Mansfield Park and the Original Nice Guy
I know I usually write about more recent books (and TV shows and movies and video games), but I just finished a reread of Mansfield Park, and my brain is full of THOUGHTS.
In Mansfield Park, Jane Austen takes to task a pervasive and problematic narrative trope, not just in early 19th century fiction, but in all modern-day media. The “romance” between the virtuous and rather boring Fanny Price and the rakish Henry Crawford is based around the familiar structure of “she doesn’t like him now, but if he keeps wooing her, she’ll like him later,” with an extra helping of the idea that the “friendzone” is unfair, and that kindness to women should be rewarded with romance. It embraces these narrative and societal tropes, surrounds it’s heroine with their pressures, and then, in one sudden blow, tears them all apart.
And it’s pretty epic.
From the moment we meet him, Henry Crawford is an egotistical jerk. He tilts his metaphorical fedora as he declares that he’s too much of a free spirit to ever marry, and then spends his time flirting with both of Fanny’s cousins, just to make them fall in love with him, just because he can. And when both of Fanny’s cousins are out of the picture, he decides to try and make Fanny fall in love with him instead, as she’s all prim and proper and determined not to like him.
But Fanny doesn’t respond positively to him, which only makes him try even harder. And eventually, he’s so desperate to win her denied affections that he proposes.
Fanny says no.
He goes to talk to her uncle and guardian about their imminent marriage, believing that her “no” is just her being coy, and that she would never actually refuse him.
Fanny still says no.
Henry points out that she’s given him plenty of hints of her affection before — she danced with him that one time when he didn’t really give her a choice, and she wore the necklace that he gave to his sister to give to her, all under the guise of being an unused necklace that his sister has owned for years. How could she not have known it was actually a gift from him, or what wearing it meant? He got her brother a much-desired promotion, for God’s sake, and he only did it for her!
And Fanny still says no.
But here’s where I think it gets really interesting. Nobody, absolutely nobody, is willing to accept her refusal. Henry is a polite, dapper young gentleman with a decent fortune, and he’s paying attention to Fanny of all people. How could she possibly turn him down? Why, such an opportunity might never come again. First, people assume she’s just being coy, and really intends to accept him. Then her uncle practically orders her to marry him, and calls her selfish and wllful when she refuses. Once his temper cools down, he realizes that Fanny will eventually grow to love and accept Henry if he continues to woo her — what else could possibly happen? Even Fanny’s closest friend Edmund assumes that she will eventually accept him, once she’s given him a chance to show what a great husband he could be.
Fanny’s opinion means nothing. Either the people around her don’t accept it at all, or they assume it will change. Fanny cannot wait for Henry to leave Mansfield Park, because she recognizes that this is the only way she can be free of him. His presence and attention causes her considerable distress, but everyone around her still encourages him, still allows for “accidental” meetings and shoves them together at every chance they get. Everyone is convinced that her no will become a yes, and that Fanny is the foolish one for not yet realizing it.
And if we are swayed by standard narrative tropes, we as readers expect her opinion to change as well. We know that Henry Crawford is a pretty unpleasant person. We know he’s done some horrible things. But he claims to love her now! We expect a Pride and Prejudice-esque narrative, where Fanny eventually comes to see the “true him,” and their initially antagonistic relationship develops into true love.
And Fanny does start to become swayed. She’s certainly not planning to marry him, but she thinks that he has a good side. He visits her when she’s lonely, he pays attention to her younger sister, and is generally something of a gentleman. Perhaps, given enough time, Fanny would have bowed to the immense pressure around her, and Henry’s determination not to take her refusal as an answer, and would eventually have married him.
But this is Austen, so it doesn’t really work out like that. The “nice” Henry is all an act to make her like him, and the reality of him hasn’t changed one bit from the manipulative person who initially tried to trick her into falling in love with him. He gets bored of trying to appeal to her, and runs off with Fanny’s now-married elder cousin instead. And everyone is so shocked that he would behave this way, when he seemed so in love with Fanny before.
It all adds up to a pretty compelling indictment of the “he’ll keep striving until he earns her love” romance trope that is still incredibly common in stories two hundred years later. We see how uncomfortable everyone’s attitudes make Fanny, and how trapped she feels by Henry’s proposal — she cannot accept it, but refusal is unacceptable, and nobody pays any attention to her actual feelings. Every moment of kindness from Henry is manipulation. Everyone, including the reader, expects the story to go a certain way, to follow the tropes and the idea that a man can always earn a specific woman’s love if he tries hard enough… and everyone is proved utterly wrong by the novel’s conclusion.