Home ›   |   Publications ›   |   Essay Contest Winning Entries ›   |   2020 Essay Contest ›   |   Gray Morality in Lady Susan and Mansfield Park: When the Villains Aren’t so Villainous, What Makes the Heroines so Good?

Gray Morality in Lady Susan and Mansfield Park: When the Villains Aren’t so Villainous, What Makes the Heroines so Good?

Wedding bells, flowers, a dashing young man and a rather enlarged fortune: for many women, the dream above all dreams. Within the Jane Austen novels, it is one achieved only by a few special characters—the renowned heroines—while the fates of others are a much different story. In particular, female “villains” tend to finish the books with a cathartically unhappy ending: Mansfield Park’s Mrs. Norris, for instance, spends a great deal of time verbally and emotionally abusing its heroine, Fanny Price. In the end, Mrs. Norris resolves “to quit Mansfield, and devote herself to her unfortunate [niece] . . . where, shut up together with little society . . . it may be reasonably supposed that their tempers became their mutual punishment” (Austen 432). There are some female villains, however, who operate on a scale neither fully condemnable nor fully acceptable, as Austen herself sometimes demonstrates sympathy towards them, and the actual cruelty of their fates is equally ambiguous. Two prime examples of this type of character are Lady Susan, from her self-titled novella, and Mary Crawford, from Mansfield Park. To determine what makes these women so multifaceted in their villainy, one must take a closer look at what truly drives them—the expectations of society—and one must examine what, specifically, sorts these women under the “villain” label, despite the grayness of their intentions. In doing so, it can be seen that while Austen recognizes the need of these women to survive in their respective social circles, she also disapproves of fully embracing society’s beliefs. The ultimate Austen dream ending only comes when there is a balance between Austen’s personal values—those of virtue and true love—and societal security, and it is, therefore, Lady Susan and Mary Crawford’s rejection of said virtue that marks them unworthy of such a perfect fate.

When reading about certain characters or events in a Jane Austen novel, it is important to keep in mind the views of upper-class society. It is easy in the modern era to cheer on Elizabeth from Pride and Prejudice in her rejection of Mr. Collins, whose superficial attitude clashes with prevailing expectations for a potential spouse: those of love and loyalty. Yet in the time of Austen, to reject a promise of financial stability was seen as incredibly foolish; Elizabeth’s own mother delivers a rather lengthy lecture upon discovering the dismissal of Mr. Collins (108).

It is through this lens, then, that one must examine Austen’s gray villains, as their desires and actions are strongly rooted in societal expectation for women. In Mansfield Park alone, among the many requirements mentioned for a “civilized” lady are: beauty (13), submissiveness (47), eloquence (284), skill in entertainment (62), maintaining the appearance of education (19), to marry well (307), and to marry young (37). These criteria make navigating the world a far more complicated task for so-called “villains” like Mary Crawford and Lady Susan, who have been raised and steeped in the mindset of high society their whole lives.

Consider the motivations of Lady Susan. By and large, she is concerned with her own entertainment, and she expresses this on multiple occasions. She does not care for Reginald De Courcy, the newest male guest in the house where she is staying, despite her actions to seduce him. Instead, she professes that she only maintains affection for one man: “Poor Manwaring! - I need not tell you how much I miss him - how perpetually he is in my thoughts” (Lady Susan 9). She thus initially protests her friend (and dastardly confidante) Alicia’s advice that she engage more seriously in her relationship with Reginald (16). Yet later, Lady Susan agrees to wed him, and even works to maintain his regard when some of her past dalliances are exposed (60). What, then, changed her mind?

This is where the pressures of society come into play. While Lady Susan does express distaste for De Courcy’s personality, her issue with marrying him has little to do with his own flaws and everything to do with wealth. He is set to inherit a great estate, it is true; however, she is also aware that he will have very little power until the passing of his father, stating, “If the old man would die, I might not hesitate; but a state of dependence on the caprice of Sir Reginald, will not suit the freedom of my spirit” (55). Lady Susan values her freedom too highly to want to submit her life to a husband’s whims without some guarantee of monetary security—she must know she will have access to that money soon.

However, she also knows that she is at little leisure to be choosy about her next husband, for at the time the story takes place, women were expected to wed quickly or else face scrutiny, a fact acknowledged even by the men in the stories. For instance, in Mansfield Park, Mr. Crawford declares, “An engaged woman is always more agreeable than a disengaged … Her cares are over, and she feels that she may exert all her powers of pleasing without suspicion” (Mansfield Park 43).

In addition, Lady Susan actually needs money. Reginald’s father goes so far as to describe her as “poor” Lady Susan 20), and Lady Susan admits on multiple occasions that she lacks the capability to pay for her daughter’s schooling. Since she cannot earn money herself—by her own admission, she has no skills to support her (12)—she is pushed into committing to a marriage she doesn’t really want.

Mary Crawford is similarly seeking a wealthy and well-connected husband—“Matrimony was her object, provided she could marry well” (Mansfield Park 40)—though the need for urgency is not nearly so great, given her already extensive fortune. Initially, she considers marrying Tom Bertram, heir to the Mansfield Park estate and rank of baronet, and rather understatedly declares that to marry someone of his social position “might do” (45), highlighting a lack of investment in any aspect of marriage outside of the practical. It is the unexpected circumstance of Mary falling in love with Tom’s younger brother Edmund—who, though well-connected to high society, plans on taking the inglorious position of parson—that prevents Mary from going through with her initial plan (62).

Despite the insensitivity inherent in being a “gold digger,” occasionally even characters who are not villains make the choice to pursue and marry a man for his fortune rather than for love. Charlotte Lucas from Pride and Prejudice, for example, takes advantage of Mr. Collins’ disappointment in Elizabeth’s rejection to grab him for herself, to which the narrator only says, “[Marriage] was the only honourable provision for well-educated young women of small fortune, and . . . must be their pleasantest preservative from want. This preservative [Charlotte] had now obtained . . . [and] she felt all the good luck of it” (Pride and Prejudice 117-118).

What, then, prevents Lady Susan and Mary Crawford from achieving the Austen dream ending? What are the characteristics that make them “bad?” After all, their lack of shared fate with the true heroines indicates that there is something about them, some specific aspect of their actions or personality, which Austen disapproves of thoroughly enough to place them in the villain role. And indeed, though she is understanding of the desperation of these women to maintain their position in society, she also has her own set of standards on morality and love, which Lady Susan and Mary Crawford most certainly do not meet.

To begin with, Lady Susan and Miss Crawford are often casually dismissive of men’s feelings, treating them more as objects than as people. Lady Susan writes to Alicia on the subject of Reginald De Courcy, “[Toying with his feelings] will serve at least to amuse me” (Lady Susan 13). She does not truly care for Reginald and does not initially plan on marrying him (17), but chooses to engage his attention for the time being, solely for her own amusement. Similarly, Miss Crawford exposes her blasé attitude in a discussion with her sister, where she says, “My poor aunt had certainly little cause to love the state [of matrimony], but, however, speaking from my own observation, it is a manœvering business” (Mansfield Park 45). In essence, Mary is declaring that she views marriage as a mere means to an end, and that she sees her future spouse only as a person necessary to work around. For both Mary and Lady Susan to act without a hint of regard for how they will eventually hurt their targets’ feelings shows that at least some part of their personality is both callous and cruel.

In contrast, several of Austen’s works contain heroines who achieve happiness only once they have learned to respect the feelings of the men around them. Sense and Sensibility is one such novel, where it is said of Marianne Dashwood, “She was born to discover the falsehood of her own opinions . . . [and] voluntarily to give her hand to another!—and that other, a man who had suffered no less than herself under the event of a former attachment, whom two years before, she had considered too old to be married” (321). In other words, where once she disregarded the affections of Colonel Brandon (the man in question), she now recognizes her misjudgement of his character, and after going through a similar heartbreak, understands him much better.

That Mary Crawford and Lady Susan lack strong morals is further revealed when neither express scruples against adultery. Lady Susan actually engages in a relationship with a married man, on the subject of which Alicia states, “Poor Manwaring gives me such histories of his wife’s jealousy! – Silly woman, to expect constancy from so charming a man!” (Lady Susan 52). This is yet another declaration demonstrating an uncaring attitude towards others. As for Miss Crawford, when her brother elopes with a recently married woman, she reveals that her disappointment is not with the action itself but in their getting caught: “She saw it only as folly, and that folly stamped only by exposure. The want of common discretion, of caution . . . it was the detection, not the offence which she reprobated” (Mansfield Park 422).

This lack of integrity taints many of Lady Susan’s and Miss Crawford’s actions. However, despite their occasional moral reprehensibility, they are still very intentionally attempting to secure their place in a male-dominated culture. No matter how far they go, they are always taking into consideration their place in that culture and adjusting for it; when Lady Susan chooses to reconcile with Reginald the first time, for instance, her thought is not towards her loss of pride but to her potential loss of character in the eyes of others—“It would have been trifling with my reputation, to allow of his departing with such an impression in my disfavour” (Lady Susan 48).

Does this excuse the two women? Certainly not. Their intentions do not erase their harmful actions. It must be argued, however, that it is not convoluted motives, nor even, fully, loose morals that prevent Lady Susan and Mary Crawford from functioning as potential Austen heroines, despite the obviousness of their flaws. For indeed, said heroines are hardly perfect. What makes Mary and Lady Susan ultimately “villainous” is not their disregard for Austen’s moral code but their reluctance to change for the better.

One need only think of the title character of Emma to see an example of a heroine with equally gray morality. Among her many questionable traits are listed “the power of having rather too much of her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself” (Emma 3). What prevents her from falling into the same category as Mary and Lady Susan is that, when she eventually recognizes the poorness of her attitude, she chooses to rectify the mistake: “She had been often remiss . . . scornful, ungracious. But it should be so no more” (Emma 359-360).

On the other hand, both Lady Susan and Miss Crawford are characterized by an unwillingness to admit when they are wrong. When Reginald is justly incensed at Lady Susan for attempting to force her daughter into an unwanted marriage, Lady Susan’s only reaction is outrage at his taking another’s side: “[He] would have left me in the first angry swelling of his proud heart, without deigning to seek an explanation!” (Lady Susan 49).

As for Mary, though she has every opportunity to admit her feelings for Edmund, she still prioritizes her dreams of being “too rich to lament [any loss of money]” (Mansfield Park 197). During her stay in Mansfield Park, she clearly begins to recognize the merits of true affection, as opposed to the selfish attitudes of the upper-class. She says of the residents of the household, “You have all so much more heart among you, than one finds in the world at large” (Mansfield Park 333). There is every opportunity to change, much like Emma changes in her own novel. She does not.

This, then, is where Austen's sympathy falters. Miss Crawford could have been happy and financially secure—not disgustingly rich, but certainly not lacking in any access to funds. Instead, she chooses to hold on to her prejudices against Edmund’s profession. It is this that separates her from Austen’s heroines and gives her the label of "antagonist" here.

With this in mind, one must consider: do these characters get their “just deserts?” In a sense, no. They choose the approval of society over virtue or love, and in the eyes of society, they are successful. Lady Susan marries an incredibly rich man, who succumbs to her every whim (Lady Susan 68). Mary Crawford returns to London (Mansfield Park 435), where she will no doubt find someone of great standing to whom she can attach herself.

Critically, however, Austen notes that one of the costs of their success is a loss of good conscience: at the end of Lady Susan it is specifically stated, “[Lady Susan] had nothing against her, but her husband, and her conscience” (Lady Susan 68). Given that Lady Susan scarcely pays her conscience any due, and since her husband is very much not against her and seems unlikely to become so, it might be said that yes, she is happy with her choice to pursue a worldly life, though she does consider her husband’s temperament “contemptibly weak” (Lady Susan 4).

Mary, on the other hand, is “long in finding among the dashing representatives or idle heir apparents … any one . . . whose character and manners could authorise a hope of the domestic happiness she had [at Mansfield Park] learned to estimate” (Mansfield Park 436). She cannot ignore her own conscience with regards to the unlikelihood of experiencing “domestic happiness” ever again. She, then, is not happy, though she is still rich.

In the end, that Lady Susan and Mary Crawford choose monetary security over happiness is not condemned by Austen, and their outcomes match their ambition. Or to put it another way, “[An] unceasing attention to self-interest . . . will [achieve much] in securing every advantage of fortune, with no other sacrifice than that of time and conscience” (Sense and Sensibility 319). If one does not possess Austen’s sense of morality, the fate of a “gray villain” is, in fact, quite favorable. Such success, however, comes at the cost of deeper values—love, virtue, etc.—and to Austen, that is no success at all.

Works Cited
  • Austen, Jane. Emma. 1816. Barnes & Noble Classics, 2004.
  • _____. Lady Susan, The Watsons, Sanditon. Penguin Classics, 1974, pp. 1-68.
  • _____. Mansfield Park. 1814. Penguin Classics, 1996.
  • _____. Pride and Prejudice. 1813. Barnes & Noble Classics, 2003.
  • _____. Sense and Sensibility. 1811. Penguin Classics, 1995.
‹ Back to Publication