Sexuality and Desire in Jane Austen's Mansfield Park
In a letter to her brother dated 1814, Jane Austen boasted about a compliment she had received from a friend on her most recent work, Mansfield Park: "It's the most sensible novel he's ever read" (263). Austen prided herself on creating literature that depicted realistic characters and honest situations, but perhaps more importantly, she strove to create fiction that was moral and instructional as well as entertaining. So what does sensible say about the sexual? In Mansfield Park, the answer appears blaringly before us, as we repeatedly witness sexuality and desire represented in the darkest of terms, and often resulting in the most sinister of outcomes. Those who emit a sexual persona or awareness are to be seen as dangerous, and those whom possess sexual desire are inevitably the ones in danger, and are often punished for their untamed emotions and erratic behavior. The Bertrams and Fanny Price reside at Mansfield Park peacefully enough until their quiet, domestic world is turned upside down by outsiders, all of who, in their own ways, threaten to upset the lives of the inhabitants with a passion, desire, and sexuality that is new to them. In this essay, I would like to examine the relationships that arise from connections with these outsiders, what role sexuality and desire play in them, and what Austen's treatment of them says about sexual transgression and desire in a larger sense as well.
It seems only natural to begin with the two most prominent intruders in Mansfield Park, Henry and Mary Crawford. As jaded individuals accustomed to the fast-paced (and amoral) life of the city, Mary and Henry view Mansfield Park and its residents with a sort of novelty interest, regarding them almost as if they're playthings set out for their amusement. Mary is "remarkably pretty" (35) and wins the Bertrams over with "her lively dark eye, clear brown complexion, and general prettiness" (37) and her brother, after just a few visits, is declared, "most agreeable young man the sisters had ever known" (37). Henry (who I will discuss in greater length momentarily) sees Maria and Julia as conquests, women to be won over just for the sake of doing so. Mary, however, is sincere in her emotions toward Edmund (at least, as sincere as Mary Crawford could ever be), but the combination of Edmund's desire for her and her own seductive nature makes her a precarious character.
Perhaps Mary's biggest problem is that she is too knowledgeable for her own good. Her skepticism and cynical attitude often seem out of place at the naïve and sheltered Mansfield Park, particularly when compared to the ideological views of Edmund. Unlike Edmund, who is strikingly ignorant about the matter, Mary becomes preoccupied with understanding Fanny's position in society, and subsequent availability, inquiring, "pray, is she out, or is she not?" (42). Later, she remarks...