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Jane Austen, Heartbreaker

          Henry Crawford, “the most horrible flirt that can be imagined” (MP, v.1, ch.4) undergoes a transformational character change for the better when he vows to make Fanny Price fall in love with him. Though his gallant persona shifts back to the worst in the final chapters of Mansfield Park, Jane Austen deceives her readers into believing Henry to be an honest and faithful suitor. Similarly, in Northanger Abbey, Isabella Thorpe slowly evolves from a doting friend to Catherine Morland to a conniving and self-obsessed individual. The reader uncovers these truths at the same time as the heroines, making the discovery of their inauthentic relationships even more shocking. Austen deceives the reader, the other characters, and at times, even the narrative voice, in order to present Henry Crawford and Isabella Thorpe as inconsistent characters; despite their disingenuous intents, they also maintain some redeeming qualities. This misleading mold finally results in heartbreak: Catherine is torn by Isabella’s betrayal, and the reader is left in pieces over the man that Henry could have been.

          In order to evaluate the relationships between the heartbreakers and their respective heroines, we must first explore how the other characters compare in sincerity to Fanny and Catherine. Here, and throughout the essay, sincerity refers to how authentic and transparent a character is about his or her intentions. In Fanny’s world, the duplicitous Crawfords who come to Mansfield Park in search of spouses add to the already insincere interactions of Fanny’s spiteful cousins. Maria Bertram personifies insincerity when she first deceives Mr. Rushworth: while the characters explore the grounds of Sotherton, Maria decides to take a private stroll with Henry, blaming it upon feeling “restrain[ed]” and bored (MP, v.I, ch.10). In actuality, the reader recognizes that Maria is taking advantage of her fiancé’s absence to pursue a more thrilling “amble” with Henry. Her insincerity is heightened when she ignores Fanny’s protests and lies to her to obscure her own immoral intentions. Hence, unless the young people at Mansfield Park are upfront about their intentions to either pursue lovers or perform in Lovers’ Vow, they are deemed insincere– only Fanny rises from this classification because she consistently behaves transparently; her strong moral compass controls all of her thoughts and actions. Even Edmund, pious and sensible, demonstrates insincerity. He joins the Lovers’ Vow cast, claiming that his intention is to protect Mary Crawford from acting “with a stranger” (MP, v.I, ch.16); however, Fanny is quick to realize this lie. Edmund is instead driven by “the force of selfish inclinations” (MP, v.I, ch.17), or, in other words, the chance to be with Mary. 

          Despite all the heartbreak in Bath and at Northanger Abbey, Catherine remains sincere because of her innocence. New to the world of balls and Pump Rooms, Catherine navigates her social environment with utter naivety and trustworthiness– she has no reason to hide her intentions. James Morland acts in the same way as his sister. He praises Isabella, repeatedly describing her as “amiable” and “superior” (NA, v.I, ch.7), showing that he is smitten with her and his intentions are inspired from his awe of Isabella. Among the characters involved in the novel’s love triangles, John Thorpe mirrors his sister’s insincerity by lying to Catherine in order to disrupt her plans with the Tilneys and have her to himself. During their carriage ride, Catherine sees the Tilneys and realizes what John has done: “How could you tell me they were gone?” (NA, v.I, ch.11). Unlike Isabella’s duality, Austen presents John’s disposition as bluntly arrogant and brash from the very beginning. Accordingly, the reader is not surprised, especially when John laughs at Catherine’s cries, actually forcing his horses to run faster away from the crime scene and inevitably from the truth. Therefore, in Northanger Abbey, insincerity stems from selfishness. The Thorpe siblings lie, cheat and persuade in order to reach their selfish goals.

          Austen weaves insincerity into the dispositions of nearly every single character, causing the reader to become accustomed to, and simply accept, that inauthenticity drives the social landscapes of her worlds. Thus, socializing is presented as a game. Just as an experienced player makes strategic moves to proceed to the next round, certain characters ae hyper-aware of how they, too, can navigate the social scene for their own benefit. This talent allows them to hide their inner nefarious intentions.


          Henry is a superior player. He plans to amuse himself by making “Fanny Price fall in love with [him]” (MP, v.1, ch.6) …and in a fortnight, no less! Henry outwardly attributes his plan to make it so that Fanny can “never be happy again” if she is away from him (MP, v.1, ch.6). Here, one may argue that Henry acts utterly sincerely because of his transparency, no matter how cruel his intentions are. However, once he becomes “determined to marry Fanny Price,” (MP, v.II, chp.11) after a supposed change of reasons from amusement to love, the reader recognizes that his wavering character is insincere. Despite this, Henry expertly tricks those around him into believing that he has had a change of heart. This shows that the social game has consumed him: he becomes determined to master his new persona, which shows a distinct contrast between his and Fanny’s genuineness.  Henry simply receives public disgrace due to his final lustful rendezvous with Maria, while the reader, dangerously captured by Henry’s “change,” faces a personal trauma.

          Isabella plays the game by perfectly adapting to the needs of different situations for self-success. When Catherine first learns about the secret engagement with James, Isabella is keen to showcase her supposed love by molding herself into the ideal wife for him, and thereby creating false intentions which best fit her situation. She exaggerates, claiming “I would not settle in London for the universe,” (NA, v.I, ch.15) going against the reader’s initial perception of Isabella as someone wholeheartedly engaged in the social scene that can only be found in the main cities. Isabella also states that “poverty itself is wealth” (NA, v.I, ch.15) when two people are in love; however, she later complains about the “measly” four hundred pounds James will bring to the marriage (NA, v.II, ch.1). She further demonstrates her insincerity by shifting the blame to her fiancé. Isabella exclaims that it would be selfish, even unethical, to injure James by making him live on such a poor income. Isabella’s initial attractiveness to the reader subsides because of these excuses, which rapidly change depending on the context. In the final chapters, Catherine discovers that Isabella has betrayed James by pursuing Captain Tilney, truly exemplifying her ingenuine and selfish nature. Instead of apologizing in her letter, Isabella explains how James read her conduct incorrectly, flippantly presenting herself as faithful and him as simply confused (NA, v.II, ch.12). Although Catherine cuts Isabella from her life, it is actually the Morlands who suffer heartbreak because they wear their hearts on their sleeves. Therefore, Austen does not seem to be warning the reader of the dangers of being insincere, but rather, the dangers of being sincere, because those characters suffer the most.

          If we now read the two novels through this lens, it is our heroines that expose the pitfalls of honesty and transparency. Instead of protecting her protagonists from those who advantageously play the social game, Austen poses a paradox that all her readers must understand and overcome: Fanny and Catherine– and oftentimes, the reader– are truly sincere, but this sets them up for insincere and inauthentic relationships. The heroines do not try to compete with or manipulate others for their own benefit, meaning that they receive the brunt of the actual player’s actions. For example, when Fanny discovers that Henry and Maria run off together, she is traumatized. This trauma does not stem from Henry’s betrayal, but rather his debauched actions and “unsettled affections,” (MP, v.III, ch.15) further demonstrating that it is the change in Henry’s fabricated persona that injures Fanny more than anything. Moreover, Fanny physically experiences “hot fits of fever to cold,” (MP, v.III, ch.15) which may signify how sincerity is tied to both her disposition and body. Austen may be hinting that unless one can physically communicate their feelings through both actions and responses, there is no possibility of becoming truly sincere.

          By sobbing, Catherine, too, outwardly expresses her despair over Isabella. The innocent image of “tears fill[ing] her eyes, and… [running] down her cheeks” (NA, v.II, ch.10) evokes tremendous sympathy from the reader; indirectly, by feeling pity the reader also suffers from Isabella’s insincerity, creating a cascade of pain from one player’s actions. Catherine also represents the hope that sincere characters may navigate the social game wisely. She is “ashamed of having loved” Isabella, instinctually instilling a layer of protection for herself in the next relationship she forms (NA, v.II, ch.10). However, if we follow our definition of sincerity, we must wonder if this protection implies a lack of transparency. Maybe Austen wants to show that being surrounded by strategic game players also persuades a naïve player to become increasingly more calculated as well.

          It is not entirely the fault of our heroines for believing the heartbreaker’s smiles and sweet-talk. Isabella recognizes Catherine’s inexperience with the social world of Bath and selflessly takes it upon herself to educate young Miss Morland. The reader next reconnects with them calling “each other by their Christian name[s],” (NA, v.I, ch.5) which invalidates the appropriate rules of society. This serves to showcase how eager Catherine is in her new friendship and how determined Isabella is to make Catherine feel comfortable. On the other hand, Henry appeals to Fanny’s moral compass in order to get her to trust him. He rejects his initial feelings about theatre, claiming that it will never be performed “at Everingham” because he knows Fanny disapproves (MP, v.III, ch.3). Additionally, he shows an interest in Fanny’s love of reading and charms her with his rendition of Shakespeare. However, when Henry takes on this exaggerated and dramatic persona, it exemplifies insincerity; he is only performing because he wants to get Fanny to trust him, not because he simply wants to make her happy. These examples demonstrate how calculated Henry and Isabella are regarding their use of words and actions to convince their targets of false intentions. Austen even diverts her surrounding characters from the heartbreaker’s motives. James is grateful and certain that happiness can only arise as a “companion and friend [of] Isabella Thorpe,” (NA, v.I, ch.7) and similarly, although Sir Thomas is initially disinterested in Fanny’s love life, he rejoices in his “idle observations… that Mr. Crawford [is] the admirer of Fanny Price” (MP, v.II, ch.7). Austen strategically builds this foundation to make it shocking when the heartbreakers reveal their true selves again.

          Finally, Austen seamlessly alters the perspective of her narrative voice to deceive her readers. In Northanger Abbey, she offers countless positive impressions of Isabella through Catherine’s point of view. To Catherine, Isabella is like an older sister: “four years better informed,” with a “fashionable air of her figure” and utterly “faithful” (NA, v.I, ch.4, ch.8). The reader herself becomes caught up in this fantastical friend, later excusing any vicious comments elicited by Isabella. Similarly, the narrative style in Mansfield Park builds an argument that Henry truly does love Fanny. Austen observes, “He was in love, very much in love,” and though she tacks on “the glory… of forcing her to love him” on the end of the paragraph (MP, v.III, ch.2), the reader is so delighted at the possibilities of true love that they ignore the final, warning of insincerity. While reading both novels, I believed the best in both Henry and Isabella, and wholeheartedly expected the narrator to mistake their betrayals with a romantic twist. Austen attempts to use a narrative voice that the reader trusts to reconcile the heartbreaker’s inconsistences through different points of views and observations. However, by using a voice that inherently knows the outcome, yet tries to sway the reader from the truth, Austen proves herself to be insincere.

          Essentially, Austen molds her own voice as insincere in order to expose the dangers of being trusting and genuine in Regency England. The characters that strategically engage in the game change the paths of society for themselves and the other characters, signifying that sincere figures will never stand a chance to be equal. Although Fanny and Catherine receive the “happily ever afters” they deserve, they are left with the reminders of the dangers of too much sincerity in world of games. Similarly, the reader understands that despite the perceived plausibility of a character or narrator, swift transformations can take place if they do not pay close enough attention. The fact that I was sincerely deceived by both heartbreakers has brought me to the following conclusion: perhaps I am the biggest fool and Austen is the biggest heartbreaker of all.

Essay written by Mimi Thompson in Fall 2018 for coursework as part of "Jane Austen's Britain"

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