Henry Woos Fanny: Our Credulity is Strained, Yet Austen Carries It off

Although I agree the riveting scene of this week's chapters is the intense confrontation between Sir Thomas and Fanny in which the young girl says no, and sticks to it even after a long harshly berating speech which in Maureen O'Brien's dramatic reading aloud of it (on the Cover-to-Cover cassettes) is so overwhelming and strong that one cringes with poor Fanny as she listens to it, there are other strong scenes in the sequence. I pass over the bitter anger (even if repressed) of Mrs Norris (Chapman III:1, 324 and again III:2, 332), and the comic complacence and genuine pleasure of Lady Bertram displays in Fanny's triumph, due of course to her having send Chapman to her and those Ward genes (III:2, 332-3) and my favorite servant scene in Austen, that of the "stout Baddeley" who is so "'certain of its being Miss Price.' And there was a half-smile with the words which meant, 'I do not think you would answer the purpose at all'" (III:1, 325).

The juxtaposition I find interesting because it reveals an artist ever on the move subtly is the scene where Henry tries to get some response from Fanny. The scene recalls Lovelace and Clarissa especially because Henry gets so little encouragement except once and yet keep pressing himself upon Fanny, as Edmund (who is here both obtuse and cold to Fanny for once) bears witness to:

"Edmund had then ample opportunity for observing how he sped with Fanny, and what degree of immediate encouragement for him might be extracted from her manners; and it was so little, so very, very little-- every chance, every possibility of it, resting upon her embarrassment only; if there was not hope in her confusion, there was hope in nothing else--that he was almost ready to wonder at his friend's perseverance...he did not think he could have gone on himself with any woman breathing, without something more to warm his courage than his eyes could discern in hers" (III:3, 336).

There is also a problem of believability here. It is one thing to have a fairy tale in which a Captain Frederick Wentworth as Prince Charming suddenly is possessed by love for the apparently plain poor neglected Anne Elliot as Cinderella when years before Wentworth did love her, when there had been a world of feeling between them which was deeply sympathetic, when he remembered her beauty for eight years, and when she is not quite the totally lowly creature with no connections, no money, no prestige that Fanny Price is. This the retrieval of lost happiness plucked out of the wreck of a bad decision, an ugly duckling turned into swan story that is Persuasion subsumes is persuasive. I find Henry Crawford's sudden passion for Fanny in these scenes too much of a switch; it feels somewhat contrived.

But if in the earlier scenes of conversation between Mary and Henry Austen has managed to convince us of the about face where the ugly duckling of the story is suddenly to be regarded by everyone (but the witch--Mrs Norris) as a splendid swan, these scenes are important because we are led to see both before and after Sir Thomas's confrontation with Fanny that Henry can win her, that he might just be able to woo her on her own terms and out of the wells of his own personality. This thread when paid attention to becomes a countervailing stream of emotion make the whole sequence much realer. Thus at the close of Volume II we see that Henry has worked hard without sure payment for William; he has done something which will change William's life for the good, and it was not easy. The Admiral doesn't like to ask for favors. We see how impressed Fanny is, and very important Austen shows her torn with gratitude, with wanting to show how much she appreciates his deed, how she trembles with emotion and is instinctively only really thinking that he really is toying with her as he did her cousins. We should not forget that until he goes to Sir Thomas Fanny is perfectly justified in thinking she'd be the last person on earth such a wealthy, suave man would want to marry. She genuinely cannot believe he is seriously seeking marriage. That's why she is so shook by Mary's letter; she doesn't know what to make of it, and then let us note how after the scene with Sir Thomas, Fanny appears to Henry. The narrator is careful to emphasize how Crawford is seeing Fanny respond to him. Crawford is not all wrong--and Edmund is so often obtuse. But Crawford overinterprets Fanny's gratitude and her reluctance to hurt anyone:

"Fanny knew her own meaning, but was no judge of her own manner. Her manner was incurably gentle; and she was not aware how much it concealed the sternness of her purpose. Her diffidence, gratitude, and softness made every expression of indifference seem almost an effort of self-denial; seem, at least, to be giving nearly as much pain to herself as to him. Mr. Crawford was no longer the Mr. Crawford who, as the clandestine, insidious, treacherous admirer of Maria Bertram, had been her abhorrence, whom she had hated to see or to speak to, in whom she could believe no good quality to exist, and whose power, even of being agreeable, she had barely acknowledged. He was now the Mr. Crawford who was addressing herself with ardent, disinterested love; whose feelings were apparently become all that was honourable and upright, whose views of happiness were all fixed on a marriage of attachment; who was pouring out his sense of her merits, describing and describing again his affection, proving as far as words could prove it, and in the language, tone, and spirit of a man of talent too, that he sought her for her gentleness and her goodness; and to complete the whole, he was now the Mr. Crawford who had procured William's promotion!"

That Crawford does begin to succeed with Fanny occurs when Crawford begins to read aloud, to act, and Fanny responds intensely not just with her imagination but also physically::

"Crawford took the volume. "Let me have the pleasure of finishing that speech to your ladyship," said he. "I shall find it immediately." And by carefully giving way to the inclination of the leaves, he did find it, or within a page or two, quite near enough to satisfy Lady Bertram, who assured him, as soon as he mentioned the name of Cardinal Wolsey, that he had got the very speech. Not a look or an offer of help had Fanny given; not a syllable for or against. All her attention was for her work. She seemed determined to be interested by nothing else. But taste was too strong in her. She could not abstract her mind five minutes: she was forced to listen; his reading was capital, and her pleasure in good reading extreme. To good reading, however, she had been long used: her uncle read well, her cousins all, Edmund very well, but in Mr. Crawford's reading there was a variety of excellence beyond what she had ever met with. The King, the Queen, Buckingham, Wolsey, Cromwell, all were given in turn; for with the happiest knack, the happiest power of jumping and guessing, he could always alight at will on the best scene, or the best speeches of each; and whether it were dignity, or pride, or tenderness, or remorse, or whatever were to be expressed, he could do it with equal beauty. It was truly dramatic. His acting had first taught Fanny what pleasure a play might give, and his reading brought all his acting before her again...

The narrator then switches perspective to allow us to observe through the eyes of Edmund:

"how she gradually slackened in the needlework, which at the beginning seemed to occupy her totally: how it fell from her hand while she sat motionless over it, and at last, how the eyes which had appeared so studiously to avoid him throughout the day were turned and fixed on Crawford--fixed on him for minutes, fixed on him, in short, till the attraction drew Crawford's upon her, and the book was closed, and the charm was broken. Then she was shrinking again into herself, and blushing and working as hard as ever" (III:3, 336-7).

It is in writing like this and its balance against the scene in which Fanny with such beautiful simplicity, says, no I cannot marry him because "I--I cannot like him, Sir, well enough to marry him" (I:1, 315) that Austen shows her genius. She deflects our attention from the unlikely about face we are seeing in Fanny's position in the world and in Henry so sweetly and passionately--and Lovelace-like physically pressingly--after her. She also sets afoot currents of complex imagined presences so that any given individual word in a scene has a well of alternating currents beneath it, just like it might in life.

Ellen Moody

Contact Ellen Moody.
Pagemaster: Jim Moody.
Page Last Update 10 January 2003