Life at Mansfield Park livens up with the arrival of a dashing brother and sister to a neighbouring house, namely Henry Crawford and his sister Mary.
Poor Fanny Price has been in love with her older cousin Edmund for years – while he regards her with discouraging, cousinly affection. He has been kind to her, while his sisters Maria and Julia have treated her insensitivly, scorning her as their social inferior; she has been treated as a sort of higher servant as often as not, and this attitude has been encouraged by their officious Aunt Norris; now she has to watch her beloved cousin falling in love with the pretty, charming Mary Crawford.
She is also outraged by the heartless flirting of Henry, who encourages both Maria and Julia, presumably out of a combination of having nothing better to do and vanity, as he doesn’t have serious designs on either of them and he is hardly going to scheme the seduction of either girl (at this point).
Maria, disappointed that Henry’s admiration had no serious purpose, insists on going through with the loveless match with Mr Rushworth, seemingly out of hurt pride as much as anything. Even the less-than-senstive Sir Bertram advises her against it.
Henry now turnshis attentions to Fanny Price, that bastion of virginal purity. He thinks it will be amusing to make her fall in love with him; not, he tells his sister Mary, too badly, but enough for her to think on his going away ‘that she will never be happy again’. Mary makes a very cursory objection to this targeting of an innocent girl, and then seemingly dismisses any concerns about Fanny Price from her consciousness, being too taken up with trying to discourage Edmund from taking orders to worry any further about his poor relative’s feelings. For her, every vicar must be a Mr Collins (the hypocritical toady from Pride and Prejudice); she cannot marry a vicar.
Fanny Price, of course, can think of nothing better than marrying Edmund when he takes holy orders…
Henry Crawford works hard at winning Fanny’s approval, and in so doing, the worldly cynic finds himself falling in love with her for real. The tables are nicely turned, and it is impossible for the reader not to think that it serves him right. Having hurt so many women with his trifling, it is only fair that he should suffer himself for a while, and suffer he does, for he is truly in love with Fanny Price and longs for her in a romantic way that has previously been beyond his imagination. He speedily proposes, and receives as speedy a rejection; Sir Thomas Bertram is outraged…
For all that, though, I did want her to return his feelings and for him to prevail in the end; the careless rogue brought to heel and a happy ending, with Mary reconciled to Edward’s becoming a vicar (a happy ending for poor Maria Rushworth is obviously not possible).
Sadly, it doesn’t work out like that; Henry has been dismissed to his country estates to do good works by the peremptory Fanny. He humbly starts off, but encounters Maria Rushworth in London society, who now treats him with repellent coldness.
This potential Eugene Onegin situation ends up with an oddly passionless sounding elopement between Henry and Maria. Fanny is so horrified that she spends nights shuddering at the thought of that irregular relationship while Mary Crawford disgusts Edmund by her matter- of-fact attitude about it; Henry soon tires of Maria and goes womanising off, while poor Maria is made to go and live in seclusion with her toady Aunt Norris. Edmund falls in love with Fanny and they marry.
As I have said, I agree with Cassandra Austen that a nice, romantic true conversion of Henry would have been just the thing. Not that I believe that women should ‘fix’ abusive men, but because I would like Henry to realise the error of his ways through his having, for the first time, felt love himself.
Jane Austen refused to change the ending; she only modified it to the extent of admitting that if Henry had behaved himself and Edmund married Mary, then Henry’s courtship of Fanny must have won her over in the end…
‘Like a Ton of Coals’ being delivered is how Agnes the maid puts her Tarot reading prediction of how Sophie will fall for Émile in my own story concnerning the relationship of a Poor Relative Companion and her socially superior womanising admirer. I used to hear that CRASH! in my own childhood, and it is pretty spectacular.
Of course, as Sophie has already been infatuated with The Scoundrel from afar for years (she does love a romantic dream and has the habit of reading novels by Richardson on Sunday afternoons instead of her Bible), the groundwork has already been done for him. He’s her hero because he managed to smuggle his sister Charlotte out of France and risked his life for years trying to get his parents out of prison.
The stories of Sophie’s grand relative’s bravery would, of course, come back from France, cut of from Great Britain by the war, in a series of dribs and drabs from other émigrés. Little do people know how Émile lives as Gilles Long Legs, running a sort of eighteenth century protection racket along with Felix the Professor and Marcel Sly Boots.
Agnes also warns Sophie that both the dark and fair man coming from abroad are ‘rascals’; Sophie is confident then: ‘Really, Agnes! I would never encourage the advances of a rascal’. There speaks the voice of inexperience.
When the fair and the dark men do arrive in the form of Émile and his valet Georges, Sophie is astonished at Émile’s insistence that they have met before in some romantic encounter in Paris, where she knows she could not possibly have been. She even wonders if he has been driven a little off his head by his misfortunes – his sole sibling to survive the firing of the family Château – sister Charlotte – having recently died and his parents having now been guillotined – but for all this, he can’t conceal his besotted attitude and she soon starts returning it, while the misunderstanding between them leads to his responding to the advances of the sinister Ceridwen Kenrick, who has an agenda of her own.
Unlike Henry Crawford’s feelings for Fanny Price at the beginning, Émile’s feelings for Sophie are always sincere – though he comes to suspect her of having what he sees as a disreputable secret to conceal in her refusal to acknowledge that they met in Paris, which leads him to make a practical, but from her point of view shocking offer for her to come and be his mistress at Dubois Court – but like Henry Crawford, he has a rakish history and seems a bad prospect for an innocent young girl. Even his doting Aunt can see that, but Sophie is happy to chance far worse dangers from him than being an unhappy wife.
Émile’s wooing of Sophie is, of course, immeasurably helped by the fact that unlike Fanny Price, her sexuality is not repressed; she is well aware of her own sensuous nature, and is happy to start replacing Émile’s family with him asap…