Thursday, 1 September 2016

The Soap Opera of Edmund Bertram and Mary Crawford in Jane Austen's 'Mansfield Park'

Edmund and Mary may both be seen as negotiating a marriage in bad faith. They court with an eye to marriage, but without being honest with themselves. Each of them knows what the other is, and they also have a strong idea of what they want - Mary's ideas being the stronger of the two.

Mary has it spelled out: she knows her value to the pound, and calculates that such a woman as herself with £20,000 can attract an elder son of a baronet, not some impecunious clergyman.

Yet, knowing Edmund will probably become a preacher in some small country parish does not stop her from continuing to negotiate with him; nor does it stop her from constantly railing against his chosen profession.

Likewise, Edmund keeps ignoring what she says: she tells him bluntly that she sees what clergymen are (she lives with her brother-in-law, a clergyman, after all), and she has her own opinions garnered from personal experience. Yet Edmund keeps attributing these opinions to a faulty upbringing and improper companions. He never allows for the fact that Mary might like her life the way it is, and has formed her own opinions, ‘bad’ though they may be, from personal observation, and not because she adopted the opinions of worldly city friends. Like Mr. Collins with Lizzie, he never pays her the compliment of believing what she says. What happens at the end is a blow hard enough to make him finally see that he has been fooling himself all along:

though I had, in the course of our acquaintance, been often sensible of some difference in our opinions, on some points, too, of some moment, it had not entered my imagination to conceive the difference could be such as she had now proved it.

Edmund wants a dutiful clergyman's wife, for he intends to lead a public moral life. Yet he is wilfully blind. After a long harangue from Mary about the clergy, in which she stands up for her right to have her own opinion, she walks away, with Edmund saying she is a ‘charming creature’.

Mary knows she can be no clergy-wife, and that Edmund has a very limited income, yet she still fantasizes about spending only half the year at Thornton Lacey, with the other half in London.

A problem is that the relationship between Edmund and Mary is more interesting than that between Edmund and Fanny. Three-quarters of the way through the novel, Edmund thinks they have given each other up and that Mary will have gone away, but he returns from Peterborough to find her still present and ‘enough to set his heart in a glow’. We have a decent soap opera here.