Tuesday, June 9, 2009

“I do not pretend to set people right, but I do see that they are often wrong.”

Good one, Mary Crawford.

I quite like Mary Crawford. Any young lady so wildly over-confident as to make dirty jokes at the dinner table in a Jane Austen novel is all right with me. And look, here she is to the right, as portrayed by Hayley Atwell in the 2007 adaptation of Mansfield Park.

Now I'm not a Fanny-hater either (Fanny Price, Jane Austen character, to any pervert who misunderstood that statement). On contraire, I can relate to a girl who's so timid and painfully unsure of herself that her favourite activity is being a silent observer of those around her, and given that I have struggled with an anxiety disorder, I can definitely relate to Fanny's fears, particularly the terror she feels when at the centre of attention, being 'brought forward' or 'forced to speak'. The controversial protagonist of Austen’s ‘least likeable novel’ has triggered a lot of, shall we say, Mansfield Park flame wars*. One of the foremost supposed problems of the character is her silence and all the negative connotations that go with it – weakness, subordination, insecurity, timidity, restraint and invisibility. Not too surprising that some readers – especially those with high expectations in the lieu of Elizabeth Bennet and the like – find themselves drawn to the more lively and witty Crawfords. However, rather than silence being a marker of Fanny’s insipid or weak nature, I think of Fanny as a character with a naturally reserved temperament and a complex psychological background, with Mansfield Park charting Fanny’s personal and emotional growth.

Mary Crawford FTW, though.

One of my favourite scenes
in Mansfield Park is when Mrs. Norris insults and humiliates Fanny in front of the Bertram family and the Crawfords. In the shocked silence that follows Mary suddenly decides to sit with Fanny and cheer her up. Despite being determined to hate her pretty rival, Fanny is grateful for Mary's kindness during this moment of mortification. Clearly, despite being shallow and snobby (and c'mon, Fanny can be just as bitchy, her jealous thoughts about Miss Crawford are rarely that of a charitable Christian), Mary has the capacity for kindness and empathy.

Despite her 'flaws' (that Austen paints with a rather damning puritanical brush), Mary Crawford is awesome. Sure, she’s selfish, materialistic, ambitious, morally ambiguous at times, and her strong opinions are usually just regurgitated generalisations she’s heard everyone else say. But she’s also sharp, clever, sensitive to the feelings of others (even though her lively tongue can’t seem to stop rudely deriding Edmund’s choice of occupation), confident, talented and good-natured. And w
hile Mary Crawford seems to have mastered the social world, she is still learning about herself whether or not she is valuing the wrong things, whether her old worldview correlates with her experiences, etc. She's only around 18-19, after all!

Edmund could never have made you happy, Miss Crawford. Someone with your looks, popularity and talents – not to mention that handy little fortune – could have done much better. I’m sure any heartbreak suffered at the hands of Edmund would have only served to rein in any of your ‘indelicacies’ and curb that derisive snobbishness. Sobering up after a broken heart, I like to imagine Mary Crawford used the experience to improve as a person and reassess some of her shallower values and stereotypical thinking. I especially like to imagine that Mary Crawford eventually landed a wealthy, morally-upstanding, and equally vivacious and witty man as a husband and found happiness. No less than she deserved.

* I was very much trying to avoid saying 'Fanny Wars', as they have been sometimes referred to...

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