Mary Crawford, handsome, clever, and tolerably well provided for, has a view of the world that is peculiarly her own, partly derived from received ideas and partly from her own sharp observation. The received ideas include an unfavourable opinion of clergymen, of whom she has not met many. She thinks them indolent, selfish and hypocritical. In this, she’s not exactly wrong, though of course there are many exceptions to the general rule. According to her:

“… Though I have not seen much of the domestic lives of clergymen, it is seen by too many to leave any deficiency of information.” (Mansfield Park, vol. 1, ch. xi, p. 103)

As her interlocutors, Edmund Bertram and Fanny Price, concede, the example of her sister’s husband, Dr Grant, does not contradict the general impression.

Mary intends to marry, though having inherited £20,000, she doesn’t need to do so for economic reasons, and she can clearly see that many of the marriages around her, including that of her friend Mrs Fraser, are miserable. She discusses with her sister the prospects of their brother, Henry:

“… there is not one in a hundred of either sex, who is not taken in when they marry. Look where I will, I can see that it is so; and I feel that it must be so, when I consider that it is, of all transactions, the one in which people expect most from others, and are least honest themselves.” (Mansfield Park, 1.v, p. 44)

Much later in the novel, Mary tells Fanny Price that:

“… I look upon the Frasers to be about as unhappy as most other married people. And yet it was a most desirable match for Janet at the time. We were all delighted. She could not do otherwise than accept him, for he was rich, and she had nothing …” (Mansfield Park, 3.v, p. 334

In spite of her clear-sighted views about conjugal life, Mary Crawford has every intention of marrying. As it turns out, though, she remains single and is ultimately subjected to the harsh punishment of having to live out her days quietly, sharing a house with her elder sister, Dr Grant’s widow.

Mary is in some respects the converse of the title character of Austen’s next novel, Emma. Emma Woodhouse is unequivocally “rich”, having a fortune of £30,000, half as much again as Mary Crawford’s. Emma has no plan to marry, and explains her reasons to the young woman she wishes to treat as a protegée, Harriet Smith:

“I have none of the usual inducements of women to marry. Were I to fall in love, indeed, it would be a different thing! but I never have been in love; it is not my way, or my nature; and I do not think I ever shall. And without love, I am sure I should be a fool to change such a situation as mine. Fortune I do not want; employment I do not want; consequence I do not want. I believe few married women are half as much mistress of their husband’s house as I am of Hartfield … (Emma, 1.x, p. 77)

Emma, of course, does marry in the end, so it’s tempting to conclude that both she and Mary Crawford start out with a poor understanding of themselves, their desires and circumstances, and are put right — educated as to the error of their ways — by the events that happen to them. But, while Emma certainly makes mistakes, she isn’t wrong about reasons to marry or to refrain from marriage. She doesn’t expect to fall in love, but she allows for the possibility that she might. So, it might be argued that Emma hasn’t been mistaken about marriage in general. She changes her mind because she has fallen in love (as she foresaw that she might, without expecting to), and because she has come at last to see that there is an utter paragon living almost on her doorstep, a man who will move out of his own house and live in hers, and put up with her father’s annoying eccentricities, for as long as the old man lives.

Applying Emma’s arguments to Mary Crawford’s case, it’s clear that Mary doesn’t lack a fortune, though she does say that she’d like to join it with a greater one. It doesn’t seem that she lacks something to do with her time or her accomplishments. So presumably her main reason for seeking marriage is to gain “consequence”. In that aim she is thwarted, partly by the scandal involving her brother when Mrs Rushworth (the sister of Edmund and cousin of Fanny) leaves her dull but rich husband for him.

The financial independence of both Emma Woodhouse and Mary Crawford makes them unusual among Jane Austen’s women characters, most of whom don’t have as much room for manoeuvre where marriage is concerned. The very different lives of Fanny’s aunts and mother illustrate what’s at stake. The middle sister, Maria, marries a baronet, the eldest has to settle for a clergyman who leaves her widowed while still quite young, while the youngest marries “a Lieutenant of Marines, without education, fortune, or connections” (Mansfield Park, 1.i, p. 9) who goes on to father many children, of whom Fanny, her mother’s namesake, is the eldest girl. The authorial voice notes, ruefully:

But there certainly are not so many men of large fortune in the world, as there are pretty women to deserve them. (Mansfield Park, 1.i, p.9)

Fanny, the novel’s central character is unassertive, dutiful and self-effacing. She has often struck readers of the novel as an unappealing central character, one who lacks force and liveliness. Martin Amis, for example, has this to say:

No reader can resist the brazen wishfulness of Pride and Prejudice, but it is clear from internal evidence alone that Austen never fully forgave herself for it. Mansfield Park was her — and our — penance. (“Martin Amis on the Genius of Jane Austen (and What the Adaptations Get Wrong)”, LitHub, 22 May 2023, reproduced from The Rub of Time, 1998)

It is perfectly true that Fanny is unassertive — until the moment comes when she has to assert herself. In striking contrast to Mary Crawford’s friend Mrs Fraser, Fanny refuses to marry a wealthy man — Mary’s brother, Henry — who seems too eminently suitable for anything but acceptance. She resists pressure from her uncle, Sir Thomas, whose wisdom she has always respected, even as she had reservations about his aimiability. She tells him that he is “mistaken” (p. 290). She resolutely withstands a determined onslaught from the suitor himself. To Sir Thomas’s bewilderment, she tries to persuade him:

… as a good man must feel, how wretched, and how unpardonable, how hopeless and how wicked it was, to marry without affection. (Mansfield Park, 3.i, p. 299)

It’s not as if, in turning Henry down, Fanny has an alternative plan. She is in love with her cousin Edmund, the younger of Sir Thomas’s two sons, but Edmund seems to be capitivated by Mary Crawford, who likes him too but proclaims that she will not in any circumstances marry a clergyman. (Edmund is ordained in the course of the story.)

The (sometimes severe) shortage of “men of large fortune” to act as husbands for pretty women was largely a consequence of the system of land ownership that had prevailed in England for several centuries. It was still in place throughout most of the nineteenth century, though by then industrialization was making fundamental changes to what W H Auden aptly called “The economic basis of society” (quoted towards the end of the Martin Amis piece cited above). During Austen’s lifetime, land was still the country’s main source of wealth. It was considered essential to avoid the breaking up of estates and the way this was done was by way of settlements of land.

Typically, the land was settled in such a way that, on the death of the person in possession, the land would pass in its entirety to the heir, who would be the eldest son if there was one. Land could not legally be tied up for generations to come — it had to vest in possession within 21 years of the last “life in being” specified in the settlement, but a practice had developed of resettling the estate in each generation so that the current owner always had a life interest, while the inheritable (and saleable) estate was always being pushed a generation into the future.

The effect was to tie the hands of the current owner, making it impossible or very difficult to mortgage or sell the land to raise money, except at the moment when the resettlement was being made. So, a landowner like Persuasion’s Sir Walter Elliot or Mansfield Park’s Sir Thomas Bertram might be sitting on considerable wealth yet find it difficult to raise ready cash. Sir Walter copes with this problem by reluctantly letting his grand house to Admiral Croft.

Sir Thomas is more prudent and careful about his spending than Sir Walter, but still finds himself in difficulty because of the profligacy of his elder son, Tom. Sir Thomas has the right to present a clergyman to two separate livings in the Church of England. He has been intending to present his younger son, Edmund, to the more lucrative of these, Mansfield, but is obliged to raise money by, in effect, “selling” this right to Dr Grant, the brother-in-law of Mary and Henry Crawford. After Edmund enters Holy Orders, Sir Thomas presents him to the other living, Thornton Lacey. On Dr Grant’s premature death, Edmund is presented to Mansfield. It’s not clear to me whether he gives up Thornton Lacey or holds on to the living, appointing a curate to fulfill his duties there.

The consequence of this system of holding land is that a family’s wealth tended to be concentrated in the hands of a single person, while daughters and younger sons might have to engage in a sort of genteel hustle to secure a place in the world, and in society. For younger sons, a small number of approved careers was available: the law, the Church, the army or the navy. Edmund, of course, opts for the Church. For daughters, the primary approved avenue was marriage, and there weren’t very many alternatives. Jane Fairfax, in Emma, seems destined to become a governess, until her secret engagement to Frank Churchill becomes public.

There is therefore a tension between, on the one hand, the frantic competition among young, marriageable women for the scarce resource of eligible bachelors and, on the other, the requirement that there should be “affection” between the intending couple, without which, as Fanny insists, a marriage would be “wretched” and “wicked”. Affection can’t simply be willed into existence, which must lengthen the odds against finding a suitable spouse in the available pool. Austen’s novels demonstrate a kind of double vision by which the reader is enabled to hold these inconsistent ideas of marriage in view at the same time. This is an important aspect of her much-admired “irony”, according to Empson’s idea of irony (that it must be true to some degree in both senses).

Martin Amis describes Auden’s lines as “great but wrong”:

It makes me most uncomfortable to see

An English spinster of the middle-class

Describe the amorous effects of “brass”

I take it that it’s better to be right than great but that, if being right proves impossible, one should at least attempt greatness; and that where Austen is concerned, it’s difficult to avoid being wrong, largely because of the ironic “double vision” I’ve just mentioned. But Auden’s judgment is not so much wrong as incomplete. His view of the novels is monocular: he sees them clearly enough from one angle, and what he sees shocks him enough to outweigh other considerations.

Anne Elliot, the middle daughter of a baronet, does not marry a landowner or a clergyman, but a naval officer, Captain Wentworth, who has made his fortune fighting a war. He has £25,000, putting his financial value at the midpoint between Mary Crawford’s and Emma Woodhouse’s. His wealth results from his being awarded “prize” from the seizure of enemy ships and cargo. “Prize” derives from the French for “taken”, and the rules governing it were to be found in the law of nations (ius gentium). Probably the foundational work on the topic was Hugo Grotius’s De iure praedae, written about 1604 but not published in its entirety till much later. Praeda is the root of such English words as “prey” and “predator”. In the seventeenth century, “prize” included, as well as the value of seized ships and cargo, the ransom paid for captured enemy sailors. I’m not sure whether this was still the case in the early nineteenth century. (I know about the seventeenth century position because Andrew Marvell sat on a House of Commons committee looking into the embezzlement of prize goods.)

War is notoriously an expensive undertaking, and the point of the law of prize is that, for several centuries, states sought to finance their wars at the enemy’s expense, and defeat could be economically devastating. In marrying the heroine of Persuasion to a man who has made a fortune from fighting a war, Austen may be showing a degree of hardheaded realism about the wealth of nations, and of the individuals who fight for them.

Like many previous readers, I’m puzzled as to what Austen might have meant when she wrote that she was “going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like” (Emma, Introduction, p. ix). I’ve tried to suggest above that there are significant resemblances between Emma and Mary Crawford, and I’d like to think some more about the notion that Austen was contemplating putting a version of Mary at the centre of her next novel, but that Emma turned out to be more sympathetic than she had envisaged. For all the talk of Emma’s errors and her recurring need to be put right by Knightley, there is really only one point on which she is seriously mistaken: her treatment of Harriet Smith.

Emma has concluded that Harriet must be the daughter of a member of the gentry at least, on the ground that her father is anonymously paying for her education. It emerges, though, that Harriet’s father is actually a successful tradesman.

The stain of illegitimacy, unbleached by nobility or wealth, would have been a stain indeed. (Emma, 3.xix, p. 438)

This is brutal and shocking, but it is inescapably true. The time and the society in which Harriet lives do not provide any path by which she could expect to become the wife of a wealthy landowner — or even of an ambitious cleric like Mr Elton. In encouraging Harriet to aspire to a life of more “consequence” than appears to be open to her, Emma has been doing the younger woman no favours.

Editions: I’ve used the Penguin Classic editions of Mansfield Park and Persuasion and the Oxford World Classics Emma. As usual, ellipses are added and emphasis is original.


From Matt Kaul, 04-Dec-2023:

Re: Emma, though, isn’t her humiliation of Miss Bates another point at which she’s seriously mistaken, and even quite cruel? That moment at the picnic always bothers me more than her misjudgments re: Harriet.

Art Kavanagh, 05-Dec-2023:

You’re right, of course, about the insult to Miss Bates: it’s very cruel and a cause of “mortification” to Emma when Knightley points out to her how hurtful she has been to the poor woman. I probably overlooked it because I found it painful to dwell on. Also, I had been assuming that the cruelty was merely thoughtless and careless on Emma’s part and therefore more excusable, though still devastating to the victim. But reading the passage again, I see that Emma’s words were calculated to hurt, the thoughtlessness was more as to Miss Bates’s poverty and reduced status, than to the effect of Emma’s remark.