PERSUASIONS ON-LINE V.27, NO.1 (Winter 2006)

Henry Crawford’s Reform
  Moreland Perkins

Moreland Perkins published Sensing the World (1983), Reshaping the Sexes in Sense and Sensibility (1998), “Notes on the Pragmatic Theory of Truth” in the 1952 Journal of Philosophy, and sundry philosophical articles since, including “An Indirectly Realistic, Representational Account of Pain(ed) Perception” in Murat Aydede’s Pain (MIT Press, 2005).

Everything about Henry Crawford, that mobile and consummate actor, calls his sincerity into question. . . . As Fanny and we know, his passion for her repeats more grandly his pattern of behavior with her silly cousins, so that only the most sentimentally credulous reader could find this new performance credible.  (Auerbach 31)

Maria Bertram has married Mr. Rushworth and she and her sister Julia are gone from Mansfield Park. In consequence, Fanny Price for the first time has been formally invited to come with her cousin Edmund Bertram to dinner at the parsonage.  Readers of Mansfield Park encounter here the opening of a courtship—Henry Crawford’s of Fanny—that surpasses in detail any rendering the author makes of another male lover’s progress. This dinner party begins an interaction between Henry and Fanny that will hold the reader’s engaged interest until Henry’s improbably sorry downfall near the end of the novel.1  The party is itself so fine a miniature work of art that we can afford to look closely at some paragraphs from it.

Driving to the parsonage, Edmund and Fanny do not expect to find Henry Crawford there.  In fact, he has just returned from Bath to his two sisters and brother-in-law at the parsonage,

and the smiles and pleased looks of the three others standing round him, shewed how welcome was his sudden resolution of coming to them for a few days on leaving Bath. . . . [Fanny] could not compliment the newly-arrived gentleman however with any appearance of interest in a scheme for extending his stay at Mansfield. . . .

Her two absent cousins, especially Maria, were much in her thoughts on seeing him; but no embarrassing remembrance affected his spirits. . . . With a significant smile, which made Fanny quite hate him, he said, “So! Rushworth and his fair bride are at Brighton, I understand—Happy man!”

[. . .]

“Poor Rushworth and his two-and-forty speeches!” continued Crawford.  “Nobody can ever forget them.  Poor fellow!—I see him now;—his toil and his despair. . . .”  And then changing his tone again to one of gentle gallantry, and addressing Fanny, he said, “You were Mr. Rushworth’s best friend.  Your kindness and patience can never be forgotten, your indefatigable patience in trying to make it possible for him to learn his part—in trying to give him a brain which nature had denied—to mix up an understanding for him out of the superfluity of your own! . . .”

Fanny coloured, and said nothing.

“It is as a dream, a pleasant dream!” he exclaimed, breaking forth again after a few minutes musing.  “I shall always look back on our theatricals with exquisite pleasure. . . .  I never was happier!”  223-25)

Continuing to try to interest Fanny, Henry regrets the unexpectedly early return of Sir Thomas from Antigua and the premature end of their play making:

“We were unlucky, Miss Price,” he continued in a lower tone, to avoid the possibility of being heard by Edmund, and not at all aware of her feelings, “we certainly were very unlucky.  Another week, only one other week, would have been enough for us.  I think if . . . Mansfield Park had had the government of the winds just for a week or two about the equinox, . . . Miss Price, we would have indulged ourselves with a week’s calm in the Atlantic at that season.”

He seemed determined to be answered; and Fanny, averting her face, said with a firmer tone than usual, “As far as I am concerned, sir, I would not have delayed his return for a day.  My uncle disapproved it all so entirely when he did arrive, that in my opinion, every thing had gone quite far enough.”

She had never spoken so much at once to him in her life before, and never so angrily to any one; and when her speech was over, she trembled and blushed at her own daring.  He was surprized; but after a few moments silent consideration of her, replied in a calmer, graver tone, and as if the candid result of conviction, “I believe you are right.  It was more pleasant than prudent.  We were getting too noisy.”  And then turning the conversation, he would have engaged her on some other subject, but her answers were so shy and reluctant that he could not advance in any.  (225-26)

Although we readers fully understand Fanny’s attitude toward Henry, her angry response to him is refreshing. 

Surprise and striking economy of means, with their poetic qualities of density and freshness in content, affect us at several turns taken by the rendering of this scene. Their persuasive unpredictability vivify for us the human reality Austen invents.  The following defeat of a minor expectancy counts in this way.  After Fanny’s angry outburst we read, as preamble to Henry’s reply, “He was surprized; but after a few moments silent consideration of ____.”  We expect something like “her words” or “her words and tone” to follow.  Instead we get simply “her”:  “after a few moments silent consideration of her, [he] replied in a calmer, graver tone . . . , ‘I believe you are right.’”  Henry Crawford’s silent consideration of her is a surprise; it refreshes, and it does so partly because it implies that Henry’s way of attending to another person can be more serious than we had come to expect. 

That Fanny “had never spoken . . . in her life before . . . so angrily to any one” is both immediately believable and a refreshing reminder of the logic of fiction—that at so late a moment in Fanny’s life her author can create this new fact about her past. 

Here is another surprise.  In response to her angry rebuff, Henry turns to engage Fanny “on some other subject, but her answers were so _____.”  What can we expect but something consistent with her anger?  Instead we read that “her answers were so shy and reluctant that he could not advance.”  We are refreshed to find the author reclaiming Fanny’s shyness so swiftly after her outburst of anger. 

The potentiality for a new interest the reader may develop in Henry’s character suggests itself when Austen uses this socially inconsequential dinner party to complicate her accustomed exhibition of some of Henry’s objectionable traits with display of three admirable ones.  First, she exhibits Henry’s acute intellect, and second, a power in Henry (like the author’s) to appreciate the keen excitement that participation in theatrical performances offers.  Third, Henry’s moral awareness shows itself in his having earlier appreciated Fanny’s helping Mr. Rushworth:  “Your kindness and patience can never be forgotten, your indefatigable patience in trying to make it possible for him to learn his part—in trying to give him a brain which nature had denied—to mix up an understanding for him out of the superfluity of your own!” 

We now realize with surprise that Austen may be ready to begin to create in Henry a fullness of being she had never attempted (nor would ever) with any other of her failed charmers.  We notice with how much moral precision Henry is made to articulate Fanny’s charitable conduct.  Simultaneously we observe him bring into play both his intellectual inventiveness and his moral sensibility even as he intends to use them seductively.  We see Henry Crawford achieving, as if effortlessly, a compactly comprehensive and partly novel self-depiction that is attributable to his creator’s passion in this novel for a poet’s density of achieved, expressive content per expended word. 

Henry first states the “Fanny-helps-Rushworth” theme unadorned: “‘trying to make it possible for him to learn his part.’”  Next he offers a variation that starkly but vividly images Rushworth’s deficiency:  “to give him a brain which nature had denied.”  Instantaneously a second variation follows in the form of a fresh metaphor, “‘to mix up an understanding for him out of the superfluity of your own’” that exhibits his own intellectual creativity in a perceptive compliment to Fanny’s intellectual powers—a compliment that we, like Fanny, hear as the opening chord of a song of seduction. 

I believe Austen’s earlier rendering of her players’ pleasure from the Mansfield rehearsals manifested her own participation in its exhilaration—a belief in which no critic may join me but in which I remain steadfast.  Although the author uses much of this novel to demonstrate the dangers in enjoying that exhilaration in the context Mansfield Park provides, she nonetheless knew from her childhood experience of amateur theatricals in the rectory’s barn at Steventon that the spirited teamwork and emotionally charged challenges inherent in a dramatic production figured among the possible glories of youth. Therefore I do not read as entirely wrongheaded the nostalgia for the Mansfield rehearsals that Henry evinces when he remarks, “‘There was such an interest, such an animation, such a spirit diffused!  Every body felt it.  We were all alive.  There was employment, hope, solicitude, bustle, for every hour of the day’” (225). 

Later, Austen gives us early proof of Henry’s right-mindedness in his pursuit of Fanny by showing him fully responsive to those qualities of Fanny that the author herself admires. We remember Henry’s honesty in declaring to his sister Mary his early frivolously selfish intentions toward Fanny, so we have been instructed to trust his change of heart when he explains to Mary the grounds of his new attachment.

[H]e had in fact nothing to relate but his own sensations, nothing to dwell on but Fanny’s charms.—Fanny’s beauty of face and figure, Fanny’s graces of manner and goodness of heart were the exhaustless theme.  The gentleness, modesty, and sweetness of her character were warmly expatiated on. . . . Her temper he had good reason to depend on and to praise.  He had often seen it tried.  Was there one of the family, excepting Edmund, who had not in some way or other continually exercised her patience and forbearance?  Her affections were evidently strong.  To see her with her brother!  What could more delightfully prove that the warmth of her heart was equal to its gentleness?—What could be more encouraging to a man who had her love in view?  Then, her understanding was beyond every suspicion, quick and clear; and her manners were the mirror of her own modest and elegant mind.  (294)

Mary Crawford is no uncritical fan of a morally earnest young person, as Edmund knows from her occasional harsh handling of his clerical aspirations.  Yet we read, “Well might his sister, believing as she really did that his opinion of Fanny Price was scarcely beyond her merits, rejoice in his prospects” (294).  Her appreciation of the value of Fanny counts not only as direct evidence of Mary’s better nature, but also as indirect evidence of Fanny’s lovability.  Furthermore, skeptical Mary’s belief in her brother’s love of Fanny contributes to this early proof of the honesty of Henry’s declarations. 

We are meant to remember the very first moment of Henry’s being moved from flirtation with Fanny to impeccably grounded attraction to her.  Fanny’s seventeen-year-old brother William, now an ensign in the navy, has arrived after seven years absence, much of it spent at sea. The siblings’ affectionate enjoyment of each other is appreciated elsewhere:

An affection so amiable was advancing each in the opinion of all who had hearts to value any thing good.  Henry Crawford was as much struck with it as any.  He honoured the warm hearted, blunt fondness of the young sailor . . . and saw, with lively admiration, the glow of Fanny’s cheek, the brightness of her eye, the deep interest, the absorbed attention, while her brother was describing any of the imminent hazards, or terrific scenes, which such a period, at sea, must supply. 

It was a picture which Henry Crawford had moral taste enough to value.  Fanny’s attractions increased—increased two-fold—for the sensibility which beautified her complexion and illumined her countenance, was an attraction in itself.  He was no longer in doubt of the capabilities of her heart.  She had feeling, genuine feeling.  It would be something to be loved by such a girl, to excite the first ardours of her young, unsophisticated mind!  She interested him more than he had foreseen.  A fortnight was not enough.  His stay became indefinite.  (235-36)

Austen does not make Henry move from male impurity to purity.  Henry’s thought of the pleasure of exciting “the first ardours of her young, unsophisticated mind!” is doubtless not a wholly “pure” thought.  But when we remember Jane Austen in real life observing over many years, often at very close quarters, her brothers’ wives becoming what she described (dreading it as promised early for a niece) as breeding animals, why should we expect Austen ever to paint purity into any male erotic attachment?  She never did.  Nor did she confuse the moral standards for embodied humans with those for pure spirits, for angels, say.

When Fanny dances with Henry Crawford, leading off the ball that Sir Thomas has staged in her honor, she is so very attractive a very young woman that her appeal alone provides an indirect demonstration by the author of the authenticity of Henry’s love for Fanny:

The ball began. . . . Young, pretty, and gentle, . . . she had no awkwardnesses that were not as good as graces, and there were few persons present that were not disposed to praise her.  She was attractive, she was modest, she was Sir Thomas’s niece, and she was soon said to be admired by Mr. Crawford. . . .

[. . .]

She would much rather not have been asked by him again so very soon. . . . But it was not to be avoided; . . . and sometimes, when he talked of William, he was really not un-agreeable, and shewed even a warmth of heart which did him credit. (276-78)  

Henry’s warmth of heart shows itself again when he later reports to Fanny the promotion of her sailor brother William, the outcome of Henry’s labors in London.  He has just brought to Fanny the letters his uncle, an admiral, had sent from London giving details of this promotion: 

While her hand was trembling under these letters, her eye running from one to the other, and her heart swelling with emotion, Crawford thus continued, with unfeigned eagerness, to express his interest in the event.

“I will not talk of my own happiness,” said he, “great as it is, for I think only of yours.  Compared with you, who has a right to be happy?  I have almost grudged myself my own prior knowledge of what you ought to have known before all the world.  I have not lost a moment, however.”  (299)

The only motive the narrator has for assuring us that Henry’s eagerness is “unfeigned” is in order to credit him with genuinely empathic entrance into Fanny’s feelings.  Had Henry Crawford not the good luck to be endowed by Austen with an empathic temperament, he could not so spontaneously speak of begrudging himself his having earlier than Fanny the knowledge that would have given so much greater satisfaction to her.

After a Mansfield Park dinner, Henry picks up a Shakespeare volume from which Fanny has been reading to her aunt.  He searches the pages for the speech Fanny had been reading, finds it, reads it aloud, then voices several others: 

Not a look, or an offer of help had Fanny given; not a syllable for or against.  All her attention was for her work.  She seemed determined to be interested by nothing else.  But taste was too strong in her.  She could not abstract her mind five minutes; she was forced to listen; his reading was capital, and her pleasure in good reading extreme. . . .  [I]n Mr. Crawford’s reading there was a variety of excellence beyond what she had ever met with. . . .—It was truly dramatic. . . .

Edmund watched the progress of her attention, and was amused and gratified by seeing how she gradually slackened in the needle-work, which, at the beginning, seemed to occupy her totally; how it fell from her hand while she sat motionless over it—and at last, how the eyes which had appeared so studiously to avoid him throughout the day, were turned and fixed on Crawford . . .  (337)

Witnessing this scene leads Edmund to insist to his cousin Fanny that she is mistaken in thinking she and Henry have nothing in common.  A shared taste is here manifest.  (Much later Fanny herself becomes aware of a second taste they share when she and Henry together take the same pleasure in a Portsmouth seascape.)

Later that same evening, Henry engages Edmund in a conversation about recently ordained Edmund’s first sermon.  From there Henry moves on to express his ideas about the art of giving sermons.  He expresses so much admiration for a man who can produce a “‘thoroughly good sermon, thoroughly well delivered,’” that he is impelled to assert, “‘I should like be to be such a man’” (341).  This dubious profession introduces a courtship scene so vividly choreographed it might be written for the stage.

Edmund laughed.

“I should indeed. . . . But then, I must have a London audience. . . . And, I do not know that I should be fond of preaching often; now and then, perhaps, once or twice in the spring, after being anxiously expected for half a dozen Sundays together; but not for a constancy; it would not do for a constancy.”

Here Fanny, who could not but listen, involuntarily shook her head, and Crawford was instantly by her side again, intreating to know her meaning. . . . Fanny, . . . vexed with herself for not having been as motionless as she was speechless, . . . was trying, by every thing in the power of her modest gentle nature, to repulse Mr. Crawford, and avoid both his looks and enquiries; and he unrepulsable was persisting in both.

“What did that shake of the head mean?” said he.  “What was it meant to express?  Disapprobation, I fear.  But of what?—What had I been saying to displease you?—Did you think me speaking improperly?—lightly, irreverently on the subject?—Only tell me if I was.  Only tell me if I was wrong.  I want to be set right.  Nay, nay, I entreat you; for one moment put down your work.  What did that shake of the head mean?”

In vain was her “Pray, Sir, don’t—pray, Mr. Crawford,” repeated twice over; and in vain did she try to move away—In the same low eager voice, and the same close neighbourhood, he went on, re-urging the same questions as before.  She grew more agitated and displeased.

“How can you, Sir?  You quite astonish me—I wonder how you can”—

“Do I astonish you?”—said he.  “Do you wonder?  Is there anything in my present entreaty that you do not understand?  I will explain to you instantly all that makes me urge you in this manner, all that gives me an interest in what you look and do, and excites my present curiosity.  I will not leave you to wonder long.”

In spite of herself, she could not help half a smile, but she said nothing.

“You shook your head at my acknowledging that I should not like to engage in the duties of a clergyman always, for a constancy.  Yes, that was the word.  Constancy, I am not afraid of the word.  I would spell it, read it, write it with any body.  I see nothing alarming in the word.  Did you think I ought?”

“Perhaps, Sir,” said Fanny, wearied at last into speaking—“perhaps, Sir, I thought it was a pity you did not always know yourself as well as you seemed to do at that moment.”

Crawford, delighted to get her to speak at any rate, was determined to keep it up; and poor Fanny, who had hoped to silence him by such an extremity of reproof, found herself sadly mistaken, and that it was only a change from one object of curiosity and one set of words to another.  He had always something to intreat the explanation of.  The opportunity was too fair.  None such had occurred since his seeing her in her uncle’s room, none such might occur again before his leaving Mansfield.  (341-43)

And none does.  He and his sister are about to depart Mansfield.

Fanny’s barely smiling, in spite of herself, at Crawford’s variations on her themes of astonishment and wonder is of some interest.  Austen would not have Fanny smile if she meant this performance to be on balance objectionable. Henry’s passion to seduce women has not died; it has metamorphosed into his passion to marry Fanny.

One respect in which Fanny is mistaken about Henry is in her belief that he suffers from a lack of self-knowledge about the quality of his behavior to Maria Bertram.  As the author has shown us in Henry’s talks with his sister, he is fully conscious of how irresponsibly he has behaved toward Maria, and has, indeed, begun his courtship of Fanny.  Some of Henry’s self-knowledge is implicit and his confidence in the reforming power of his love for Fanny explicit when he concludes his last talk with Fanny before leaving for London.  He understands the grounds of Fanny’s disapproval: 

“Well . . . I am happier than I was, because I now understand more clearly your opinion of me.  You think me unsteady—easily swayed by the whim of the moment—easily tempted—easily put aside.  With such an opinion, no wonder that——But we shall see.—It is not by protestations that I shall endeavour to convince you I am wronged, it is not by telling you that my affections are steady.  My conduct shall speak for me—absence, distance, time shall speak for me.—They shall prove, that as far as you can be deserved by any body, I do deserve you.”  (343)

Austen knew how to write insincere speech. She did not write it here.


After Sir Thomas has conveyed Henry’s formal proposal of marriage to Fanny, her comprehensive rejection of him is weakened.  Once Henry asks her to be his wife, the new way she must think of him generates in Fanny a change in her emotion toward him. Interactions between the two become more complex.

Mr. Crawford was no longer the Mr. Crawford who, as the clandestine, insidious, treacherous admirer of Maria Bertram, had been her abhorrence, whom she had hated to see or to speak to, in whom she could believe no good quality to exist, and whose power, even of being agreeable, she had barely acknowledged.  He was now the Mr. Crawford who was addressing herself with ardent, disinterested, love; whose feelings were apparently become all that was honourable and upright, whose views of happiness were all fixed on a marriage of attachment; who was pouring out his sense of her merits, describing and describing again his affection, proving, as far as words could prove it, and in the language, tone, and spirit of a man of talent too, that he sought her for her gentleness, and her goodness; and to complete the whole, he was now the Mr. Crawford who had procured William’s promotion!

Here was a change! and here were claims which could not but operate.  She might have disdained him in all the dignity of angry virtue, in the grounds of Sotherton, or the theatre at Mansfield Park; but he approached her now with rights that demanded different treatment.  (327-28)

The effect on Fanny’s behavior of her inescapably changed ways of feeling toward Henry is

a manner so pitying and agitated, and words intermingled with her refusal so expressive of obligation and concern, that to a temper of vanity and hope like Crawford’s, the truth, or at least the strength of her indifference, might well be questionable; and he was not so irrational as Fanny considered him, in the professions of persevering, assiduous, and not desponding attachment which closed the interview.  (328)

Despite the charge of vanity here leveled against him, some readers’ hopes for his reform to bring success with a changing Fanny may also justly rise. 

The demands upon Henry’s sensitivity when he visits Fanny at Portsmouth are great.  Without warning he appears at the Price’s slovenly quarters:

It was a gentleman’s voice; it was a voice that Fanny was just turning pale about, when Mr. Crawford walked into the room.

[. . .] 

While trying to keep herself alive, their visitor, who had at first approached her with as animated a countenance as ever, was wisely and kindly keeping his eyes away, and giving her time to recover, while he devoted himself entirely to her mother, addressing her, and attending to her with the utmost politeness and propriety, at the same time with a degree of friendliness—of interest at least—which was making his manner perfect.  (399-400)

Henry can report to Fanny his improvement as a landowner.  In a walk around the Portsmouth dock-yard he describes to Fanny the good works he has recently been performing at his estate, Everingham, in Norfolk.

It was pleasing to hear him speak so properly; here, he had been acting as he ought to do.  To be the friend of the poor and oppressed!  Nothing could be more grateful to her. . . . She was willing to allow he might have more good qualities than she had been wont to suppose.  She began to feel the possibility of his turning out well at last . . . (404-05)

How will the author qualify this promising praise?  Fanny’s thought concludes, “but he was and must ever be completely unsuited to her, and ought not to think of her” (405). 

Nonetheless, even Fanny’s objection to Henry’s open courtship is a little relaxed by his so much improved self.  First-time readers of an optimistically romantic temperament may again feel encouraged.  Henry’s empathic imagination tells him that, in view of her family’s delinquent housekeeping and sad manners, his eating with them would be embarrassing to Fanny:

Before they parted, she had to thank him for another pleasure, and one of no trivial kind.  Her father asked him to do them the honour of taking his mutton with them, and Fanny had time for only one thrill of horror, before he declared himself prevented by a prior engagement. . . .

 To have had him join their family dinner-party and see all their deficiencies would have been dreadful!  (406-07)

When Henry Crawford completes his two-day visit to Portsmouth, Fanny has come to believe in his moral improvement.  She “was quite persuaded of his being astonishingly more gentle, and regardful of others, than formerly.  And if in little things, must it not be so in great?  So anxious for her health and comfort, so very feeling as he now expressed himself, and really seemed” (413-14).  Austen makes sure, however, that she has not been led to accept him:  “might not it be fairly supposed, that he would not much longer persevere in a suit so distressing to her?”  (414).

Exactly how affecting Henry’s visit is for Fanny we discover through another insight we are given into her feelings after his departure.  It is interesting to see Austen make Fanny’s private tribute to Henry invoke an idea that tracks Sir Thomas’s earlier criticism of Fanny for failing to give a thought to how she might help other members of her family by marrying Mr. Crawford.  Her grownup re-exposure to the degradation of life in her family’s Portsmouth home has led her to a concern for her younger sister Susan’s lot that for the first time makes personally vivid to her the utility for Susan of Fanny’s having an affluent husband.  Henry’s considerate, thoughtful behavior on his visit has given her new ideas: 

Poor Susan was very little better fitted for home than her elder sister; and as Fanny grew thoroughly to understand this, she began to feel that when her own release from Portsmouth came, her happiness would have a material drawback in leaving Susan behind.  That a girl so capable of being made, every thing good, should be left in such hands, distressed her more and more.  Were she likely to have a home to invite her to, what a blessing it would be!—And had it been possible for her to return Mr. Crawford’s regard, the probability of his being very far from objecting to such a measure, would have been the greatest increase of all her own comforts.  She thought he was really good-tempered, and could fancy his entering into a plan of that sort, most pleasantly.  (419)

For once, Austen does not retract or qualify Fanny’s favorable thoughts and feelings about Henry.  We are none of us to give up on him.


After Henry’s return to London, a letter from Mary in London causes Fanny to “conjecture that something very imprudent had just occurred” involving Henry and Maria, and at first to hope “it might give him a knowledge of his own disposition, convince him that he was not capable of being steadily attached to any one woman in the world, and shame him from persisting any longer in addressing herself” (438).  This response manifests her swift regression to the Fanny of the theatricals.  It is a defensive reaction to news that portends for her a loss.  However, the author does not forget the newer Fanny Price whom she has been rendering in response to the changed Henry Crawford she has composed. Austen makes Fanny’s first reaction quickly give way to more vulnerable feelings:  “It was very strange!  She had begun to think he really loved her, and to fancy his affection for her something more than common” (438).  Indeed the author even offers us a very late denial of inconstancy in Henry’s emotional attachment to Fanny.  We should not forget the remarks with which Austen closes out her suave explanation of her making Henry fall into adultery with Maria:  “He was entangled by his own vanity, with as little excuse of love as possible, and without the smallest inconstancy of mind towards her cousin” (468), whom, the author goes on to affirm, “he had rationally, as well as passionately loved” (469).

Austen has endowed Henry with a double potential for moral excellence, both in his power of introspection and in his empathic imagination, in order, among other ends served, to provide a basis in his nature for the possibility of lasting reform.  Her implied acknowledgment of this possibility in his fictional being is manifested in her virtually affirming of Henry’s choosing to go off with Maria Rushworth that he could have chosen otherwise.  After his fall, she looks back at Henry’s alternatives: 

Could he have been satisfied with the conquest of one amiable woman’s affections, could he have found sufficient exaltation 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.

Had he done as he intended, and as he knew he ought, by going down to Everingham after his return from Portsmouth, he might have been deciding his own happy destiny.  (467)

Despite Austen’s proliferating precautionary modal devices, despite those diffident verbal hesitations—“had he done,” “would he have,” “could he have been”—the overall tenor of the passage, its impact as a gestalt on a reader who reads straight through without stopping to ruminate on its syntax, expresses a declaration—though a less than ringing one—that the author had so designed Henry that, because the good thing had made itself so perspicuously vivid for him and so intensely felt by him, he had it in his power faithfully to pursue it.

Let us end by putting this good again before our own eyes. The instance is a Sunday “walk on the ramparts” at the Portsmouth dockyards with Fanny and her younger sister Susan on either arm of Henry Crawford.

The day was uncommonly lovely.  It was really March; but it was April in its mild air, brisk soft wind, and bright sun, occasionally clouded for a minute; and every thing looked so beautiful under the influence of such a sky, the effects of the shadows pursuing each other, on the ships at Spithead and the island beyond, with the ever-varying hues of the sea now at high water, dancing in its glee and dashing against the ramparts with so fine a sound, produced altogether such a combination of charms for Fanny, as made her gradually almost careless of the circumstances under which she felt them. . . .

The loveliness of the day, and of the view, he felt like herself.  They often stopt with the same sentiment and taste, leaning against the wall, some minutes, to look and admire; and considering he was not Edmund, Fanny could not but allow that he was sufficiently open to the charms of nature. . . . She had a few tender reveries now and then, which he could sometimes take advantage of, to look in her face without detection. . . . (409)

Among the novel’s readers, however, unrepentant believers in romantic comedy experience no joyful ending. For that, the author would have needed to bring Fanny round to stronger feelings toward Henry and more sisterly ones for Edmund. Austen would therefore have had to let the young Crawfords’ better selves steadily bloom.  This last she would not allow.  She had her reasons.



1.  I haven’t space to argue here directly for the improbability of an action Mudrick calls insane, Henry’s “lunatic caprice with a married woman he doesn’t even like” (380).  It’s more likely that Austen betrayed Henry in the end, than that the Henry Crawford who loved Fanny would have betrayed her and himself with Maria Rushworth.


Auerbach, Nina.  Romantic Imprisonment.  New York: Columbia UP, 1985.
Austen, Jane.  Mansfield Park.  Ed. R. W. Chapman.  3rd ed.  Oxford: OUP, 1988. 
Mudrick, Marvin.  Afterword.  Mansfield Park.  New York: New American Library, 1964.  371-81.

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