Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Mansfield Park: Henry Crawford - The Archetypal Rake?

I have to admit here that Mansfield Park is probably my least favourite of Jane Austen’s books. Maybe I took against it because we read it at school after we had enjoyed the accessibility and comedy of Pride and Prejudice and in comparison it is much more serious and grown up. As an adult I can appreciate that there are very interesting themes in Mansfield Park, such as education and the family. But I still find both Fanny Price and Edmund Bertram rather too “good” to be engaging, and Fanny too passive. Perhaps this is a reflection on modern readership. In Jane Austen’s day female behaviour was fairly circumscribed (think, for example, of Jane herself requiring a male relative to escort her if she wanted to travel anywhere) so Fanny’s behaviour is probably fairly true to life. Unfortunately that can grate with a modern readership who like their heroines to be active and spirited – the Elizabeth Bennet type!

Anyway, when I read Mansfield Park I always find myself wanting to write an alternative ending. But there is one character in the book whom I find absolutely fascinating, and that is Henry Crawford. Henry could be seen as an archetypal rake, and like many other Regency authors I have a soft spot for a rake. If you want to create a rake character – a real rake, ruthless, motivated by arrogance and vanity, not a “fake” rake who is actually quite nice - you could do a lot worse than studying Henry’s character.

Jane Austen never refers to Henry in those terms, or course. She gives him a slightly softer edge and the possibility of redemption, describing him as “ruined by early independence and bad domestic example, indulged in… a cold-blooded vanity a little too long.” But she makes no concessions to the fact that Henry set out to flirt with the Bertram sisters and to gain their approval and good opinion, and that he did it not through any virtuous motive but a desire for entertainment and to fulfil his vanity.

The true rake was a man of pleasure and leisure, whose life revolved around racing, gambling, drinking and/or womanising. Henry Crawford is subtle because he does not make his intentions obvious. He uses the drawing room for his campaigns, flattering women over a game of cards, or walking with them in the gardens, using the opportunity of general conversation to target a particular woman. These are all tactical manoeuvres, taking advantage of social groupings. Yet all the time he defuses suspicion by smoothing people over with skilful interpersonal skills. He has the charm and style to be both admired by women and liked by men.

There is no such thing as safe ground when Henry is present. He is a dangerous man and can be lethal, as he shows when he runs off with Maria Rushworth. Jane Austen suggests that Henry did not deliberately intend to ruin Mrs Rushworth by eloping with her but that he was too arrogant to accept that she no longer liked him and deliberately set out to turn her head. Then, when he had her affection, he was too weak to refuse her. Since Regency society condoned male sexual indiscretion and scandal a great deal more than female, it was Maria who was disgraced whilst Henry would no doubt recover to move on to other conquests.

The alternative ending that I always want to give Mansfield Park is, of course, for Henry to reform through the transforming power of the heroine Fanny’s love and become a better person. Tantalisingly this is always an option. Henry does genuinely love Fanny “rationally as well as passionately,” but he could not persuade her to love him in return. I always felt that this was Henry’s turning–point. He lost Fanny and went to the bad, his dark side, when he had had and lost the potential to become a better man. Poor Henry – Jane Austen was rather cruel to him, giving him a glimpse of the man he could have become under the influence of Fanny’s “sweetness of temper, purity of mind and excellence of principles” and then snatching it all away!


Blogger Anna Campbell said...

Interesting comment about Henry Crawford being the archetypical rake, Nicola. And as in many modern stories, there is a chance that the right woman's love could save him. Unfortunately, unlike many a recent historical, the right woman doesn't love him back and he takes the wrong path as a result. Personally, I couldn't see why he loved Fanny - she's such a pill!

12:35 PM  
Blogger Nightwriter said...

This is also one of my least favourite Austen books - simply because I just couldn't identify with Fanny. If Henry appeared in one of today's historicals you can bet that in the next book he would be redeemed by a determined heroine and a new best seller would be on the stands, hmmmm .....

1:47 PM  

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