I thought I would add my "take" on Austen's presentation of Henry and Maria's elopement because it differs from what most people have written.
First I do agree with Dorothy Gannon on the difficulty of gaining any clear understanding on precisely what happened, and I think her description of how Austen presented the elopement reveals that Austen meant us not to have any such clear understanding of any deliberated actions on either the part of Henry or Maria. Quite a while ago, Dorothy wrote:
"I just wanted to mention, that having rushed through to the end of MP last week, I was interested to note that the story of the elopement comes from a variety of sources, and is given to the reader in bits, not all together, which includes a little summary by the narrator that comes nearly at the end of the novel. Since we had all been debating exactly what _did_ happen, I found myself surprised again and again when new information kept popping up. It's not all cut and dried, but the narrator does give a somewhat authoritative summary of the whole thing ( which I for one am inclined to believe ...)"
The elopement, in other words, is presented through a technique which recalls that of epistolary narrative. What we get is a variety of voices and perspectives, bits and pieces of information which are colored by the writer or speaker's needs and outlook, which information tells us as much about the individual who tells his or her piece of information as that story. The focus also is always primarily on the triangular relationships among Fanny, Edmund, and Mary; to all of these characters the problems of Maria and Henry are a secondary, if not tertiary, or even more distanced consideration. Everyone cares about him or herself first.
One problem with Dorothy's comment though is Dorothy says the narrator sums it all up for us at one point, and that Dorothy takes this to be the general framework of our picture, which we are to take as truth, and into which we may fit the pieces of the puzzle that we gather from elsewhere. The problem is that the paragraphs are not presented as the narrator's understanding, but rather as Fanny's, and that on top of this they are the result of Fanny having pieced together what she read in the letters of Mary and was told by Edmund and what her aunt Bertram had to tell her combined "with the help of some letters to and from Sir Thomas." Once again Lady Bertram appears in a role which skews the normal view of her as a dumb cow; she has after all been at the center of the action in the sense that like Fanny she has been the recipient of much news because she writes back. It is after Fanny adds what Lady Bertram told her to what she has already gained from Edmund and Mary and to that adds pieces of Sir Thomas's letters (which we are never shown) that the narrator can trace how Fanny puts it all together. I hope I may be forgiven for quoting the whole of the four paragraphs: one must as there are so many actors in the drama much of whose behavior is not causative but merely coincidental or serendipitous:
"Fanny learnt from her all the particulars which had yet transpired. Her aunt was no very methodical narrator, but with the help of some letters to and from Sir Thomas, and what she already knew herself, and could reasonably combine, she was soon able to understand quite as much as she wished of the circumstances attending the story.
One of the problems I have had with the whole discussion of the ending of _MP_ and in particular with the elopement is that everyone has been talking of it as if this or that character acted deliberately, as if Henry or Maria had the chains of circumstance in his or her hand and was behaving with an understanding of the consequences of their decision before him or her. The above description shows us that it was the result of a large number of people interacting, people whose interests or preoccupations were opposed to those of Henry or Maria (Mr Rushworth's mother, her maid), or who were simply indifferent to them as people (Mr Harding, Julia who left her sister rather than be involved and whose absence gave Maria more freedom, Mr Yates who wanted Julia to leave) or were simply too stupid or caught up in their own angry ego to understand (Mr Rushworth, again his mother) led to what happened.
The point is: had one of the above acted differently Henry would not have been lead into running away with Maria, or it would not have become a public and therefore semi-permanent arrangement. It would have been a one night stand, a terrible misery for Maria, perhaps an evening of some remorse and guilt for Henry.
Among the welter of circumstance and characters I will emphasize but one we have not noticed: to me Henry Crawford's best moment comes when he takes her away from the dolt his abandonment of her drove her to out of spite and despair; his most sincere and touching statement about her just after he is told of her marriage "'She is too good for him"), but it would have gone no further. To argue, as has been done, that the ending of the book is unsatisfying as some have done (and if Brooke didn't, I'm sorry I said so, I must have misunderstood something she wrote), is to take a very realistic depiction of the serendipity of our lives and turn it into a rigid schemata which serves up a moral. I think this is to misunderstand Austen's mature art as we see it in all six novels.
To a very large extent the endings of all six novels depend upon chance. Darcy and Elizabeth might not have married had not Lydia run off with Wickham and given Darcy the opportunity to show Elizabeth that underneath the aloof reserved man is someone whose heart is thoroughly good and decent and kind; Elinor would have have married Edward had Lucy not show us such a sterling example "of what an earnest, an unceasing attention to self-interest, however its progress may be apparently obstructed, will do in security every advantage of fortune, with no other sacrifice than that of time and conscience," and won Robert. Henry Tilney marries Catherine Morland because his father shapes events in such a way as to throw them together. One difference between the earlier 3 books and the later is that it's very hard to sum up the myriad circumstances and differing personalities and events as well as the train of luck that leads to the novelist suddenly closing the curtain and saying, "Finis." It is true Austen suddenly shuts the box, and one reason we feel this as a sudden shutting is the tempo and events of the novels are real. Life does not suddenly end happily with all in a heart-shaped picture. The only way she could end her realistic fictions was suddenly to scoop, telescope and pull the curtain down. The discussion of the elopement has turned Austen's novels into more of a fairy tale or child-like story where it is assumed one character's actions are clear, deliberate, and by him or her judged against an ending, and where we as readers are by our novelist meant to apportion blame. The line of argument in the last chapter of MP is that we cannot apportion blame neatly; no-one acted neatly; in fact whatever poetic justice emerges is also a matter of more than ironic chance and human emotions acting on this.
More than 70 years ago, Mary Lascelles wrote that one of the marvels of Austen's psychologized narrative art is that her characters will suddenly surprize us by what they say at the same time as it seems utterly fitting. This is the way real people are. They are never predictable and yet when we think about it in character. Another is the amount of inconsequence she gets into her art. Things seem to work out in a shapely manner and yet they are continually free-floating; the story is always up for grabs. Things are ever in suspense and could easily move in another direction especially since many of the characters lack self-knowledge or self-possession or a full understanding of the minds of the others they are involved with at the moment action is demanded.
Lascelles goes over how all six novels fit into this way Austen has of narrating a tale which makes it once profoundly true to life yet shapely, dramatic, and an aesthetic whole. I will however here only quote what she says about MP as it is most relevant to our discussion of Maria and Henry's elopement:
"In the earlier novels, all those indefinable sympathies and antipathies which, like filaments, connect people whom kinship or foturne associates, occasionally threaten to be resolved into likes and dislikes, or even reduced to the simpler terms of approval and disdapproval. These sympathies and antipathies have been adroitly complicated by misunderstandings; but such misunderstandings of the character and conduct of other people is simple compared with the Bertrams' and Crawfords' misunderstanding of the nature of their relationships, one to another and each ot himself. For Mansfield Park is a comedy, with grave implications, of human interdependence numbly realized or wilfully ignored until too late. And as Lady Bertram's unreflective response to events serves to register their pressure, so the perverse reaction of each of the family to the thrusts and strains of human relationships is isued in making us understand their force" (Lascelles, Jane Austen and Her Art, pp 146-68).
Thus it's a simplification to say that Henry loved or did not love Maria or vice versa or that he loved or did not love Fanny. Henry loved Maria in his way; he enjoyed certain aspects of her character; he felt for her as much as he was able. He loved Fanny too in his way; he admires and wants her as a trophy and as wife. He was muddled. Which of us is not? which of us makes decisions so coolly or in a single-way cut off from other considerations as has been supposed during this discussion. Edmund too loved Mary in his. He finds her dazzling, physically attractive, all that he is not and thinks he admires. But he also loathes what goes with these things. He's in a bad muddle. Fanny's often in a terrific muddle; she has the curious lack of ego and deep intelligence to allow her to see other people she is not too intensely emotionally involved with clearly, but she is so often intensely emotionally involved. Maria is a mess of profound misunderstandings, a number of them picked up from the vicious shallow society which admires her for the worst decision she ever made in her life--marrying Rushworth. Some of these are kinder more humane people than others (Fanny and Sir Thomas steadily, Mary and Henry in a fleeting sort of way, at moments when it costs them nothing). How a characters acts, depends on the moment an event hit them Maria hit Henry at an emotionally weak point and he "rose" to the occasion--though in the fool world's eyes fell; and then, because Fanny worships Edmund and he depends deeply upon her and has made her his ego as much as she has made him her ego, and because Edmund and Fanny had nothing to do, were left to it by a shattered Sir Thomas, and spent the summer moving from bench to bench with one another in the park around Mansfield, Henry lost Fanny forever. To draw straight lines from act to consequence is to lose the adult quality of Austen's work which is rooted in a realistic disillusioned understanding of how life works.
There is indeed one element in human destiny that not blindness itself can controvert. Whatever else we are intended to do, we are not intended to succeed; failure is the fate allotted. Our business is to continue to fail in good spirits. --Robert Louis Stevenson
And what Austen's characters do is fail or succeed in ultimately good spirits. They fail more often than they succeed. But they are gallant. That's why we love many of them.