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20 Something: Love Lessons from Austen

mansfield park

I finished reading Mansfield Park last night, so I wanted to write about it again now that I’ve actually formed some ideas on the book.

It’s still not one of my favorite Austen novels. This is mostly because it’s a bit long (nearly 500 pages) for the content, which I have to attribute to the long sections of sermonizing and lecturing that tend to crop up when Edmond is involved.

There’s also an inordinate amount of time spent on detailing Mrs. Norris’s irritating character even after the reader has gained all the necessary knowledge about her to wish her away as much as her family does.

However, what I really want to talk about are the love lessons that I feel Austen was trying to impart to her readers. There’s actually a lot in the book that could fall under this category, but I’m just going to look at two of them in some detail.


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1) You can’t change for someone else

When Henry Crawford falls in love with Fanny Price, no one can understand why she refuses him. He’s charming, rich, vaguely attractive, and quite obviously enamored with her.

I understand her refusal at first. She’s nursing an unrequited love of her cousin Edmond, who we are obviously supposed to accept as the better of the two men. Personally, I found Edmond a bit dull, and I thought that Fanny trying to hold out for him despite knowing that he was hopelessly (if a bit foolishly) in love with someone else was ridiculous. Especially as Crawford begins to take such pains to please her.

As Crawford slowly begins to work on her affections and seems to be sincerely changing from the rapscallion he was earlier in the book when he was involved with Fanny’s two cousins, I began to want them to end up together.

I had some vague recollection of her ending up with Edmond, but I didn’t remember how, and I began to hope that my memory was faulty. Then, Crawford runs off with the (married) Maria Bertram Rushworth, and that hope is lost.

I was so disappointed. He had been doing so well, and I had begun to really like him and wish for him to be happy with Fanny and Edmond to get Miss Crawford (more on that in a minute). Why couldn’t he change to be the person that deserved or at least won Fanny?

Then I realized, it’s because you don’t change for other people. This could be contradicted by the fact that Mr. Darcy seems to change for Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice, but Austen takes pains to point out in Mansfield Park that Henry was only changing his outward appearance of decorum, not his actual character.

With Mr. Darcy, he already had the good character and breeding (as seen by the gushing of his housekeeper) and he was merely lacking the manners because of his insufferable pride. On the other hand, Henry is nothing but self-indulgent throughout the book, and it is put down as his real character whereas everything else he does is calculated to win Fanny’s approval.


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2) You can’t change someone else

Edmond’s love for Miss Crawford blinds him to her many faults, which Fanny (as her unspoken rival) is very apt to see.

Ultimately, it is her love of materialism and society that makes Miss Crawford unable to be with Edmond. But right up until their discussion of Henry and Maria running away together, Edmond believes that he can make Miss Crawford better. That somehow his influence will lead her down the right path.

I have to admit that at some points in their romance, I even believed it. Not that he could materially change her necessarily, but that her affection for him could be enough for her to sacrifice some of her high society life.

Here again I was disappointed. The commentary seems to be that love is not enough. No matter how much someone cares for you, they will not change for you.

If they try to make a change (as with point #1) they will fail. If you try to force a change, you will fail. You have to accept someone as they are or let them go.


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En fin

Of course, ultimately both points boil down to the fault of character during upbringing, which seems to be a major theme of the book. Are people naturally disposed towards a type of character and how does situation affect that?

All of the young people in the novel are subjected to this scrutiny, so that at times it all looks like a social experiment, but that would be a subject for another post.

I think I latched on to the two points mentioned above because I completely missed them the first time I read the book. I was something like 16 the first time I read it, and seven years has made a great difference in my outlook on love.

For one thing I have been in love since then. Twice.

The first time, I wanted to change for the person. Of course, I couldn’t. Things ended badly.

The second time, I wanted them to change. Of course, they couldn’t. Things ended badly.

So it is entirely possible that my own experiences are coloring my ideas here, but I think that is inherent in reading or thinking critically about literature.

Let me know what you think. Am I way off on this? Did I forget to point out something important?

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