Persuasions #2, 1980 Pages 22-23, 25
MANSFIELD PARK: A NOTE ON THE ELOPEMENT OF HENRY AND MARIA
by Erna Schwerin
Jane Austen was a brilliant psychologist. Although she probably was not always aware of her rare, intuitive gifts, which helped shape the characters in her novels, their validity for personality theory can still be demonstrated today. It is hard to resist the temptation to test this belief on all the significant figures in Mansfield Park, but space limitations do not permit this. Instead, the important event of Henry Crawford’s and Maria Rushworth’s elopement will be the central focus. It was chosen because of the criticism expressed by Joan Rees, Jane Austen’s biographer, referring to this culmination of the story as “contrived,” and noting that only “overwhelming passion on both sides” would justify such a “reckless act.” (Jane Austen – Woman and Writer by Joan Rees, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1976). An examination, in depth, of the most significant event preceding this elopement, and of the personalities of Henry and Maria, should make the motivation appear in a very plausible light.
Henry is described as an intelligent, charming, verbal young man, who is very attractive to women, and whose chief preoccupation is to captivate them, without any emotional involvement of his own. In the novel he deeply disappoints Maria before her marriage, and to some degree Julia, in a subtle, sadistic way. As soon as he has made a conquest, he becomes bored and restless, looking for a new experience.
page 42-43. [Mary Crawford speaking to Mrs. Grant]
“I have three particular friends who have been all
dying for him in their turn; … He is the most horrible flirt
that can be imagined.”
He assumes, confidently,
that he can “make” the pretty, but reserved and
high-principled Fanny fall in love with him, and proceeds to court
her. One aspect of her appeal is her lack of interest in him, an
indifference he rarely encounters, and her maturity, seriousness, and
general caliber of personality. He admires her for what is lacking
in himself. Suddenly, he finds that the tables are turned: Fanny
persists in rejecting his proposal, having sensed, with unerring
perceptiveness, the flaws in his personality (and, of course having
another reason, unknown to anyone).
page 67. [Edmund is teaching Mary Crawford to ride. Fanny is looking on.]
She could not but think that Mr. Crawford might well
have saved him the trouble, that it would have been particularly
proper and becoming in a brother to have done it himself; but Mr.
Crawford, with all his boasted coachmanship, probably knew nothing of
the matter, and had no active kindness in comparison of Edmund.
pursuit of her, nor his successful effort in furthering her brother’s
career, will produce anything but gratitude. When it serves his
purpose, Henry does extend himself on behalf of others, but expects
to be rewarded.
Fanny found herself expected to believe that she had created
sensations which his heart had never known before, and that
everything he had done for William, was to be placed to the account
of his excessive and unequalled attachment to her.
A closer look at Henry’s
personality dynamics will help explain his actions following this
severe blow dealt to his ego. His background, described in the
novel, left him without a stable male figure to idealize and
identify. Using present-day psychological insight, we would consider
his hedonistic acting out related to a malformed character. Behind
the surface charm there is a coldness and distance, preventing the
formation of lasting relationships, except with his sister, an
equally self-indulgent, flirtatious, seductive girl, who fosters
Henry’s life-style and his acting out. He is unusually
self-centered, and his chief gratifications are sought in being
page 231. [Henry tells Mary that he plans to spend a fortnight courting Fanny.]
“I only want her to look kindly on me, to give me
smiles as well as blushes, to keep a chair for me by herself wherever
we are, and be all animation when I take it and talk to her; to think
as I think, be interested in all my possessions and pleasures, try to
keep me longer at Mansfield, and feel when I go away that she shall
never be happy again.”
Despite a display of
self-confidence, his vulnerability to rejection is notable, and can
result in severe ego depletion and regression. Henry depends on the
flatteries of others; he cannot remain alone. He must see himself
reflected, like in a mirror, in a person he admires. Modern
psychology recognizes this cluster of personality traits as belonging
to a narcissistic personality. This refers to an all-pervasive form
of self-love and perception of the other person solely in terms of
one’s own needs. Henry hopes that Fanny, an unconsciously
perceived, idealized mother-sister figure, would serve as his mirror,
providing unconditional acceptance, and eventually even tolerating
his infidelities, once the novelty of their relationship has worn
page 456. [Mary speaks to Edmund about Fanny.]
“I shall never forgive her. Had she accepted him
as she ought, they might now have been on the point of marriage, and
Henry would have been too happy and too busy to want any other
and final rejection, which must have been incomprehensible to Henry,
results in a most pressing need to restore the lost confidence in his
masculine appeal, and in an unconscious desire to take revenge; for
an important aspect of the sexual acting out is also anger towards
women, on whom the early disappointment in mother is unconsciously
projected. Henry now turns to the recently-married Maria as a likely
“target.” That he does not receive immediate
encouragement only heightens his pursuit; he is not taking another
rejection lightly. Maria, like Henry, is an impulsive, shallow
woman, who escaped into marriage to enable her to leave a very
restrictive home. She has no positive feelings for her husband, so
that her earlier infatuation with Henry is easily revived. With a
mutual propensity to acting out, we may assume the elopement to have
taken place with minimal conflict.
[Crawford] was entangled by his own vanity, with as little excuse of
love as possible, and without the smallest inconstancy of mind
towards her cousin.
Guilt was certainly not a
problem, as neither Henry nor Maria have a fully integrated, mature
conscience. Rees notes that Henry “destroyed” Maria. He
certainly unconsciously set out to do so, driven by ulterior motives
other than passion: chiefly projected rage. But ultimately it was
Maria, who destroyed herself, and who must accept her share of the
responsibility for leaving her husband.
When [Crawford] returned from Richmond, he would have been glad to
have seen Mrs. Rushworth no more. – All that followed was the
result of her imprudence.
They did not live happily ever after. Maria paid a high price after the separation from Henry, when the only option open to her was to join Aunt Norris for a boring and isolated existence.
In the light of modern psychological interpretation and character
study, then, Jane Austen is fully vindicated for her unique
understanding of this aspect of her projected plot.
Erna Schwerin is a
clinical psychologist. As well as being a member of JASNA she is
also president of the Mozart Society in New York City.
The supporting quotations for this article were researched by Mary Millard of Willowdale, Ontario. Page references are to Chapman’s edition of the novels.