For most of us, Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park will never be as popular as the witty and much loved Pride and Prejudice, nor as beloved as Persuasion. Because of this, the men in Mansfield Park tend to be overlooked. They are not as brooding as Mr. Darcy, as charming as Henry Tilney, or as dashing as Captain Wentworth. However, the tendency to ignore this novel and its men does not mean that the men of Mansfield Park are not interesting characters worth studying further. In fact, the two main gentleman, who are potential love interests for Fanny Price, are actually quite complex and at times confusing characters who really don’t receive the attention they deserve from readers.
(2007 version of Mansfield Park)
I am guilty of neglecting these men. This is mostly because when I first read Mansfield Park, I found Fanny Price slightly annoying in her constant pining for Edmund. At the time, I didn’t understand it. Edmund seemed dense to me because he never noticed that Fanny was completely infatuated with him. I quickly became frustrated watching Fanny want someone who didn’t want her. When I first read this novel, I was actually hoping that Henry Crawford would win Fanny’s affections. He seemed fun, and at least was willing to pursue Fanny. Luckily, my understanding and perception of love has significantly evolved from my fifteen year old girl viewpoint; and I realize that Jane Austen really did know best in pairing Fanny with Edmund.
When I decided to finally read Mansfield Park for a second time as an adult, I had a completely different perspective on the relationship between Fanny and Edmund; and I saw Henry Crawford for what he really was: a selfish, manipulative, player who never really cared for Fanny, he just enjoyed the challenge of her.
It was then that I realized that Edmund is truly the better man and that Fanny is not stupid for holding out for what she really wants, but rather she is brave and principled and admirable for her steadfast nature and her refusal to accept a man she does not love.
However, I notice that most people respond to Mansfield Park the same way I first did when I was a fifteen year old girl. They get frustrated with Edmund and seem to think that Fanny deserves better. Maybe she does, but that better is not Henry Crawford.
Furthermore, Edmund may be blind to what is in front of him, but why should we hold him to a higher standard than we hold Jane Austen’s female characters? In Sense and Sensibility, Marianne is completely infatuated with Willoughby and downright contemptuous in her treatment of Colonel Brandon. Yet we cheer for her when she finally realizes Colonel Brandon’s true worth as a man. So, doesn’t Edmund deserve the same understanding that we give Marianne. Is he not allowed to make a fool of himself for love, and learn from his infatuation (if not love) for Mary Crawford and eventually transfer his affections to Fanny? I say yes.
I can forgive Edmund for not noticing Fanny is in love with him because why should he? They were friends and cousins and each had a great affection for the other. I truly believe that Edmund viewed Fanny as a sister, and it never really entered his mind that she would view him as anything other than a brother. The familiarity of always being in each other’s company and knowing each other so well sometimes disguises that friendship has grown into something more.
Therefore, when the charming and exciting Mary Crawford enters the neighborhood; it is not surprising that Edmund falls for her. When he realizes that she is not who he thought, and he gets his heart broken; it is natural that he would seek comfort and solace from his dearest friend Fanny.
“Time would undoubtedly abate somewhat of his sufferings, but still it was a sort of thing which he never could get entirely the better of; and as to his ever meeting with any other woman who could- it was too impossible to be named but with indignation. Fanny’s friendship was all that he had to cling to.”
I find Edmund’s turning to Fanny after his disappointment in love, not insulting but rather a reflection of how much he values Fanny. He is very open and honest with Fanny in what he felt for Mary. Although these disclosures are painful to Fanny because she is in love in Edmund, one can easily assume that had Edmund known Fanny’s true feelings he would have done everything in his power to shelter her from the pain he was unintentionally inflicting on her.
(1997 version of Mansfield Park)
From his first moment of meeting Fanny, Edmund treats her with kindness, respect, and truly tries to protect her and help her adjust to her new surroundings.
“Kept back as she was by every body else, [Edmund’s] single support could not bring [Fanny] forward, but his attentions were otherwise of the highest importance in assisting the improvement of her mind, and extending its pleasures. He knew her to be clever, to have a quick apprehension as well as good sense, and a fondness for reading, which properly directed must be an education in itself. Miss Lee taught her French, and heard her read the daily portion of History; but he recommended the books which charmed her leisure hours, he encouraged her taste, and corrected her judgment; he made reading useful by talking to her of what she read, and heightened its attractions by judicious praise.”
Even in the throes of his infatuation with Mary, Edmund is still Fanny’s greatest champion and defender. When Mr. Bertram returns early and is angry over the play being performed in his house, it is Edmund who makes it a point to defend Fanny saying:
“We have all been more or less to blame,” said he, “every one of us, excepting Fanny. Fanny is the only one who has judged rightly throughout; who has been consistent. Her feelings have been steadily against it from first to last. She never ceased to think of what was due to you. You will find Fanny everything you could wish.”
Furthermore, it is his little gestures of kindness that truly illustrate how gentle and caring Edmund is towards Fanny. For example when he gives her a chain for her tiny gold cross.
I hope you will like the chain itself, Fanny. I endeavoured to consult the simplicity of your taste; but, at any rate, I know you will be kind to my intentions, and consider it, as it really is, a token of the love of one of your oldest friends.”
When Fanny goes on to exclaim and thank him profusely for the gift, Edmund responds by saying:
“My dear Fanny, you feel these things a great deal too much. I am most happy that you like the chain, and that it should be
here in time for tomorrow: but your thanks are far beyond the occasion. Believe me, I have no pleasure in the world superior
to that of contributing to yours.”
Is it any wonder that Fanny was in love Edmund? He essentially tells her that his greatest pleasure in life is bringing her pleasure. I think that many of us would find it hard to “get over” someone like this and shift our affections to a Henry Crawford.
Also, for all of Edmund’s frustrating blindness to Fanny’s love, he is never blind to her value as a friend and as a woman. When hearing that Henry Crawford has proposed to Fanny he says:
“a most fortunate man he is to attach himself to such a creature- to a woman who, firm as a rock in her own principles, has a gentleness of character so well adapted to recommend them. He has chosen his partner, indeed, with rare felicity.”
I know that most readers feel the urge to slap Edmund across the facing saying “Snap out of it!” in regards to his pursuit of Mary and his obliviousness to Fanny’s love. However, we need to give him a break. Yes, it takes him a LONG time to remove his blinders, but he finally does and for that he deserves some credit. Furthermore, most of Edmund’s blindness is due to his humbleness. Even when he realizes his feelings for Fanny have changed, he does not assume that she cares for him in any manner other than that of a brotherly affection.
Edmund is the opposite of Mr. Darcy in this way. Where Darcy assumes Elizabeth will accept him without any second guessing on his part, Edmund believes that he will need to persuade Fanny that their affection for each other will make a good basis for marriage. I consider this a real recommendation to his character. This is a man without any excess ego.
“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, a hopeful undertaking to persuade her that her warm and sisterly regard for him would be foundation enough for wedded love.
Edmund brooks no delay in setting out to win Fanny’s love (something he already has) and hopefully secure both his and her happiness.
“Having once set out, and felt that he had done so, on this road to happiness, there was nothing on the side of prudence to
stop him or make his progress slow; no doubts of her deserving, no fears from opposition of taste, no need of drawing new
hopes of happiness from dissimilarity of temper. Her mind, disposition, opinions, and habits wanted no half concealment, no
self deception on the present, no reliance on future improvement. Even in the midst of his late infatuation, he had
acknowledged Fanny’s mental superiority. What must be his sense of it now, therefore?
She was of course only too good for him; but as nobody minds having what is too good for them, he was very steadily earnest in the pursuit of the blessing, and it was not possible that encouragement from her should be long wanting.
Edmund may not be perfect, but he is a good man; and as any woman can tell you: a good man is hard to find. I am definitely Team Edmund over Team Henry. I’ll take a slow learner over a fast player any day.