Jane Austen’s Brave Refusal to Reform the Rake





I have always read Mansfield Park as Jane Austen’s only tragedy because the Crawfords fail at being redeemed. Unlike Jane Austen’s other dubious men, Wickham, Willoughby, and Mr. Elliot, Henry Crawford, doesn’t commit a major sin until the end of the novel. He is also the only one set up with a reformation path. Henry is a “sad flirt“, but his sister judges his mistakes as no greater than that. And, after all, he proposed to Fanny Price, doesn’t that mean he is virtuous, or at least seeking virtue? Edmund Bertram certainly thinks so. He tells Fanny:

“…Crawford’s feelings, I am ready to acknowledge, have hitherto been too much his guides. Happily, those feelings have generally been good. You will supply the rest; and a most fortunate man he is to attach himself to such a creature—to a woman who, firm as a rock in her own principles, has a gentleness of character so well adapted to recommend them. He has chosen his partner, indeed, with rare felicity. He will make you happy, Fanny; I know he will make you happy; but you will make him everything.” (Ch 35)

Yet Fanny (sensibly) refuses. She says no three times to Henry himself, three times to her uncle, and even when she is banished to Portsmouth, which her uncle hoped would make her soften to Mr. Crawford’s proposal, she refuses to be his advisor, telling Henry:

We have all a better guide in ourselves, if we would attend to it, than any other person can be.

Fanny is clear, she will not fix Henry Crawford, he should fix himself if he knows what’s good for him. Yet unlike Mr. Darcy, who takes Elizabeth’s feedback at Hunsford and does a through examination of his behaviour, Henry Crawford fails. Knowing that he has urgent business at his estate, Henry decides to stay in London and meet Maria Rushworth. This is the first step towards him losing Fanny Price forever.

I was shocked when I first read the novel. Having never heard the ending of the story before (a feat that is probably impossible with Austen’s more well-known novels), I really thought Henry would reform. I thought to myself that this would be just like Pride & Prejudice, but of course I couldn’t have been more wrong! Henry and Mary Crawford are tragic figures, two young people who see virtue and want to possess it in some way, but who ultimately fail.

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; but when he talked of her having such a steadiness and regularity of conduct, such a high notion of honour, and such an observance of decorum as might warrant any man in the fullest dependence on her faith and integrity, he expressed what was inspired by the knowledge of her being well principled and religious.

As much as the ending of Mansfield Park cuts me to the heart, I think it was the right ending, even a brave one. Novels at the time, and many novels since, had men far worse than Henry Crawford magically reform and women agree to marry them without much proof of their redemption. In fact, in some novels the offer of marriage itself was seen as a full redemption. Even Cassandra, Jane Austen’s own sister thought that Henry and Fanny ought to have married! Mansfield Park stands in a rare category with novels like The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë and A Long Fatal Love Chase by Louisa May Alcott. In all of these, the rake never reforms: no good woman’s love or morality can change him.

And yet, for Henry Crawford, and him alone out of Austen’s dubious men, we are given an alternative ending:

Henry Crawford, ruined by early independence and bad domestic example, indulged in the freaks of a cold-blooded vanity a little too long. Once it had, by an opening undesigned and unmerited, led him into the way of happiness. Could he have been satisfied with the conquest of one amiable woman’s affections, could he have found sufficient exultation in overcoming the reluctance, in working himself into the esteem and tenderness of Fanny Price, there would have been every probability of success and felicity for him. His affection had already done something. Her influence over him had already given him some influence over her. Would he have deserved more, there can be no doubt that more would have been obtained, especially when that marriage had taken place, which would have given him the assistance of her conscience in subduing her first inclination, and brought them very often together. Would he have persevered, and uprightly, Fanny must have been his reward, and a reward very voluntarily bestowed, within a reasonable period from Edmund’s marrying Mary.

Had he not gone to the party, had he not fallen back into his old ways, had he only kept to the straight path, he would have married the heroine. Henry Crawford was walking carefully on the edge of a cliff for the entire novel, at the end he fell off, but he could have turned away, he could have become a better person!

This alternative ending isn’t as possible with someone like John Willoughby: he’s already seduced and ruined Eliza Williams. Marianne Dashwood wouldn’t have been able to love him once she knew that unless he made significant amends. Wickham has already attempted to elope with Georgiana and squandered his entire inheritance. Mr. Elliot was already cruel to his first wife and had refused to help a poor widow. Henry Crawford’s affair with Maria Rushworth is in the future, not his past. He had the chance to change, he had a chance to listen to his own conscience, but he didn’t.

It overthrows our expectations. Maybe it leaves you too with a tiny hole in your heart as it does for me. I want to believe that people can become better.

Because of this suggestive paragraph and in spite of all I’ve said, I’ve always been drawn to re-writing the ending of Mansfield Park. I want Henry and Mary Crawford to reform and become worthy of Fanny and Edmund. The difficulty for me is how to change Henry without having Fanny do the work. Fanny has clearly opted out.

That was the challenge I gave myself when writing Unfairly Caught: A Mansfield Park Variation. I wanted Henry to become a better person, but he had to do it on his own. It took six months and multiple drafts for me to finally figure out how to accomplish this difficult task!

Do you think Henry Crawford could have been redeemed? Tell me in the comments below:

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7 responses to “Jane Austen’s Brave Refusal to Reform the Rake”

  1. Alice McVeigh Avatar

    Excellent article. Your book sounds fascinating. My toes always hurt when people – which happens particularly often on Jane Austen’s Facebook page – complain that Fanny is boring. (Why do my toes hurt? From kicking the furniture!!) Fanny was a thousand times braver in refusing Crawford to her uncle than Elizabeth was in refusing Collins (given her father’s character, and her favoured status in his eyes). Fanny’s refusal is one of the bravest scenes in all of Austen, imho… As for whether or not Henry Crawford can be redeemed, I personally believe no one, whether fictional or not, irredeemable. XXA

    1. bdelleman Avatar

      Fanny was very brave and she had a lot more to lose!

      I also believe everyone can be redeemed, I guess I should have said Henry is the easiest to redeem among those mentioned men. You’d want Wickham to be able to abstain from gambling for a long time before you’d want to trust him with your financial security for example.

  2. cindie snyder Avatar
    cindie snyder

    I’m sure he can be redeemed it may take some work. Fanny is so brave I wish I had her courage!

    1. bdelleman Avatar

      She is very brave! I don’t think I could have made the same decision if I was in her place.

  3. Tali Avatar

    Can a rake be redeemed? Not if we treat that question as a passive – that is, the rake, being redeemed by someone else. Everyone can change for the better – but they have to want to. Others can inspire them, Others can support them, but they have to do the work. Fanny is right to refuse to become Henry’s conscience – for him to reform, he has to grow his own.
    I think we – at least the older generation – grew up on the trope of the reformed rake. I remember as a teen and young adult, I was enraptured by Paul Gallico’s “Love of seven dolls”. Looking back at it from a mature viewpoint, it horrifies me. The villain abuses the heroine, rapes her repeatedly, throws her out to the streets in the middle of the night. And yet we have to believe that once she realizes his tender side – the side expressed by the dolls – she can redeem him with her love. Well, no. It doesn’t work that way.
    As for the alternative ending to Mansfield Park – Fanny submitting to Henry’s courting once Edmund and Mary were married – perhaps she would have. But he wouldn’t have changed, and she would have been miserable. Even his sister Mary, in her last appearance, projects that it would have ended with a regular standing flirtation between Henry and Maria. While I don’t feel Edmund is such a great partner for her, he is definitely preferable to Crawford.

  4. Corrie Avatar

    I read Unfairly Caught this summer and enjoyed it so much! I am also a sucker for a redemption and Henry Crawford had so much potential. Very interesting.

    1. bdelleman Avatar

      Thank you! I’m glad to hear you liked it. I’m writing for the other suckers out there 🙂

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