Henry Crawford as a Rewrite of LaClos's Valmont and Richardson's Lovelace

What I'd like to bring up as a topic I think we have not really gone into is the characterization of Henry Crawford. First what's interesting about him to me is he is not seductive; he is not allowed to fool the readers about his motives for an instant. Just as when we look carefully we find that Mary Crawford is not as witty as we thought, so when we look at Henry Crawford we find that Austen has been careful to present the seducer-villain in such a way as to make sure we will not, fall in love with him as some of us do in the case of Willoughby. She is ever getting us to scrutinize this glamorous villain-hero and find him wanting or feel unsure about what he's up to.

As I have argued and others agreed Henry Crawford is a variation on the "classic" seducer of 18th century fiction in the vein of Richardson's Lovelace and LaClos's Valmont. Now Austen's purpose is not to celebrate eros; from Sense and Sensibility on we find her trying to create a new hero, a better understood mature vision of a good man, and argue girls away from their dream of erotic rapture, seduction, and then (implicit in the exciting dream) the threat of betrayal. We could argue that she failed in Sense and Sensibility because after all the events of the novel which demonstrate how selfish and ugly has been Willoughby's conduct, how selfless and romantic Brandon's, some readers persist in loving Willoughby, persist in feeling put off by Brandon's flannel waistcoat and quiet gentleness.

We might ask then, what has she done to try to avoid what Jung would call the masochistic animal response of the anima in woman to the sadistic animus in man? which is what underlies the reader's "appetite" or taste for Willoughby and bordom with Brandon. Or, to put it another way, why is Henry Crawford not more appealing in the scenes in Chapters 12-14. He is not allowed to be appealig until much later in the book; during the time at Sotherton and the play-acting is is at moments even repellent and and serpentine.

My sense of how Austen does this is two-fold: first we see him through Fanny's eyes in especially bad moments, such as his contemptuous playing upon the Bertram's sisters jealousy of one another on the way to Sotherton, the way he heightens it and drinks it up; his behavior on the bench where he slyly laughs and manipulates both Maria and Rushworth. On the other hand we are not permitted to go with Fanny to watch him and Maria playact. We are told but not shown how much Fanny admires his acting, how she is drawn to watch, but we are not permitted to watch with her. We do not hear or feel we hear Henry read dramatically until much later in the book, and then Fanny is absorbed by him and deeply, will she nill she.

The second ploy has nothing to do with Fanny's perceptions. It is rather in the treatment the narrator gives to the dramatic narratives apart from Fanny--and there are several. The key here is that in none of these scenes do we see him once overtaken by a spontaneous emotion of joy or kindness or simple friendliness. He is always playacting and amusing himself. He and Mary mock the notion of the possibility of a happy marriage (Chapman I:5, 46-7). He mocks Mrs Grant with his "'yes I like Julia best'" (Chapman I:5, 44). He is clearly playing games with Julia and Maria on the trip to Sotherton. What is emphasized over and over again is his coolness, his treachery, how everything is a matter of theatre in an ugly sense to him. For example, have a look at the scenes in which we see him talk to Julia and obviously enjoy her mortification that she is not to be Lady No 1 and then try to triumph further by getting her in public to pick up the crumbs of being allowed to bring him a basket of food in his prison cell. Doesn't she want to do this, he asks? All insinuation What is to the fore is an urge for conquest and enjoyment of other people's discomfort, the exposure of someone's aching vanity to the world.

But it may be said that it is not spontaneous emotion or joy or kindness or simple friendliness that makes the animus figure alluring to women, and it is this desire to meet the challenge of a man's desire to conquer that allures the anima in women (to use Jung's terms again). This then brings us back to Austen deliberately keeping Henry off-stage. We do not see him play-act with Maria. We hear about it. But the kind of teasing threat, the wit, the gay pun and innuendo, and the sexually inviting gesture are not presented. Such details as are given include how Fanny is not only struck by the quality of Henry's acting but the quality of Maria's non-acting. Fanny feels for Maria. Edmund of course is ever obtuse and only seeing his own problems, life through his perspective.

My argument is that Henry made serpentine by default. We are not allowed to see him making his sexual conquest. One might compare the presentation of Mary Crawford. We are allowed to enjoy those moments of wit she does have, as in her alluring and coquetry at Sotherton in which she delightfully refuses to acknowledge reality, "'Oh! do not attack me with your watch'" (Chapman I:9, 95). Henry in not allowed this semi-innocent kind of gay repartee.

Now later in the book the presentation of Henry changes. We do watch him alter somewhat. After he fails to seduce Fanny in the usual way, not only are we told he alters his behavior, we see it, we hear it; even then I would argue that not until he visits her in Portsmouth can we find behavior which cannot easily be accounted for unless we believe he loves her. He is all kindness, all tact; he looks at her family and doesn't flinch. He is a wealthy patrician and doesn't need this coarse man's daughter with no money in the least. He has been to his estate and is using his power to help others, to hinder the ruthless aggression of his steward. But even here it is enigmatic. Austen never takes us into Henry's mind in Portsmouth; we only watch him from the outside, so we forever remain unsure whether this too was another form of acting. If so, he is taking on a good role, and since Austen's book is about how character is created through habit, memory, associations, we can say that Henry is making a start in being a decent person, in putting his extraordinary gifts to good use, to help others, beautify the world.

Henry Crawford is another interesting character because of the way in which he is presented as much as anything. I'll conclude with a comment on the cover-to-cover audiocassette reading of MP by Maureen O'Brien. One thing I did find not true to Austen's text and therefore wrong was O'Brien 's deliberate use of a slightly hissing and overtly innuendo-ridden tone for Henry. In her reading he seemed to be ever the hypocrite, ever the double-dealer, and not even in the latter scenes at Mansfield Park--with Mary for example where he says he loves Fanny--and at Portsmouth did O'Brien read his lines in a simple straightforward tone. If one reads Henry's later lines could be read in a more spontaneous and kindly tone one begins to see why the narrator tells us Fanny could have learned, was beginning to learn to like, value, cherish, and maybe after ten years or so of marriage (to use Mary's joke--she does have a few good ones) love Henry.

Ellen Moody

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Page Last Update 10 January 2003