Foundations Once Destroyed: The Importance of Principle in Mansfield Park

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The second in a series considering Jane Austen in light of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas.

Teach us to understand the sinfulness of our own Hearts, and bring to our knowledge every fault of Temper and every evil Habit in which we have indulged to the discomfort of our fellow-creatures, and the danger of our own Souls.
from Jane Austen’s Prayers

 “Henry Crawford had too much sense not to feel the worth of good principles in a wife, though he was too little accustomed to serious reflection to know them by their proper name.” In so few words, the narrator of Mansfield Park identifies the foundation for the remarkable attachment of the charming and playful Henry Crawford for the demure and boring Fanny Price. Henry’s doomed attraction to Fanny and his unsuccessful endeavor to win her regard comprise, perhaps, one of the greatest tragedies in all of Austen’s work. While many may lay the blame for Henry’s downfall at the feet of Fanny, at the end of the day, the readers of Austen must come to grips with the fact that, while his motives may have been admirable, his past behavior had done the greater harm by fixing in his character the bad habits that would eventually push him over the precipice. While Henry Crawford possessed the good sense to recognize the value of good principles in Fanny, he fails to acquire those values for himself.

Fundamentally, Henry Crawford, along with his sister, possesses principles that are opposed to those of Fanny. While Fanny follows a Christian morality founded upon goodness and truth, Henry ascribes to what Austen describes in him as a “school of luxury and epicurism.” Though they had very different teachers, Henry and his sister, Mary, have been brought up to seek primarily to fulfill their own desires, caring for others only insofar as it furthers their own interests. Under the influence of his philandering uncle, Henry undervalues the feelings of women, and, following the example of her jilted aunt, Mary acts with a “prudence” of a remarkably jaded nature, assuming that everyone must and does act for their material self-interest. Fanny, of course, perceives all of this and wisely resists a marriage to Henry on the grounds that they hold such divergent principles, and that she is not suited to effecting the reform of Henry’s character that would be necessary to overcome these differences.

These principles to which Fanny refers when she rejects Henry Crawford are none other than the virtues. Henry discovers as much when Fanny conspicuously sighs over his express aversion to the value of constancy, a virtue characteristic more of Austen’s era than Aristotle’s or Thomas’, but a virtue nonetheless. Moreover, Fanny’s objection to Henry’s behavior is not merely concerning his inconstancy. She is more generally concerned with his blatant disregard for the feelings of others. Fanny’s behavior and preferences accord with the fundamental precepts of St. Thomas’ natural law theory, specifically to do good and avoid evil and to avoid offending those among whom one has to live. Fanny, in accord with the classical tradition, understands that a person’s good is not simply a subjective pursuit. She must take into account the ramifications of her actions on the lives of those around her.

Another important principle that is on display in this novel is that of personal freedom. According to Aristotle and Aquinas, in order for an action to take on a virtuous or vicious character, it must be knowingly willed by the individual. Any interference with this voluntariness, whether due to an external force or legitimate ignorance, limits the actor’s moral responsibility, whether for praise or blame. Austen affirms the importance of this principle, as each of her heroines eventually claims the responsibility for her actions. Not only do these women claim their actions, they also claim the responsibility for the judgments leading up to the actions. Such a position would have been quite revolutionary, as women were expected to defer to the judgment of their male protectors. Fanny’s situation illustrates this tension, as she endures pressure to yield to the judgments of others. Nevertheless, she perseveres in the face of this struggle and asserts her right and ability to judge for herself.

This freedom of the individual to choose his course of action also implies that individuals are able to improve in character. Nevertheless, such a reform is extremely difficult, as poor choices quite often lead to more bad actions and make it difficult to ever choose the virtuous option as the habit becomes stronger. Interestingly, Austen suggests that there was a possibility that Henry Crawford could reform his character. During his visit to Portsmouth, Henry does show some initial signs of reform. While Fanny notices this improvement, she is well aware that a complete reform would require yet more time and effort. In an intriguing series of paragraphs in the final chapter of the novel, the narrator offers the readers a glimpse into what could have been if Henry had persevered. He could have been happy with Fanny had he chosen to act on what he knew was right in just one moment, but he gave into temptation and sealed his own fate.

Henry’s failure provides a good illustration of the effect that vice has on one’s moral judgment. The motives out of which he acts are good, namely humbling Maria so that she would learn to properly value the virtue of Fanny. However, Henry chooses an unsuitable means to achieve this end, as he had previously been habituated to believe that the proper way to put a young woman in her place was through breaking her heart. The real tragedy of Henry’s situation is not that he loses Fanny, but that he actually does perceive the good and falls away from it due to the disorder arising from his false principles.

Not giving up on the possibility of moral reform, Austen shows elsewhere that such a transformation is possible, as the heroine of Emma shows us. Emma Woodhouse resembles Mary Crawford in many aspects of her character, though Emma eventually is shown to possess the resolution and inclination to correct her poor behavior. The impropriety and even callousness of her own behavior weighs down upon Emma Woodhouse after she is duly scolded by Mr. Knightley. “In the warmth of true contrition,” Emma seeks to make amends for her actions and to acquire better habits that avoid offending those others in whose society she lives, unlike the willful defiance espoused by Mary Crawford when she is reprimanded by the man she loves. Ultimately, without the proper moral principles, an education in moral virtue is not possible.

Image: Engraving of Broadlands House

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Br. Aquinas Beale, O.P.

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Brother Aquinas Beale was born in West Virginia and attended the University of Virginia, where he completed both a Bachelor and Master of Arts in Foreign Affairs in 2010. He entered the Order in 2011, and he currently resides at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C. Though still interested in international politics, he enjoys exploring topics throughout the range of the humanities. On DominicanFriars.org