when I first read Mansfield Park many years ago, Mary Crawford took over the novel for me in much the same way that other anti-heroines have eclipsed, for readers, their more sedate counterparts. Mary’s charm, vivacity, and wit overshadowed Fanny’s passivity in a Becky Sharp or Scarlett O’Hara-like manner, leaving Fanny to dwell in the land of the vapid ingénue, with Amelia and Melanie in Vanity Fair and Gone With the Wind, respectively.
Subsequent re-readings, over many years, of Mansfield Park modified this view, and I developed a great respect for Fanny’s quiet maturity. Mary’s character, however, continued to elude me. Just as Fanny rose in my esteem, Mary emerged, upon closer reading, as more dangerous than just a charming opportunist. “Manipulative” and “amoral” soon became my words of choice when describing her. And yet, the voices of other readers caused me to doubt my own response, for Mary has charmed critics and fans alike, with some readers labeling Mansfield Park a flawed novel and viewing Mary as the Elizabeth Bennet-like true heroine of the book. One of the best-known critical readings in this vein is to be found in Marvin Mudrick’s Jane Austen: Irony as Defense and Discovery. Mudrick, writing in 1952, calls Mary a “high-spirited girl with a free tongue and a free mind” (164) who is betrayed by her creator in the final confrontation between Mary and Edmund. Mudrick contends that Austen has done little to prepare the reader for this scene in which “Mary has suddenly become Satan” (165). Since the appearance of Mudrick’s book over forty years ago, critical opinion has modified and become more complex. Yet, admiration of Mary has persisted sufficiently to enable her to be elected by members of the Jane Austen Society of North America as their favorite character in Mansfield Park at the 1980 AGM; the Mary Crawford fans are still vocal in their postings to the Austen e-mail list and to various internet message boards.
Recently, I re-read Henry James’s difficult and moving novel The Wings of the Dove, the story of Kate Croy, a penniless but charming girl who loves a poor newspaper reporter but aspires to a wealthy marriage. Narrated in James’s dense later style, Wings details Kate’s efforts to manipulate her lover, Merton Densher, into seducing a dying American heiress, Milly Theale, into leaving her money to him. Like many readers of Jane Austen, I was fairly familiar with the literature dealing with Austen’s influence on James. From Kipling’s short story “The Janeites” with its famous conclusion about Jane Austen (“‘She did leave lawful issue in the shape o’ one son; an ’is name was ’Enery James’” ) to Leavis’s The Great Tradition to more recent critical studies, the consensus has been that James learned from Austen in subtle and perhaps subconscious ways. Nowhere has this connection been more apparent to me than in my realization, during this re-reading, of the many similarities between Mary Crawford and Kate Croy. Encountering Kate Croy has affirmed my own evolving opinion of Mary Crawford and my conviction that Jane Austen did not, as Mudrick and others have suggested, make a muddle of this character. After Kate, I can no longer be charmed by Mary!
The physical similarities between Mary Crawford and Kate Croy as well as certain particulars of their situations are striking to me. Even the names Crawford and Croy are much alike. Both women are dark and vivacious. Austen, in Mansfield Park, describes Mary’s “lively dark eye, clear brown complexion, and general prettiness” (44) and also calls Mary “active and fearless and, though rather small, strongly made” (66). In The Wings of the Dove, Kate, too, is dark and small, having “stature without height . . . presence without mass” (5). Both are motherless children who have been abandoned by “shady” father-figures. In Mary’s case, she can no longer dwell in the home of her guardian, her uncle, because of his dissolute life style. Kate’s father has long ago abandoned his family for a life both “compromised and compromising” (5). Consequently, both young women have found female protectorsin Mary’s case, her sister, Mrs. Grant, and in Kate’s case, her Aunt Maud. Both Mrs. Grant and Aunt Maud wish to marry off their charming young relatives to a wealthy aristocrat (Tom Bertram, in Mary’s case, and Lord Mark, in Kate’s).
The complex characterizations of both Kate and Mary are apparent from the start. Both women, although desirous of wealthy marriages, fall in love with poor but morally superior young men, and both are intelligent enough to recognize that the objects of their love represent something in themselves which transcends the mercenary. Mary’s statement that “‘a large income is the best recipe for happiness I ever heard of’” (213) is belied by her falling in love with the upstanding Edmund, the younger Bertram brother, instead of the dissolute Tom, the older brother and heir to Mansfield Park. As Austen tells us early on about Mary’s feelings for Edmund, “to the credit of the lady, it may be added, that without being a man of the world or an elder brother . . . he began to be agreeable to her” (65). Similarly, James first presents Kate Croy as a materialist. After going to live with Aunt Maud, “[s]he saw as she had never seen before how material things spoke to her. . . . ”(31). On the other hand, she is attracted to the idealistic Merton Densher, not only physically but because “[h]e represented what life had never given her and certainly, without some such aid as his, never would give her; all the high dim things she lumped together as of the mind” (57).
As the plots of both Mansfield Park and The Wings of the Dove unfold, both Mary and Kate are involved in triangular romantic relationships. In each case, the Mary/Kate figure represents the experienced and worldly-wise anti-heroine who enters into a friendship with an innocent young woman (Fanny Price/Milly Theale)who happens to be in love with the same man (Edmund/Merton). In each case, but to different degrees, the Mary/Kate figure manipulates the Fanny/Milly figure to gain her own ends. Mary’s manipulation of Fanny is perhaps merely self-serving rather than representative of the pure evil of Kate’s betrayal of Milly, but, as in Kate’s case, this manipulation gradually prepares the reader for her fall from grace. Subtly but, to me, obviously, Mary uses a supposed friendship for Fanny to get into the good graces not only of Edmund but also his father, Sir Thomas Bertram. For example, at the Mansfield Park ball, by which time Fanny is now the favorite of Sir Thomas, “Miss Crawford saw much of Sir Thomas’s thoughts as he stood, and having, in spite of all his wrongs toward her, a general prevailing desire of recommending herself to him, took an opportunity of stepping aside to say something agreeable to Fanny” (276). Moreover, while not the initiator of her brother Henry Crawford’s cold-hearted plan to make Fanny fall in love with him, she is compliant in his scheme; to that end, “without attempting any further remonstrance, she left Fanny to her fate. . . . ”(231). Later, she acts as Henry’s advocate with Fanny. Kate, of course, descends to more dangerous depths upon discovering, in short order, that Milly Theale, the young heiress with whom she has formed a friendship, is attracted to Merton and that Milly is terminally ill. All Kate must do is feign to Milly a lack of interest in Merton on her own part and to convince Merton that he is doing no harm in allowing Milly to fall in love with him. Merton is a more difficult prey than Milly, but Kate’s powers of seduction prevail.
And so we see both Mary Crawford and Kate Croy emerging, as their stories unfold, as schemers against young women for whom they profess friendship. Ultimately, their true characters are perceived by the young men with whom they are in love. In Mary’s case, Austen’s plot device of the Henry Crawford/Maria Rushworth elopement serves to open Edmund’s eyes to Mary’s amorality. Their final confrontation is a revelation to Edmund of Mary’s true self ; she cannot condemn her brother’s elopement with a married woman on moral grounds. As Edmund later confides to Fanny, “‘Oh! Fanny, it was the detection, not the offence, which she reprobated’” (455). Mary, knowing that Edmund has taken a moral stand that will result in her losing him, desperately tries to use her physical power over him during their last meeting. As Edmund describes this meeting to Fanny, he focuses on Mary’s smile“‘but it was a smile ill-suited to the conversation . . . a saucy, playful smile, seeming to invite, in order to subdue me. . . . I resisted; it was the impulse of the moment to resist, and still walked on. I have sincesometimesfor a momentregretted that I did not go back; but I know I was right’” (459).
Kate Croy’s final scenes with Merton Densher are strongly reminiscent, for me, of the confrontation between Mary and Edmund. Merton, upon realizing that Kate sought to hasten Milly’s death by revealing to Milly (through the character of Lord Mark) Kate’s long-standing liaison with Densher, is finally appalled by Kate’s scheme and by his own complicity in it. “He had brought her there to be moved, and she was only immovablewhich was not moreover, either, because she didn’t understand. She understood everything . . . and she had reasons, deep down, the sense of which merely sickened him” (378). Kate’s only recourse is to use her physical appeal for Densher in one of their final scenes together. “When she had come nearer to him, when putting her hand upon him and making him sink with her as she leaned to him, into their old pair of chairs, she prevented, irresistably the waste of his passion” (380). In the end, however, the evil they have done to Milly has poisoned Merton’s love for Kate, and she knows it. Says Kate, in her final renunciation of Densher, “‘We shall never be again as we were!’” (439).
Neither shall Mary and Edmund. Just as Merton Densher’s love for Kate turns into a posthumous adoration of the dead Milly, so does Edmund abandon the claims of experience for those of innocence. “Scarcely had he done regretting Mary Crawford, and observing to Fanny how impossible it was that he should ever meet with another woman, before it began to strike him whether a very different kind of woman might not do just as wellor a great deal better” (470).
As F.R. Leavis, in The Great Tradition, commented in his comparison of Austen and James, “What one great original artist learns from another, whose genius and problems are necessarily very different, is the hardest kind of ‘influence’ to define . . . ” (9). Jane Austen and Henry James were two very different novelists, writing from two distinct sets of experience and living in two very different eras. Perhaps it is a stretch to see similarities between Mary Crawford, living in the early nineteenth century with all its social and sexual restrictions, and Kate Croy, product of a somewhat more liberated era one hundred years later. Yet, reading Kate Croy’s story has informed my re-reading of Mansfield Park and deepened my respect for Jane Austen’s creation of the complex anti-heroine, Mary Crawford.
Austen, Jane. Mansfield Park. Ed. R. W. Chapman. 3rd ed. Oxford: OUP, 1934.
Leavis, F.R. The Great Tradition: George Eliot, Henry James, Joseph Conrad. 1948. New York: NYUP, 1973.
James, Henry. The Wings of the Dove. 1902. New York: Modern Library, 1937.
Mudrick, Marvin. Jane Austen: Irony as Defense and Discovery. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1952.
Kipling, Rudyard. “The Janeites.” Debits and Credits. Garden City: Doubleday, 1926. 123-149.