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Sirens of Society: The Seduction of Moral Men by Austen’s Female Villains

In Mansfield Park, Henry Crawford compliments Fanny Price on the rarity of her feminine virtue—virtue which stands in stark contrast to the female villainy present in both Mary Crawford of Mansfield Park and the title character in Lady Susan: “You have qualities which I had not before supposed to exist in such a degree in any human creature. You have some touches of the angel in you” (Mansfield Park 318).  A “villain” is often understood today as an evil character, often a criminal, who simply “opposes the hero” in a story (Merriam Webster). However, in Austen’s novels, the word villain seems to be less about crime and evil, and more about the complexities of certain characters who lack social morals to an almost comical extent. Coming from the Latin word villanus, the word villain also developed the meaning of “a low-born, base-minded rustic” (British Library). The origin of this term is particularly significant because it alludes to both social class and principles, recurring themes particularly relevant in Austen’s novels. The eponymous character Lady Susan and Mary Crawford of Mansfield Park exemplify female villainy. They are sirens of their respective novels, subverting the social order and corrupting the social mores by seducing moral men. Ultimately, their attractive, yet ironically objectionable, characteristics, as well as their blatant disregard for societal rules, leads to their conjugal failures. By the end of each novel, the female villains in Mansfield Park and Lady Susan are rejected and reduced to (or revealed to be) mere obstacles in the way of a match between moral equals.

Lady Susan of Lady Susan is perhaps the most manipulative and shameless coquette in all of Jane Austen’s novels. For this reason, she is also one of Austen’s most notorious female villains. Lady Susan demonstrates her female wickedness by undermining the family unit, mistreating her daughter, and abusing the institution of marriage. In the beginning of the novel, Lady Susan writes to Mrs. Johnson that “nothing goes smoothly” and that the “females of the family” are all “united against” her (Lady Susan 173-174). Thus, readers become cognizant of Lady Susan’s divisive nature. She confirms this statement by detailing the havoc she has wreaked in the Manwarings’ home, writing that “Sir James is gone, Maria highly incensed, and Mrs. Manwaring insupportably jealous” (Lady Susan 174).  Lady Susan herself admits that “no house was ever more altered” (Lady Susan 174) and, without any semblance of remorse, implies that it is her doing.

Not only does Lady Susan undermine the family structure by dividing a family in their own home, but she also flirts dishonestly, tricking men into loving her and seducing them for entertainment. For instance, in her letter to Alicia, Lady Susan confides that her time at Churchill will perhaps be improved by Reginald who promises her “some amusement” and whose “sauciness and familiarity” interests her. She tells Alicia that convincing Reginald that his sister has “scandalously belied” her and subduing Reginald’s “insolent spirit” through flirtation will be her “project” (Lady Susan 181). Reginald, before being placed under Lady Susan’s control, wrote to her sister that Lady Susan did not “confine herself to that sort of honest flirtation which satisfies most people,” but instead aspired to the “more delicious gratification of making a whole family miserable” (Lady Susan 176).

Lady Susan also fails to properly educate her daughter, Frederica, and to show her any maternal affection. For instance, Lady Susan appears an uncaring hypocrite when she tells Mrs. Johnson that she is going to push Frederica to marry someone whom she does not love, yet Lady Susan would not marry him herself: “I have more than once repented that I did not marry him (Sir James Martin) myself; and were he but one degree less contemptibly weak I certainly should: but I must own myself rather romantic in that respect, and that riches only will not satisfy me” (Lady Susan 174).  She also frequently calls her daughter a “simpleton” to her friends and only shows affection if it serves her own interests. Somewhat ironically, she tells Alicia that she means to win her sister-in-law's “heart” through one child in particular, “a young Frederic” (Lady Susan 178). The fact that the child is named Frederic, the male equivalent of her daughter’s name, is no accident and perhaps hints at the fact that Lady Susan is more likely to be kind to a child she has never met than her own daughter.

Lady Susan, while one of Austen’s most insolent flirts, is certainly not without competition. Mary Crawford of Mansfield Park shares many of Lady Susan’s coquettish characteristics and has a witty and charismatic disposition. While perhaps less blatantly deceitful than Lady Susan, Miss Crawford acts as a female villain by upsetting the natural order at Mansfield: she divides a good man from the good woman he is destined to be with, and also looks above her own “station” in terms of morality. Mary Crawford becomes interested in Edmund Bertram over the course of the novel and separates him for a time from Fanny Price, the novel’s righteous protagonist. One sees the beginning of this divide from Fanny’s and Edmund’s first impressions of Mary. Edmund remarks to Fanny that it is Mary’s “countenance” that is “so attractive,” however, there was something in her conversation that was “not quite right” (Mansfield Park 60). Fanny agreed with him and Edmund followed saying “It was very wrong; very indecorous” (Mansfield Park 60). Thus, from the beginning, readers understand that-- at least according to Edmund’s morals–Mary’s disposition is “wrong.” However, not unlike Reginald with Lady Susan, Edmund, despite his better judgement, has difficulty resisting Mary’s seduction and makes excuses for her nature. Fanny expresses with regret that Edmund’s initial “objections” and the “scruples of his integrity” seemed “all done away,” though she did not know how (Mansfield Park 340).

Not only does Mary’s attraction to Edmund cause Fanny much discomfort, but Mary also disrupts the natural social order by attempting to marry a man who is, by society’s standards, her moral better. Mary reveals much of her nature in both her comments about attending mass and in her discussion with Edmund about his intention to become a clergyman, something which she had not previously realized. Mary speaks without restraint about her annoyance at the “obligation of attendance” regarding church and calls parsons “very inferior even to what they are now” (Mansfield Park 82). In response to this insulting speech, however, Edmund does not respond angrily, but rather declares: “Your lively mind can hardly be serious even on serious subjects. You have given us an amusing sketch . . . ” (Mansfield Park 82).  Even with this gracious response, though, Mary states that it comes as a “surprise to her” and tells Edmund that the church is rarely ever “chosen” and tells him she believes that “a clergyman is nothing” (Mansfield Park 86).

Although at the end of the novel Mary’s improper comments and indecorous manner eventually ruin her chances of a happy marriage with Edmund, one cannot help but wonder how it took Edmund so long to realize the incompatibility of their respective characters. The fact that Edmund was so infatuated with Mary Crawford, a woman with whom he had nothing in common and whose morals he knew were deeply flawed, is a testament to her seductive abilities. Fanny observed that Edmund was under Mary’s spell, saying “he was deceived in her: he gave her merits which she had not; her faults were what they had ever been, but he saw them no longer” (Mansfield Park 244). Despite Fanny’s knowledge that Mary did not “deserve” Edmund, he was too captivated by her siren song to think rationally and it was only at the end of the novel, when Mary spoke critically of Fanny and seemed to defend Henry, that the “charm” was broken and Edmund’s “eyes were opened” (Mansfield Park 423).

Both Lady Susan and Mary Crawford are talkative, flirtatious, and dynamic female characters who frequently use manipulative tactics in order to seduce men. Although Mary is less deceitful than Lady Susan, she certainly employs her voice—as well as her musical abilities—in order to attract Edmund, just as Lady Susan uses language to win over Manwaring and Reginald. In order to seduce Edmund, Mary both plays the harp, adding to her “beauty, wit, and good-humour,” and sharpens her wit, saying something “clever” at “the close of every air” (Mansfield Park 61).  Edmund was so drawn to her playing that he was at the Parsonage every day, unable to resist the “young woman, pretty, lively, with a harp as elegant as herself,” making her “enough to catch any man's heart” (Mansfield Park 62).  The narrator’s use of the word “catch” is particularly telling, reinforcing the “hunter and hunted” dynamic between Mary and Edmund. Both Mary and Lady Susan are not unlike sirens who had “beautiful singing voices” and were “gifted lyre players.” In the Odyssey, the Sirens are described as irresistible creatures that “bewitch everybody who approaches them,” particularly men (Cartwright). Mary and Lady Susan reject propriety and instead brazenly flirt with unavailable men. However, unlike the mythical sirens, these temptresses do not get away with their low behavior.

Despite their many attractive traits—or perhaps because of them—Mary Crawford and Lady Susan do not come away from their battle against propriety and decency unscathed. Edmund rejects Mary Crawford and does not marry her, despite her efforts to “subdue” him with a “saucy, playful smile” (Mansfield Park 426). Edmund does this because he at last shuns her “spoilt” nature which, for instance, only seemed to take issue with the exposure of Henry and Maria’s elopement, not the immorality of the deed itself. Likewise, Lady Susan does not end up with the man she desires, Manwaring, and does not truly conquer Reginald. Although it is true that Lady Susan looked “all cheerfulness and good-humour” even after her apparent rejection, and one can never know with certainty whether Lady Susan “was or was not happy in her second choice,” it is undoubtedly true that she did not get what she initially desired (Lady Susan 224). Austen’s use of language regarding Lady Susan’s attitude at the end of the novel is also particularly noteworthy, calling Lady Susan untrustworthy and telling readers not to take “her assurance of it [her happiness] on either side of the question” (Lady Susan 224). The narrator is specifically warning readers about Lady Susan’s use of language and telling them to be wary of her siren “song.”

Despite their similar conclusions and comparable natures, however, it is important to note that Mary Crawford and Lady Susan are not one and the same: while Lady Susan has a disposition difficult not to attribute to nature, Mary Crawford’s character is often blamed on the “world” and her ill breeding (Mansfield Park 422).  Edmund is so distraught by Mary because of her lack of gentle and proper manners, crying “No reluctance, no horror, no feminine, shall I say, no modest loathings? This is what the world does. For where, Fanny, shall we find a woman whom nature had so richly endowed? Spoilt, spoilt!” (Mansfield Park 422). Here Edmund expresses his vexation with the fact that she has been so ruined by common and base upbringing, a reality that connects back to the idea of both Mary and Susan as villains: that is, women who lack the delicate nature and, perhaps more significantly, the principled raising of a traditionally feminine character like Fanny Price.

Ultimately, Lady Susan and Mary Crawford demonstrate their true villainy, not through low social ranking, but instead through improper morals.  According to Edmund, the “evil” of a woman like Mary Crawford is one “of principle . . . of blunted delicacy and a corrupted, vitiated mind” (Mansfield Park 423). Here, Edmund is not talking about villainy due to one’s nominal status in the world, but rather points to the subtle significance in an honorable and virtuous upbringing. Female villains, unlike male villains, are violent towards society in more pernicious ways by undercutting the social fabric. These women act to unweave society often through seductive behavior, acting like sirens and leading men to their own destruction.

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