Sympathy for Maria

One of the more deliciously malicious passages in Austen occurs when her narrator comments on how Maria was as eager to marry Mr Rushworth promptly as he was to marry her:

"Mr. Rushworth could hardly be more impatient for the marriage than herself. In all the important preparations of the mind she was complete: being prepared for matrimony by an hatred of home, restraint, and tranquillity; by the misery of disappointed affection, and contempt of the man she was to marry. The rest might wait" (Mansfield ParkII:3, 202; Penguin, Ch 21, p 216).

It's hard to forget this passage; what possible sympathy could Austen have for such a woman about whom she could write so acidly. When we think of Maria's unhappy years after the novel closes, we feel certain that Austen was unforgiving. But was she? Let us look again at many other passages which offer a perspective which shows Austen also identified with Maria's agony, frustration, and at least understood her final decision to run away with Henry Crawford.

We begin with Mary Crawford's comment that when Sir Thomas returns from Antigua he will act "as the ancient heroes who thanked the Gods when they returned safely to shore." That is, he will make two sacrifices: one of his daughter to Mr Rushworth, and the other of his son to the church. Edmund says not at all, for he and his sister have chosen their fates freely. But did she?

First of all, in the case of the first sacrifice made, Maria to pots of money (as Mary Crawford points out, no-one thinks of him, it's the property, the money that Maria marries), Austen makes it clear that Sir Thomas himself, the most determinedly moral character in the book is appalled by the stupidity and narrowness of Rushworth's mind, and attempts to save her:

"With solemn kindness Sir Thomas addressed her: told her his fears, inquired into her wishes, entreated her to be open and sincere, and assured her that every inconvenience should be braved, and the connexion entirely given up, if she felt herself unhappy in the prospect of it. He would act for her and release her" (Chapman II:3, 200).

He does this reluctantly for to break an engagement at the time hurt the reputation of the young woman, would make an enemy of another county family, and launching Maria and Julia into the marriage marketplace of London is an expense he can ill afford; still he does it. His fears for his daughter remind me of Mr Bennet's fears for Elizabeth: Mr Bennet begs her to think again before she marries a man he believes she not only does not respect, but has an active distaste for. Remember, Lizzie, his life with a woman he despises.

Austen also makes it clear that Maria's motives for marrying Rushworth are just about the worst anyone can have; he is a thing to her; she uses him while despising him. She sees that she has been too unguarded; Sir Thomas has also noticed that "Her behaviour to Mr. Rushworth was careless and cold. She could not, did not like him;" that the "most favourable" interpretation one could put on her behavior and say of her "feelings" for him was that she was "indifferent." She resolves to hide her distaste, and the paragraph which analyzes her feelings upon the marriage itself is perhaps one of the bitterest Austen ever wrote. The memorable passage I quoted above which shows Austen caustic towards Maria who is heading towards such a miserable marriage as in Lovers Vows Anhalt says is the usual. The malice contained in the words is so strong because it leaves us with a strong frisson, one of those smiles by which we mock others and yet feel a strange pain as we recall yes that is how many people behave, and how most people are perfectly prepared to accept hatred, spite, and frustration as a motive for doing something because they too act out of such motives.

And yet I'd like to suggest that even in Maria's case we have no witch, no utter bitch, no cardboard figure of evil who in a Bunyan narrative might have been called Mrs Filled-with-Contempt Moneybags. The narrative from the time of Maria's first acceptance of the proposal of Rushworth is studded with paragraphs in which Austen not only shows sympathy for Maria and makes us see the world and Henry Crawford as they appear to her; there is one where she replaces Fanny as the perceiving consciousness of the book. We have discussed the "moving point of view" in MP and that we fail to notice the many passages in the novel which show us the perspectives of others because Fanny is presented with such strong emotionality and effectiveness. The paragraphs which open the chapter after the visit to Sotherton are what I refer to here, and they mirror a consciousness which dreads Sir Thomas's return as we might imagine Iphigenia felt about Agamemnon's departure. I will only quote one passage from the series. The note is set at its opening with "November was the black month set for his return," and the upwelling of Maria's desire to escape her fate are caught thus:

"to her the father brought a husband, and the return of the friend most solicitous for her happiness would unite her to the lover, on whom she had chosen that happiness should depend. It was a gloomy prospect, and all she could do was to throw a mist over it, and hope when the mist cleared away she should see something else. It would hardly be early in November, there were generally delays, a bad passage or something; that favouring something which everybody who shuts their eyes while they look, or their understandings while they reason, feels the comfort of. It would probably be the middle of November at least; the middle of November was three months off. Three months comprised thirteen weeks" (I:11, 107).

The condemned prisoner says surely something will intervene and begins to count the many days before his sentence is to be carried out for surely something will turn up. Maria choses to number the weeks rather than the months because the number is larger.

There are actually a large number of passages in this week's group of chapters which show Maria was deeply in love, shocked when Crawford so coolly came over the day after Sir Thomas's return to assure everyone he "binds" himself to finish the play and will return at a day's notice, though however now he must off to uncle. She's not fooled; she knows he's independent. I think the passages in which Austen enters into and sympathizes with this woman whose deepest feelings have been aroused because a man found it amusing to do so are not sufficiently attended to. They begin as Maria begins her vigil of waiting for Crawford to return to declare himself; first she sees Rushworth off hoping never to see him again. Then we are told:

"Maria was in a good deal of agitation. It was of the utmost consequence to her that Crawford should now lose no time in declaring himself, and she was disturbed that even a day should be gone by without seeming to advance that point. She had been expecting to see him the whole morning, and all the evening, too, was still expecting him" (II:2, 191-2).

And then again:

"It was the first day for many, many weeks, in which the families had been wholly divided. Four-and-twenty hours had never passed before, since August began, without bringing them together in some way or other. It was a sad, anxious day; and the morrow, though differing in the sort of evil, did by no means bring less. A few moments of feverish enjoyment were followed by hours of acute suffering" (II:2, 192).

Let those on this list who persist in arguing that Crawford is a good guy, a hero ponder that phrase: "acute suffering."

Poor baby, when this bastard turns up, her heart leaps with hope:

" Maria saw with delight and agitation the introduction of the man she loved to her father. Her sensations were indefinable, and so were they a few minutes afterwards upon hearing Henry Crawford, who had a chair between herself and Tom, ask the latter in an undervoice whether there were any plans for resuming the play after the present happy interruption (with a courteous glance at Sir Thomas), because, in that case, he should make a point of returning to Mansfield at any time required by the party: he was going away immediately" (II:2, 192).

The unmitigated gall, the cool aplomb with which he turns her off stuns her. Her "pride and resolution" keep her "tolerably calm," and then he turns to her and with superb daring speaks softly of his regrets. We might compare (as a modern analogy) some guy who today has gotten his girlfriend pregnant, is leaving with so much as writing out a check, and as a last fillip flirts his way through his regrets. Austen is here seeing him out of Maria's eyes, and the words on the page speak of "severe agony," "tumult," and suggest that all Maria can do is "seek solitude" (something this petted darling has not had to resort to very much in her life):

"Her spirit supported her, but the agony of her mind was severe. She had not long to endure what arose from listening to language which his actions contradicted, or to bury the tumult of her feelings under the restraint of society" (II:2, 193).

He's too smart to try her self-control for too long:

"He was gone--he had touched her hand for the last time, he had made his parting bow, and she might seek directly all that solitude could do for her" (II:2, 193).

We are told that had Sir Thomas been able to discover the truth about Mr Rushworth earlier, and offered to help Maria escape "within the first three or four days" of Crawford's departure, Maria would have broken down and "the answer would have been different" (II:3, 202).

Yes the narrator wants us to reject Maria's decision and choice when "all the hopes" Crawford's "selfish vanity" (II:2, 194) are aroused in her--and Julia--are ended. But Austen also gives us enough to see a complex woman writhing under a disappointment, coerced by years of habit to behave in a way that is inimical to her basically selfish nature which, like Crawford's seeks enjoyment in frivolity, luxury, prestige, and breaking taboos, and now that she has had some freedom barely able to return to quiet piano playing, reading, and the generally sober life in which all amusements are "innocent" that her father lays out for her and his family. Austen does not idealize Maria's choice of Rushworth (see III:2, 203 above); but she also does her point of view justice when the narrator comments in the same section in which the marriage comes off:

"She was less and less able to endure the restraint which her father imposed. The liberty which his absence had given was now become absolutely necessary. She must escape from him and Mansfield as soon as possible, and find consolation in fortune and consequence, bustle and the world, for a wounded spirit" (III:2, 203).

This posting may also be taken as further evidence that all the characters in MP are presented wholly in the round. Nothing is sentimentalized, but no-one's deeper nature is violated or blackened or swept away in order to please any narrow perspective on human life.

Ellen Moody

Then a few days later in response to two posts, one by Laurie Campbell and the other by Gina Wallace, I wrote:

Re: MP: Admiration and Pity for Maria

This is to thank Laurie Campbell (whose posts in defense of Fanny I have been silently enjoying this long while) and Gina Wallace for their comments on Maria Rushworth today. Poor Miss Bertram that was indeed. I'm sure Mr Woodhouse would have offered her some nourishing gruel, thin, but not too thin so as to strengthen her.

One of the things I am struck by as I think about their posts is 1) that Laurie expressed pity for Maria and suggested we were led to pity her through Austen's presentation of her agon after Crawford decamps immediately upon the appearance of Sir Thomas; and 2) Gina said she found herself "admiring Maria in a way." I thought her pointing out a similarity between Maria and Elinor Dashwood especially intriguing. For those who may have missed it, Gina wrote:

"She reminds me of Eleanor in S&S when Lucy Steele "confides" in her. Both women have tremendous strength of character, which comes as a surprise in Maria's case, since nothing in the story so far would lead me to expect her to be anything other than frivolous and self-centered."

We don't usually compare the "bad" or villainous females in Austen to the "good" or sympathetic ones, but there is more similarity between Lucy herself and Elinor than Elinor is willing to admit, and a real similarity between say Mrs Clay and Jane Fairfax's situations which readers often overlook. I believe Austen saw these and within a book points them out, as for example the similarity between the behavior of Wickham (basically "bad" or villainous) and Charlotte Lucas (however somewhat disillusioned or misguided still basically "good" and sympathetic).

Pity and admiration have been getting a pretty bad rap on this list of late, especially when the subject of Miss Price comes up. But pity and admiration are not ignoble emotions. They are not only not normally avoided in great literature, but the basis of many an author's portraiture of a hero or heroine or the line of design or dialectic in a given work. Aristotle talked of the importance of admiration and pity in tragedy; so too Dryden. In our own time Hemingway said our greatest works are a kind of arabesque of pity and irony, and what moderns prefer (meaning people of the 1920's--he said this in The Sun Also Rises).

And Maria does play Agatha, Agatha who has ended up alone, walking the streets because she was betrayed by the Baron. Mrs Inchbald's play is highly sentimental and just wallows in pity and at the close of the play, admiration. I'm afraid the play would have closed on an embrace of that indefatigible mother and son pair, Agatha-Maria and Frederick-Henry. I bring this up because in the context of MP it is also amusing or ironic in both a bitter and a playful way and thus suggests the important truth that what makes Austen's work so much superior to Mrs Inchbald's translation of Kotzebue's drama is Austen's use of morality and uncompromising Johnsonian moral judgement.

Ellen Moody

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Page Last Update 10 January 2003