Fanny never says anything so spiteful as this. I fear on this list spite has been mistaken for wit.

And brava, Tristan! My husband too knows it is hopeless to get me to come away (this time to shovel snow with him) once I get into defending Fanny.

Ellen Moody

In response to yet another browbeating on Fanny Price, I wrote the folowing:

RE: Fanny is to Mary as Catherine is to Isabella

Rereading Fanny's first interruption of Edmund on the day he returns from his last interview with Mary, viz.,

'Cruel!' said Fanny--'quite cruel! At such a moment to give way to gaiety and to speak with lightness, and to you!--Absolute cruelty (p 456),'

It seemed to me it was also funny, at least when you step back a bit. Fanny is also saying how could she speak to you so cruelly, you Edmund who are so wonderful; oh dear oh dear. In other words Fanny's sense of the "absolute cruelty" of Mary here is a function of her sense of how important and serious a person is Edmund. How could anyone hurt him? Imagine her tone as slightly wide-eyed and horrified and you have the joke, if a joke may be allowed into this scene.

Does it not recall Catherine Morland's worship of Henry Tilney in a way? and the sincerity and naive response is also very much like Catherine's--for which Henry Tilney loves Catherine. But Edmund, who is nowhere as self-conscious as Henry Tilney, is unaware of this really overdone view of him taken by Fanny and consequently that her judgement of Mary's words as "absolute cruelty" as overdone; so he proceeds solemnly to prove Fanny wrong; no, Mary is just shallow; she didn't mean to be so awful to me, Edmund. That is he takes Fanny's valuation of him as absolutely the right one. So he too is a little bit silly here.

This is sort of comic, even if gently so.

And looking again at Mary's final words to Edmund:

It was a sort of laugh as she answered, 'A pretty good lecture upon my word. Was it part of your last sermon?'
What Mary is saying is simply a noise, it's a sneer; the equivalent of "you're another"--she's saying, you are not fooling me, save this hypocritical stuff for fools you must preach to; i.e., you call me a phony, you're another. It's also a rather awkwardly-voiced question, showing how uncomfortable Edmund's presence and point of view makes her.

So too would not James Morland's decency had he really been been able to bring it home to Isabella Tilney (she's far stonier than Mary) have made Isabella Thorpe uncomfortable too? Isabella Thorpe foreshadows Mary Crawford and Catherine Morland Fanny Price.

Ellen Moody

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Page Last Update 10 January 2003