2014 JASNA Essay Contest First Place Winner College/University Division
The Solution of Silence: The Character of Mary Crawford in Mansfield Park
Mary Crawford, considered by some to be the true heroine of Mansfield Park, is rarely silent—always witty, vivacious, and opinionated, she can never resist good conversation. She is also rather fearless and outspoken, thereby making any moments of silence notable. Anyone bold enough to make an infamous pun about “Rears and Vices” (44) or to pose an equally infamous question about making love to an unknown gentleman (101), even in jest, must therefore lapse into silence by choice, rather than out of social anxiety or an inability to make conversation. Even Edmund Bertram, her suitor, is at first convinced that it is her speech only that can be faulted; her words are sometimes so upsetting to him that they and his affection for her supersede her silences. Yet there are moments when she does indeed fall silent, and these moments prove her to be worse than tactless or mischievous, in spite of her many charms and talents. Her behavior during her brother’s courtship of Fanny Price, her own letters to Fanny, and her final encounter with Edmund demonstrate that at her core she is mercenary and self-centered. Her silences at these key moments prove that what she does not say is at least as intriguing, if not more, than what she does say.
In Henry’s courting of Fanny, Mary is silent in several instances where her friendship with Fanny would be better served by speech. When he announces his initial plan to gain her favor, Mary protests little, but out of respect she does ask him not to hurt Fanny too much. When it becomes apparent, however, that he truly does want “nothing more” than to break her heart (158), Mary does not dissuade him. She falls silent, both with her brother and her friend. She does not contest his scheme, even when she finds that his motives are impure; neither does she warn Fanny. The narrator comments that this is no mistake; Mary “[leaves] Fanny to her fate,” which “might have been a little harder than she deserved” if she hadn’t already been in love with Edmund and decided against liking Henry (158). This “might,” however, is more than a mere possibility, given the narrator’s implication at the end of the novel that Fanny would have married Henry if he had persevered (317). In that light, Mary, who does not yet know that Fanny loves Edmund, consciously risks Fanny’s happiness and peace of mind by remaining silent on the matter, both with her and with Henry.
She continues to be a poor friend to Fanny in some of the ways that she encourages Henry’s suit after it becomes serious. When Henry proposes the idea of giving Fanny a chain he previously gave Mary, his sister is “delighted to act on [it], for both [Henry and Fanny’s] sakes” (246). When Fanny attempts to refuse the chain on the grounds that it was Henry’s gift, Mary laughingly tells her to “take the necklace, and say no more about it,” in order to prove that she “suspects no trick” and believes the gift is sincere (178). Her advice to Fanny to be silent and concede foreshadows future advice in the same vein. It also abuses Fanny’s sense of honor, thereby using the best part of Fanny’s nature to bind her in a ruse that Fanny later finds offensive. Though Mary believes she is acting in the service of her brother and friend, for their “sakes” and the sake of feelings that may or may not be there, she knows that Fanny’s modesty will not allow her to accept such a gift under any circumstances. Even if Fanny did love Henry, Mary must know her personality well enough at this point to know that Fanny would be embarrassed and upset by the impropriety of the situation. Indeed, when Fanny first begins to “suspect [a] trick” at the ball, she “feel[s] wretched” (188), and her consciousness of it diminishes her enjoyment of the party thrown especially for her. When she eventually discovers the truth, even timid Fanny brings herself to reproach Mary (246), which shows how deeply it mortified her. Though she should know better, Mary nevertheless keeps her brother’s secrets, continuing a pattern of behavior that exhibits callousness toward a person she hopes will become family.
After Fanny is removed to Portsmouth for refusing Henry, she correctly anticipates that Mary’s correspondence will be unreliable; indeed, “weeks” pass between letters (294). The letters themselves, though a welcome distraction from the squalor and obnoxious atmosphere, prove to be disappointing and upsetting on several accounts—the last two letters in particular. Mary begins the first of these two with an apology: “Forgive me, my dear Fanny, as soon as you can, for my long silence . . . ” (294). Most of the letter inquires about Tom’s health, with Mary hinting very heavily that she hopes for his “decline.” She mentions that she is writing to Fanny because she either cannot reach or is out of humor with everyone else, she again recommends Henry to Fanny, and she ends by wondering whether Edmund “would have been in town again long ago, but for this illness” (295). As usual, what Mary says is enough to preoccupy Fanny; in fact, there isn’t much she refrains from saying. She reveals that she cares more about whether Edmund would have been in London for her sake than whether he is upset by the prospect, real or not, of his brother’s death. Mary herself would not mourn this death since it would result in Edmund inheriting Mansfield Park, a greater income, and a baronetcy, enabling her to do away with her scruples and accept his suit. Since she only breaks her “long silence” to write such a letter, her writing exposes, more than any instance that precedes it, her mercenary motives.
Yet the “long silence” is just as troubling. More than her silence about Henry’s original intentions toward Fanny, this silence proves how little she truly values the other young woman—as a friend, a person, and prospective sister-in-law. Though she has occasionally defended Fanny, she writes to her only because she wants confirmation of gossip and Fanny’s perspective on Edmund’s behavior. She would not have written to her in the first place if she had been able to contact other people. She does not ask after Fanny, inquire into her doings, or offer any sympathy for the illness and possible death of the cousin with whom Fanny was raised. Yet she does take the time to assure Fanny of Henry’s constancy. Though Mary claims to care for Fanny and desire her company and friendship, she only values Fanny’s thoughts insofar as Fanny can be useful to her. This coldness is heightened by the fact that she encourages Henry’s suit because she feels his marriage to Fanny would prompt her own with Edmund. Her earlier silences already demonstrate that she does not actually care about Fanny’s feelings; her “long silence” here shows that she selfishly prioritizes her so-called friend’s usefulness over the friend herself.
Fanny receives the final letter right before the scandal of Henry’s affair with Maria Bertram Rushworth becomes public knowledge. In it, Mary entreats Fanny to dismiss any rumors, echoing her previous advice about the necklace: “Say not a word of it—hear nothing, surmise nothing, whisper nothing, till I write again. I am sure it will all be hushed up, and nothing proved but Rushworth’s folly” (297). Mary literally asks her to be both deaf and dumb, and she is clearly confident that this kind of secrecy will carry the day. She seems convinced that silencing all involved and interested parties will salvage everyone’s reputations, with the worst of the situation reflecting on Mr. Rushworth, instead of on her brother and Maria. Unsurprisingly, the letter unsettles Fanny, even though she is currently ignorant of its true context. But as she assumes that the letter refers to something more innocent, she is actually most distressed by the implication that she wouldn’t have remained silent for her cousin Maria’s sake anyhow. The contrast of Fanny’s silence, which is borne out of social correctness and familial duty, with Mary’s, which is borne out of vice and self-interest, summarily defines the two women’s characters. It also sets Mary up for her final encounter with Edmund, after it becomes clear that the letter was written in response to an event that was far from innocent.
Level-headed as ever during this last interview, Mary wastes no time in presenting her old suitor with a detailed course of action for damage control. First and foremost, she hopes that Maria will marry Henry and thus regain a certain amount of respectability. To that end, she suggests that Edmund and Maria’s father “be quiet,” “let things take their course,” and “trust to his honour and compassion” rather than remove Maria from “Henry’s protection” (310). As she did before with Fanny, she advocates silence and attempts to exploit the character of someone she ought to respect. She suggests passive quiet in place of action or reproof, intimating no sorrow over the Bertrams’ feelings and making no attempt to censure the couple’s behavior. Her remedy remains the same: to say nothing, and to trust in the superior manner and conduct of others that she does not herself possess. Neither does she apologize for Henry’s behavior or intentions, of which she was no doubt aware since she knew exactly what he originally planned for Fanny (and countless other women). She does not even acknowledge that he is at fault in pursuing Maria solely out of wounded vanity and in hoping to resume pursuit of Fanny after concluding the affair. Furthermore, even should Fanny have actually felt for Henry what Mary assumes she did, Mary’s lack of sympathy is jarring. She does not express any compassion or regret for the pain Fanny would feel on hearing of the infidelity, let alone the pain Fanny must already feel as a member of the Bertram family. She only regrets that scandal prevents Fanny from marrying Henry, and it is only during this conversation that Edmund at last realizes Mary’s true character. The silence that she proposes represents “a compliance, a compromise, an acquiescence, in the continuance of the sin, on the chance of a marriage which . . . should rather be prevented than sought” (311), and he deplores it.
Mary further dismays Edmund when he finally confesses his feelings to her and admonishes her for her behavior and attitude. She does not take the criticism well, as he later relates to Fanny:
She was astonished, exceedingly astonished—more than astonished. I saw her change countenance. She turned extremely red. I imagined I saw a mixture of many feelings—a great, though short struggle—half a wish of yielding to truths, half a sense of shame—but habit, habit carried it. (311)
This is the only moment where Mary, an extremely self-possessed and quick-thinking person, is struck speechless, and silence is forced upon her rather than chosen by her. In the one moment where her composure leaves her, revealing the most fundamental part of her nature, she can be seen as she is: a woman who is not simply silent on moral matters, but mute. Mary, who can always conjure a spirited quip or retort, cannot even summon up a generic, socially acceptable response; she has no reply for him because she has no sense of morality. Whether this flaw is completely due to her character or her upbringing is debatable, but Edmund can no longer pretend she does not possess it. He believes that Mary at least attempted to overcome it in order to answer him, but she is ultimately unable to do so. Whether her moment of struggle and “many feelings” was real or Edmund’s imagination is also debatable, but the indisputable fact is that she was incapable of responding to him. Accordingly, the last thing we see of Mary is a silent smile: “a smile ill-suited to the conversation that had passed, a saucy playful smile, seeming to invite, in order to subdue” (311). Edmund, though still attracted to her, resists. He recognizes that she smiles because she truly lacks the words—and, therefore, the moral substance—to keep him, and he finally leaves her behind.
Despite the shocking and offensive nature of some of her speeches and letters, Mary’s many silences with Fanny and Edmund serve as equal confirmation of her lack of good character. While some may claim that her communications merely mark her as audacious, ambitious, and socially rebellious or even progressive, her silences prove that she is careless at best, cruel and calculating at worst, and certainly callous. Even if her deceit with the necklace was only meant as an amusing “trick,” both this instance and her other actions—or inactions—in Henry’s courtship of Fanny show she does not care how Fanny feels. While she herself jokes that “[s]elfishness must always be forgiven” (49), her actions also make her complicit in her brother’s heartlessness, which is less easily forgiven. Her last meeting with Edmund, in fact her last physical appearance in the novel, removes all doubt; though she is “a woman whom nature [has] so richly endowed” (308), she has a total want of the moral fiber required to be a fitting wife to him and sister to Fanny. Ironically for the would-be heroine whose witticisms can charm everyone, silence is her solution to confronting the world’s problems, silence is her own undoing, and silence is the narrator’s final word on whether she ever finds another man like Edmund—or any happiness at all.
Austen, Jane. Mansfield Park. 1816. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1998. Print.