Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Jane Austen's 'Mansfield Park': Should Fanny have married Henry?

Fanny’s situation presents us with the conundrum of whether or not it is always wrong to marry without love. Jane Austen has created a situation where marrying without affection is presented in the most favourable light. Henry is charming. He is rich. He loves her for herself, and his love is disinterested, which is to his credit. It also is in his favour that when he does fall in love, it is with a woman like Fanny, and he sets out to change himself (not her), based on her values, which he has learned to appreciate.

Jane Austen points out that Henry might well have succeeded with Fanny, had she not already been in love with Edmund. Maybe Jane is presenting Fanny as more human and more true to life than most contemporary literary heroines. By giving Fanny a prior attachment, she is allowed to resist all of Henry's charm, something which few 18-year-old girls would have been able to do otherwise. Maybe we are meant to see Fanny as neither a paragon of virtue and principles, nor as the insufferable prig she sometimes appears to be, but rather as a normal girl who has good principles, but who is really governed as much by her heart (her love for Edmund) as by her head.

There are similarities between the relationship of Fanny and Henry, and that of Elizabeth and Darcy. In both cases, the lady starts off despising the man. In both cases, when her feelings become known to him, along with the reasons for them, the man tries to change to prove himself worthy. Both men have sisters whom they love. Both want to marry for love, rather than for social or financial gain.

If we believe that Darcy is capable of changing, it is reasonable to believe that Henry might also. He is young. Although he is an unabashed flirt, we are never led to believe he has seduced women, as we know Willoughby did. He is kind to his sister, and shows a great deal of tact and delicacy when dealing with Fanny's family in Portsmouth. His own sister believes that he would never be cruel to Fanny, even if he no longer loved her: …but I know you, I know that a wife you loved would be the happiest of women, and that even when you ceased to love, she would yet find in you the liberality and good-breeding of a gentleman.

Admittedly, we learn more about Darcy's goodness and generosity in the past from his housekeeper and others, but Henry's going out of his way to help William has some correlation with Darcy's aid to Lydia.

Henry's attachment to Fanny is not imaginary, like that of Mr. Collins. Also, Elizabeth is the daughter of a gentleman, but Fanny is only the niece of one, which is different. As her Aunt Norris constantly reminds her, she must prepare herself ‘for that mediocrity of condition which seemed to be [her] lot.’ It is unlikely that she will ever marry well, and she is destined to be a burden on either her uncle or her father. She can have little hope of anything better. If she married Henry, she could continue to help her brother William's career; she could aid the rest of her brothers and sisters, and her parents as well, in ways that would never be available to her if she simply continued living with her uncle; she could be a benefactress to Henry's tenants and the poor in the village where his estate lies; and she would no longer be dependent on her uncle. She could attend the theatre, read books, further her education, and in many ways enjoy life far more than she can as Lady Bertram's companion. In addition, she would be gratifying the wishes of her uncle, to whom she owes a great deal; in a sense, doing her duty, as he points out to her: 

And I should have been very much surprised had either of my daughters, on receiving a proposal of marriage at any time, which might carry with it only half the eligibility of this, immediately and peremptorily and without paying my opinion or my regard the compliment of any consultation, put a decided negative on it. I should have been very much surprised, and much hurt, by such a proceeding. I should have thought it a gross violation of duty and respect. You are not to be judged by the same rule. You do not owe me the duty of a child. But, Fanny, if your heart can acquit you of ingratitude..........

Sir Thomas sees nothing wrong in marrying without love: Fanny is quick to let him know that she does not have any affection for Henry. Even Edmund, though he knows Fanny does not love Henry, believes that she should marry him, that she will learn to love him: 

Sir Thomas could not regard the connection as more desirable than he did. It had every recommendation to him, and while honouring her for what she had done under the influence of her present indifference, honouring her in rather stronger terms than Sir Thomas could quite echo, he was most earnest in hoping, and sanguine in believing, that it would be a match at last, and that, united by mutual affection, it would appear that their dispositions were as exactly fitted to make them blessed in each other, as he was now beginning seriously to consider them. 

The only person against the match is Aunt Norris, because she believes Fanny does not deserve it! 

Some find the ending of Mansfield Park unsatisfactory. For long it seems that Henry will be right for Fanny. Henry's elopement with Maria Rushworth is contrived to pair them off according to a moral plan that does not convince. Edmund and Fanny should have been seen as the good redeemers of the Crawfords. Instead it is the failure of goodness. Fanny could have accepted Henry, as a sentence explicitly stated: Fanny must have been his reward, and a reward very voluntarily bestowed ....