How did Edmund Bertram ever realize he was in love with Fanny Price? Austen does not tell us much:
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.
I purposely abstain from dates on this occasion, that every one may be at liberty to fix their own, aware that the cure of unconquerable passions, and the transfer of unchanging attachments, must vary much as to time in different people. I only entreat everybody to believe that exactly at the time when it was quite natural that it should be so, and not a week earlier, Edmund did cease to care about Miss Crawford, and became as anxious to marry Fanny as Fanny herself could desire.
Here is my imagining of the moment Edmund realizes he loves Fanny “as a hero loves a heroine” with some inspiration from Tyler Rich’s “The Difference.”
The sun had begun to set, and Edmund watched a group of starlings rise and fall against the pink sky. Something about how they seemed to almost fall to the ground and then climb back up pulled on his heart. He surely knew what it was like to lose your bearings and nearly plummet to your death only to rise—hopefully wiser. Knowing Fanny would understand his feelings, he turned in his seat to tell her only to remember he rode alone this day. Fanny had a headache and had stayed home.
There was a time when he would have worried about Fanny because no one at Mansfield seemed to care about her concerns save him. Now, his parents saw her value, and her sister lived with them. His aunt Norris and sisters were far away. He should have no fears that she would not be attended to, and yet he did.
The events of the past months—since the Crawfords had come into the area—had changed them all. Fanny, who once had been so reticent and relied on him so much, had resisted pressure from everyone about marrying Henry. She proved more righteous than them all when he eloped with Edmund’s already married sister, causing a scandal and bringing about her divorce. Nor could Edmund forget his own folly. He had thought he was in love with Crawford’s sister. She was everything a lady should be, everything he had been raised to desire: accomplished, beautiful, witty, and wealthy. However, nearly too late, he discerned she lacked what he most esteemed: integrity and moral fortitude.
Fanny, though, bore it all. She was quiet, but she was not blind as he was. Before the truth came out about the real nature of the Crawford siblings, Fanny had been sent to Portsmouth. Edmund believed it a harsh measure, and surely his father did not want Fanny to marry against her inclination. That could hardly make for a happy marriage. Still, Sir Thomas expected Fanny to write to them and plead to come back. She did not. She held her own.
She no longer needed him.
The thought kept Edmund awake at night. It made him toss and turn in his bed. There was a time when he would keep her waiting before their joined activities. Seeing Fanny, while something which always brought pleasure, held no urgency. Now, he could not see her enough.
Edmund had asked himself why that was. When he had last craved seeing a lady, it was because he was in love. He knew he loved Fanny. She was his cousin; his oldest and dearest friend. Only, when he thought about how his heart skipped a beat when she smiled at him and how it pounded when he wanted to please her—the way it yearned for her to be at his side even now… Well, that did not feel like the same love for his cousin he had always had.
Turning the thoughts over in his head, Edmund handed his reins to the stable boy and directed his feet to the house. Fanny kept her old room, and he was always welcome there. Soon, he would see her.
As he knocked on the door to her chamber, the realization hit him as though someone beat him over the head with the dinner gong. There was a difference between loving Fanny and being in love with her.