In describing Fanny Price’s resistance to the charismatic Henry Crawford in Mansfield Park (1814), Jane Austen indicates that “had not Fanny’s heart been guarded in a way unsuspected,” her “fate might have been a little harder than she deserved; for although there doubtless are such unconquerable young ladies of eighteen (or one should not read about them) as are never to be persuaded into love against their judgment by all that talent, manner, attention, and flattery can do, I have no inclination to believe Fanny one of them” (231). Fanny, Austen insists here, is ultimately protected from Crawford because she is in love with her cousin Edmund Bertram. Austen sardonically contrasts this more realistic reason for Fanny’s relative indifference to Crawford with the extreme virtue that protects other fictional females from such rakes. Though Anthony Mandal and Mary Waldron have argued that in these lines Austen refers to heroines of the contemporary Evangelical novel, it is hard to believe that she is not also mocking the eighteen-year-old heroine who most famously resists a rake out of sheer heroic virtue: Clarissa Harlowe.
This passage is not the only moment in Mansfield Park or in other Austen novels that evokes Richardson’s masterwork, Clarissa (1747-48). Austen was a self-confessed admirer of Richardson’s work, and as Tamara Wagner observes, “Austen’s fiction can be read as a reaction to and continuation of Richardson’s influential novels” (217). Though Sir Charles Grandison (1753-54) was her favorite of Richardson’s works (Austen-Leigh 71), Clarissa, as many scholars have noted, was in the literary air of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and we can easily sense it in the air of Austen’s literary worlds.1 At times, there are specific allusions to Clarissa, as in her unfinished final novel, Sanditon (1817), when the narrator mentions that Sir Edward Denham feels “formed to be a dangerous Man—quite in the line of the Lovelaces” (405). Another such allusion occurs in Sense and Sensibility (1811) when Willoughby explains himself to Elinor, an “episode” that Jocelyn Harris notes “is a virtual word-by-word reworking of the . . . scene at the ball where Anna meets Lovelace” (Art of Memory 64). There are many other, more general parallels as well. Elizabeth Bennet, Elinor Dashwood, Emma Woodhouse, and Anne Elliot are, like Clarissa, isolated in their families by their real and perceived superiorities. In Willoughby, Wickham, Frank Churchill, and Mr. Elliot, we can see shades of Lovelace and his seductive but ultimately meretricious charms, while the odious John Thorpe and Mr. Collins, ready to force themselves on women whom they obviously disgust, remind us of Solmes. And of course, the effect of absent or somehow terribly flawed fathers is a major theme in every Austen work.
Nevertheless, though echoes of Clarissa ripple through so much of Austen’s oeuvre, Mansfield Park offers what seems to be the most sustained engagement with the earlier fiction. Like Clarissa, Mansfield Park focuses on a beleaguered heroine who suffers at the hands of her family and of a highly theatrical and charismatic libertine but who is eventually proclaimed the virtuous daughter she has always desired to be. While a few critics have briefly noted the strong connections between the two texts,2 I want to look more closely at these connections and how they point to Mansfield Park as a reimagining of Clarissa. That Austen, consciously or unconsciously, may have wanted to tell Richardson’s most famous story in her own way is not hard to conceive, especially because Austen demonstrates an abiding interest in exploring and defining the nature of the novel. As Margaret Doody comments, “Austen is always reworking other novels. She answers, recasts them, carries on a creative argument with them” (358). Indeed, in her juvenilia, her letters, and her humorous “Plan of a Novel,” she reveals her wide-ranging knowledge of various older and contemporary fictions and also her preference for what she terms, in a letter written shortly before Mansfield Park’s publication, “Nature or Probability” in the novel (11 October 1813). We see such a knowledge and preference operating in Northanger Abbey (1817), where Austen reproduces in a more “realistic” mode many of the plot points from the Gothic novels she mocks. As Claudia Johnson remarks, by doing so, Austen “domesticates the gothic and brings its apparent excesses into the drawing rooms” (47). Similarly, I argue that in Mansfield Park Austen again “domesticates” a more fevered prototype. Unlike “sentimental novels by late eighteenth-century women writers who indiscriminately recreate . . . redeemed Lovelaces” (Wagner 217), however, Mansfield Park tempers but refuses to eliminate the more troubling aspects of Clarissa. As a result, Austen emphasizes what should be the novel’s peculiar expertise: portraying how dangers like selfish families, heartless rakes, and stern fathers appear in a natural and probable world.3
The harrowing of the heroines: From cruel conspiracy to careless callousness
Mansfield Park repeats but translates into a more everyday mode the plight of a Clarissa-like heroine. Though Clarissa is a confident and prolix heiress, the daughter of a rising family, whereas Fanny is a retiring and quiet poor relation, both are positioned remarkably similarly. Their respective families, the Harlowes and the Bertrams, regard the women as suspect schemers primarily because each is perceived as a threat to the family’s traditional hierarchy. Though Clarissa is a third child and a daughter, she inherits her grandfather’s estate. As a result, her brother James and sister Arabella, and eventually the rest of the Harlowes, characterize Clarissa as a traitor who seeks her own benefit over and against the family’s good. Arabella articulates their view in unmistakable terms, asking Clarissa, “Did you not bewitch my grandfather? . . . His last will showed what effect your smooth obligingness had upon him!—To leave the acquired part of his estate from the next heirs, his own sons, to a grandchild; to his youngest” (L42, 194). They imply, despite Clarissa’s protestations, that she wants to overturn the proper line of succession in a self-serving move that heads the family towards chaos.
Even before she arrives at Mansfield Park, Fanny’s status as an unknown poor relation is enough to threaten chaos for the Bertram family and its future. When considering adopting a very young Fanny, her uncle fears the possibility that she might grow up a crafty coquette who will attain undue influence through her sexuality. Sir Thomas “debate[s] and hesitate[s]” before deciding to bring Fanny up: “He thought of his own four children—of his two sons—of cousins in love, &c.” (6) and promises, “‘Should her disposition be really bad . . . we must not, for our own children’s sake, continue her in the family’”(10). Like Clarissa, Fanny suffers from being seen as a possible schemer, a potential apple of discord thrown into the midst of an otherwise peaceful family circle.
A crisis occurs for each woman when she resists her family’s united will. In Clarissa, this crisis is floridly externalized. When Lovelace comes on to the scene, switching his affections from the older Arabella to Clarissa, a struggle immediately ensues, as her siblings fear Clarissa’s power if she makes a match with the aristocratic Lovelace. After Clarissa subsequently refuses an alternative match with the repulsive Solmes, the Harlowes imprison her. In the pages that follow, Richardson depicts an ever-escalating nightmare as Arabella and James convince the family of Clarissa’s evil, and she finds herself jailed, spied on, and cut off from any outside help.
Like Clarissa, Fanny increasingly experiences isolated imprisonment when her will conflicts with that of the Bertrams, but that imprisonment is emotional, arising from the all-too-common phenomena of insensitivity and sexual desire rather than from a concerted family conspiracy. When in her uncle’s absence her cousins and their glamorous new friends, Mary and Henry Crawford, decide to put on the play Lovers’ Vows, Fanny’s refusal to participate is viewed as rebellious ingratitude rather than insightful caution. As Mrs. Norris says, “‘I shall think her a very obstinate, ungrateful girl, if she does not do what her aunt and cousins wish her’” (147). Fanny’s total isolation in the matter of the play comes not through a calculated plot, as does Clarissa’s isolation, but through an uncalculated infatuation as Edmund, long Fanny’s only confidant, becomes enchanted with Mary Crawford and less and less the person Fanny can trust with her thoughts and observations. Rather than what might seem Clarissa’s less plausible physical imprisonment, Austen provides a version of imprisonment as an emotional world locked away. Fanny realizes, “Every body around her was gay and busy, prosperous and important. . . . She alone was sad and insignificant; she had no share in any thing; she might go or stay . . . without being seen or missed” (159-60). No one directly cuts him or herself off from Fanny as the Harlowes do from Clarissa, but her discernment has no outlet within the family.
Dramatic libertines: Henry Crawford as Lovelace manqué
Another area in which Austen revisits but restrains Clarissa is in her conception of the main seducer, Henry Crawford, as a protean libertine who, like Lovelace, adores theatrical plots culminating in sexual conquest.4 Lovelace gleefully thinks of himself and acts as the consummate actor and dramatist, to the point of madness. He regularly stages little plays, such as his harried elopement with Clarissa from her parents’ garden, and imagines that he and Clarissa play parts in a five-act drama he is composing, The Quarrelsome Lovers (L175, 571). He has a limitless ability to consider all the events of his life as an ongoing drama that he directs and acts in. Also limitless is his hunger for conquering women. He loves the conquest for its own sake and has no problem abandoning the young women he seduces or rapes to their fates, usually rejection by their families and death. Such coldness is clear in his description of the ultimate challenge, Clarissa: “All that’s excellent in her sex is this lady! . . . Then there are so many stimulatives to such a spirit as mine in this affair, besides love: such a field for stratagem and contrivance, which thou knowest to be the delight of my heart. Then the rewarding end of all—to carry off such a girl as this. . . . What a triumph!—What a triumph over the whole sex!” (L31, 147). Clarissa’s status as the apparently unconquerable woman makes her the best game imaginable.
Austen connects her seducer Crawford with such intertwined drama and sexual dominance as well. Fanny names him “considerably the best actor of all” during Lovers’ Vows, a play that allows Crawford’s wild flirtation with Maria Bertram (165). Even the skeptical Fanny cannot altogether resist Crawford’s pull when he reads Shakespeare’s Henry VIII: “he could always light, at will, on the best scene, or the best speeches of each. . . . It was truly dramatic” (337). Nevertheless, while Lovelace quite literally acts parts in almost every aspect of his life, Crawford’s dramatic tendencies are more contained.
Likewise, Crawford is a more contained Lovelace in his coldly calculating approach to women like Julia and Maria Bertram. Austen reveals, “he began with no object but of making them like him. He did not want them to die of love; but with sense and temper which ought to have made him judge and feel better, he allowed himself great latitude on such points” (45). Crawford is not as sexually transgressive or cruel as Lovelace, but within the calmer and less fevered world that Austen creates, he too treats the captivation of young women as a game, and he represents real danger to them. For example, after Crawford clearly prefers Maria, Austen minces no words about the effect on Julia: “Julia did suffer. . . . She had loved, she did love still, and she had all the suffering which a warm temper and a high spirit were likely to endure” (162). When, in her turn Maria Bertram finds the hopes Crawford raised disappointed, Austen describes her pain and lack of recourse with seriousness: “the agony of her mind was severe” (193).
Crawford’s initial attitude towards Fanny also undeniably reminds us of Lovelace’s towards Clarissa. Confessing to his sister Mary his “‘plan . . . to make Fanny Price in love with me’” (229), he adds that her insensibility to his manifest charm is what goads him: “‘I never was so long in company with a girl in my life—trying to entertain her—and succeed so ill! . . . I must try to get the better of this’” (230). Though he ends by falling in love, Crawford begins his pursuit with only a desire to triumph. Without overstating the case, Crawford’s confession that he “‘cannot be satisfied without . . . making a small hole in Fanny Price’s heart’” (229) uses language that evokes a rape. Like Lovelace he wishes to “penetrate” in some way a woman he views as impenetrable, even if this penetration is less egregious than an actual rape. He also echoes Lovelace in his inability to grasp the lasting injury of such an attack. Lovelace rejects Clarissa’s response to her rape by asking, “Who the devil could have expected such strange effects from a cause so common, and so slight?” (L261, 889). Similarly, Crawford assures his sister, “‘I will do not do her any harm, dear little soul! I only want her to . . . feel when I go away that she shall be never happy again. I want nothing more’” (231). Crawford’s jocular tone cannot altogether mask his cold indifference to the state of deprived longing in which he imagines abandoning Fanny as he has Julia and Maria. While Henry Crawford is not out literally kidnapping and raping, Austen translates these acts believably to the emotional realm and underscores their potential for devastation.
In the end, Austen refuses to paint Crawford either as a total blackguard or as an utterly broken man. Whatever his readers might have romantically longed for, Richardson clearly tries to deny that Lovelace, given his unremitting wickedness, could ever have been Clarissa’s husband, and he punishes Lovelace with a violent death. Austen is not so absolute in her condemnation of Crawford, though neither does she exonerate him. Instead, the narrator observes that Crawford might have won both Fanny and a happy, better life with just a bit more restraint: “Could he have been satisfied with the conquest of one amiable woman’s affections, . . . there would have been every probability of success and felicity for him” (467). Austen’s picture of Crawford is neither so dramatic nor so completely damning as that Richardson draws of Lovelace. Nevertheless, while admitting the possibility of Crawford’s redemption and judging that idleness and vanity, instead of unmitigated evil, led to his elopement with Maria, Austen remains, like Richardson, skeptical about a rake’s redemption. She is also skeptical about any repercussions for Crawford following his betrayal of both Maria and Fanny, pointing out that for men, “the public punishment of disgrace” is rare (468). Still, though Crawford does not endure Lovelace’s public penance and death, Austen insists that “a man of sense like Henry Crawford” will have “no small portion of vexation and regret—vexation that must rise sometimes to self-reproach, and regret to wretchedness . . . [at losing] the woman whom he had rationally, as well as passionately loved” (468-69). Crawford will neither die nor perhaps at every moment mourn his self-inflicted loss, but there is real “wretchedness” in store for him, just as for Lovelace.
Fathers and their sins: Sir Thomas, the kinder, gentler Mr. Harlowe
A third portrayal from Clarissa that Austen refines in Mansfield Park is that of the patriarch. In both works, the respective heroines suffer, at least partially, because a father fails in his rightful role. James Harlowe Senior, Clarissa’s father, is notable for the paradox of his awful presence and powerful absence. In giving over authority to James, his overweening son, Mr. Harlowe opens the way for the intrigues and tragedies that ensue. Mr. Harlowe also is notable for remaining, until the very last part of Clarissa, obdurate in his absolute condemnation of his daughter. Even after she is raped, Mr. Harlowe will neither receive her nor completely lift his paternal curse. Only when he confirms that Clarissa is on her deathbed, does her father finally send word that she may come home, but it is too late. The penitent Mr. Harlowe receives her body, recognizing only then that, as his cousin Colonel Morden puts it, in this dead daughter was “a young lady who was qualified to give laws to all her family” (L501, 1400).
In Sir Thomas Bertram, Fanny’s surrogate father, Austen paints a similar but less extreme picture of patriarchal sin and repentance. Early in her narrative, Austen establishes Sir Thomas as a man who means to be charitable by adopting Fanny and who truly loves his children but who is reserved and distant to the point of coldness. When Sir Thomas leaves to oversee his interests in Antigua, Austen emphasizes the children’s relief: “his absence was unhappily most welcome” (32). While Sir Thomas’s emotional distance and literal absence do not result in the snakepit that Mr. Harlowe’s cause, they create a vacuum into which Mrs. Norris and the Crawfords easily move, damaging the Bertram children and threatening Fanny. Mrs. Norris, the sister-in-law whom Sir Thomas often trusts to act on his behalf, is definitely malevolent, particularly towards Fanny. At the very least, Austen reveals a problematic blindness on the part of Sir Thomas for leaving his family to “Mrs. Norris’s watchful attention” (32). Though Austen does not directly bestow all of Mr. Harlowe’s cruel tendencies on Sir Thomas, she nevertheless associates his disregard closely with such cruelty in the person of Mrs. Norris.
Austen also demonstrates that the father need not be solely driven by greed, as is Richardson’s Mr. Harlowe, to endanger his children’s true interests. More subtly, Sir Thomas overemphasizes the satisfactions connected with status and riches to the point that he silences his own better judgment and deeper concerns. When Maria desires to marry the wealthy Rushworth, whom her father immediately recognizes as “an inferior young man, as ignorant in business as in books, with opinions in general unfixed” and toward whom she acts in a manner “careless and cold” (200), he does offer to arrange to release her from the engagement. Though the match would be “[a]dvantageous,” Sir Thomas determines that Maria’s “happiness must not be sacrificed to it” (200)—a very different determination than Mr. Harlowe’s. After Maria refuses her father’s offer, however, Austen reveals the suspect denial and alacrity with which he accepts his daughter’s refusal. Despite his assessment of Rushworth and of Maria’s distaste for him, Sir Thomas allows himself to suppose, with no evidence, that “Mr. Rushworth must and would improve in good society” and that a “well-disposed young woman, who did not marry for love, was in general but the more attached to her own family” (201). In the end, “a marriage which would bring him such an addition of respectability and influence” renders Sir Thomas “too glad to be satisfied perhaps to urge the matter quite so far as his judgment might have dictated to others” (201). With that “too” Austen indicates that Sir Thomas’s error stems not from a heartless materialism that would sacrifice his child to family pride and gain but from a self-deceiving desire to believe that the child’s happiness and family gain dovetail neatly.
Such a desire is also apparent in Sir Thomas’s treatment of Fanny and her own unwanted suitor. When Crawford asks for Fanny’s hand in marriage and Fanny refuses in horror, Sir Thomas is again reminiscent of Mr. Harlowe in his reaction to a recalcitrant child: “‘you have now shewn me that you can be wilful and perverse, that you can and will decide for yourself, without any consideration or deference for those who have surely some right to guide you’” (318). Sir Thomas is no monster—unlike Solmes, Henry Crawford is, to all appearances, highly desirable as a husband. Her uncle tells Fanny that Crawford is “‘a young man of sense, of character, of temper, of manners, and of fortune, exceedingly attached to you, and seeking your hand in the most handsome and disinterested way’” (319). Still, though Sir Thomas clearly believes in Crawford’s personal charms and profound love for Fanny, he dismisses Fanny’s own feelings and doubts as both selfish and irrelevant: selfish, given the material advantage of the match both to Fanny and to the impecunious Price family, the good of whom Sir Thomas accuses Fanny of neglecting; irrelevant, because Sir Thomas cannot read Fanny’s real and serious reservations about Crawford as anything but “‘what a young, heated fancy imagines to be necessary for happiness’” (318). In other words, her concerns are fantasies rightly rejected by his superior judgment as her foster father. Although Sir Thomas considers Fanny’s happiness much more than Mr. Harlowe does Clarissa’s, he is convinced that his considerations far outweigh whatever his niece’s might be.
While kinder than Mr. Harlowe and more misguided than malevolent, Sir Thomas still attempts to force Fanny into an acceptance of Crawford by exile from the family, albeit a gentler one than Clarissa endures. He tells Fanny after their first uncomfortable interview about marriage with Crawford, “‘You cannot suppose me capable of trying to persuade you to marry against your inclinations’” (330-31). But in choosing to send his niece back to her chaotic birth family for a visit of undetermined length, he acknowledges to himself that “[h]er Father’s house would, in all probability, teach her the value of a good income; and he trusted that she would be the wiser and happier woman all her life, for the experiment he had devised” (369). This family visit is a subtler version of Mr. Harlowe’s original banishment of Clarissa from the family’s presence in the hopes that it will force her into Solmes’s arms. As the narrator admits, Sir Thomas thinks to teach Fanny a “craving” (368) for Crawford by “a little abstinence from the elegancies and luxuries of Mansfield Park” (369), and if he could have seen her there he “might have thought his niece in the most promising way of being starved, both mind and body, into a much juster value for Mr. Crawford’s good company and good fortune” (413). By using language like “abstinence” and “starved” in describing the visit and its hoped-for effect on Fanny, Austen emphasizes the streak of torture and compulsion in Sir Thomas’s plan. As with Fanny’s suffering during Lovers’ Vows, however, this persecution results from a combination of insensitivity and misjudgment rather than from the pure cruelty and hard-heartedness Clarissa experiences. Sir Thomas wants to ensure his niece’s happiness, though his means are dubious. Even the “cruel, . . . terrible delay” (430) in Fanny’s return to Mansfield results from Sir Thomas’s distraction over the sudden illness of his eldest son rather than from the obdurate and punishing patriarchal wrath that keeps Clarissa from returning to her family after her rape.
Finally, Austen pictures the chastening of Sir Thomas through less dramatic means than the virtuous daughter’s death. Fanny lives and achieves reconciliation with Sir Thomas when the scandal of Maria and Crawford’s elopement reveals to him both her prescience about Henry Crawford and his own “grievous mismanagement” of his family (463). The outcast child, Fanny, has become
the daughter that he wanted. His charitable kindness had been rearing a prime comfort for himself . . . , and the general goodness of his intentions by her, deserved it. He might have made her childhood happier; but it had been an error of judgment only which had given him the appearance of harshness. (472)
According to Austen, Sir Thomas has been in “error”: he has appeared, and indeed has been, harsh. But in the end, this passage also makes clear that because he possesses a general goodness of intention, he does not require the kind of horrific comeuppance that Clarissa’s father receives.
Through Austen’s assessment of Sir Thomas and his deserts, in addition to her other less horrific characterizations and plot twists, she enables the happy ending to Mansfield Park that so many of Richardson’s readers desired for Clarissa but were denied on the grounds that it would be inconsistent with the rest of the story’s grand tragedy.5 It could be said, of course, that by envisioning the relatively easy reconciliation of an overbearing father and an outcast daughter, even ones not quite so overbearing or outcast as in Clarissa, Austen might have created the more radical and improbable novel. But Austen herself seems aware of the difficulty of this ending—as her decision in the last chapter to tease readers with the novel’s artifice suggests. Previously, the narrator has been mostly unobtrusive, but she suddenly makes her presence felt, announcing at the opening of this last chapter: “Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can, impatient to restore every body, not greatly in fault themselves, to tolerable comfort, and to have done with all the rest” (461). Some authors prefer to “dwell on guilt and misery,” others to establish happiness for their most deserving characters. Austen suggests here that authorial desire determines fictional outcomes, rather than the inevitable dramatic and moral necessity for which Richardson argued so long.
Moments, like this one, of coy ironic distance move Mansfield Park away yet again from the extremes of Clarissa. But there is no coyness in Austen’s description of Sir Thomas’s “high sense of having realised a great acquisition in the promise of Fanny for a daughter” (472). Austen may not have felt she could portray Fanny’s happy ascendance to the position of Sir Thomas’s most beloved daughter without reminding readers of her fiction’s artificiality, but there seems little doubt about her seriousness in portraying it as an admirable and possible outcome. Here, as she has throughout Mansfield Park, Austen creates a moderated and more nuanced version of Clarissa, one that retains the earlier fiction’s critique of libertinism and patriarchalism run amok but that believably allows for a heroine who might survive them.
Thanks to Susan C. Greenfield and to the CUNY Eighteenth-Century Interdisciplinary Group for their helpful comments on earlier versions of this essay.
1. Ruth Perry provides an excellent summary of Clarissa’s influence in “Clarissa’s Daughters.”
2. R. F. Brissenden remarks on the resemblances between Lovelace and Henry Crawford (161-62) while Margaret Lenta observes “the extent to which the elements in the Bertram family resemble those fatally present in an earlier novel, Richardson’s Clarissa, which Jane Austen knew and admired” (175). Lenta sees these similarities as a way for Austen to suggest in Fanny a solution to the power vacuum left by patriarchal failure that Richardson can only imagine ending in death and guilt. Jo Alyson Parker more generally compares Fanny to Clarissa, seeing the former as the least impressive of “a long line of model heroines,” of whom “the angelic martyr Clarissa” is of course one (159).
3. In making this claim, I do not mean to suggest that I believe Austen was naively unaware of her own artifice. The endings of both Northanger Abbey and Mansfield Park alone, not to mention many other aspects of her work, show Austen pointing out to her readers the fictional and contingent nature of these novels, however natural and probable they might seem.
4. Jocelyn Harris expertly dissects this quality of Lovelace in her article “Protean Lovelace.”
5. Richardson famously tried to impress the necessity of the ending on his readers. In the Postscript appended to the revised 1751 edition of Clarissa, he gives a mini-disquisition on the rules of both religious and classical tragedy (1495-99) and how Clarissa follows them. He also carried on lengthy correspondence with Lady Bradshaigh and other readers dismayed by the disunion and death of Clarissa’s ending.
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