Printer Friendly

"His Thoughtless Vanity": The Comic Flaw in Austen's Errant Heroes.

LIONEL TRILLING'S ESSAY "In Mansfield Park" distinguishes Jane Austen as the first novelist to represent the "specifically modern personality and the culture in which it had its being" (14). Arguing that Austen's novel emphasizes "problems of identity and of integrity," Trilling highlights the risks undertaken when the Romantic character stretches itself through "impersonation," an analog for sympathetic identification, emulation, and social role-playing (14). Fundamentally insecure, and rendered more so through its impersonations, the self must protect "its own nature from the very sensibility and volatility that define it" (14). The struggle for a stable identity is best exemplified in Mansfield Park by the inconstant adventurer Henry Crawford; lacking the steadying force of principle and purpose, he is no "integer" of selfhood (Trilling 16), like Sir Thomas Bertram. Where the identities of Sir Thomas and his second son, Edmund, have become relatively fixed through their occupations, Crawford's laxity as a landlord and his habitual errancy are noted in Austen's initial character sketch. He harbors a "great dislike" of permanent abodes or "limitation of society," a peripatetic impulse that aggravates the instability of identity as it strengthens his master passion, vanity (47).

The adulterous error that ruins Crawford's chance at heroic closure is understood by the astute Fanny Price as resulting from "his thoughtless vanity," "[h]is unsettled affections, wavering with his vanity" (505, 511). Thus, Trilling's take on the disruptive effects of sensibility is supported by Fanny's own conclusion, although she identifies a more complex cause for Crawford's vacillation between potential hero and unreformed rake. Indeed, an analysis of the relationship between sympathy, vanity, and insecure identity can tell readers a great deal about Austen's eager-to-please but disappointing would-be heroes. Crawford, John Willoughby, and Frank Churchill: all are governed by vanity and its fluctuations between self-approbation and abjection. (1) But where each exhibits a restlessness demonstrated through frequent disappearances from the narrative and a necessity of "doing something, good or bad" all the time (Emma 221), Crawford is peerless--in the number of comments upon his vain, inconsistent character and in the regret generated among readers when his romance resolution is foiled. As Austen's most beguiling study of masculine vanity, Henry Crawford is worthy of attention: "his" flaw marks the author's italicized inversion of a passion more commonly associated with women, while also illuminating vanity's causes and its complicated social effects.

'"Vanity and pride are different things, though the words are often used synonimously,'" Mary Bennet informs her sisters and Charlotte Lucas: '"A person may be proud without being vain. Pride relates more to our opinion of ourselves, vanity to what we would have others think of us'" (PP 21). And yet, while Mary's character, like her piano, is often played for laughs, she is right about the pervasive distinction between the two passions. Adam Smith notes that the "words vain and vanity are never taken in a good sense" (304), and Darcy deems vanity a '"weakness"' while arguing that pride is warranted by '"real superiority of mind'" (63). Pride, if adequately supported, is defended as well by Charlotte, who points to Darcy's fortune, his family, and "'every'" other thing '"in his favour"' as justification (21). Austen's most celebrated hero is associated with the words "pride" or "proud" no less than thirty-five times, which might suggest the author also approves. But the novel's title suggests a trait that must be overcome if one is to find happiness, and Darcy's cold reception in the neighborhood contrasts markedly to the warmth with which the "vain" but amiable Wickham is initially welcomed (229). Such inconsistencies, and the far greater frequency with which pride and vanity are associated with male characters in Austen's novels, suggest that further examination of masculine pride and vanity is needed.

It is worth noting that Austen does not waste much time on the characterization of vain women. Yes, there are memorable examples among the minor characters: Lucy Steele, whose vanity prevents her from seeing that Mrs. Ferrars's favor is contrived; Lydia Bennet's vain frivolity, which nearly ruins her family; Persuasion's Elizabeth and Mary, with their "Elliot pride" and perpetual dissatisfaction. And there are echoes of the common association of young ladies with vanity, a view succinctly captured by Maria and Richard Lovell Edgeworth, who observe in Practical Education that "vanity cannot support herself without the concurring flattery of others; pride is satisfied with his own approbation" (308, emphasis added). In Austen, however, these allusions are abstracted, as when Edmund Bertram complains that young women who are '"given wrong notions'" of their own importance are always acting upon motives of vanity (MP 58). (2) But Austen's engagement with female figures of vanity is slight, and the characters are mainly presented to readers for the purpose of entertainment, not instruction. Never do we encounter the rich, round characterization of vain women that we do with her vain provisional heroes: in fact, for the nine explicit references to Henry's vanity, we are given only two each to his sister and Maria Bertram and one to Julia Bertram. Surpassing all exemplars, of course, are the surfeit of mirrors at Kellynch, reflections of the vanity that "was the beginning and end of Sir Walter Elliot's character" (P4).

Austen's curt character sketch, however, speaks beyond the folly of a vain baronet. Indeed, David Hume argues that vanity is requisite to the constitution of personal identity, the "beginning and end" of individual character. Together, he and Smith illuminate the complex dynamics of vanity, examining its imbrication with sympathy and the role affect plays in the ever-shifting boundaries of selfhood. Consider Mary Crawford's insight upon the wavering quality of her brother's character, a function of his sympathy with their uncle. She wishes to see Henry with a house of his own in London because he is too susceptible to a '"contagion"' of '"manners"' at their "vicious" uncle's home (342, 47). The contagious effects of sympathy are explained by Smith: "This natural disposition ... to assimilate, as much as we can, our own sentiments, principles, and feelings, to those which we see fixed and rooted in the persons whom we ... live and converse a great deal with, is the cause of the contagious effects of both good and bad company" (264).

Having grown up in the Admiral's household, Henry "naturally" begins to reflect the ideas, feelings, and conduct of the man who rears him, just as his sister becomes a "protegee" of their aunt (47). Beyond mere gendered identification, Henry's likeness to his uncle is aggravated by the older man's "delight" in the boy (46), which encourages his charge's persistent pursuit of pleasure and his desire to please. In other words, sympathy begets the child's largely unconscious mirroring of the man, as well as his interest in pleasing his guardian, whose approbation is necessary for the orphan to thrive. Henry learns, then, from a very early age, to present himself in "that situation which sets [him] most in the view of general sympathy and attention" (Smith 70), a desire Smith believes to be universal, but one that may be intensified in those who depend on the goodwill of others. Crawford's early dependence on his uncle's sympathy schools him to prize such externalized responses, making the quality of the "mirrors" most proximate to him of grave importance.

Thus, while vanity is associated generally with a love of praise, Smith suggests it may be more accurate to identify the passion's origin with an individual's idea of himself as "the object of the observation and fellow-feeling of every body about him" (62). His emphasis upon the attention and sympathy of others is key, as it makes clear that vanity is produced by an idea or belief we have concerning the opinions and feelings of our associates. We turn to them as "mirrors" that provide an image of the self--that fundamentally insecure, elusive entity in need of constant reconstruction. A passion possessed by everyone, vanity hinges on the self-image (s) constructed through the perceived sentiments of others; consequently, few of us are impervious to its power. It is the desire to please, in particular, notes Smith, that vanity encourages in us. "[G]roundless pretensions" aside, he writes, vanity is associated with many "amiable" virtues, "with a desire to oblige in all little matters, and sometimes with a real generosity in great ones; a generosity, however, which it often wishes to display in the most splendid colours it can" (303-04). Smith recognizes here the positive effects of vanity, and in his discussion of the "character of virtue" he frequently contrasts vanity with pride, a passion he regards as antisocial (298-309).

A source of the sociability and civic-mindedness prized by eighteenth-century thinkers, vanity can serve us well as an early motivator for improvement (and the praise of parents and other adults), particularly if the instruction provided is wise. "The great secret of education is to direct vanity to proper objects," writes Smith (305), and who better exemplifies the positive turn vanity can take than the other dependent relation, Fanny Price? It is Edmund, after all, who has "formed her mind and gained her affections," so much so that he has "a good chance of her thinking like him" (76). He is the first to offer real kindness to the young newcomer, and Fanny's education--her principles, her tastes, and her moral judgment--is deeply rooted in her desire to please Edmund. Aunt Norris's antipathy proves an equal blessing, as the Bertram sisters are corrupted by her easily won praise.

The characterization of Maria and Julia offers a glimpse of vanity's positive effects, though we are also subtly cautioned as to the passion's unwieldiness. They are said to be among "the belles of the neighbourhood," but instead of eliciting envy or resentment, they possess "its favour as well as its admiration" (40). The sisters' "vanity was in such good order, that they seemed to be quite free from it, and gave themselves no airs; while the praises attending such behaviour, secured, and brought round by their aunt, served to strengthen them in believing they had no faults" (40). Maria and Julia have learned to conceal their desire for attention and approbation behind a screen of "general civility and obligingness" (40), thereby ensuring their social success. Their outward concern for the vanity of others obscures their own self-love, while also securing the sympathy of the immediate society that supports their self-image. Like the moral philosophers, Austen seems to recognize that vanity is not bad in and of itself, although it must be kept in "good order." If one is aware of its sway and one's own susceptibility to flattery and praise, one may manage it. Characters of sense and delicacy are always conscious of the degree to which they risk its influence: reflecting on Henry's general treatment of women, Fanny assures Edmund, '"it would have been the extreme of vanity to be forming expectations on Mr. Crawford'" (408), and Edmund reasons similarly when considering a second son's chances of marrying Mary. (3) But Fanny and Edmund are uncommonly stern self-disciplinarians, and the other young people at Mansfield Park are encouraged to think highly of themselves--by the acquaintances they charm and by their too indulgent elders.

Indeed, Henry and Mary Crawford "mirror" the young Bertram heir and his sisters in several ways. Not only have they all been spoiled by the lessons of close relations, but they strive to cultivate the admiration of many before the esteem of a worthy few. Fanny observes the importance of numbers to Henry, a man "who had seen so many, and been admired by so many, and flirted with so many ...--who was every thing to every body, and seemed to find no one essential to him" (354). His habitual focus on the regard of others, coupled with an indiscriminate desire to please and be pleased, results in a splendid array of self-images but no essential, stable sense of self. Henry's character becomes even more elusive as he revels in the impersonations required at Mansfield Park: most obviously as Frederick in the amateur theatrical, but more disruptively as a "single man in possession of a good fortune" (PP 3). His casual flirtation with the two sisters creates havoc in the household; his interest, a shallow reflection of the interest that the sisters take in him. After only three meetings Julia "is quite ready to be fallen in love with" (51), and Henry's response is justified in this fashion:
   Mr. Crawford did not mean to be in any danger; the Miss Bertrams
   were worth pleasing, and were ready to be pleased; and he began
   with no object but of making them like him. He did not want them to
   die of love; but with sense and temper which ought to have made him
   judge and feel better, he allowed himself great latitude on such
   points. (52)

Note the narrator's use of free indirect discourse to emphasize the irony of Crawford's ambiguous intentions, his lack of self-knowledge, and the fact that he is ultimately "entangled by his own vanity" (541). He is careless, not cruel, but his sense alone demands that he manage the dual flirtation, and his own vanity, better than he does. The latitude he allows himself in this instance is a harbinger of greater errancy to come. The next lapse occurs at Sotherton, Mr. Rushworth's seat, where Maria's "spirits were in as happy a flutter as vanity and pride could furnish" (97). Her affect is flirtatiously met and mirrored by Henry's pride in his superior taste and charm, an act of sympathetic "contagion" consistent with his upbringing. '"I am not quite so much the man of the world as might be good for me in some points. My feelings are not quite so evanescent'" (115), he dissembles, for not only is he very much a man of the world, but his feelings are even more inconstant than Maria's own fluttering spirits.

Crawford's lack of emotional resolve is demonstrated repeatedly, not least through his frequent departures from the scene of narration. After showing a clear partiality to Maria on the day trip, Henry leaves for a fortnight but returns to Mansfield, despite the danger to domestic harmony he knows his return must occasion. His sister Mrs. Grant has on several occasions worried that he will be '"taken in"' (53) and his tranquility of mind disturbed through his flirtations, but he thrives on the stimulation of the sisters' attentions and their growing animosity toward one another. Henry's fortnight away is characterized as a sojourn of "sufficient leisure" that might have "convinced the gentleman that he ought to keep longer away, had he been more in the habit of examining his own motives, and of reflecting to what the indulgence of his idle vanity was tending; but, thoughtless and selfish from prosperity and bad example, he would not look beyond the present moment" (135). While the promise of further ego gratification draws Crawford back to Mansfield, his "idle vanity" suggests a deeper need than can be satisfied by the admiration of two shallow women. "[S]hooting and sleeping" have been his only occupations while away (135), so, aimless and adrift, Henry returns to Mansfield's flattering, if untrustworthy, mirrors for another look at himself.

Crawford's impulse illustrates the theory of personal identity offered by David Hume, which emphasizes the role of pride or vanity in the constitution of selfhood. (4) A fiction that arises through our reflections on the perceptions and associations passing through our minds (169), the self depends upon its prideful relation to external objects or things for its tenuous existence. Hume writes: "'tis certain, that pride requires the assistance of some foreign object. ... [I]t languishes when unsupported by some excellency in the character, in bodily accomplishments, in cloaths, equipage, or fortune" (188). Crawford has an abundance of such objects, but he doesn't invest sufficiently in them to reinforce the sense of self he requires. He is rarely at Everingham, and, according to Hume, property is the most substantial relation that binds a man to (and through) inanimate objects. The closer the object's proximity, the greater the object's singularity or rarity, the greater the reflection on the possessor. The desirable distinctiveness of certain objects leads Crawford to flirt first with Maria--a woman already promised to become the possession of another--and later with Fanny, who stands in marked contrast to her easily won cousins and appeals to his "moral taste" (274).

Henry's interest is sparked by Fanny's uncharacteristically sharp comment on the amateur theatricals' demise: '"in my opinion, every thing had gone quite far enough"' (263). "He was surprized," the narrator observes, "but after a few moments silent consideration of her, replied in a calmer, graver tone, and as if the candid result of conviction, 'I believe you are right. It was more pleasant than prudent'" (263). It is the "as if" that I find interesting, for Crawford begins by acting with Fanny as he thinks he ought--a way not wholly unlike his amorous performances with her cousins. The very next day he declares his campaign to win Fanny's heart, confiding in Mary:

"I never was so long in company with a girl in my life--trying to entertain her--and succeed so ill! ... Her looks say, 'I will not like you, I am determined not to like you,' and I say she shall.... I only want her to look kindly on me, to give me smiles as well as blushes,... and be all animation when I ... talk to her; to think as I think, be interested in all my possessions and pleasures, try to keep me longer at Mansfield, and feel when I go away that she shall be never happy again. I want nothing more." (268-69)

Mary perceives his goal at this point is to have "some body," any body, who will mirror him back to himself at twice the size, and his own grandiose expectations of Fanny's "looks" suggest she is right. Yet it is Henry who is caught by the sympathetic exchange he desires, and his habitual restlessness is subdued by the more forceful "capabilities of her heart" (274).

Once arrested, Crawford pursues Fanny with apparently greater resolve, and he takes action on behalf of her brother in consequence of his emulation. Upon meeting William Price--another, more exemplary seaman--Henry
   long[s] to have been at sea, and seen and done and suffered as
   much. His heart was warmed, his fancy fired, and he felt the
   highest respect for a lad who ... had gone through such bodily
   hardships. ... The glory of heroism, of usefulness, of exertion, of
   endurance, made his own habits of selfish indulgence appear in
   shameful contrast. (275)

He is not quite up to the challenge--"[t]he wish was rather eager than lasting" (276)--but the positive mirroring he experiences in William's company does prompt virtuous action. Joseph Litvak has persuasively argued that "Crawford presents the anomaly of one who not only combines role-playing with sincerity but reveals sincerity as an effect of role-playing" (18). A consequence of acting as if he is virtuous, as he does with Fanny in their conversation about the theatricals, Crawford's actions become in actuality more virtuous the longer he remains in Fanny's proximity. He tends to his tenants at Everingham as he should in order to win her approbation, and his fleeting reward is that she does entertain--however briefly, however privately--thoughts of bringing her sister Susan to their shared home. Of course, despite his proposal and his assurances that his affections are '"entirely fixed"' (338), Crawford's vanity, which "waver[s]" with his "unsettled affections" (511), proves too strong when he is no longer in Fanny's presence. Encountering Mrs. Rushworth anew, he sees another challenge to be overcome; the sad irony is that he himself is taken, just as Mrs. Grant has warned. Maria is for Crawford a particularly dangerous mirror because her vanity so much resembles his own, and the two together are ruinous.

Leaving much of her denouement to reflections on Crawford's "cold-blooded vanity" (540), Austen insists that readers mark her inversion of gendered associations with vanity and pride. But she also emphasizes the uncertain ends of his master passion:
   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. (540)

Peter Graham has highlighted the contingency of the novel's concluding unions--unsatisfying resolutions for many readers. And it is indeed strange that the author gives so much time to an unworthy suitor as she is wrapping things up. Had Crawford's vanity been directed toward the proper objects from an earlier age, had he remained within Fanny's range of influence longer, would the ending have been different? It is hard to say, given the wayward "freaks" of vanity. But one can conclude that if ill-managed vanity in Austen's errant heroes seldom promotes their enduring happiness, it is catastrophic for the vain women they seek to please.


(1.) John Willoughby's vanity is noted six times in the text of Sense and Sensibility, while Frank Churchill's character is described in the following fashion: "Vanity, extravagance, love of change, restlessness of temper, which must be doing something, good or bad; heedlessness as to the pleasure of his father and Mrs. Weston, indifferent as to how his conduct might appear in general; he became liable to all these charges" (E 221).

(2.) Consider as well how a fashionable education "where young ladies for enormous pay might be screwed out of health and into vanity" is mocked in Emma (21).

(3.) Edmund longs to believe Mary's interest in him does not depend on inheriting Mansfield Park, but his "vanity is not of a strength to fight long against reason" (531).

(4.) Adela Pinch has persuasively demonstrated that for Hume "our sense of self is constituted through having feelings of pride inspired by contingent objects" (25).

Mary Beth Tegan is Associate Professor of English at Saint Xavier University, specializing in nineteenth-century British literature. Her most recent essays, published in The Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation, Women's Writing, and Studies in the Novel, explore narrative form and female novelists' management of literary affect.


Austen, Jane. The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Jane Austen. Gen. ed. Janet Todd. Cambridge: CUP, 2005-2008.

Edgeworth, Maria, and Richard Lovell Edgeworth. Practical Education. Vol 2. Ed. Gina Luria. New York: Garland, 1974.

Graham, Peter W. "Falling for the Crawfords: Character, Contingency, and Narrative." ELHll (2010): 867-91.

Hume, David. A Treatise on Human Nature. Ed. David Fate Norton and Mary J. Norton. Oxford: OUP, 2005.

Litvak, Joseph. Caught in the Act: Theatricality in the Nineteenth-Century English Novel. Berkeley: U of California P, 1992.

Pinch, Adela. Strange Fits of Passion: Epistemologies of Emotion, Hume to Austen. Stanford: SUP, 1996.

Smith, Adam. The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Ed. Knud Haakonssen. Cambridge: CUP, 2009.

Trilling, Lionel. "In Mansfield Park." Encounter 12 (Sept. 1954): 9-19.
COPYRIGHT 2018 Jane Austen Society of North America
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2018 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Miscellany; Jane Austen's "Mansfield Park"
Author:Tegan, Mary Beth
Publication:Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jan 1, 2018
Previous Article:Richardson and Austen: Cash Equivalents.
Next Article:Astonished at Amelia: Amelia Wildenhaim's Salutary Influence on Fanny Price.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters