I’m starting the third volume of Mansfield Park at the moment, and we’re just getting to Henry Crawford’s most enchanting bits—and easily Fanny Price’s worst moments in the novel.
I’ve got Joseph Beattie from the 2007 Masterpiece Theater production to the left here, because that’s how I’ve been picturing him this reading, though truth be told, I like Alessandro Nivola’s ’99 portrayal of him better—but semantics aside, Henry Crawford is simply a delicious character. I’d be disgusted by him in real life, of course, but then that is an altogether different thing.
I know it’s a bit old hat to make a big deal about Jane Austen’s characters, but there’s a reason why there’s always a deal to be made. While Mansfield Park is not nearly my favorite Austen novel, Henry Crawford is almost decidedly becoming my favorite Austen blackguard. Wickham was never interesting to me, he is a well-played plot point and little more. William Elliot is warmer, but still there’s something left wanting. Willoughby is absolutely delightful by being so barefaced about his cowardice and shame—but those very things also make him fairly pathetic in the end. Henry Crawford, though, is unapologetic about anything and everything. He’s as consciousless as Wickham (whether or not that’s a word), but has all the spark and charm and warmth of Willoughby at his best—with something a little more intelligent, a little more detached and conniving, that just makes him that much more interesting.
The fantastic thing is that we know from the start that he’s a villain—or at least villainous. It’s made clear almost from his introduction that he means to win the attention of the one (already engaged) woman whom he absolutely shouldn’t mess around with, and we proceed to watch as he flatters her, tempts her, and then leaves her in the dust to go on with her life. Not that we can blame him entirely for that—’it takes two to tango,’ etc, etc.
But we see all this, and we know that Fanny, our heroine, is fully right to refuse his proposals, and yet… and yet we root for him anyhow. We want him to win over Fanny’s heart. Edmund certainly isn’t trying very hard for it, Edmund hardly seems to notice her unless he can sweep in to save her from lack of exercise or lack of writing paper or lack of something or other else. He’s busy being beguiled by Henry’s sister, because she’s just as sparkle-and-shine attractive as her brother, whatever her moral shortcomings are.
And even though I know what’s coming, even though I know Henry will prove himself—as he always does—to be completely incapable of the sort of love that Fanny wants and deserves… right at this moment, a part of me still wants him to win. Wants him to have the picturesque life with her that he describes to his sister, where he takes care of Fanny forever and never falls out of love with her and is everything she (this is Fanny Price here) anyone could ever want.