(To the moralists who want to tell me to sympathise and stop victim-blaming: can you honestly say that there’s never a moment that a friend comes to you for relationship advice and you think she’s goddamn stupid and must get out of the relationship?)
Anyway. I’m not going to reduce Jane Austen’s wonderful works to self-help books, she’s a great, fantastic writer. But at the same time, apart from her genius, Jane Austen is so close to my heart because we share the same ideas about balance, and virtues, and we also share similar views on relationships.
So what are Jane Austen’s views on relationships and marriages, according to Mansfield Park?
1/ Compatibility is important.
This is something that is in every single Jane Austen novel. Compatibility doesn’t mean that your personalities have to be the same, nor that you always have to like the same things. Compatibility means you share the same world view and values.
Edmund Bertram and Mary Crawford are incompatible because their world view, habits, and values are different: Mary likes London life and excitement, likes wealth and distinction, can’t accept Edmund becoming a clergyman and tries to change his mind, can’t handle quiet and solitude, and gets bored and restless easily, whilst Edmund is the opposite. She also doesn’t have the delicacy that he values—she speaks disrespectfully of her uncles to strangers (before becoming close to Edmund and Fanny), makes sweeping generalisations about the Navy and the clergy, and doesn’t care about anyone.
A reader may think Mary is more fun than Fanny, but that’s a personal response and beside the point—Fanny and Edmund have a lot more in common.
Apart from love and compatibility, Jane Austen shows in her 6 novels, over and over again, that respect, honesty, and understanding are also important for a relationship and marriage.
2/ Disapproving of men who play with women’s feelings.
Jane Austen always shows a distrust of charming men who lack openness and always know the right thing to say, but it’s in Mansfield Park that her view is the clearest—she disapproves of men who play with women’s feelings.
““I cannot think well of a man who sports with any woman's feelings; and there may often be a great deal more suffered than a stander-by can judge of.”” (Ch.36)That comes from Fanny, but it’s obvious in Mansfield Park that the author thinks the same.
As written in an earlier blog post, Henry plays with Maria’s and Julia’s feelings, makes them fall in love with him for fun, and goes back and forth between the 2 sisters. During the trip to Sotherton, Henry sits with Julia at the front of the carriage, making Maria jealous, then goes off with Maria, leaving Julia behind and abandoning Mr Rushworth, then sits with Julia again on the way back, ignoring Maria. During the play, he cleverly steers himself and Maria into the right parts, making Julia feel slighted, then he flirts with Maria the entire time, in front of Mr Rushworth, without any intention of making her break off the engagement.
Some readers innocently think Fanny should end up with Henry, or would, if he perseveres. To think so is to misunderstand Jane Austen. Fanny might, convincingly, find Henry charming, and acknowledge some other good qualities, but she says she would never accept him because she has seen enough, and judged him to be a selfish, thoughtless man who likes playing with women’s feelings. He might love her like he never felt about any other woman before, but she is right to distrust it, and read it as a sign of vanity.
“A little difficulty to be overcome was no evil to Henry Crawford. He rather derived spirits from it. He had been apt to gain hearts too easily. His situation was new and animating.” (Ch.33)Again, I don’t doubt that Henry has feelings for Fanny, but the fact that she doesn’t like him back attracts him even more.
In the end, Fanny’s right for distrusting and refusing Henry.
(Now I suppose you can guess my thoughts on Rochester—honestly, Jane Austen’s much wiser than Charlotte Bronte).
3/ Against the idea that a woman can or should try to change a man.
Through Fanny, Jane Austen expresses her view that a woman shouldn’t accept a bad guy and expect to reform him—that’s a naïve, idealistic thought, it never works (look at Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall). Not only so—let’s look at this conversation between Fanny and Edmund:
““I am persuaded that he does not think, as he ought, on serious subjects.”Here, Jane Austen also goes against the 19th century idea that women are morally superior and should try to tame and manage their husbands.
“[…] Crawford's feelings, I am ready to acknowledge, have hitherto been too much his guides. Happily, those feelings have generally been good. You will supply the rest; and a most fortunate man he is to attach himself to such a creature—to a woman who, firm as a rock in her own principles, has a gentleness of character so well adapted to recommend them. He has chosen his partner, indeed, with rare felicity. He will make you happy, Fanny; I know he will make you happy; but you will make him everything.”
“I would not engage in such a charge,” cried Fanny, in a shrinking accent; “in such an office of high responsibility!”” (Ch.35)
4/ A woman has the right to say no, and doesn’t have to provide reason.
When Edmund tells Fanny that Henry’s sisters, Mary and Mrs Grant, are disappointed and not happy that she rejects Henry, this is the response:
““I should have thought,” said Fanny, after a pause of recollection and exertion, “that every woman must have felt the possibility of a man's not being approved, not being loved by some one of her sex at least, let him be ever so generally agreeable. Let him have all the perfections in the world, I think it ought not to be set down as certain that a man must be acceptable to every woman he may happen to like himself. […] How, then, was I to be—to be in love with him the moment he said he was with me? How was I to have an attachment at his service, as soon as it was asked for? His sisters should consider me as well as him. […] And, and—we think very differently of the nature of women, if they can imagine a woman so very soon capable of returning an affection as this seems to imply.”” (Ch.35)That is such an important passage that I’m surprised I’ve read dozens of essays about Mansfield Park and nobody ever talks about it. A woman has the perfect right to say no, and doesn’t have to justify herself for not loving a man who says he loves her.
5/ Against the idea that if a woman says no, a man should persevere till she says yes.
Henry declares his feelings to Fanny, she has no interest, but he doesn’t leave her alone.
“The gentleman was not so easily satisfied. He had all the disposition to persevere that Sir Thomas could wish him. He had vanity, which strongly inclined him in the first place to think she did love him, though she might not know it herself; and which, secondly, when constrained at last to admit that she did know her own present feelings, convinced him that he should be able in time to make those feelings what he wished.Just like Mr Collins thinks Elizabeth Bennet rejects him because she doesn’t know her own feelings, Henry doesn’t end it after getting rejected, but keeps coming back and trying to persuade her, even speaks to Sir Thomas, and doesn’t leave her alone. It’s not only him but everyone in the book, especially Sir Thomas, thinks that he only has to persevere and she will yield. Different people try to convince and put pressure on Fanny, from Sir Thomas to Mary Crawford.
He was in love, very much in love; and it was a love which, operating on an active, sanguine spirit, of more warmth than delicacy, made her affection appear of greater consequence because it was withheld, and determined him to have the glory, as well as the felicity, of forcing her to love him.
[…] Must it not follow of course, that, when he was understood, he should succeed? He believed it fully. Love such as his, in a man like himself, must with perseverance secure a return, and at no great distance; and he had so much delight in the idea of obliging her to love him in a very short time, that her not loving him now was scarcely regretted.” (Ch.33)
It’s the same today—many men can’t accept a no from a woman, and think that if they just keep asking, at some point the woman will say yes.
Some people may argue that Mr Darcy proposes twice in Pride and Prejudice and Robert Martin does the same in Emma, but in each case, there’s a gap between the 2 proposals, and many things happen in that time. There’s a difference between trying again after some time, not giving up after a rejection, and harassing a woman till she says yes, which is what Henry tries to do. Henry keeps coming back and talking about it, helps William get promoted to keep score and make Fanny accept him, and tries to make everyone else put pressure on her.
It is clear that Jane Austen strongly objects to the idea that if a woman says no, a man should persevere till she says yes.
In short, by using the marriage plot over and over again, Jane Austen keeps exploring different kinds of relationships and stressing the important elements for a happy marriage. Mansfield Park is the novel that encapsulates the best her views on relationships and marriages.