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Guest Post: Fanny vs. Mary, an Austenesque Showdown

Welcome to Day #3 of the great Fanny and Mary Debate!

If you missed Day 1, visit JustJane 1813, and Day #2 at Diary of an Eccentric.

Hello, I’m Lona Manning, author of A Contrary Wind, a variation on Mansfield Park, and author of true crime articles.

And I’m Kyra Kramer, author of Mansfield Parsonage and the nonfictional historical books, Blood Will Tell, The Jezebel Effect, Henry VIII’s Health in a Nutshell, and Edward VI in a Nutshell.

Lona: Please join us for the knock-down drag-out (maybe) Fanny versus Mary debate of the decade/epoch/millennium. We will take turns posing each other questions. Please feel free to join in the comments!

Kyra: Everyone who comments will be entered in a draw to win a gift pack of Austen goodies from Bath, England.

Today, the authors will discuss: What was Mary Crawford’s “real” character?

Lona: I feel upon reading (and re-reading) your book that you have been very respectful of Austen’s conception of Mary Crawford. She is still essentially who she is in Mansfield Park. She is witty and charming – no, more than that, she is one of those lucky creatures blessed with true charisma. No plain or dull woman can get away with an impish laugh and a line like: “[Y]ou must forgive me. Selfishness must always be forgiven, you know, because there is no hope of a cure.”  While “your” Mary is loyal and affectionate with her sister Mrs. Grant and her brother Henry, she’s still self-centred and occasionally thoughtless and she gets very irritated with people who don’t agree with her.

Kyra: *blushes* Thank you. I tried my absolute best to stay true to Mary – warts and all, so to speak. Even in the original Austen novel, where Mary Crawford is the antagonist, she has an excellent heart, a quick wit, and a joie de vivre that is worth much more to me than all of Fanny Price’s soggy moralizing. In fact, the character that Mary reminds me of the most is Elizabeth Bennet – her personality is a similar mixture of sweetness and archness that is very captivating indeed! In Mansfield Parsonage, I try to keep Mary Crawford within the lines of the “really good feelings” she was almost entirely motivated by, with the understanding that she is essentially misanthropic as a result of living among the Ton.

Lona: Austen acknowledges Mary was almost [my emphasis] purely governed by good feelings, in that one particular instance, when she comforted Fanny after she was insulted by Mrs. Norris. She is intelligent and charming, but benevolence is definitely not a quality I associate with her.

Kyra: Hmmm … I don’t think Mary was trying to impress Edmund. She was very out of charity with him just then for his refusal to be in the play (regardless of its effect on Mary’s comfort), and she was still determined to never marry a second son even if she had been less angry with him at the time. Mary’s sole motivation was to comfort Fanny, who had been cruelly humiliated by Mrs Norris.

Lona: [Cough] Much as it pains me to contradict you, dear Kyra, here is the quote, directly after Mary intervenes: “By a look at her brother she prevented any farther entreaty from the theatrical board, and the really good feelings by which she was almost [my emphasis] purely governed were rapidly restoring her to all the little she had lost in Edmund’s favour.”

Kyra: [Cough, Cough] I must regretfully disagree with you, dearest Lona. The narrator/Austen is telling us that Mary was recovering in Edmund’s esteem. Mary, herself, neither knew she had fallen out of his esteem — nor cared about what Edmund thought of her at that moment. She was irked at him. She had been sharply rebuffed when she tried to coax Edmund to be Anhalt, and just a few paragraphs before “with some feelings of resentment and mortification, moved her chair considerably nearer the tea–table, and gave all her attention to Mrs. Norris, who was presiding there.” She only moved her seat only to give comfort Fanny, and did not address Edmund again at all.

Lona: You still haven’t explained the “almost.”

Kyra: True, so I’ll point out that while Mary DID sometimes do thoughtless things that hurt people, there are many instances of her efforts to be helpful or kind. Again, at the December ball she spent the first half of it trying to make everyone happy (albeit erring greatly with Fanny). You can say that was just selfishly attempting to be popular, but she could have been witty without endeavoring to bring personal pleasure to the listener. She also warned her sister to keep her friends Maria and Julia Bertram at a distance from Henry Crawford for their heart’s sake. Additionally, she told Mr Rushworth Maria was being “maternal” when she acting with Henry in Lover’s Vows. Yes, it spared Henry embarrassment — but it spared Maria much more than mere embarrassment and it spared the dim-witted Rushworth immediate pain. Was Mary perfect? Nope. But she did TRY to be kind most of the time.

Lona: Everybody says that Jane Austen introduces very little of the wider world (politics and war) to her novels, but in your variation, Mansfield Parsonage, we get a lot of discussion of politics, literature, fashion and society gossip. We sense that Austen’s Mary Crawford is well-read and well-informed about her world, both social and political, and your Mary is almost a bluestocking: she can quote poetry and literature extensively and she avidly follows politics. Your Mary Crawford is a Whig (that is, she is a reformer, a progressive, in her views); she’s an Abolitionist who sympathizes with the downtrodden working poor of her day. But while she loves humanity in the abstract, she wants nothing to do with poverty or squalor in person and she shrinks from making charitable visits in the village, as Fanny does. In short, you’ve designed her to be a flawed heroine. In what ways do you feel you’ve made Mary more sympathetic? Because I couldn’t help thinking that you have described a Regency “limousine liberal.”

Kyra: I actually set out to make Mary a textbook “limousine liberal”. I wanted Mary to be a political foil for Austen herself, who (though an abolitionist) was a “country Tory” who disliked change and sociocultural liberalism. The French Revolution had created a backlash against progressive mores among the English upper and middle class, and in Austen’s original novel Mary Crawford had all the light disdain for the church and authority expected of a rebel-sympathising Whig. Mary and Henry Crawford represented the moral hazards of the Enlightenment to propriety and hierarchical values. Therefore, what could possibly be more appropriate for an antagonist than for her to be a “limousine liberal”; an essentially good elitist progressive whom Austen would have nonetheless disdained?

Lona: Yes, I’m very interested in talking about Mansfield Park in the context of the times in which it was written. But we’ll save that for another day. I think that we would be in total agreement, and this is supposed to be a debate.

Kyra: Good point. I’ll simply say that I believe Mary’s once-removed charity work is representative of Austen’s original characterization, but is also part of my argument that she was worthy of being a heroine in her own right. While throwing money at a problem is not as good as a Mother Teresa-like devotion to helping the needy (ala Flawless Fanny), I would argue that to be a limousine liberal is better than ignoring poverty or assuming it derives from the moral/intellectual failings of those who suffer from it.

Lona: I think the readers should weigh in. Was Mary, as Kyra insists, almost wholly good, or did she have a more chequered personality than Kyra would like to admit?

We’d love to hear what you think in the comments.

About the Authors:

Lona Manning is the author of A Contrary Wind, a variation on Mansfield Park. She has also written numerous true crime articles, which are available at www.crimemagazine.com. She has worked as a non-profit administrator, a vocational instructor, a market researcher, and a speechwriter for politicians.

She currently teaches English as a Second Language. She and her husband now divide their time between mainland China and Canada. Her second novel, A Marriage of Attachment, a sequel to A Contrary Wind, is planned for release in early 2018. You can visit her website where she blogs about China and Jane Austen.

Kyra Kramer is a medical anthropologist, historian, and devoted bibliophile who lives just outside Cardiff, Wales with her handsome husband and three wonderful young daughters. She has a deep – nearly obsessive – love for Regency Period romances in general and Jane Austen’s work in particular. Ms. Kramer has authored several history books and academic essays, but Mansfield Parsonage is her first foray into fictional writing. You can visit her website to learn more about her life and work.

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  • beth

    I have to go with Fanny, she’s just amazing!

  • Anna (Diary of an Eccentric)

    This has been such a fun debate! I still don’t have a preference either way, but I’ve enjoyed reading these posts. And Serena, yes, we do have to plan a MP readalong for next year.

  • Linda Vigil

    Mary was as good as her upbringing would allow, but held onto her values as more cherished than the man she decided she was in love with. When faced with dreadful behaviour, she wanted to sweep things under the carpet. She wanted to win based on her system of values, period. But now I really must read your Parsonage tale!

    • Kyra C Kramer

      I hope you like it! The thing is … when they first found out about Maria and Henry’s trysts, the Bertrams were desperate to avoid “exposure” too. They were only willing to go uber-moral when it was too late to cover it up, so I don’t think they had a real highground. Fanny might have … but did Edmund?

  • Randi Chance

    I have always thought that one of the reasons that both Mary and Henry Crawford have remained popular ever since Austen’s day is that they are her most nuanced “villains.” (Don’t anyone throw madeira at me — I am using the word “villain” extremely loosely here!) Mary has so many plusses and minuses that Lona and Kyra could probably debate for hours without settling the question! On the one hand, I have always liked Mary for SEEING Fanny as a person even before Henry becomes interested in her. She acknowledges Fanny in a way that Maria and Julia never do. On the other hand, she’s totally OK with Henry’s plan to play with Fanny’s emotions. I think Mary sees something in Fanny, Edmund, and Mansfield in general that she both yearns for and ridicules. If she could have decided in the end to embrace the values that help make E & F so attractive to her, she could have still married Edmund. But instead she clung to her city sophistication and lost her love. She’s such a wonderfully complex character.

    • Lona Manning

      Randi what an excellent analysis. And do you notice how we discuss Fanny and Mary as though they were real people, when, as you point out, they were created by Jane Austen in such a nuanced way. Excellent point about Mary “noticing” Fanny. She , too, would have noticed that Edmund cared for Fanny more than the others.

      • Randi Chance

        Thanks, Lona! And yes, her noticing Edmund’s affection for Fanny again makes Mary’s own motives for reaching out to Fanny suspect. To what extent did she like Fanny for herself, and to what extent was she trying to impress Edmund? I have always thought that both motives were in play at once.

  • Suko

    This is an interesting discussion! I think Mary has a good heart, but (like most of us) she’s not perfect. But she does care, and so she tries to be good. That’s worth noting!

  • DarcyBennett

    I am really enjoying these debates as you guys make a great team. I almost laughed out loud at the question posed on whether Mary is wholly good. It’s been a long time since I read the novel so maybe I’m being too harsh on Mary’s character but I don’t think I could ever describe her in that way.

    • Kyra C Kramer

      She was very much a product of the Ton, but Austen claimed Mary was motivated by ‘almost’ wholly by a good heart. Isn’t that what we love about Austen’s protagonists? They may have flaws (prejudice, over-sensibility, snobbery) but they have good hearts and are trying to be good people.