During Mary's very introduction into the narrative she betrays her ill-judging notions on sexual conduct when she talks lightly and laughingly of Henry's skills as a flirt and as a heart breaker to Mrs Grant, without a murmur of concern for the women he misuses. She declares that 'everybody should marry as soon as they can do it to advantage', and quickly surmises that Tom Bertram's wealth and the estate and title that would be his upon Sir Thomas' death, would exactly suit her matrimonial ideals and without any romantic inclination, she turns on the charm. She cleverly draws amusing stories from him in order than she may appear so winningly amused, and feigns an interest in his taste for horse racing. In the house chapel at Sotherton Mary shocks (the admittedly easily shocked) Edmund and Fanny by dwelling on what she believes to be commonly accepted female sexual fantasies. 'The former belles of the house of Rushworth' she imagines there pretending to pray with 'seeming piety, but with heads full of something very different--especially if the poor chaplain were not worth looking at' during the family church services of former days. Even while Edmund and Mary are developing feelings for one another, she mocks and mourns his choice of a sexually neutralized profession as a clergyman, rather than soldier, sailor or lawyer, and tells him repeatedly without disguise that she intends to marry a rich man, all of which he blindly assigns to wrongness in speech rather than in morals.
Fanny of course sees and experiences the reality of Mary's lax sexual principles. She observes Mary standing by happily while Crawford meddles with Maria and Julia, causing bad feelings between the sisters, destabilizing Maria’s engagement with Rushworth, and leading Maria seriously astray. When there are no Miss Bertrams to meddle with, Mary even sanctions Crawford's cold plan of a flirtation attack on Fanny, stating that 'a little love, perhaps, may animate and do her good' and working even as Crawford's agent to get the infamous necklace around Fanny's innocent throat.
Whilst Mary's questionable remarks and her culpability in the attack on Fanny could, without further missteps, have be set down as thoughtless and indecorous rather than amoral, towards the end of the narrative and at a distance from Mansfield, she betrays her truly unethical notions about sexual alliances. In her letter to Fanny at
I would happily bet money that every reader of Mansfield Park asks themselves, after the flight of Maria and Crawford, the elopement of Julia Bertram with Yates and the life threatening illness of Tom Bertram, before they have reached the concluding chapter that reveals all, 'But what's going to happen to Mary Crawford?' And though she does not sink to actual sin, it is her complete lack of sexual principles that costs her Edmund Bertram. The experience of Edmund has made her discontent with lesser men, however rich, and it is doubtful that her new standards for domestic happiness can be met by another.
Interestingly, shallow, greedy, manipulative and even amoral as she is, Mary is yet the most alluring young female of the narrative, even while Fanny is the most admirable. Complete as they are as characters, Fanny cannot tantalize, Julia cannot interest and Maria cannot charm but Mary can do all of these. Austen’s other major works also feature ladies who cannot get the man they want. But when Pride and Prejudice's Caroline Bingley can't manage to snag Darcy, when Isabella Thorpe is denied Captain Tilney in Northanger Abbey or when Elizabeth Elliot's hopes of her cousin are disappointed in Persuasion, the reader cannot care. Not only do we not care but we feel a kind of justice in the punishment they receive for the pain they cause our heroines. This isn’t the case with Mary Crawford for me. She’s no Fanny, it’s true. Fanny is the bright light in a rather dark story but Mary, unlike Austen’s other disappointed ladies is likable and, being intelligent, in a partnership with Edmund she must have improved. But how can a narrative like Mansfield Park, whose stance on sexuality is so staunchly unbending, reward the amoral principles and even, at times, the machinations of Mary Crawford, with an adoring Edmund and a happy marriage? It cannot.
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