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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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Why Mansfield Park? by Kyra Kramer

Mansfield Parsonage by Kyra Kramer is a behind the scenes tale of Mansfield Park by Jane Austen.  It tells another story; the story of Mary Crawford.

When her widowed uncle made her home untenable, Mary made the best of things by going to live with her elder sister, Mrs Grant, in a parson’s house the country. Mansfield Parsonage was more than Mary had expected and better than she could have hoped.  Gregarious and personable, Mary also embraced the inhabitants of the nearby Mansfield Park, watching the ladies set their caps for her dashing brother, Henry Crawford, and developing an attachment to Edmund Bertram and a profound affection for his cousin, Fanny Price.

Mansfield Parsonage retells the story of Mansfield Park from the perspective of Mary Crawford’s hopes and aspirations and shows how Fanny Price’s happily-ever- after came at Mary’s expense.

Please welcome Kyra Kramer today, as she speaks about why she decided to write a book based on Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, rather than a different one of her novels.

Why did I want to tell the story of Mansfield Park, one of Austen’s least-loved novels, from the point of view of the anti-heroine, Mary Crawford? To be blunt, it was because her treatment at the hands of the protagonists, Fanny Price and Edmund Bertram, appalled me. She was nothing but kind to both of them and they threw away her friendship like garbage when she turned out to be less rigidly moralistic and judgemental than they were. From the first time I read Mansfield Park, I wanted to call Fanny and Edmund onto the carpet over their shoddy behaviour toward Mary and to vehemently defend Mary’s ‘evil’ indelicacy. Mary’s great sin was that she wanted to save Edmund’s sister, Maria Bertram Rushworth, from disgrace after Maria left her husband to run off with Mary’s brother, Henry Crawford.

Golly, how horrible to want to keep Maria for being cast out of good society forever! And make no mistake – it was Maria she was trying to save, perhaps at the expense of her own brother’s happiness. After all, as a man, Henry Crawford was going to get off relatively scot free after running off with another man’s wife, but Maria was going to become a total pariah unless Henry married her. So, even though Henry didn’t love Maria, his sister Mary was going to try to get him to wed her in the hopes of preventing her social death.

How did Edmund and Fanny respond to Mary’s attempts to save Maria? By throwing her goodwill back in her face and telling her she was disgusting for even thinking of it! In the original novel, Edmund describes his reaction to Mary’s offer:

As soon as I could speak, I replied that I had not supposed it possible, coming in such a state of mind into that house as I had done, that anything could occur to make me suffer more, but that she had been inflicting deeper wounds in almost every sentence. That though I had, in the course of our acquaintance, been often sensible of some difference in our opinions, on points, too, of some moment, it had not entered my imagination to conceive the difference could be such as she had now proved it. That the manner in which she treated the dreadful crime committed by her brother and my sister (with whom lay the greater seduction I pretended not to say), but the manner in which she spoke of the crime itself, giving it every reproach but the right; considering its ill consequences only as they were to be braved or overborne by a defiance of decency and impudence in wrong; and last of all, and above all, recommending to us a compliance, a compromise, an acquiescence in the continuance of the sin, on the chance of a marriage which, thinking as I now thought of her brother, should rather be prevented than sought; all this together most grievously convinced me that I had never understood her before, and that, as far as related to mind, it had been the creature of my own imagination, not Miss Crawford, that I had been too apt to dwell on for many months past. That, perhaps, it was best for me; I had less to regret in sacrificing a friendship, feelings, hopes which must, at any rate, have been torn from me now. And yet, that I must and would confess that, could I have restored her to what she had appeared to me before, I would infinitely prefer any increase of the pain of parting, for the sake of carrying with me the right of tenderness and esteem. This is what I said, the purport of it; but, as you may imagine, not spoken so collectedly or methodically as I have repeated it to you. She was astonished, exceedingly astonished—more than astonished. I saw her change countenance. She turned extremely red. I imagined I saw a mixture of many feelings: a great, though short struggle; half a wish of yielding to truths, half a sense of shame, but habit, habit carried it. She would have laughed if she could. It was a sort of laugh, as she answered, ‘A pretty good lecture, upon my word. Was it part of your last sermon? At this rate you will soon reform everybody at Mansfield and Thornton Lacey; and when I hear of you next, it may be as a celebrated preacher in some great society of Methodists, or as a missionary into foreign parts.’  She tried to speak carelessly, but she was not so careless as she wanted to appear. I only said in reply, that from my heart I wished her well, and earnestly hoped that she might soon learn to think more justly, and not owe the most valuable knowledge we could any of us acquire, the knowledge of ourselves and of our duty, to the lessons of affliction, and immediately left the room.

There it is. Edmund’s response to Mary’s kindness – to tell her he was shocked she turned out to be such a horrible skank and he hoped she became less skanky over time. Worse, he also whinged to Fanny about Mary’s “total ignorance” of proper moral rectitude and her “perversion of mind which made it natural to her to treat the subject as she did”. He practically wept about her “faults of principle” and her “blunted delicacy and a corrupted, vitiated mind”. Strong words about a woman whose only crime was trying to save Edmund’s sister from permanent alienation!

Moreover, Mary was the most amusing, most vital, and most complex character in the book; the opposite of the stodgy Edmund Bertram and milquetoast Fanny Price. As I explain in my preface:

The delight of most Austen’s characters, for good or for ill, is in their flaws. Whether they are comic relief or fodder for scathing social commentary or beloved protagonists, they were imperfect. Austen’s strong-willed heroines are particularly relatable for the reader because they are not pure paragons. Elizabeth had her prejudice, Anne was too persuadable, Marianne was too romantic, Elinor was too pragmatic, Catherine was naïve and overly imaginative, and Emma was subject to vanity. They are loved because they are inherently decent people, and lovable because they aren’t revoltingly perfect models of submissive 18 th century feminine ideals. Fanny Price, the heroine of Mansfield Park, stands alone as the main protagonist who was unable to make a mistake. Fanny Price is an apotheosis of delicacy, modesty, and tenderness. She is so meek, mild, and righteous that it is almost impossible not to hate her. Mary Crawford is the sharp one in the book. Mary Crawford is the one with uncongenial character traits to be overcome. Mary Crawford is interesting.

In summary, I wanted to tell Mary’s story because she was treated unfairly and was the most charismatic person in Mansfield Park. Although I stuck to the narrative plot of Mansfield Park like glue, I did everything I could to secure the reader’s sympathy in the place I believed it should naturally lie … in Mary Crawford’s perspective. I present Mary Crawford as Austen did; as a good-natured and realistic woman of the world and her time. Unlike Austen, however, I did not condemn Mary as “ruined” by her tolerance of the social shenanigans which surrounded her and her clear-eyed view of English religious hypocrisy. Considering that Austen’s other novels also evince a knowledge of how ridiculousness clergymen could be and how the detection of sin, rather than sin itself, was treated as the true evil, I can only wonder if Austen was trying to “punish” herself for her overly-sardonic worldview by making Mary Crawford the antagonist. If so, she failed, because Austen’s caustic take on the Regency’s sociocultural norms, which are nevertheless threaded with real hope for domestic happiness, remain as charming as Mary Crawford. We, like Mr. Darcy, are still enthralled by the mixture of sweetness and archness in Austen’s tales and have fallen in love with them. Mary Crawford, with her good nature and searing wit, belongs in the ranks of Austen’s heroines more than the tepid and creepmouse Fanny Price ever will.

About the Author:

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 this is her first foray into fictional writing.  Visit her website, Twitter, and on Facebook.

Giveaway — win an e-copy of Kramer’s Mansfield Parsonage; Comment by March 6, 2017 at 11:59 PM EST.