Persuasions #2, 1980                                                                                                                                            Pages 22-23, 25



by Erna Schwerin
New York, New York

Jane Austen was a brilliant psychologist. Although she probably was not always aware of her rare, intuitive gifts, which helped shape the characters in her novels, their validity for personality theory can still be demonstrated today. It is hard to resist the temptation to test this belief on all the significant figures in Mansfield Park, but space limitations do not permit this. Instead, the important event of Henry Crawford’s and Maria Rushworth’s elopement will be the central focus. It was chosen because of the criticism expressed by Joan Rees, Jane Austen’s biographer, referring to this culmination of the story as “contrived,” and noting that only “overwhelming passion on both sides” would justify such a “reckless act.” (Jane Austen – Woman and Writer by Joan Rees, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1976). An examination, in depth, of the most significant event preceding this elopement, and of the personalities of Henry and Maria, should make the motivation appear in a very plausible light.

Henry is described as an intelligent, charming, verbal young man, who is very attractive to women, and whose chief preoccupation is to captivate them, without any emotional involvement of his own. In the novel he deeply disappoints Maria before her marriage, and to some degree Julia, in a subtle, sadistic way. As soon as he has made a conquest, he becomes bored and restless, looking for a new experience.

page 42-43. [Mary Crawford speaking to Mrs. Grant]

I have three particular friends who have been all dying for him in their turn; … He is the most horrible flirt that can be imagined.”

He assumes, confidently, that he can “make” the pretty, but reserved and high-principled Fanny fall in love with him, and proceeds to court her. One aspect of her appeal is her lack of interest in him, an indifference he rarely encounters, and her maturity, seriousness, and general caliber of personality. He admires her for what is lacking in himself. Suddenly, he finds that the tables are turned: Fanny persists in rejecting his proposal, having sensed, with unerring perceptiveness, the flaws in his personality (and, of course having another reason, unknown to anyone).

page 67. [Edmund is teaching Mary Crawford to ride. Fanny is looking on.]

She could not but think that Mr. Crawford might well have saved him the trouble, that it would have been particularly proper and becoming in a brother to have done it himself; but Mr. Crawford, with all his boasted coachmanship, probably knew nothing of the matter, and had no active kindness in comparison of Edmund.

Neither Henry’s pursuit of her, nor his successful effort in furthering her brother’s career, will produce anything but gratitude. When it serves his purpose, Henry does extend himself on behalf of others, but expects to be rewarded.

page 301. Fanny found herself expected to believe that she had created sensations which his heart had never known before, and that everything he had done for William, was to be placed to the account of his excessive and unequalled attachment to her.

A closer look at Henry’s personality dynamics will help explain his actions following this severe blow dealt to his ego. His background, described in the novel, left him without a stable male figure to idealize and identify. Using present-day psychological insight, we would consider his hedonistic acting out related to a malformed character. Behind the surface charm there is a coldness and distance, preventing the formation of lasting relationships, except with his sister, an equally self-indulgent, flirtatious, seductive girl, who fosters Henry’s life-style and his acting out. He is unusually self-centered, and his chief gratifications are sought in being admired.

page 231. [Henry tells Mary that he plans to spend a fortnight courting Fanny.]

I only want her to look kindly on me, to give me smiles as well as blushes, to keep a chair for me by herself wherever we are, and be all animation when I take it and talk to her; to think as I think, be interested in all my possessions and pleasures, try to keep me longer at Mansfield, and feel when I go away that she shall never be happy again.”

Despite a display of self-confidence, his vulnerability to rejection is notable, and can result in severe ego depletion and regression. Henry depends on the flatteries of others; he cannot remain alone. He must see himself reflected, like in a mirror, in a person he admires. Modern psychology recognizes this cluster of personality traits as belonging to a narcissistic personality. This refers to an all-pervasive form of self-love and perception of the other person solely in terms of one’s own needs. Henry hopes that Fanny, an unconsciously perceived, idealized mother-sister figure, would serve as his mirror, providing unconditional acceptance, and eventually even tolerating his infidelities, once the novelty of their relationship has worn off.

page 456. [Mary speaks to Edmund about Fanny.]

I shall never forgive her. Had she accepted him as she ought, they might now have been on the point of marriage, and Henry would have been too happy and too busy to want any other object.”

Fanny’s resistance and final rejection, which must have been incomprehensible to Henry, results in a most pressing need to restore the lost confidence in his masculine appeal, and in an unconscious desire to take revenge; for an important aspect of the sexual acting out is also anger towards women, on whom the early disappointment in mother is unconsciously projected. Henry now turns to the recently-married Maria as a likely “target.” That he does not receive immediate encouragement only heightens his pursuit; he is not taking another rejection lightly. Maria, like Henry, is an impulsive, shallow woman, who escaped into marriage to enable her to leave a very restrictive home. She has no positive feelings for her husband, so that her earlier infatuation with Henry is easily revived. With a mutual propensity to acting out, we may assume the elopement to have taken place with minimal conflict.

page 468. [Crawford] was entangled by his own vanity, with as little excuse of love as possible, and without the smallest inconstancy of mind towards her cousin.

Guilt was certainly not a problem, as neither Henry nor Maria have a fully integrated, mature conscience. Rees notes that Henry “destroyed” Maria. He certainly unconsciously set out to do so, driven by ulterior motives other than passion: chiefly projected rage. But ultimately it was Maria, who destroyed herself, and who must accept her share of the responsibility for leaving her husband.

page 468. When [Crawford] returned from Richmond, he would have been glad to have seen Mrs. Rushworth no more. – All that followed was the result of her imprudence.

They did not live happily ever after. Maria paid a high price after the separation from Henry, when the only option open to her was to join Aunt Norris for a boring and isolated existence.

In the light of modern psychological interpretation and character study, then, Jane Austen is fully vindicated for her unique understanding of this aspect of her projected plot.

Erna Schwerin is a clinical psychologist. As well as being a member of JASNA she is also president of the Mozart Society in New York City.

The supporting quotations for this article were researched by Mary Millard of Willowdale, Ontario. Page references are to Chapman’s edition of the novels.

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