the portraits of George Wickham of Pride and Prejudice, William Elliot of Persuasion, and Lucy Steele of Sense and Sensibility hang in the Austen gallery of scoundrels and sharpers. The likenesses of the Thorpes of Northanger Abbey and of Mrs. Norris of Mansfield Park are also displayed along the corridor. Donald Greene, however, would not leave it at labeling them scoundrels; Jane Austen, he claims, created “monsters.”1 According to Greene, “there are depths of the knowledge of evil—as well as of good—in Jane Austen’s writings” (263). Despite the closing of Mansfield Park – “Let other tongues dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can, impatient to restore everybody not greatly in fault themselves to tolerable comfort, and to have done with all the rest” – Greene maintains that Austen’s style of comedy is about as lighthearted as Dante’s (262-63). In his estimation, Austen’s knowledge and display of the depths of human perversity link her to the great Russian tragic writers, including the “grimmest of them, Dostoevski.”
In contrast, Leo Strauss argues that Austen’s works reflect a noble reserve and quiet grandeur reminiscent of the classics. Unlike most modern writers, Austen displays a preference for things moderate and ennobling over the sentimental and brutal (Strauss, “What is Political Philosophy?” 103-04). Her art represents a cheerfulness about the comedy of our being rather than a dirge on the dark night of the soul. “Those modern readers who are so fortunate as to have a natural preference for Jane Austen rather than Dostoevski, in particular,” Strauss claims, “have an easier access to Xenophon [and the classics] than others might have . . .” Like her classical progenitors, Austen understood that “it is both noble and just, and pious and more pleasant to remember the good things rather than the bad ones” (104).
Eva Brann also argues that Austen’s novels display a decided penchant for the good. Jane Austen “knows what the angels know – that happiness is more worthy of note than unhappiness” (Brann, 27). Furthermore, Brann argues, Austen’s novels are “mirthful throughout,” displaying an openness and simplicity that defies the search for hidden or obscure depths. “No symbols, metaphors, mere patterns, or levels of abstraction are to be found in [Austen’s novels] . . . which is why . . . [they] so repel literary criticism” (30). Devoid of political and philosophical references as well as moral didacticism, Austen’s novels simply imitate the moral world in which she herself was bred—dignified, elegant, and sedately rational, where there exists “nothing very vicious and nothing very violent” (32, 33, 38). Although some of Austen’s (deliberately) unpublished works do contain a certain amount of treachery, scheming cruelty, and sordidness, her published volumes “deal only with domesticated vices and with venial sins . . .” (38). In fact, Brann asserts, every one of Austen’s characters has some saving grace and, try as one may, “there is nothing ominous or subversive to be found lurking within this lucid moral world in which people may indeed do dreadful, but never dubious deeds” (40-41).
These divergent interpretations raise the question of the essential character of Austen’s work. In what manner and to what extent does Austen reveal her knowledge of good and evil? Surely, Strauss and Brann capture the essence of Austen’s spirit: Her preference for the noble and felicitous is genuine. She makes the good things her readers’ first impressions and her own first principles. Austen’s rakes and rogues are bad enough, but they are not imprinted with the monstrous facades and melodramatic evil of their eighteenth-century counterparts in Gothic romances. For the most part they are rather ordinarily flawed folk. While we have no need to fear them, we would be wise to be on our guard when in their company.
I would disagree with Brann, however, that treachery and cruelty are not to be found in any of Austen’s published novels. The exception, I believe, is Mansfield Park, Austen’s darker comedy, in which she shows a duplicitous and dangerous type of human being whose capacity for moral vice cannot be located among the common human failings. Like Shakespeare’s darker comedy The Tempest, all finally ends well, but only after an Archimedean struggle between virtue and vice. There is, finally, no haunting abyss in this or any of Austen’s texts, as Greene would have it, but at Mansfield Park there are perilous undertows that threaten to engulf the gently frolicking surface of the human comedy. This peril is presented in the character of the Crawfords.
Despite Austen’s ultimate and clear condemnation of the Crawfords, much of contemporary scholarship bemoans their literary fates. It is a common cant of critics that they would delight in an evening with Henry and Mary Crawford and anticipate in horror having to spend one with Fanny Price and Edmund Bertram. The heroine and hero of Mansfield Park, they say, are simply too good. A union between Henry and Fanny, and Mary and Edmund, would have been a more satisfactory ending to the novel than the dull and lifeless marriage between Fanny and Edmund. Moreover, Henry would not have run off with Mrs. Rushworth if it were not for Fanny’s unreasonable resistance. Henry might have avoided dishonor and all might have ended gaily if only Fanny had been less of a prig.2 In other words, the final moral failure of Henry Crawford is Fanny Price’s fault.3 In the film Mansfield Park, Patricia Rozema adopts the ending Austen wrote, but only after teasing her audience with a scene in which Fanny does accept Henry. Although Rozema’s Henry is not redeemed in the end, his fall into infamy occurs only after Fanny’s inconstancy toward him. Like much of contemporary literary criticism, Rozema cannot accept Fanny for who she is or condemn Henry and Mary for what they have rejected.4 These revisionist interpretations of the novel cannot accept Austen’s account because, like the Crawfords, they have rejected the orientation and obscured the moral perspective that inspired Austen in her writing of Mansfield Park. This is the affliction of our times. We are too easily charmed by the subversive.
Austen deliberately made her heroine and hero of Mansfield Park serious, humble, and pious, just as she made their nemeses witty, vain, and irreverent. Fanny Price is the only character in the novel who consistently resists the Crawfords’ efforts and maintains as her standard all that they would alter or destroy.5 Mansfield Park warns us of the subtle and devastating dangers presented by the Crawfords, which have a particular attraction for people in the modern age. Unlike Austen’s ordinarily flawed characters, the Crawfords are not primarily motivated by the commonplace desire for money, social status, security, or sex, nor are they the least bit sentimental. There is in fact nothing ordinary about them or their devices and desires. They are not only themselves corrupted, but they are bent upon dominating the wills and corrupting the souls of others. Rich, clever, and charming, they know how to captivate their audience and “take in” the unsuspecting. With the possible exception of Lady Susan,6 no other characters in Austen’s works rival them for their cleverness and degeneracy.
In Lady Susan Austen presents the new moral perspective that, at the close of the eighteenth century, had moved beyond philosophical circles and seeped into the literature of fashionable society. Lady Susan is Austen’s transitional novel between her juvenilia and more mature writings, penned at the age of eighteen. Written in the popular epistolary style of the time, it deals with the themes of seduction, deceit, and domination, revealing the title character’s cunning and amoral stratagems in a ream of conniving correspondence. The style and themes Austen develops in Lady Susan are remarkably similar to another eighteenth century novel, Choderlos de Laclos’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses (or Dangerous Acquaintances). According to Warren Roberts, Austen undoubtedly became acquainted with Laclos’s work through her sophisticated cousin, Eliza de Feuillide, who resided in France and frequently traveled to England to visit the Austen family (128-29). In fact, Roberts argues, Les Liaisons Dangereuses “can be almost certainly to have been Austen’s model” for Lady Susan (Roberts, 128; cf. Davies 256-58, Drabble 13, Bradbrook 123). In the character of Lady Susan, Austen develops the themes of sexual exploitation and the moral subversion of society, mirroring the stratagems and objectives of Laclos’s characters, the Vicomte de Valmont and the Marquise de Merteuil. In Austen’s text, the hypocrisy and scheming cruelties of Lady Susan are laid bare to the reader, just as they are in Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Austen never attempted to publish this work and, after one more try at the epistolary style in her first draft of Sense and Sensibility (originally entitled Elinor and Marianne), she left it behind. She herself was apparently not satisfied with Lady Susan; the style was not her forte and its approach to moral inquiry did not capture the subtlety that she would employ so masterfully in her later novels.
In Mansfield Park, and particularly in the characters of Henry and Mary Crawford, Austen again takes up and expands on the themes she began to explore in Lady Susan, presenting a more mature, complex and nuanced portrait. Like Lady Susan, and also like Merteuil and Valmont of Laclos’s novel, Henry and Mary Crawford are clever, deceptive, conniving, and cruel. Their modes of manipulation and deceit, however, are more subtly veiled in Mansfield Park than in Lady Susan. Embodying the new morality, the Crawfords are bent on perverting the traditional moral fabric of society. Their triumph would be the fulfillment of their deepest desires, the founding of a new moral dominion and the achievement of personal glory. Austen illustrates the extraordinary ambition of the Crawfords by juxtaposing them against their traditional counterparts, Edmund and Fanny, whose spirits they must bend if their conquest is to be successful. Through a variety of themes, including activity and business versus rest and leisure, the whole-scale remodeling of nature versus a respect for nature, concern for the things of this world versus concern for the heavenly and divine, deception versus truth, moral flexibility versus constancy, and domination versus freedom, Austen shows the assault on the western tradition and the attempt to replace traditional morality and religion by a stunningly new ethos.
The Laclos model Austen utilizes to create the Crawfords was, I believe, patterned on the views of another well known and infamous author. The themes of Laclos’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses parallel Machiavelli’s thematic schema, particularly as presented in The Prince and Mandragola. Not only does Laclos replicate Machiavelli’s themes, he also adopts his method of presentation. His heroes are presented to the reader in a manner deliberately intended both to shock and repel, charm and captivate, thus making them appear morally ambiguous. The reader sees that they are corrupt, but only after she has already been taken in by their brilliance, high spirits, and daring. Insight into the protagonists’ characters comes just moments after the audience has been made their sympathetic allies in crime, producing a shocking effect. Still, it is difficult not to laugh with them at the insipid human beings who surround them, though on reflection we must see that we are probably laughing at ourselves. Machiavelli and Laclos manipulate the audience into at least partial sympathy with their amoral heroes by compelling them to take part in their crimes. At the same time, the audience is distanced from the victims and their pain. According to Wayne Rebhorn, Machiavelli presents the dupe character more as an object than as a person, so that the reader “cannot enter into his feelings and identify with him in his defeat and humiliation” (22). In addition, “the swindle is often made to benefit the dupe in some way, perhaps increasing his feelings of security and power or his domestic and marital happiness, even if they are all based on illusion.” This strategy is employed to keep the protagonist from becoming a “monster.” It retains the moral ambiguity of the hero which would otherwise be threatened by “the resistance of the chaste, morally conscious heroine” (22-23).
Like the heroes of the Prince and Mandragola, Laclos’s Valmont and Merteuil are morally ambiguous characters, with the power both to repel and attract. So too are Henry and Mary Crawford of Mansfield Park, whose dual ability to repulse and to captivate still produces intense interpretive controversy among readers of the novel. The creation of the Crawfords is the work of a master craftswoman: They are expertly and exquisitely drawn Machiavellian characters. Unlike Machiavelli and Laclos, however, Austen does not manipulate her readers into an alliance in crime with the Crawfords before they have the opportunity to be on guard. Rather, she forewarns her readers. In the same chapter that we are introduced to the Crawfords as attractive, lively, pleasant, young people of fortune, we are also told that they were educated and spoiled in the home of an uncle of “vicious conduct” (MP 42). Shortly thereafter we receive our first dose of the Crawford philosophy, with Mary declaring that “‘Every body is taken in’” in life, especially in marriage (46). Or if not everyone, Mary continues, at least ninety-nine out of one hundred are taken in, leaving the reader to suspect that the proclaimer of this philosophy has likely elected to be one of the few tricksters rather than a member of the majority of dupes.
After providing us fair warning, Austen does subtly create the conditions that might lead the reader to a morally ambiguous view of the Crawfords. She consciously makes Henry and Mary Crawford vibrant, intelligent, witty, and alluring, at the same time that they engage in actions that are morally repugnant. She does this not to manipulate the reader, but to put her in a position in which she has to exercise her own powers of observation and judgment. This demands a word in partial defense of all the readers and scholars who dislike Fanny Price so much. In order to encourage her readers to think for themselves, Austen avoids creating monsters in the form of the Crawfords. This requires that we are somewhat distanced from the pain and humiliation of the “chaste, morally conscious heroine.” Fanny is pure and poor and plain and timid and sickly and without wit. She is also rather prudish. Though not moral vices, these qualities are certainly not intended to attract the audience to the heroine. Indeed, we have to work at liking Fanny Price. Austen deliberately makes it difficult for us to enter into easy sympathy with Fanny so that we will not reject the Crawfords uncomprehendingly. She encourages us to exercise our judgment and freedom of choice in a morally responsible manner by creatively reproducing the moral perspective that Machiavelli attacked. She accomplishes this by turning the Machiavellian mode of manipulation upon itself.
Machiavelli shunned the ordinary. He meant to do something amazing, to recreate the moral world in his own image, and he meant to achieve his goal by duping most of us. Early commentators on Machiavelli were shocked by his maxims. Today this reaction is rare. Harvey Mansfield, with more than a touch of irony, comforts those who fear an overreaction to Machiavelli’s teaching: “In our situation,” he writes, “the danger that we might regenerate the uncomprehending moral indignation of the early anti-Machiavellians is minimal. We moderns are too cool, and we need a spark to sustain our interest in a question that used to stir serious passion.” In our day, we are reluctant “to face the problem of evil” (7-8). Quentin Skinner merely remarks that modern commentators have confronted even Machiavelli’s most outrageous maxims “with an air of conscious worldliness.”7 Skinner himself refrains from praise or blame, reminding us only of Machiavelli’s greatness. In contrast, Shakespeare once made reference to “the murderous Machiavel.” If what was once astonishing has become rather commonplace, it will obviously seem less innovative or amazing. Our inoculation to the shocking may have diminished our capacity to comprehend the nature and full impact of Machiavelli’s teaching. In our time, the reverse problem that accompanied early readings of Machiavelli often accompanies readings of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. We cannot understand Austen’s heroine in this novel, who seems so unbearably good and insufferably unsophisticated. After all, Fanny Price’s acute horror and moral indignation at some of the actions of others seem a puerile overreaction to a people tutored in the truths of Machiavelli.
According to Machiavelli, the fundamental and unyielding reality of human life is rivalry. All people desire the seemingly limited goods of this world, and many of them are willing to get them through less than pure means. In order to survive and prosper in the real world, Machiavelli teaches his youthful readers and potential “new princes” that they must “learn to be able not to be good” (Prince 61). This fact of life dictates the ways of the world and is ostensibly the basis for Machiavelli’s new instruction regarding religion and morality. Machiavelli’s new moral code is an assault on traditional morality and Christianity. The ideal orders envisioned in the Christian kingdom of God and the classical idea of the best regime provided the traditional western standards for how human beings should live. Machiavelli calls these orders “imaginary,” and argues that we should take our bearings not from how human beings should live but from how they actually do live (Prince 61). Since we live among so many men who are not good, in order to escape ruin we are compelled to learn the modes of the amoral. Machiavelli would have us believe that his advocacy of amorality is not due to an attachment to vice or evil for its own sake. Rather, he claims, since neither nature nor God sets the standards for human conduct in this world, but mere men do, and particularly the many who are not good, to counteract their means and attain one’s own good and the good of the state one is forced to adopt their amoral strategies.
Machiavelli does not claim that man is a solitary, anti-social being; he is no lover of anarchy or formulator of a state of nature doctrine. In fact he assumes human society and understands that society cannot exist without moral goodness. But just as society needs moral goodness and virtue, moral virtue is also contingent on society and its needs. Herein lies the paradox. To the extent that moral virtue is defined by society’s needs, the actions required to meet these needs are determined by the realities of that society and of human associations in general. Given the unyielding fact of human acquisitiveness and rivalry, the maintenance of social order will at times require the prince to engage in activities that no one (or at least few) could call virtuous. The same can be said for the founding of states, which always requires actions that few would dare call virtuous (Prince 35). Whether the crime of fratricide that enabled Romulus to found Rome, or the expert use of cruelty practiced by Severus, Machiavelli argues that the virtue of such actions is not to be understood in light of the unattainable standards of imaginary kingdoms. Adherence to the old standards leads men and whole societies to ruin. Virtue must be grounded in the new standard of the actual good and does not, as traditionally argued, consist in a natural moral ordering of the soul. Compelled to abandon “virtue” in the classical and Christian sense, or rather to redefine it, the new virtue (virtj) consists of a combination of the traditional meaning of virtue and vice. This new definition liberates man to exercise his freewill outside the dictates of morality; it allows the prince the moral flexibility he needs to combat the power of necessity.
Machiavelli establishes his new understanding of morality purely on the basis of man’s physical being. For the classics and Christians the excellence of the soul represents man’s highest perfection, manifested in the contemplative life and the monastic life, respectively. Leisure, in one case to pursue philosophy and in the other for prayer, is superior to the physical activity of doing or producing or “busi-ness.” Politics and the earthly things are subordinate to contemplation or worship of the divine. Machiavelli, in contrast, seeks to effect a transformation for (not of) man. He reinterprets the lofty aims of Socrates and St. Augustine to make them serve strictly earthly ends. For Machiavelli, the highest concern of man is political, i.e., for conquest of the physical and material world. Philosophy and religion can assist in the achievement of political ends by becoming active in the search to relieve man’s condition on earth. This requires, for the great minds at least, that contemplation of the best regime be abandoned and that God be forsaken.
Machiavelli teaches that the things of the body do not have to be subordinated to the things of the soul (Parel 87). Freedom from bad fortune and unhappiness can be gained in an alternate, wholly new way. We learn in chapter 25 of The Prince that although men believe fortune to be part of God’s providence and so outside of man’s power to change, it is actually not a part of any divine plan. Machiavelli teaches that the man of enough daring and cunning does not have to endure the whims of God or chance (Fortuna). Such a man can beat Fortuna at her own game if he is willing to be as morally fickle and flexible as she is. “Fortune is a woman,” Machiavelli writes, “and it is necessary, if one wants to hold her down, to beat her and strike her down” (Prince 101). In other words, the new prince must be ethically bound by nothing; he must be willing to dare all.
Not only is man not limited by God or nature, as heretofore believed, but he has the ability to forge nature and transform the world. To accomplish this, the illusions of God and nature must be revealed; the charm must be broken. In its stead the new prince must cast a new charm, luring others to do what is (or rather what has traditionally been thought to be) strictly prohibited, thereby recruiting them into his new and daring project. This is no facile challenge since the old modes and orders have a sustained lock on the minds and hearts of the many. Hence the prince must engage in deception—the most clever and beguiling kind of deception—that irresistibly lures his prey into participating in his criminal mentality. He accomplishes this by various forms of trenchant trickery, including the posing of profane puns and riddles that compel the listener to supply the profanity himself. The listener thereby becomes not merely a tool of the prince, but his accomplice in the desecration (Strauss, Thoughts on Machiavelli 50). This can be achieved without much difficulty, however, since most people are uncritical and prone to self-deception (Prince 70; cf. Skinner 44). As Rebhorn puts it, Machiavelli’s world is essentially divided into tricksters and dupes (45). Ruth Grant divides Machiavelli’s call for hypocrisy into three classes: 1) cunning tricks that enable you to outwit your opponent; 2) making promises you have no intention of honoring when it is no longer in your interest to do so; and 3) “true” hypocrisy, or cultivating the appearance of moral goodness, virtue or religiosity while actually bent on advancing your own ends (18-19).
For Machiavelli there are essentially two kinds of people with distinct natures or “humors”: the many vulgar who desire not to be commanded, and the few who possess greatness of mind and spirit and the desire to command (Discourses I.4; cf. Parel 101). Only the latter type has the kind of temperament and spirit that can possibly succeed against Fortuna.8 They are the potential new princes; they are innovators, not imitators, who disdain the “beaten path” trodden by others (Prince 22). The potential new princes are young and impetuous and willing to risk all for the gain of empire and glory. According to Mansfield, the animus of the new prince is “surely male, representing aggressiveness,” though the possibility of a woman filling this role should not be ruled out, for the Florentine “had his female favorites” too.9 Empire or dominion is achieved by the acquisition of new lands, though this is not as difficult or astonishing a feat as dominion over the minds and hearts of men, upon which the achievement of everlasting glory depends. The contention that Machiavelli’s highest aim is political must as such be qualified; the highest end is to achieve victory in the serious game of the politics of the mind. Like the peculiar mind set of those serial criminals who are motivated not by the banal passions of greed, lust, or anger, but by the anticipated thrill of triumphing over the best laid plans of the best minds, Machiavelli’s new prince is no common criminal. He thirsts and burns for distinction, which cannot be gained by easy victories or routine crimes. The challenge must be commensurate with his superior mental powers, much like the selective adventures pursued by Dr. Moriarity. In Machiavelli’s work of fiction, Mandragola, the founder of new modes and orders is a clever and conniving fellow who arranges for the sexual exploitation and moral fall of a particularly virtuous and religious, not to mention married, woman. Aided in his strategy by a corrupt monk, he triumphs over the minds and manners of (formerly) good Christians. The adulterous actions and sexual politics that ensue are but faint replicas of his own amazing powers of mental seduction. What was once to them distant and strange, terrible, and unbearable, is now quite bearable, human, and familiar (Mandragola 35-36). They now think as he thinks, and their consciences do not revolt. Their recruitment has been successful.
Laclos’s Lessons in Conquest and Seduction
Many scholars claim that Choderlos Laclos’s 1782 novel, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, was principally influenced by the philosophy of Jean Jacques Rousseau. Richard Aldington, for example, claims that Valmont and Madame de Merteuil represent the perversion of the Rousseauian noble human being of natural sentiment into “civilized wickedness” (Laclos 32). In contrast, the Présidente de Tourvel is Rousseau’s woman of virtue – all sentiment, compassion, benevolence, and trust (Laclos 48). While the Rousseauian refrain is obvious throughout the novel, there are at least two major difficulties that accompany this interpretation. First, Laclos makes Madame de Tourvel a devout Christian, hardly Rousseau’s ideal human type. Secondly, civil society is not the cause of Valmont’s wickedness; his principles are. According to the insight of Madame de Volanges, Valmont has never in his life done anything without a wicked or criminal purpose. “If, like a thousand others, he were seduced by the errors of his age: while I should blame his conduct, I should pity him personally,” she says. “But Valmont is not like that: his conduct is the consequence of his principles” (Laclos 16-17). The same can be said for the Marquise de Merteuil.
Although I do not dispute that there are Rousseauian themes in Laclos’s novel, I would argue that the themes, style, and tone of the work primarily reflect the influence of Machiavelli. As I will attempt to show, the novel is an almost perfect literary rendition of Machiavelli’s teaching in The Prince, set to the tune of sexual politics (as Machiavelli himself did in Mandragola).10 Les Liaisons Dangereuses is a novel of conquest, intrigue, cleverness, faithlessness, daring, and deceit. Its main characters are personified replications of the triangular dynamics of The Prince, with the new prince waging battle on two separate fronts: against traditional morality and religion on the one hand, and against Fortuna on the other. In Les Liaisons Dangereuses Laclos follows Machiavelli’s casting directives, bringing to vivid life each angle of the triage. Fortuna is personified by the Marquise de Merteuil, a cunning, brassy woman whose sexual escapades with spirited young men are only part and parcel of her amoral repertoire of daring deeds. The Vicomte de Valmont, the new prince, is bent on beating Lady Fortuna at her own game. Traditional virtue is weak and effeminate, personified by the delicacy and Christian piety of the Présidente de Tourvel. Ultimately, the new prince will have to seduce Lady Virtue and war with Lady Fortuna if he is to achieve the immortal glory that is his heart’s true desire.
Traditionally, the answer to the problem of necessity and the unconquerable evils of this world were resignation or prayer, resulting in the repose and tranquility of the human soul. Machiavelli’s solution is constant motion, impetuous activity, and armed conquest. Once one sees that this new path is necessary, Machiavelli teaches, he need no longer lament the loss of the old way. The old way is ineffectual; the new path offers hope for the betterment of the human condition. The substitution of the “effectual truth” of things for the imaginary kingdoms of old unleashes the possibilities of human enterprise in this world. Light is always mixed with darkness, levity with gravity, generosity with stinginess. Necessity compels that one do evil that good may come. Valmont captures perfectly the new prince’s insight into the benefits produced by cruel necessity: “Necessity had produced the great, the true effect…” (100).
Valmont is not one for idleness or suffering the stagnant waters of tranquility. Even in the countryside, a place “as wearisome as sentiment and as dull as fidelity,” he creates his own opportunities for amusement and adventure. Intent on glory – and for the master seducer Valmont the bed is his “field of …glory” – Laclos’s new prince disdains “the beaten path” strewn with mere successes, choosing rather to take “the most difficult or the most amusing course” (192, 294). He will not be one “to crawl servilely in the trace of others, and to triumph without glory!” (376). The amazing conquests that had once been the sole province of Fortuna are now also within his reach. Some are easy, mere child’s play. The sexual conquest and exploitation of Cécile Volanges and the Chevalier Danceny by Valmont and Merteuil, respectively, are hardly worth their efforts, so ignorant and naïve are these insipid youth. They are mere “fools” put on earth for their “minor pleasures” (176).
Much more difficult and challenging, much more delicious and deserving of Valmont’s art and skill, is the “angelic” Présidente de Tourvel, the model of austere moral principles, piety, and constancy. She is the timid and “pretty prude,” whose rebellious looks give her countenance “a new beauty” (134). In response to Madame de Tourvel’s resistance, Valmont devises a strategy of conquest, well aware that he must appear virtuous and pious in her eyes if he is to succeed. Hypocrisy is no obstacle for the Vicomte; he attends church (though Tourvel “does not realize who is the divinity [he] adore[s]”), provides charitable donations to the poor (which he makes sure is reported back to her), and acts the smitten, sacrificing lover to the Puritanical “tender prude” who lacks natural gaiety (71, 145, 147, 325). In all of this, Valmont maintains that he hates anything that looks like deceit (236). He does not say, however, that he hates deceit.
Valmont’s objective in the conquest and acquisition of Madame de Tourvel is not limited to sexual seduction. The victory he seeks has as much to do with her mind and heart as with her body. He aims for “a complete victory, achieved by a hard campaign and decided by expert maneuvers” (336). The triumph will be entirely owing to himself alone, and the vision of the excessive pleasure that will be his has already created within him “the soft impression of the feeling of glory.” Valmont’s intent is not to destroy Madame de Tourvel’s principles, but to engage her in actions for which her “prejudices” will “torture her.” “They will add to my happiness and fame,” he remarks; “let her believe in virtue, but let her sacrifice it to me . . . I shall indeed be the God she has preferred” (75). Like Machiavelli’s new prince, if his virtue is to be shocking, it must have something to shock: the conscience (Mansfield 25; cf. Strauss, Thoughts on Machiavelli 193-95). The ruin of Cécile’s moral innocence was not really an extraordinary accomplishment. It is not unusual for vice to overcome virtue. The destruction of Madame de Tourvel’s moral tranquility is a victory worthy of the new prince. Virtue will join hands with vice; they will be accomplices together in the formation of a new and striking virtj.
With Valmont’s increasingly intensified attentions, Madame de Tourvel pleads with him to leave her soul in peace. As she has learned from her holy religion, only it, even in this world, can provide the solid and lasting basis of happiness human beings vainly seek for through the blindness of their passions (332; cf. 161). In Valmont’s response, he reveals his perspective on the life of quiet contemplation and devotion: “Cold tranquility, the soul’s sleep, the image of death, do not lead to happiness,” he tells her; “only the active passions can lead to it” (151). “Fervent prayers” and “humble supplications” offered to the divinity are ineffectual, based on an illusion, offered by mortals out of fear (261). Madame de Merteuil as Lady Fortuna possesses first hand knowledge of this. Like the Divinity, she herself receives “the prayers of blind mortals,” though changes nothing in her “immutable decrees” (177). Merteuil and Valmont know that acting in accordance with an alleged natural hierarchy of the soul ordained by the divine author of the universe does not bring human happiness in this or any world. The longing for the eternal is illusory, an obstacle to the pleasures of human action and glory. Nature and the Divinity, however, can be remodeled into an effectual image for the material and physical world. Madame de Merteuil claims for herself alone the powers once reserved for the Divinity, but she is challenged by Valmont, who seeks to become the God human beings prefer (75, 177).
The rivalry between Valmont and Merteuil – between the new prince and Fortuna – is presented in dramatic detail throughout the course of the novel. It is a game of life and death. Madame de Merteuil has spent her life cultivating a reputation of superiority and invincibility; she “must conquer or perish” (220, 223, 227). Valmont refuses to be Fortuna’s boy toy. He vows to “leave nothing to chance” or be “dominated by events” (75, 194). He will not wait for fickle fortune to offer opportunity; he will seize it or create it himself (203). Contrary to Madame de Merteuil’s wishes, Valmont has chosen to pursue Madame de Tourvel, who will provide for him the testing ground in his battle with Fortuna. Directly insulting the Marquise and her claim to be able to direct the events of men, he declares his intent to achieve “a complete triumph over” Tourvel, one which will “owe nothing to opportunity” (221, 273).
With the assistance of a clergyman and Valmont’s aunt, Madame de Rosemonde, a kind of surrogate mother to Tourvel who often refers to her as “my daughter,” Valmont succeeds in seducing the “celestial prude.” Merteuil is angry and jealous and accuses Valmont of being subjugated by love. He has transferred to the person the value he had once attached to success; his heart has imposed on his mind’s calculations. Valmont insists she is wrong, the proof of which is his ongoing affairs with other women. But the Marquise is not persuaded of his indifference to Tourvel. A Sultan may have feelings for a favorite Sultana, she says, but this “does not prevent his often preferring a mere odalisque to her” (372). Merteuil’s sexual jealously of Tourvel is caused by Valmont’s newfound independence and the threat to her position of dominance. The sexual power play between them is symbolic of the Machiavellian political power play for dominance over the things of this world. Their rivalry builds to a crescendo and finally erupts in Letter No. 153. Just prior to this Madame de Merteuil tells Valmont a story, which he correctly perceives is a veiled ultimatum. He must sacrifice Madame de Tourvel or he will lose his reputation and chance for glory. Valmont must resist succumbing to the effeminate loss of control caused by the illusion of love and acknowledge and fear the powers of Fortuna, which are beyond his control. If he does not, he will be ruined.
Valmont complies, insisting that he does not love Tourvel, and that it has always and only been Merteuil who is the object of his passions. The cruelty he then inflicts on Madame de Tourvel is repetitiously intermixed with words of excuse for his actions. The fault is not mine, Valmont declares, “It is beyond my control” (373). It is simply the way of the world.
In return for his obedience to Merteuil’s command, Valmont reminds her of the reward she promised him. Merteuil refuses to make good on her promise. Why should she? Or why should Valmont have trusted her, if he did? After all, she (as Fortuna) is known for her fickle humor, altering tastes, and deceitful ways. It is the way of the world. According to Machiavelli, the prudent person “cannot observe faith, nor should he, when such observance turns against him, and the causes that made him promise have been eliminated” (Prince 69). This is the third form of hypocrisy described by Grant, i.e., making promises one has no intention of keeping when it is no longer in one’s interest to do so. The prudent person will “have a spirit disposed to change as the winds of fortune and variations of things command him” (Prince 70). Valmont is livid; Fortuna will not surrender. He angrily demands sexual gratification from Merteuil. Their rivalry can no longer be played out in the shadows, with no clear victor emerging. It has reached its climax and he and Merteuil must now be either lovers or enemies. Valmont repays Merteuil’s earlier ultimatum with one of his own. Peace and union, or war? “Very well,” Merteuil responds. “War!”
The warfare Machiavelli alludes to between the new prince and Fortuna in The Prince, replete with innuendo of sexual violence and domination, is vividly brought to life in the pages of Laclos’s novel. In both texts Lady Fortuna is finally outfoxed by the new prince. Unmasked, her reputation for invincibility is destroyed forever. The new prince himself must die a mortal’s death, but the issue of whether he succeeds in attaining the everlasting glory that has been his heart’s desire remains. In Laclos’s work there is seemingly also the remaining question of whether the final triumph belongs to the new prince or to virtue and piety. Subsequent to Valmont’s cruel abuse of Tourvel, he considers a stratagem to win her back – that would be an extraordinary feat deserving the highest glory. Madame Merteuil suspects that he is motivated by the charm of love for Tourvel. She doesn’t like his proposed project at all, for it would enable him to overturn the effects of her command to abandon Tourvel. He would be able to have his cake and eat it too. Did Valmont truly love Madame de Tourvel? Did his heart claim victory over his mind and his Machiavellian principles?11 Did Madame de Tourvel repent her liaison with Valmont and rediscover her true love for the divine, or no?
Central to the dynamic of Laclos’s work is the issue of “constancy.” Following Valmont’s decision to pursue Madame de Tourvel, and throughout the protracted period of her resistance, Valmont repeatedly swears to her his constancy and eternal devotion. “To know you is to love you,” he tells her, “to love you is to be constant to you….I will love you forever” (189; cf. 70). Tourvel initially protests that Valmont means nothing by it, that he is fickle and deceitful (160). Valmont persists, insisting that she has changed him. “When I saw you I was enlightened; I soon recognized that the charm of love was derived from the qualities of the soul” (161). She will at last make him believe in virtue (122). Madame de Tourvel is drawn to the prospect of making Valmont happy; perhaps her pride is flattered by the idea that she will be the cause of Valmont’s reformation. Madame de Rosemonde plays upon her sensitive heart, conscience, and pride, advising her with a cunning mixture of words meant to instill fear and guilt, and to flatter. Valmont is sick and dying from his love for her, she tells Tourvel. Only she can save him. But in another letter – that arrives too late – she warns that Valmont is dangerous and that so many have tried to convert him and deceived themselves in their hopes. “The way to convert him is to resist him forever,” she caringly advises after her nephew has succeeded in his sexual conquest (344).
When he swore “eternal love” to Tourvel, Valmont admits, “I believed what I said” (342). In his passion for Tourvel, he has sometimes had moments of weakness that surprised him. Her “virtues and embellishments” are a “powerful seduction” (232). Yet Valmont also claims that his attraction was not caused by “the charm of love[,]…that pusillanimous passion,” for he has “always been able to overcome [his weakness] and return to [his] principles” (335). His passions are “as unalterable as the virtues which gave birth to them” (161). If traditional virtue has had for him an “unsuspecting charm,” it is one that he vowed to overcome (349). Did he? Though originally determined that the “celestial angel” would experience the “inevitable fall,” and that the time would come when degraded, Tourvel would be merely an ordinary woman to him (261), Valmont seemingly dies professing his unending love and constancy to her.
Valmont’s cruel rejection led Madame de Tourvel, at least initially, to the insight that when a woman yields to him, she loses not only the respect of others, but his as well (167). She concludes that he never loved her (361). His is a “criminal love” and, having become complicit in it, she is now herself “criminal” (167, 405). But this assessment by Tourvel is complicated by two additional letters printed in the Appendix to Les Liaisons Dangereuses. According to an allegedly later publisher, these letters were part of the original manuscript material but were not included in editions of the work published during the author’s lifetime. Through a clever mixture of literary conceit and deceit, Laclos is able to increase the ambiguity of the novel’s ending and deflect responsibility from himself for its teaching. The first letter is from Valmont to Madame de Volanges, his most severe critic, requesting that she deliver his enclosed letter to her dying friend, Madame de Tourvel. Valmont admits to Madame de Volanges that he has “thrust the dagger” into Madame de Tourvel’s “heart,” but that he still loves her and is repentant. He calls upon Volanges to save her friend by delivery of the letter that will restore to her life, health, and happiness. If Volanges does not, she will be responsible for Tourvel’s death. Volanges sends back to Valmont the enclosed letter, refusing to deliver it to Madame de Tourvel; she forwards the other letter on to Madame de Rosemonde. Is Valmont to be believed, Volanges asks Rosemonde, or is he determined to deceive everyone to the bitter end? The reader is not given a clear answer to this question. She must speculate on the object of Valmont’s constancy: Was he finally constant in his love for Madame de Tourvel or constant to his original principles and aims? Neither is the reader informed of what, if anything, Rosemonde did with the letter forwarded to her. Did she pass it on to Madame de Tourvel? If so, did Tourvel believe Valmont’s renewed professions of love?
The second letter appearing in the Appendix is from the Présidente de Tourvel to Valmont and is undated. A mixture of love and anguish, this letter contains Tourvel’s confession that she is completely his and, upon his departure, has sought happiness in the “sweet remembrances” of their times together. But she cannot succeed, for without him she is unable to endure the shock of such intense, diverse feelings experienced in such rapid succession. She is abandoned and alone; she has been cruelly undeceived (though we are not told of what she has learned the truth). This letter might have been composed upon hearing of Valmont’s death and departure from this world, assuming Rosemonde conveyed Valmont’s final letter and profession of constancy to her. If so, Tourvel leaves this world unrepentant, and even after Valmont’s cruelty to her, he succeeded in winning her back and triumphing over her principles completely. Or Tourvel’s letter might have been composed earlier, during the aftermath of his affair with Ámilie and before Tourvel forsakes him forever.
Complicating matters further, is a letter in the main text composed by Tourvel following Valmont’s brutal rejection of her, dictated to her maid in such agony and delirium that the addressee is not named. She pleads with her correspondent to cease his torture of her. She has become “criminal” yet retains the cruel memory of the good she has lost. But “you are the author of my sins,” she writes. “What right have you to punish them?” “Cruel and malevolent being[!]” (405). In her mental confusion she at one moment appeals to the object of her devout love and in the next thrusts accusations at him, calling him the monster who created that illusion. The question at hand is whether Madame de Tourvel is lamenting the loss of Valmont or the loss of her own goodness and virtue as a result of Valmont’s malevolent games. In the latter case the unaddressed letter is to Valmont, accusing him of authorship of her sins. In the former case, the intended recipient of her letter and object of her accusations is God.
We know from his boastful admissions (including to Tourvel) that Valmont was engaged in sexual liaisons with other women at the same time that he was professing his eternal love and constancy to Madame de Tourvel. When Merteuil orders Valmont to sacrifice Tourvel, she reminds him of the “constancy” of the world and what happens to those who forget it. Men’s badness and fortune’s fickleness necessitate moral flexibility; constancy in mind requires inconstancy in mores. If Tourvel did finally devote herself exclusively and wholly to Valmont despite his inconstancy toward her, perhaps it was because she learned the lesson taught her by Valmont’s abettor, the worldly Madame de Rosemonde. It is not in a man’s nature to be constant to a woman, Rosemonde tutors, and so we ought to pity men rather than to blame them. Whatever the exceptions, they do not contradict the general truth recognized and pronounced by public opinion. In the eyes of society, there is a distinction between “infidelity and inconstancy” for men. “Let us leave the right of judging to Him who reads in our hearts,” she advises, and let us dare believe that many virtues can redeem a single weakness (351; cf. 368).
The Crawfords’ Conquest
Mansfield Park is the seat of Sir Thomas Bertram, a member of Parliament and absolute ruler in his own home (MP 23, 196, 280). Located in the county of Northampton, Mansfield Park is a place of order, refinement and quiet dignity. Though the house is spacious and modern, the ways of the park are distinctly restrained and traditional.
When we are first introduced to the Crawfords, we learn that they have less than a traditional notion of matrimony and the ways of the world. According to Mary Crawford, marriage is like a commercial transaction, a business maneuver; it is “‘of all transactions, the one in which people expect most from others, and are least honest themselves’” (46) In life, and particularly in marriage, virtually everyone is “‘taken in’” or “‘duped.’” This introduction to the perspective of the Crawfords is a foreshadowing of what is to come at Mansfield Park. Crafty maneuvers and deceptions will threaten to make dupes of its inhabitants. The traditional, ordered world of Mansfield will soon be disrupted, and it will ultimately be threatened with the possibility of radical transformation and the complete overthrow of all that it represents.
Henry and Mary Crawford are from London where, at the home of their uncle, a dissolute, adulterous Admiral, they have received a bad moral education. “‘Of Rears and Vices,’” Mary indecorously declares, “‘I saw enough’” (60). Theirs is a world faithlessness, irreligion and immorality – a world apart and in collision with Mansfield Park (Tanner 145-50). Unlike Fanny Price, timidity and humility are not in their lexicon; they are clever and sophisticated, and more than “out” in the world. Throughout the novel Austen illustrates the conflict between the traditional moral and Christian virtues of Fanny Price and Edmund Bertram (who is intent on becoming a clergyman) and the nouveau morality of Henry and Mary Crawford. In the course of events Fanny and Edmund are respectively sought after by Henry and Mary. Austen imbues the Crawfords with the Valmont-like spirit of boldness and desire for domination, and she makes Fanny and Edmund as morally proper and pious as Madame de Tourvel – and Fanny just as prudish. In these two sets of characters Austen reproduces the Machiavelli/Laclos dynamic between the virtj of the new prince and traditional virtue and piety, with the former engaged in spirited conquest of the latter. Fortune is appropriately left disembodied by the Christian author of Mansfield Park, although, as we shall see, Henry does wish to wrest from fortune the government of the winds, and Mary refuses to be the slave of opportunity (depicted in pagan literature as Fortuna’s handmaiden).
The constant activity and bustle, materialism and restlessness that the Crawfords knew in London perfectly suit their tempers. They are in constant motion throughout the novel, both disliking idleness and such contemplative activities as stargazing, so enjoyed by Fanny and Edmund. It is not difficult to imagine the fine form and expert command of Mary Crawford on horseback nor, according to a male friend of mine, is it easy to resist the seductive charm of such a mixture of feminine grace and human mastery.12 Placed next to the image of the frail, easily exhausted, and timid Fanny Price, who not surprisingly cuts less than a skilled or elegant figure when riding, the portrait of Mary Crawford – handsome, spirited, and chosen by nature – is clearly intended to charm and captivate.
“‘Nothing ever fatigues me,’” says Mary, “‘but doing what I do not like’” (68). In contrast to Lady Bertram, who hardly stirs from the sofa, Mary declares that “‘resting fatigues me’” (96). The juxtaposition of activity versus rest in Mansfield Park is highlighted in respect to physical movement and material transactions. The established wealth of the Bertrams is jeopardized by the politics and economics of a changing world. Sir Thomas’s income from the Antigua estate is fluctuating and showing such poor returns that he is forced to go there in person to attempt to improve his affairs. The British empire – the world – is in transition, affecting not only the colonies but life in the Isles as well. The English aristocracy, who once possessed a seemingly permanent claim to both title and wealth, are no longer secure. While the transition to the industrial age is only beginning to be felt in the English countryside, it is rapidly manifesting itself in the capital city, where the earned riches of many a professional were quickly outstripping the static or declining incomes of the old landed gentry. Perhaps even more alarming to the established order, though, was the vulgar outlook and acceptance of the new commercialism spreading across England. One today can only imagine the old nobility’s shock and revulsion at Mary Crawford’s unreserved pronouncement of the London maxim that “everything is to be got with money” (58).
The acquisitive spirit that marks the characters of the Crawfords was brought by them from London to the environs of Mansfield Park. The characteristics of this individualistic, avaricious spirit are illustrated by Austen through the game “speculation.” After dinner at the Mansfield parsonage one evening, two tables for cards were set in place. At one, where Sir Thomas was seated, was to be played the traditional game of whist; it was “the table of prime intellectual state and dignity” (240). At the other table speculation was to be played by the Crawfords, Lady Bertram, Edmund, Fanny, and her brother William. As neither Lady Bertram nor Fanny had ever played or even seen the game played in their lives, Henry Crawford elected to teach them. Although the languid lady never caught on, Fanny saw what the game was about almost instantly. She failed to achieve high success as a player, however, wanting more spiritedness in her dealings, a sharpening of avarice, and a hardening of the heart. In contrast, Henry Crawford was, characteristically, in competitive and “high spirits” and “preeminent in all the lively turns, quick resources, and playful impudence that could do honour to the game” (240). His sister, too, played like “a woman of spirit,” forsaking “cold prudence” and staking her all for the glory of victory. The table they commanded was, Austen says, “altogether a very comfortable contrast to the steady sobriety and orderly silence of the other.”
The unleashing of the acquisitive spirit that characterizes the modern western world was initially prompted by a philosophic outlook that claimed that human beings are not, as heretofore thought, bounded by nature in their ability to produce the goods and comforts of life. Machiavelli set the stage for this modern, materialistic perspective, which Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes, and John Locke later more fully explicated. In the mixing of human labor with nature, human beings can mold the material of nature and in fact increase the penurious supply she has allotted to man. The notion of living according to nature is thus transformed into the idea of mastery of nature, for the purpose of what Bacon called the “improvement of man’s estate.” This new relationship, in which human domination over nature and God (as the author of nature) is glorified, is given its analogue in Mansfield Park in the envisioned “improvements” to – literally – men’s estates.
Invoking the eighteenth century rage for altering architectural structures and landscapes known as “improvements,” Austen ironically displays the taste and the motives of those modern “improvers” (e.g., Repton) who sought to transform radically the natural surroundings. Prior to visiting Sotherton, the discussion of how Rushworth’s estate might be improved leaves Fanny appalled: “Cut down the avenue” of oak trees reminds her of Cowper’s famous lines in The Task in which nature is assaulted and razed. Upon their sojourn to Sotherton we learn that some improvements have already been carried out. The chapel has undergone extensive alterations, if not so much in its physical appearance, at least in its usage. It is no longer the center of regular spiritual activity for the household. To Fanny’s dismay but Mary’s approval, daily communal prayers have been omitted; to the future clergyman Edmund Bertram, Mary tauntingly terms this change one of the generation’s “improvements” (86). The belles of the great house, liberated from obligation, formality and restraint, no longer have to appear at chapel “starched up into seeming piety . . .” (87).
Henry and Mary Crawford later reveal an even more extensive plan for improving the parsonage at Mansfield Park, where, within the shadow of a large and handsome church on the knoll, Edmund Bertram is to settle upon receiving his clerical vows. In addition to a radical alteration and re-situation of the parson’s dwelling at Thornton Lacey, Henry, the “capital improver,” proposes to demolish the old garden, build a new one, and simply move the stream! Henry’s and Mary’s vision of the new and improved Thornton Lacey offers a radically new prospect, not only of the surrounding grounds, farms, and community, but of the role of the moral and spiritual advisor as well. By Henry’s “genius” for improvement, Thornton Lacey becomes but a gentleman’s retreat for sporting holidays, and by Mary’s a “modernized and occasional residence of a man of independent fortune,” where church and clergyman are shut out of the picture (248). This discussion concerning the transformation of Thornton Lacey occurs during the play of speculation, imparting to Mary’s aggressive play and daring to stake her all a larger meaning: she is determined that the “knave,” or young man in the pack, will be hers, at whatever cost necessary (242-43). This will require not only the transformation of his future physical dwelling, but of his spiritual and moral dwelling place as well.
The Crawfords’ view of man’s relationship with nature is starkly juxtaposed to Fanny’s rhapsodic vision of an exalted power much greater than the human things. While in the shrubbery, Fanny expresses an amazement bordering on philosophic wonder or pious awe when she views the incredible beauty and diversity of the laws of nature; in contrast, Mary sees “no wonder in the shrubbery equal to seeing myself in it” (209-10). In neither Mary nor Henry Crawford’s world view is there any place for a power greater than man himself. For Mary, “Nature, inanimate Nature,” did not deserve her observation; “her attention was all for men and women . . .” (81). Mary’s vision of the human condition is a complete rejection of Fanny’s traditional perspective. One can only imagine the worldly Mary’s amused derision at Fanny’s naïveté as she rhapsodizes about the power of nature. As Machiavelli teaches and as Valmont and Merteuil corroborate, to confront the harsh realities of this world requires that one reject false and imaginary kingdoms and the activities of contemplation or prayer that such fruitless visions impose on human beings. The individual is not limited by nature or God; rather she is, like Mary Crawford or the Doge at the court of Louis XIV, at the center or all existence and poised to become master of all that surrounds her.
Mary Crawford’s view of the power relationship between nature and human beings is the cause of her constant activity and fascination with “improvements.” Her Machiavellian perspective that nature can be reshaped by the man (or woman) with sufficient intelligence and daring leads directly to the unleashing of the active, creative power of human skill and artifice. Unlike Elizabeth Bennet, who was repelled by immoderate artifice in landscaping, and who saw Pemberley as a place where “nature had done . . . [so much, and where] natural beauty had been so little counteracted by an awkward taste” (P&P 445), Mary and Henry Crawford have no desire to defer to or exercise restraint in the face of nature. Whether directed against the avenue at Sotherton, the parsonage at Thornton Lacey, or the natural moral ordering of the soul, the Crawfords launch an all out assault on nature’s design and supposed authority.
The idea that human beings have dominion over the natural world is the grounds for the extraordinary vanity that marks the Crawfords. What others see as God’s or Nature’s design is to them only chance. Thus, there is no basis for the self-deceiving experience of shame, an experience undergirding the reform of many an Austen heroine. Nevertheless, they recognize that the traditional perspective of sin and immorality is widespread among their friends and neighbors and that this presents a danger to them. The danger is not that they will have to suffer at the hands of a just God or within their own souls for their wrongful actions, but that such actions might be stamped by the appearance of immorality in the eyes of those around them. The challenge is to avoid detection by the many for whom the traditional orders remain valid. At the same time, they must combat the real force of chance in the lives of men. Fortune often places powerful obstacles in the path of human dominion. As Machiavelli and Laclos taught, to have a fighting chance in the contest with Fortuna, one has to be as morally flexible as she. The game is a two-fold challenge: one who desires dominion and glory is flanked on the one side by Fortuna and requires moral elasticity, and on the other side by traditional societal moral standards that determine one’s reputation. The solution to this apparent paradox is for the potential new master to enlist the (generally unwitting) support of others in his amoral project, thereby emasculating the traditional moral norms that make detection ruinous for him. In so doing, he simultaneously strengthens his position in the battle against Fortuna, but he must accomplish the buildup of his troops while covetous Fortuna is looking on.
The challenge is formidable and the stakes are high. Caution and hesitation may wreck the new prince’s chances; one false move could ruin him forever. He is vastly outnumbered by the combined strength of his opponents. It is a game of risk. Like the risks taken by Mary Crawford in the game of speculation, remarkable daring is necessary if one is to emerge victorious over the other players and Lady Luck. Mary Crawford’s willingness to dare all in the game of speculation is indicative of her determination to be restrained by nothing in the larger game she is playing. With her beauty, charm, liveliness, and intelligence she aggressively goes after her targeted knave. In her, womanliness has no truck with weakness or timidity. She is really very good at what she does, so that even when Edmund Bertram sees the wrong in her speech or actions, he is simultaneously charmed by her. By cunning puns and maneuvers she forces him to think for himself her illicit thoughts and whimsical profanities. “Of Rears and Vices I have seen enough” is adolescent foreplay to the virtual reality of illicit lovemaking that awaits her and Edmund in their rehearsals for Lovers’ Vows. Despite Edmund’s belief that staging the play at Mansfield Park is a decided wrong, he ultimately takes on the part of Anhalt to Mary Crawford’s Amelia. No one but she could have tempted him to do, and to do with pleasure, what he formally and strenuously declared to be absolutely prohibited. His first rationalization for participating in the play, i.e., that he has chosen the lesser of the evils and avoided the greater (though uncertain) evil that a stranger might have to be found to play Anhalt, is controverted by his second. What for him is initially “an evil,” which he chooses in order to make it “less than it might be” (155-56), ultimately becomes a “material gain” and no other way to accomplish “equal good.” In the final analysis, Edmund chooses the particular evil not because it is lesser, but because it is transformed in his mind into a good. His conscience is satisfied. There is only “the appearance of . . . inconsistency” (154). Like the Christian innocents tutored by the corrupt friar in Mandragola, Edmund Bertram adopts the maxim that when confronted with a certain good and an uncertain evil, one should not renounce that good for fear of the evil (Mandragola 36). In both cases the certain “good” that is chosen is clearly and inherently, at least according to traditional or Christian ethics, a wrong (and in both cases the act chosen is illicit love-making). This Machiavellian transfiguration of evil into good could not have satisfied the conscience of Edmund prior to Mary Crawford’s influence on him. Evil can triumph only when the soul triumphs in evil.
While Fanny sees that Edmund is inconsistent, self-deceiving, and wrong in his choice, he has already made it and she is without power to alter the decision or the ensuing consequences; events must now “take their course.” If she too must give way, “—no matter—it was all misery now” (157). Fanny does give way, ultimately yielding to Edmund’s wishes for her to read the part of Cottager’s wife in the forbidden play. Though Sir Thomas’s return prevents her from fulfilling her choice to do what she formerly could not endure even the idea of doing, Fanny nonetheless thinks the idea of doing what is prohibited, the fundamental condition of Christian sin.
Henry Crawford’s temptation and seduction of Maria Bertram is easier to achieve than Mary’s objective with Edmund or Henry’s later designs on Fanny. Like Cécile de Volange, Maria does not possess the active principles and degree of moral resilience of a Tourvel, Edmund or Fanny, and less subtle rhetoric is needed. At the gate at Sotherton, after Maria’s future husband has gone to fetch the key that will allow licit passage to the field beyond, Henry openly tutors Maria in his philosophy of moral liberation. “‘And for the world,’” he tells her,
“you would not get out without the key and without Mr. Rushworth’s authority and protection, or I think you might with little difficulty pass round the edge of the gate, here, with my assistance; I think it might be done, if you really wished to be more at large, and could allow yourself to think it not prohibited.” (99, emphasis added)
This passage is central to Austen’s Edenic narrative of temptation and fall in Mansfield Park. Replete with garden, wilderness, locked gate, serpentine course, and illusions of freedom, Austen recounts the story of liberation from moral prohibition (90-104). From the lawn at Sotherton the day journeyers have a commanding view of the wilderness, reminding one of “the steep wilderness” seen from “a rural mound” in Paradise Lost (Harris 161). In Milton’s lost Eden the iron gates of Hell are locked, prohibiting legal entry to the new world beyond. But such prohibitions mean nothing to Satan: “Thy miscreated Front athwart my way/ To Yonder Gates? Through them I mean to pass,/ That be assured, without leave askt of thee . . .”(Paradise Lost II.683-85, 49). After passing through the Adamantine gates, Satan discovers the deep gulf separating Hell and Heaven, over which he must cross to enter the environs of earth. Over this “Abyss the wary fiend/ Stood on the brink of Hell and look’d a while,/ Pondering his Voyage: for no narrow frith / He had to cross” (II.917-920, 55-56). Between the iron gates and the open field at Sotherton there was also a deep gulf separating darkness and light. Here Austen places a “ha-ha,” which is a sunken retaining wall that acts as a fence without obstructing the view.13 Over this trench Henry and Maria look out; over it they must cross to get to the field beyond. (MP 95, 99)
Maria Bertram clearly knows that she ought not pass round the locked gate and over the ha-ha, but like the confined starling in Lawrence Sterne’s work, she too feels trapped by the bars of the cage that enclose her. “‘That iron gate, that ha-ha, give me a feeling of restraint and hardship. I cannot get out, as the starling said,’” are lines she recites as she peers through the bars to the freedom of the field beyond (99). The strict codes of conduct of her traditional upbringing and imminent matrimonial union are to her a hellish imprisonment.14 In contrast, Henry Crawford offers a vision of a new world, a land where there are no moral boundaries except those that the human mind creates. The critical step of entry into this new world is for Maria to think the “prohibited” deed permissible, and to do so with a clear conscience. What was once believed wrong and thus forbidden can now be sanctioned by the transforming power of the human mind. The illicit is transfigured into the licit; the immoral into the moral. Maria’s passage round the gate and over the ha-ha liberates her to explore a wholly new moral continent. She yields easily to Henry’s alluring temptation, escaping all the moral restrictions she has been taught, as well as, of course, escaping Mr. Rushworth.
Henry Crawford’s later seduction of Mrs. Rushworth is hardly an amazing feat; like Cécile for Valmont, she is merely fool’s play. The stage for Maria’s ultimate corruption had been set by the play and the gate scene, where Maria was taught by Henry that she can indeed dare to do what she once believed she dared not. Whatever hold traditional morality had on her, it was decisively broken at Sotherton.15 At Sotherton Henry succeeds in his aim to seduce her mind and transform her conscience, and with this accomplished, he loses interest in her and turns his attention to a challenge more worthy of his powers. Maria is left to her fate of marriage to a fool even greater than she.
With Maria Rushworth gone to Brighton with her new husband, and Julia with them, Fanny is invited to dine with the Grants and the Crawfords at the parsonage. In the interval between discussing politics and making money, Henry turns to Fanny to aid his happy remembrances of the theatrical season at Mansfield. To him “‘it is as a dream, a pleasant dream! . . . [an] exquisite pleasure’” (225). Everyone was in constant motion and their spirits diffused; “‘we were all alive’” and he “‘never was happier.’” Fanny is appalled at Henry’s fond reminiscences, his happiness derived from doing what was wrong, unfeeling, and dishonorable. “‘Oh! What a corrupted mind!’” she exclaims in horror, though only to herself. Henry Crawford is thus allowed to continue. What stymied them in their happy plan, he asserts, was bad luck. The time of Sir Thomas’s return was uncertain, contingent on the weather in the Atlantic. During his absence Mansfield Park had altered greatly under the de facto ruling power of the Crawfords. If they had had “another week, only one other week,” that would have been enough. “I think,” Henry Crawford continues, “if we had had the disposal of events – if Mansfield Park had had the government of the winds just for a week or two, about the equinox, there would have been a difference” (225). Perhaps not catastrophic weather, but a “steady contrary wind” or even an Atlantic calm would have answered to delay Sir Thomas’s return. Only a short time more was needed, Henry believed, to complete the seduction and fall of the inhabitants of Mansfield Park. If only he could have controlled the winds of fortune, all would now be done! He and Mary were so close to wresting from God or Fortuna dominion over the earth. Like Satan, who ascended from hell to earth “while the North wind sle[pt]”(Milton, II.489, 43), Henry and Mary too needed only a sleeping north Atlantic wind to secure their rule of Mansfield. Fanny could remain silent no longer. Mustering all of her courage and strength she directly contradicts Henry, stating firmly that things had gone quite far enough already. When she finished her speech, “she trembled and blushed at her own daring” (226).
Following Fanny’s challenge to him, Henry Crawford decides to remain at Mansfield Park another fortnight. Like Valmont’s altered perception of Madame de Tourvel, Henry sees in Fanny a new beauty as a result of her moral resistance. By the next morning Henry has adopted a new plan – to make Fanny Price in love with him. Thus begins the conquest of Fanny Price. It is labor for his restless mind, though hardly a labor of love. His initial goal is not to marry her, but to make “‘a small hole in Fanny Price’s heart’” (229; cf. Valmont’s final letter describing the hole he made in Madame de Tourvel’s heart). Henry’s project is a moderate one, he contends, only to have her smile and blush in his company, to keep a chair for him wherever they are, “‘to think as [he] think[s],’” and to feel that when he leaves her she will never again be happy (231). His sister sees through his seemingly understated ambitions: “‘Moderation itself!’” she exclaims.16
Undoubtedly, it is all a game with Henry Crawford, as Fanny Price understands. But Henry’s ambitions are grander than those one typically associates with egoistic young men’s (or women’s) games of unfeeling sexual conquest. His ultimate aim is the supreme hubris: he wants to make Fanny Price think as he thinks. He wants to mold her by his will and to witness in her the betrayal of her deepest principles and most sacred beliefs. Henry Crawford’s dreams for distinction and “the glory of heroism” cannot, like William Price’s, be attained by conquest at sea. His ambitions are not satisfied by such comparably paltry booty. With visions of his own unlimited freedom, he would become Fanny’s master, unseat Sir Thomas as ruler of Mansfield Park, and dispose of events by mastering chance and nature. Henry Crawford’s ambitions are nothing less than to replace the Father as sovereign of man’s field.
Fanny’s continued resistance to Henry Crawford only sweetens his anticipated triumph. His ultimate determination to marry her is quite a surprise to his sister, if not to many a reader. She is more suspicious of his motives than we tend to be. Austen’s treatment of the uncertainty that surrounds Henry’s motives is a paradigmatic reflection of the battle between Machiavellianism and its nemesis. Austen is at the height of her powers of subtlety in the discernment and judgment she challenges her readers to make in this novel. The conflict within Henry parallels the war within Edmund between Christian morality and its nemesis. Henry’s determination to marry Fanny results not only from her moral resistance, but also from his growing perception of her excellent qualities of temperament, manner, mind and heart. He is “inspired by the knowledge of her being well principled and religious” (294). Now he is the one tempted, albeit tempted by the power of virtue. But whether his love for what she is has become a more powerful force within him than his desire to triumph over what she stands for is not entirely clear. Henry claims that his love for Fanny Price will never cease. His sister – and Fanny – believe that it will (296, 301-2, 324). Fanny’s view, or at least her initial impression, is that he is not serious and that it is all nothing.
The question of Henry Crawford’s constancy is contested throughout the remainder of the novel. Austen makes the issue into a game of speculation and invites the audience, in all seriousness, to join the play. Has the “clandestine, insidious, treacherous admirer of Maria Betram” become the “disinterested love[r]; whose feelings . . . [were] all that was honorable and upright”? (327-28). Are his assistance to Fanny’s brother and his attendance at church examples of newfound generosity and piety, or forms of hypocrisy used to advance his selfish ends? (See Prince 69-70; cf. Laclos 325). Sir Thomas portends Henry’s constancy, believing his attachment to his niece to be of the rare and wonderful kind, uncommon in the generally “transient, varying, unsteady nature of love” in the world. He credits Crawford’s perseverance to win Fanny’s heart to the intensity and constancy of his feelings (330). Edmund also bets on Henry’s character and genuine love for Fanny, believing their dispositions perfectly suited “to make them blessed in each other” (335). It would be a marriage founded in “pure attachment” (350). Both Edmund, the future clergyman, and Sir Thomas, her surrogate father, pressure Fanny to accept Henry’s advances, reminding one of the friar and mother in Mandragola who persuade Lucrezia to accept Callimaco, and of Father Anselme and Madame de Rosemonde in Les Liaisons Dangereuses, who assist Valmont in the seduction of Madame de Tourvel. Notwithstanding her uncle’s and cousin’s attempted influence, however, Fanny sees Henry’s perseverance as a gross lack of feeling for others and concern for his own selfishness pleasures only. He is devoid of principle to supply the deficiency of his heart (329). He is simply incapable of doing anything “without a mixture of evil” (302). They were unsuited for each other by nature, education, and habit and he could never succeed with her (See 327-29, 347, 405).
During her exile at Portsmouth Fanny’s opinion of Henry Crawford softens significantly. His steady attentions and kindnesses lead her to begin to think that he might truly love her. Given the prior attachment of her heart, though, she cannot accept his efforts at courtship. In the final chapter of the novel, the author, in her own voice, argues that although Henry Crawford’s vanity initially and accidentally led him into the way of happiness, if certain things had been different, he would have won Fanny’s heart and secured his own “happy destiny.” Could Henry Crawford “have been satisfied with the conquest of one amiable woman’s affections,” Austen writes,
could he have found sufficient exultation in overcoming the reluctance, in working himself into the esteem and tenderness of Fanny Price, there would have been every probability of success and felicity for him. His affection had already done something. Her influence over him had already given him some influence over her. Would he have deserved more, there can be no doubt that more would have been obtained; especially when that marriage had taken place, which would have given him the assistance of her conscience in subduing her first inclination, and brought them very often together. Would he have persevered, and uprightly, Fanny must have been his reward, and a reward very voluntarily bestowed, within a reasonable period from Edmund’s marrying Mary. (467)
Despite Fanny’s earlier, absolute disavowal of a union with Henry Crawford (even if her affections were not already engaged, she would not accept him), Austen concludes that if Henry had honorably persevered, Fanny would have been his.
It is important not to overlook Austen’s use of the conditional tense in her predictions regarding this future union and the happiness of its partners. She does not say that if only Fanny had married Henry he would have been redeemed and they would have been happy. Rather, she makes Henry’s destiny depend on the quality of his constancy and the worth of his character. She makes him responsible for his choices and the exercise of his freedom.
As a supremely talented actor, Henry Crawford is able to change character roles as well as the best of Shakespearian actors. He can read the part of Queen Katherine and King Henry VIII, not to mention Cardinal Wolsey, in the span of a few minutes, with the appearance of equal power of conviction.17 Crawford is so much the consummate actor that even Fanny cannot ignore him or resist remembering, with pleasure, the superior dramatic abilities he had shown in the rehearsals for Lovers’ Vows.18 Comparing a well read play to a well delivered sermon, Henry muses on the praises that would be bestowed on an eloquent preacher, and for a moment imagines himself in that role. He quickly catches himself, however, for he would only want to preach in London to an educated audience and he would not want to preach even to them very often. Preaching would not do “‘for a constancy’” (341). When Fanny involuntarily shakes her head at his remark and is forced by him to speak, she tells him that she thought it regrettable that he did not always know himself as well as he seemed to at that moment. Henry fully understands her and proclaims that his actions will speak for his devotion and constancy to her.
The discussion of constancy follows immediately upon Henry’s demonstration of superior adroitness in script reading and acting. The condition for good acting is the ability to put one’s own character aside and take on another; it requires the utmost of flexibility for one to appear other than who he is. It is a kind of character acrobatics. Most people, or at least pious ones, would not equate the excellence of a preacher with that of an actor. After all, the good preacher is supposed to believe the sermons he delivers; his vocation is not a mere role or his prayers a scripted pretense. While Machiavelli may have advocated the saying of “new or striking” things to arouse the attention of the educated and intelligent, “‘without offending the taste’” of most of his listeners (MP 341), Henry Crawford’s desire to see this feat accomplished in the pulpit seems rather incongruous with the more traditional notion of prayerful supplication. Fanny’s criticism that Henry cannot think seriously on serious subjects would appear to be true, notwithstanding that he is perfectly serious in his impious banter.
Fanny’s perception of Henry is that he mixes dark and light, seriousness and levity, good and bad. Like his sister, he displays a confusion born of a mind “darkened, yet fancying itself light” (367).19 One can but imagine Fanny’s grave countenance as she reads Mary Crawford’s letter about the serious illness and possible death of the elder Bertram son, Tom. Seeing an opportunity for Edmund to become a “Sir” rather than remain a mere “Mr.,” and to inherit the wealth reserved for the eldest son, Mary writes: “‘I really am quite agitated on the subject. Fanny, Fanny, I see you smile and look cunning, but upon my honour I never bribed a physician in my life. Poor young man! If he is to die, there will be two poor young men less in the world’” (434).
Mary’s playful attitude in this passage reveals an extraordinary and shocking flexibility of moral principle. She is playing with the idea of murder.20 She forces Fanny to imagine it, too, making her complete the thought of her own accord. Whether or not Mary had any serious intention to execute such a plan, she does, as is her wont, speak evil in a playful manner. As her letter to Fanny reveals, she has imagined how Edmund’s fortune and title might be guaranteed. She has at least thought the idea of homicide, and she justifies such thoughts about evil means by an appeal to good ends. After all, Edmund would do more for the title of “Sir” and for Mansfield Park than his brother Tom. Like her brother, it has occurred to her that one does not wish to depend on the fortune of the winds for the opportunity to achieve one’s aims; rather, one must create her own opportunities. “Miss Crawford,” Austen elliptically tells us, “was not the slave of opportunity” (357).
Do not be ashamed of what I have written in this letter, Mary tells Fanny, for she herself is without any sense of shame for her own feelings in the matter. “‘Believe me,’” Mary writes, my feelings “‘are not only natural, they are philanthropic and virtuous’” (434). That bad things must be done so that good may come, not only for individual benefit but for the good of the entire family and society of Mansfield, is Mary’s defense for what others might view as a criminal mentality. The ends justify the means for her, and vicious means for the sake of good or advantageous ends she terms “philanthropic and virtuous.” Crimes well done are not crimes at all. The contemplated disposal of Tom Bertram, which Mary claims to be rooted in virtuous feelings, is actually premeditated fratricide (she intends, after all, to marry Edmund and thus become, in eighteenth-century parlance, Tom’s sister). While Edmund and Fanny label the adulterous affair between Henry Crawford and Maria Rushworth nothing short of a crime and a sin, Mary, without horror or reluctance, coolly terms the escapade a “folly.” “‘[N]o harsher name than folly given!’” Edmund cries. –A “‘folly stamped only by exposure.’” –A crime to be reprobated not because it was dreadfully wrong, but because it was “detected” (454, 457). Edmund is at last shocked by Mary Crawford and her total lack of principle. The charm is finally broken. His eyes are opened.
Mary’s reprobation of the adulterous liaison was not because Henry and Maria acted immorally, but because their actions were exposed. They might have gotten away with it if they had been cleverer or if the societal norms were different. Mary’s perspective is that sooner or later everyone is “taken in,” or perhaps done in, and that this is necessary for good to come. There is no light without darkness, no virtue without vice. Those whose hearts and souls are most resistant to this new version of morality must be subdued and their principles perverted. This is the vision that inspires Mary’s conquest of Edmund. Her efforts are partially rewarded during the week of acting at Mansfield, but with Sir Thomas’s return she was not then able to complete her project. It is not only Henry who remembers that time of forbidden pleasures and corruption with ineffable pleasure, Mary does too. “‘I never knew such exquisite happiness in any other [time],’” she recalls. “‘His [Edmund’s] sturdy spirit to bend as it did! Oh! it was sweet beyond expression’” (358). With these remarkable words, Mary reveals her primal motivation in pursuit of the man she would make her knave. He is to betray his principles and be ruled by hers. The lengths she would go to achieve her objective were made clear in the game of speculation. Austen’s comment in the narrator’s voice on Mary’s gamesmanship is telling: “The game was her’s, and only did not pay her for what she had given to secure it” (243). Tony Tanner has perceptively observed that this line “goes to the heart of Mary Crawford. One can think of her as winning the world at the too-high price of losing her soul” (158).21
The seduction and corruption of the inhabitants of Mansfield Park was the original, mutual objective of Mary and Henry Crawford. Their conquest was particularly directed at Fanny and Edmund, the most pious and upright souls of Mansfield, whose betrayal of Christianity and traditional morality was to be the Crawford’s crowning glory (see 326). As the Crawfords well understood, the achievement of the greatest glory comes only to those who triumph in the face of the most difficult obstacles and arduous conquests (see 327, 468).
Like Valmont, Henry and Mary Crawford are too finely attuned to the markings of distinction to be insensitive to the allure of Fanny’s and Edmund’s superior natures. Ultimately, they are tempted by the power of virtue and constant pious devotion. Austen presents the possibility of Henry’s redemption in a way that is much more convincing than Laclos’s teasing about Valmont’s deliverance. Nevertheless, we should not forget the strength of Henry’s commitment to his original principles and aims. Austen hints at Henry’s original motivation and scheme to trick Fanny at the precise moment he reveals his heart to her. In declaring his desire to marry her, Henry’s speech so abounded in “the deepest interest, in twofold motives, in views and wishes more than could be told, that even Fanny could not remain insensible of his drift . . .” (300).
The final word by Mary Crawford on her brother’s constancy toward Fanny is conveyed directly to Fanny herself, prior to his adulterous liaison with Mrs. Rushworth. He is a sad flirt, she admits, but he is not addicted to falling in love. “‘I do seriously and truly believe that he is attached to you in a way that he never was to any woman before; that he loves you with all his heart, and will love you as nearly for ever as possible’” (363, emphasis added). Mary then adds, “‘If any man ever loved a woman for ever, I think Henry will do so much for you,’” in response to which Fanny could not help a faint smile. We remember that Mary’s philosophy is that in marriage everyone is taken in. It is an institution in which “people expect most from others, and are least honorable themselves.” Once married, they find “themselves entirely deceived . . .” (46). Mary does not believe that Henry will love Fanny forever. If Fanny believes he will, she will only have deceived herself.
Ironically, however, Henry Crawford was not inconstant. He told the truth about himself. In the concluding chapter of the novel Austen explicitly says that he never wavered toward Fanny Price. As a result of his adulterous union with Maria Rushworth, he lost Fanny Price, and he sincerely regretted the loss of the woman “whom he had rationally, as well as passionately loved” (469). How can both of these statements be true – How can Henry the adulterer be deemed constant toward Fanny? He was, Austen writes, “without the smallest inconstancy of mind towards her . . .” (468). In his proclamations of constancy Henry is not lying, though his words were meant to deceive. His constancy is of a peculiar kind: Henry is perfectly constant in mind. He is constant to his own original principles. He never once said that he was or would remain constant in heart toward Fanny. Henry Crawford’s constancy to Fanny Price was of a brand that did not exclude illicit affairs with other women.22 Though the power of Fanny’s principles and virtue did tempt him, his vanity and desire to subdue and dominate others was a more powerful inducement to action (468).
If Fanny had been less obstinate and agreed to marry Henry Crawford, could she have saved him? Prior to Henry’s running off with Maria Rushworth, the pressure on Fanny to accept him was intense. Sir Thomas played on her guilt, accusing her of being “self-willed, obstinate, selfish, and ungrateful”; Edmund chided her for her “indifference” to Henry’s feelings (319, 348). Mary appealed to Fanny’s pride by reminding her that she has succeeded with Henry where dozens of others have failed and that she should “estimate [her] conquest” and seize the “glory of her “triumph” (360, 363). Edmund takes another route to her pride: Henry “‘will make you happy, Fanny,’” he tells her, “‘but you will make him every thing’” (351). “‘I would not engage in such a charge,’” Fanny cries in response, “‘in such an office of high responsibility’” (351). Neither of these appeals, nor even the fear of losing her home at Mansfield Park, is sufficient to persuade Fanny to accept Henry’s offer. Fanny is able to resist the appeals to pride, guilt, and fear that Madame de Tourvel is not. She does not presume she could act the part of Henry’s savior and refuses to take responsibility for his happiness, which is but a form of domination. Rather, she recognizes his freewill and knows that only he can be responsible for his own choices and actions. According to Madame de Rosemonde of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, “the way to convert” such a character as Valmont “is to resist him forever” (344). In the end, it is Fanny’s resistance to Henry that spurs him to see more clearly and feel more deeply what he has lost. Had Fanny given in to Henry, there is no indication that he would have refrained from affairs with other women at some future date. Henry’s “portion of vexation” at the loss of Fanny rose “sometimes to self-reproach” and his regret sometimes to “wretchedness” only after his affair with Maria had been exposed and Fanny’s resistance to him was permanently fixed (468-69, emphasis added).
It was the worldly Rosemonde who observed that public opinion does not equate male infidelity with inconstancy, and it is only in the next world that one might hope for a different judgment. Austen cynically reports the same unfair fact of life: “That punishment, the public punishment of disgrace, should in a just measure attend his share of the offense, is, we know, not one of the barriers, which society gives to virtue” (468). Whereas Rosemonde advises pity rather than blame for the adulterer, Austen remarks that “in this world, the penalty is less equal than could be wished,” though she refrains from “presuming to look forward to a juster appointment hereafter.”
At Mansfield Park Henry and Mary Crawford acquired a “taste” for virtue, but Mansfield Park did not cure them. They alone were responsible for their choices and the ensuing consequences; their demise was not Fanny Price’s fault. In this novel Austen takes the challenge of Machiavelli and Laclos seriously. She endorses the idea of free will and shows the power and attractiveness of those who refuse to be dominated by anyone or anything, who themselves seek to dominate all around them. Henry and Mary Crawford are not monsters easily seen through. They are as naturally endowed by intelligence, spiritedness, wit, and charm as Fanny Price and Edmund Bertram are lacking in these alluring qualities.
The Crawfords’ constant activity, assault on nature and religion, deception, inconstancy, and vain desire for domination are justified by necessity only if one forgets the soul. Fanny refuses to forget the soul and abandon her moral principles. As Sir Thomas points out, Fanny is willful. She stubbornly rejects the new perspective that separates freedom from moral responsibility, insisting on the connection not only for herself, but for others as well. Nonetheless, Fanny’s constant commitment to the path of moral virtue did not guarantee her happiness, for such things are not fully within human control. Unlike Mary, she knows that there are gains that do “not pay . . . for what [must be] . . . given to secure” them. The soul’s freedom is gained by recognizing the natural limits of humanity, without which freedom degenerates into tyranny. In contrast, it is the desire for domination that makes human happiness dependent on the actions of others and a slave to opportunity. Henry’s final and greatest triumph, and Mary’s too, depended on Fanny and her willingness to succumb. The success of the Crawfords’ philosophy of moral liberation, hypocrisy, inconstancy, and the breaking of faith was contingent upon the faith and trust of others. For the new morality to succeed, the appearance of virtue must be cleverly enough crafted to “take in” others. Fanny, however, would not reward faithlessness with faith. The strength of her principles placed her beyond the control of the Crawfords.
It is not only the marriage plot of Mansfield Park that irks many readers, but also Austen’s uncommonly heavy imposition of the narrative voice in the rather awkward conclusion. On one level the novel’s ending is unambiguous: dull virtue triumphs over clever vice. The lack of an elegant and charming conclusion in this work is as deliberate on Austen’s part as the display of her powers of magic is in the finale of Pride and Prejudice. I think Austen’s reason for this is that she envisioned another, more important culmination of the drama of Mansfield Park. For some time after its publication, Austen collected readers’ reactions to this novel. Mansfield Park is a play that contains a play; the novel itself is a drama within the larger drama played out on the stage of human affairs. Just as Fanny tries to remain a bystander to the production of Lovers’ Vows but is drawn into the action, we the audience of bystanders are drawn into participation in the drama of Mansfield Park. Austen does not save Henry and Mary Crawford in this work; only they could save themselves. Neither does she save her readers. Our judgment must be our own. We do not have to condemn the Crawfords or admire the strength and constancy of Fanny’s principles; we do not even have to admit of her daring. It we finally do, it is not because it has been easy. The finale of Mansfield Park is indeterminate, fully in the hands of the audience. Of all of Austen’s daring innovations in her works, in Mansfield Park she takes the ultimate risk.
By making the final judgment on the characters in the novel the readers’ responsibility, Austen cleverly outwits the Machiavellian technique of manipulation. She artistically uses Machiavelli’s and Laclos’s teaching to reveal their underlying hubris and to break their charm. Valmont’s triumph depended on Laclos’s craft, the new prince’s on Machiavelli’s. In Mansfield Park Jane Austen lets go of the authorial power. Like Prospero in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, she lays her magic aside and forsakes the power to govern the winds.
The author is indebted to Paul A. Rahe, Henry Olsen, and Brenda Reed for their helpful comments on an earlier version of this article and to John A. Doody for his constructive suggestions on both an earlier and the final draft.
1. Greene claims that perhaps the most thoroughgoing “monster” of the six published novels of Jane Austen’s maturity . . . is Mary Bennet. Kingsley Amis calls Fanny Price “a monster of complacency and pride (Tanner 145) and Nina Auerbach considers Fanny a “literary monster,” a “Romantic monster,” and a “predator” (Johnson 454).
2. For example, Nina Auerbach argues that the marriage between Fanny and Edmund is depressing and the novel itself is unlikable (Johnson 445).
3. The first to blame Fanny Price for Henry Crawford’s failure was in fact Mary Crawford; “‘Why would not she have him? It is all her fault’” (MP 455). Some commentators on the novel, such as Mary Waldron (259-81), have followed Mary Crawford’s suit.
4. In her film, Patricia Rozema makes several alterations and “improvements” to Jane Austen’s characters. Rosema’s Henry is much more subdued than Austen’s, lacking the original’s immoderate ambitions and grand scale deceptions. The Henry of screen is, for the most part, a man of intense passions and poetic generosity, whose heart seems ready to soar with the starlings if only Fanny will have him. Rosema’s Fanny is lively, witty, charming and bold. In important respects she resembles Mary Crawford, even serving as the mouthpiece for some of Mary’s lines in the novel. Rozema’s Henry is not redeemed in the end, but his fall from the good graces of Mansfield occurs only after Fanny’s inconstancy towards him. According to Lorrie Clark, Rozema’s film simulates Mary Crawford’s character: It is “beautiful, morally bankrupt, and the perfect exemplification of the thoroughly ‘modern manners’ within which . . . [Mary] – and Rozema – are so pathetically trapped” (16-17).
5. To the Crawfords’ restlessness, daring proposals for “improvements,” and assaults on nature and religion, Austen juxtaposes Fanny’s preference for restfulness, her opposition to their “improvements,” her resistance to their daring provocations, and her admiration of nature and practice of religion. While it is not possible to treat Fanny’s character here, the following interpretation of the Crawfords is meant to point to a greater appreciation of Fanny Price and a more comprehensive view of Mansfield Park.
6. See Lady Susan in Jane Austen, Lady Susan, The Watsons, Sanditon, ed. Margaret Drabble (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1974). To a lesser extent, Austen takes up these themes in Sanditon. In this novel Sir Edward Denham wants to be the great and dangerous Machiavellian type, but he is, amusingly, much more a parody of villainy than a conquering genius. Sir Edward’s “great object in life was to be seductive” (191); “he felt that he was formed to be a dangerous man” (191); he wanted to “strike out [and do] something new, to exceed those who had gone before him” (192). Sir Edward Denham wanted so passionately to be anything but prosaic. Unfortunately, he united a small purse to a weak head and, in the end, was “obliged to prefer the quietest sort of ruin and disgrace for the object of his affections, to the more renown” (192).
7. Skinner 88. Robert A. Kocis argues that Machiavelli was not in fact a Machiavellian, but that, in his dedication to liberty, he simply understood that one “must be prepared to do what is necessary, even evil” in order to sink “the enemies of liberty” (9). Moreover, Machiavelli rejected the idea of a “rational standard of right action,” but this “is almost beside the point”; he conceived of morality as “a product of human creative energies.” While this tends to create the most disturbance for some readers, it is nonetheless how moral progress is made and how human beings become more civilized (18-19, 22). Sebastian de Grazia describes Machiavelli as a “saint” who occupies a corner of heaven reserved for the more interesting souls of the genre of political philosophy (17).
8. Strauss, Thoughts on Machiavelli 216. For a contrasting view, see Parel 83, who disagrees that Fortuna can be vanquished by the man with the right kind of humor.
9. Mansfield 41; cf. Saxonhouse 151-73. For a contrasting view see Pritkin 305.
10. To my knowledge, the association between Laclos’s and Machiavelli’s works has been generally overlooked by scholars. John Garber Palache, in Four Novelists of the Old Regime, remarks that Laclos was a “soldier, politician, man of the world, [who] made himself famous by writing a novel which, in its portrayal of the calculations of persons who had reduced all their actions to a science, corresponds, in another sphere and century, to the theory of politics of Machiavelli” (52). Palache does not expand on this interesting point, however.
11. Whether there is a moral to the story is a point of much controversy among scholars and readers. Is the criminality of Valmont and Merteuil to be admired or condemned? Does one or the other ultimately triumph, or do virtue and piety emerge victorious over them both? Baudelaire said that if “The Liaisons . . . may be said to burn it can but burn like ice . . . In its purpose, it is as high as the highest moral writings, and equally profound” (qtd. in Palache 96). Others, however, have described Laclos as a monster (Palache 96). André Gide remarks that “there is no doubt as to his [Laclos’s] being hand in glove with Satan.”
12. This friend is Paul A. Rahe, who joined with Lenore Thomas Ealy, myself, and a few others some years ago to read Jane Austen together.
13. Ha-has were intended to create the illusion of openness and freedom while at the same time obstructing passage.
14. Maria’s mother is lifeless and takes no interest in her children and their welfare. Maria’s meddling and selfish Aunt Norris acts the part of her mother, though she hardly has her niece’s best interests at heart. Just as Cécile de Volange’s mother pushes her into an inappropriate marriage for the sake of material gain, and as Lady Susan does with her daughter, Mrs. Norris encourages Maria’s betrothal to the ignoramus Rushworth.
15. It is interesting to note the allusion to the gates of Hell at Sotherton, clearly evoking a southernly location, while beyond the locked gates is a park that awaits the arrival of Henry Crawford and his recruits. In Paradise Lost the world beyond the gates is the dwelling place of man, located north of Hell. Henry’s temptation of Maria Bertram at Sotherton and their passage through the gates is the initial step of his insinuation into the life of Mansfield Park, located, Austen says, in the county of Northampton. It is also interesting to note that Fanny’s favorite place at Mansfield Park is the East room. If Fanny is Austen’s Christian heroine, this may be designed as an allusion to the east as the source of Christianity.
16. MP 231. But neither is Mary Crawford an exponent of moderation. Moderation begets obscurity, and, like her brother, it is distinction she longs for. See her attack on moderation and obscurity (214).
17. Elizabeth Inchbald, author of the play Lovers’ Vows (from the German play by Kotzebue) that was prepared for performance at Mansfield Park, wrote a brief commentary on Shakespeare’s Henry VIII. In her commentary Inchbald distinguishes sharply between doing “good, for the honour and glory of a Supreme Being, and in conformity with his commandments,” and committing “evil, under the pretence of religious duty, and in his sacred name, [which] constitutes the most flagrant impiety of which a human creature can, in the full premeditation of guilt, be chargeable.” Henry VIII, she says, depicts the latter (Johnson 410). Of course, the commission of evil by the clergy (or future clergy) is also one of the themes of Inchbald’s own work, as well as of Mandragola, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, and Mansfield Park. In Northern Tour, a favorite of Austen’s, William Gilpin discusses Henry VIII, as well as Cromwell, in regard to the idea of the picturesque. “What share of the picturesque genius Cromwell might have, I know not,” Gilpin wrote. “Certain however it is, that no man since Henry VIII has contributed more to adorn this country with picturesque ruins. The difference between the two masters lay chiefly in the style of ruins in which they composed. Henry adorned his landscapes with the ruins of abbeys. Cromwell with those of castles” (qtd. in Batey 56). Austen obviously found Gilpin’s remarks highly entertaining, Batey remarks. In her History of England, under the entry “Henry VIII,” she satirically remarked: “The crimes and cruelties of this prince were too numerous to be mentioned and nothing can be said of his vindication, but that of abolishing religious houses and leaving them to be ruinous depredations of time has been of infinite use to the landscape of England in general.”
18. Henry Crawford himself declared that as an actor he could be “anything or everything” (123).
19. Without the Crawfords and their air of levity and insouciance most contemporary readers would find Mansfield Park insufferable. Unlike Austen’s other novels, however, the liveliness and movement of this work depends on the perverse use of intelligence and humor. While Elizabeth Bennet never ridicules what is wise or good, one cannot say the same for the Crawfords.
20. According to Marvin Mudrick, it is merely Fanny’s conclusion that Mary wishes Tom Bertram dead and Austen is too harsh in her criticism of Mary Crawford. J.M. Scott says Mudrick’s appraisal “is a perfect statement of the dominant modern view of human psychology which Mansfield Park exists to confute” (137-38). Scott’s assessment is perceptive, though, ironically, he proceeds to adopt the modern blindness toward the Crawfords, arguing that “the best possible marriages” would have been between Edmund and Mary, and Fanny and Henry (141).
21. Despite Tanner’s keen insight into Mary and Henry Crawford’s prodigious ambitions, he nonetheless comes to the conclusion that they are essentially products of their environment and act unconsciously. This assessment neglects the high degree of intelligence and willfulness that they possess and deprives them of whatever credit or blame they fully deserve.
22. Henry’s liaison with Maria Rushworth was based on shrewd calculation; it was as much or more to her advantage to keep it absolutely secret as it was to his.
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