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