Mary Crawford No Slave Woman

This is written in response to Rachel Youdelmann's quotation from Maaja Stewart's em>Domestic Realities and Imperial Fictions where Stewart wrote of Mansfield Park that the book's opening three
"...marriages...brutally divide three sisters into three different social classes. Class formation...occurs at the expense of kinship relations....Austen dramatizes and historicizes class and gender divisions simultaneously in MP by showing how women's sexual alliances with men change their status and cut through original kinship categories. At then end of the novel, a moral hierarchy that has replaced the initial social hierarchy also enforces separations between women...The resources of happiness and morality as well as the resources of money are limited and exclusive in Mansfield park."

I agree that it is often not sufficiently emphasized how Mrs Norris plays up to Lady Bertram and how Lady Bertram knows it. Lady Bertram has numbers of little phrases which may be seen as needling Mrs Norris; Lady Bertram is not the fool she is taken for.

What I was objecting to is the apparent implicit equation in this book of slave with free women, white or black. There is just no comparison. Read Moses I. Finley on slavery--he is a Marxist who has written numbers of books on this subject. A slave has no future; is totally answerable with his or her body; has no right to life itself. To equate white women (or governesses, as Jane Fairfax does) with slavery is really not to understand the full horror of the condition. No free woman is powerless in the way a slave is; the idea confuses imaginative analogies with a terrible reality. There is no comparison between a Mary Crawford and the women described in, say, Frederick Douglas's autobiography. It feels profoundly wrong to compare them. Mary Crawford would know that; that Jane Fairfax doesn't indites either her author or shows us her author was suggesting to us Jane Fairfax herself was distraught and desperate.

I also have a hard time understanding why feminist critics when they talk of a character like Mary Crawford dismiss her viciousness. She is morally awful. Austen does not condemn her because she's witty or pretty or lively. When Steward takes Mary Crawford and praises her she is praising her because she seems to rebel against the system. I would say she doesn't. Not at all. Mary Crawford makes love to the system; her wit is frivolous and unmeaning. She is going to marry money if she can. When Fanny Price is attacked it seems always to be forgotten she is morally good. It seems to me that if a female character seems to hunger after something that can be called power or be somehow rebellious all is forgiven and this female character becomes a cynosure of a feminist discourse regardless of her other characteristics.

Now I know Austen is loading the deck and could have had a character who is genuinely rebellious against the system be morally good and she does not. Fanny to my mind is actually more rebellious against the system than Mary--wait 'till we get to Fanny's complaints against Mary's demand she marry Crawford simply because he asked her, and is there anything more brave than Fanny standing up to Sir Thomas in that attic he provides and refusing to marry Crawford who could give her more access to power as his wife than she'd ever have as an orphan niece taken in on sufferance and for charity. There is a false equation going on here. Mary is admired because she speaks up--but it's for amorality, for inhumanness, for selfishness. All this is forgotten. I find this to be true of other critics who admire characters like Lizzie Eustace (in Eustace Diamonds) or Lady Susan in Austen's novels of the same. They are mistaking style for substance.

This is not to be understood as a complaint levelled against the whole of Stewart's book or Stewart herself, but against a school of thought which dismisses the centrality of money as the real instrument of evil in Austen's and our own time. What is evil about slavery is it make a person into someone's property, an instrument by which that owner can make a big profit. The motive there is the same which leads Mary first to want to marry Tom, then much later dismiss Edmund, and then call Edmund back again when she thinks Tom is dying. To praise Mary Crawford against Fanny Price and say we need to switch the latter for the former in order to get rid of what is wrong with our society is to offer to change the tires of a wretched and lousy car when it's the engine of the car that is rotten.

Ellen Moody

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Page Last Update 10 January 2003