Many readers wonder when Edmund fell in love with Fanny and how he could ever have loved Mary Crawford. Still, others hone in on the fact that Austen says Mary and Edmund had married, Fanny probably would have accepted Henry Crawford. But what sort of life would Mary and Edmund have had? Perhaps it is alluded to in the comparison of Sir Thomas’ relationship with Mrs. Norris.
Early in the book, we see Mrs. Norris directing affairs at Mansfield. Lady Bertram seldom speaks, she rarely has an opinion of her own. She defers to either her husband or sister. On my first reading of Mansfield Park, I even questioned if Mrs. Norris was in love with Sir Thomas with the way she seeks his constant approval and must meddle in his affairs. It seemed beyond the common interest in a sister’s family and for one’s nieces and nephews.
Consider her advice on the topic of taking in Fanny:
“You are thinking of your sons—but do not you know that, of all things upon earth, that is the least likely to happen, brought up as they would be, always together like brothers and sisters? It is morally impossible. I never knew an instance of it. It is, in fact, the only sure way of providing against the connexion. Suppose her a pretty girl, and seen by Tom or Edmund for the first time seven years hence, and I dare say there would be mischief. The very idea of her having been suffered to grow up at a distance from us all in poverty and neglect, would be enough to make either of the dear, sweet-tempered boys in love with her. But breed her up with them from this time, and suppose her even to have the beauty of an angel, and she will never be more to either than a sister.”
In the same conversation she adds, to further ingratiate herself in Sir Thomas’ eyes and manipulate him to her opinion:
Whatever I can do, as you well know, I am always ready enough to do for the good of those I love; and, though I could never feel for this little girl the hundredth part of the regard I bear your own dear children, nor consider her, in any respect, so much my own, I should hate myself if I were capable of neglecting her.
Mrs. Norris then suggests a way of collecting Fanny that Sir Thomas found not quite respectable and he makes modifications to the plans. This is an early clue that Mrs. Norris’ way of thinking is not quite right. In the same passage we are told this
As far as walking, talking, and contriving reached, she was thoroughly benevolent, and nobody knew better how to dictate liberality to others; but her love of money was equal to her love of directing, and she knew quite as well how to save her own as to spend that of her friends.
Mary Crawford also had a love of money. Upon first meeting the Bertrams, she believes she will ensnare Tom as heir to Mansfield. After recognizing the grandeur of the estate and its worth, she fully intends to marry him.
It might do very well; she believed she should accept him;
Perhaps if he had never gone to the races, or if she had been able to accompany him, the story might have gone very differently. Instead, she is thrown into Edmunds’ company, and she’s too intelligent to miss how he is the nobler young man.
“I mean to be too rich to lament or to feel anything of the sort. A large income is the best recipe for happiness I ever heard of.”
Indeed, Edmund often thinks that she loves money and London Society too much to accept a younger son. This is why their courtship takes so many months although they are nearly always together which is vastly different from most Austen stories. Just as Edmund is ready to come to the point, at last, Tom grows ill. Mary even writes to Fanny about how well-suited to the baronetcy Edmund is, and thus she begins to encourage Edmund in his suit wholeheartedly. Previously, she had gone to London to be away from him and, at the very least, bend him to her will regarding his profession and values in life.
Forgive me if I cannot describe such manipulation in a charitable light.
However, despite finding flaws in Mary, Edmund believes he can redirect them. He sees that she wants to please. She wants to be of use. She values Fanny, and nothing is dearer to his heart than her so how can Mary be bad?
We could say, how can Mrs. Norris be bad when she flatters Sir Thomas’ good sense and values good breeding the same as he does? They seem united in what they agree is the most important matters in life, even if their technique in achieving them are different. They are both devoted to the education of the young people of Mansfield.
When all is said and done, Sir Thomas bitterly regrets giving Mrs. Norris such free rein in his house.
Too late he became aware how unfavourable to the character of any young people must be the totally opposite treatment which Maria and Julia had been always experiencing at home, where the excessive indulgence and flattery of their aunt had been continually contrasted with his own severity. He saw how ill he had judged, in expecting to counteract what was wrong in Mrs. Norris by its reverse in himself; clearly saw that he had but increased the evil by teaching them to repress their spirits in his presence so as to make their real disposition unknown to him, and sending them for all their indulgences to a person who had been able to attach them only by the blindness of her affection, and the excess of her praise.
Here had been grievous mismanagement; but, bad as it was, he gradually grew to feel that it had not been the most direful mistake in his plan of education. Something must have been wanting within, or time would have worn away much of its ill effect. He feared that principle, active principle, had been wanting; that they had never been properly taught to govern their inclinations and tempers by that sense of duty which can alone suffice. They had been instructed theoretically in their religion, but never required to bring it into daily practice.
Mrs. Norris’s removal from Mansfield was the great supplementary comfort of Sir Thomas’s life. His opinion of her had been sinking from the day of his return from Antigua: in every transaction together from that period, in their daily intercourse, in business, or in chat, she had been regularly losing ground in his esteem, and convincing him that either time had done her much disservice, or that he had considerably over-rated her sense, and wonderfully borne with her manners before. He had felt her as an hourly evil, which was so much the worse, as there seemed no chance of its ceasing but with life; she seemed a part of himself that must be borne for ever.
She was regretted by no one at Mansfield. She had never been able to attach even those she loved best;
Mary Crawford, at her current age, does not have the nature of Mrs. Norris. She was not overly indulgent. She did see the goodness in Edmund and Fanny over Henry and Maria—even as she justified their affair. Still, it is through manipulation. She would often say one thing and when realizing someone was displeased with her, would come back and alter it later. She could not stand to give an opinion and hold herself to it. In this way, she conceals what she really is. She manipulates Edmund into thinking the best of her and that he has influence over her—something which is shown early in their acquaintance he desires to have in life as his siblings completely ignore his words about the play.
However, other similarities between the women exist. Consider how Mary wants to give advice to Sir Thomas about how to handle Maria’s adultery.
“What I advise is, that your father be quiet. Do not let him injure his own cause by interference. Persuade him to let things take their course. If by any officious exertions of his, she is induced to leave Henry’s protection, there will be much less chance of his marrying her than if she remain with him. I know how he is likely to be influenced. Let Sir Thomas trust to his honour and compassion, and it may all end well; but if he get his daughter away, it will be destroying the chief hold.'”
Even at the end of their acquaintance, Edmund has this to say:
“Cruelty, do you call it? We differ there. No, hers is not a cruel nature. I do not consider her as meaning to wound my feelings. The evil lies yet deeper: in her total ignorance, unsuspiciousness of there being such feelings; in a perversion of mind which made it natural to her to treat the subject as she did. She was speaking only as she had been used to hear others speak, as she imagined everybody else would speak. Hers are not faults of temper. She would not voluntarily give unnecessary pain to any one, and though I may deceive myself, I cannot but think that for me, for my feelings, she would—Hers are faults of principle, Fanny; of blunted delicacy and a corrupted, vitiated mind. Perhaps it is best for me, since it leaves me so little to regret. Not so, however. Gladly would I submit to all the increased pain of losing her, rather than have to think of her as I do. I told her so.”
Mrs. Norris might be intentionally cruel to Fanny, but she would never have deliberately created such defects in the character of her beloved nieces and nephews. In fact, that neglect she gives to Fanny is what has made her so strong and morally resolute.
Just as Sir Thomas has regretted giving Mrs. Norris so much influence over his children, Edmund regrets being blind to the real Mary:
All this together most grievously convinced me that I had never understood her before, and that, as far as related to mind, it had been the creature of my own imagination, not Miss Crawford, that I had been too apt to dwell on for many months past.
As Sir Thomas has finally learned to ignore the advice of Mrs. Norris, so too, has Edmund learned to ignore the pull of Mary:
“’Mr. Bertram,’ said she, with a smile; but it was a smile ill-suited to the conversation that had passed, a saucy playful smile, seeming to invite in order to subdue me; at least it appeared so to me. I resisted; it was the impulse of the moment to resist, and still walked on. I have since, sometimes, for a moment, regretted that I did not go back, but I know I was right…”
Edmund would not have been happy with Mary for long. Soon, she would have become the bane of his existence. He would have been completely “taken in” as Mary calls it. For as often as he defends Mary’s way of thinking and speaking, he could not hope to permanently alter or influence it anymore than Mrs. Norris changed from twenty years of knowing Sir Thomas.
And how did Edmund come to love Fanny? I might examine that closer later, but I think it is easy to see that she is quite the opposite of Mary. Just as Sir Thomas must now value Lady Bertram’s complacency more than he had before, Edmund can see the qualities that Fanny has, and he has needed all along.
Scarcely had he done regretting Mary Crawford, and observing to Fanny how impossible it was that he should ever meet with such another woman, before it began to strike him whether a very different kind of woman might not do just as well, or a great deal better: whether Fanny herself were not growing as dear, as important to him in all her smiles and all her ways, as Mary Crawford had ever been; and whether it might not be a possible, an hopeful undertaking to persuade her that her warm and sisterly regard for him would be foundation enough for wedded love.