I have always wondered why, when confronted by her father, Maria Bertram was not more forthcoming about her feelings for Henry Crawford, and her disdain of Mr. Rushworth. Sir Thomas was willing to allow her to break the engagement, but Maria was determined to go through with it, despite her attachment to Mr. Crawford.
The answer actually shocked me with its simplicity – her father waited too long to ask Maria how she felt. I was immediately struck by how awful and senseless it seemed – had her father spoken sooner, might Maria have really been honest about her heart?
“Had Sir Thomas applied to his daughter within the first three or four days after Henry Crawford’s leaving Mansfield, before her feelings were at all tranquillised, before she had given up every hope of him, or absolutely resolved on enduring his rival, her answer might have been different; but after another three or four days, when there was no return, no letter, no message, no symptom of a softened heart, no hope of advantage from separation, her mind became cool enough to seek all the comfort that pride and self revenge could give.
Henry Crawford had destroyed her happiness, but he should not know that he had done it; he should not destroy her credit, her appearance, her prosperity, too. He should not have to think of her as pining in the retirement of Mansfield for him, rejecting Sotherton and London, independence and splendour, for his sake. Independence was more needful than ever; the want of it at Mansfield more sensibly felt. She was less and less able to endure the restraint which her father imposed. The liberty which his absence had given was now become absolutely necessary. She must escape from him and Mansfield as soon as possible, and find consolation in fortune and consequence, bustle and the world, for a wounded spirit. Her mind was quite determined, and varied not.”
- Mansfield Park, Ch. XXI
Maria is bitter about Henry Crawford’s departure from the area, which takes place within a few days of Sir Thomas’s return and the dissolution of their theatrical, and so she doubles down on her commitment to the mercenary match with Rushworth, as if determined to make herself miserable.
“He was going, and, if not voluntarily going, voluntarily intending to stay away; for, excepting what might be due to his uncle, his engagements were all self-imposed. He might talk of necessity, but she knew his independence. The hand which had so pressed hers to his heart! the hand and the heart were alike motionless and passive now! Her spirit supported her, but the agony of her mind was severe. She had not long to endure what arose from listening to language which his actions contradicted, or to bury the tumult of her feelings under the restraint of society; for general civilities soon called his notice from her, and the farewell visit, as it then became openly acknowledged, was a very short one. He was gone—he had touched her hand for the last time, he had made his parting bow, and she might seek directly all that solitude could do for her. Henry Crawford was gone, gone from the house, and within two hours afterwards from the parish; and so ended all the hopes his selfish vanity had raised in Maria and Julia Bertram.”
- Mansfield Park, Ch. XX
I began to ponder what might have been, had Sir Thomas conferred with his daughter just a few days earlier, had Maria been honest with her father – and under the assumption that the attachment between Maria and Crawford runs deeper than idle flirtation. Thus was born my upcoming novel, Outmatched, which fuses Mansfield Park with my personal favorite, Sense & Sensibility. Outmatched will be available on Kindle May 8th, and I will be kicking off my official blog tour next week, but I would like to leave you all for now with a first look at what might have been for Maria Bertram….
Maria Bertram strode across the front drive with tremendous purpose, having embarked upon the first honest and brave course of action in the whole of her life. Watching Henry Crawford depart Mansfield for perhaps the last time, she found herself incapable of any tranquility; catching him up before he was halfway back to the Parsonage, she called out to him in a trembling voice. “Henry!”
He was thankfully alone, having been outpaced by Dr. Grant on their retreat, and Maria could only hope that his being so much slower than the old parson must bespeak a degree of dejection at their parting. When he turned to look at her, her heart leapt with a hope that it was so.
“Why did you not tell me that you meant to go?”
Henry closed the distance between them before answering. “I had no notion of leaving until last evening.”
Maria furrowed her brow. She could well understand why, for her father’s dissolution of the theatrical pleased none but himself, and had given all the young people such discomfort and want of spirits. And yet, what was the end of their acting to the loss of something so real? Remembering their posture in rehearsal, even at the moment of her father’s ill-timed return, Maria placed her hand on Henry’s heart.
He completed the gesture by placing his own hand atop hers, but would not meet her eye. “You must think me a great coward.” When she made no answer, he added, “I am sure that I do.”
“Then why go? It is the impulse of the moment – decided before you met my father – and see how he favored you just now!”
Henry nodded, finally looking at her; she could see his calculation, weighing every option. “It is true; when we left here, day before last, my elder sister was sure Sir Thomas would not want much to do with anyone outside his family circle. Certainly Lover’s Vows would not proceed. Mary said I ought to spend some time at Everingham, so as not to push in on the family. But yes, your father was very genial.”
“And he would think no less of you for reversing your decision now. Surely you wish to stay.”
Henry captured her hand in his; they had been in full view of the house, but now he led her away from the parsonage path, into a little copse of trees. “I will not stay to see you wed another, or to see you disgraced by what has existed between us.”
This was the closest either had come to admitting that there had been something there, almost from the earliest moments of their acquaintance that summer. Had she not already been engaged, how easy it might have been for them to admire one another – they might even now be on the brink of their own happy event. Instead it had all been ardent looks and subtle flirtation, their mutual affection every day implied but never stated directly.
“Is it certain, then, that my feelings must be a disgrace? Must we be no more than Agatha and Frederick?” Maria tried to still her own shaking. It had increasingly been her hope that Henry would be the first to speak, and though it was perhaps honorable and to his credit that he had not, Maria still wanted the resolve to take matters into her own hands so fully. And yet, she had come this far. “If you really mean to quit Mansfield, I shall have my answer.”
Henry groaned, the sound of a mind as tortured as her own. She was at once gratified by the evidence of his feelings, and the lack of any right to speak of such things. Reading her mind, he replied, “You are still promised to Rushworth. I understand your father has formed a favorable impression of him.”
Resentment boiled in Maria’s stomach. Let her father think what he wished – he had not yet heard enough of Rushworth’s nonsense to know what he was about. “Of course it must be so,” she said with asperity. “I thought well of Rushworth when first we met.”
Henry met her eye, seeing what she meant; still he held her hand, and gave it a slow squeeze. “And now?”
She only shook her head.
He brought his hand to her face, hesitating just as his fingertips brushed her cheek. “I have gone too far already to turn back, further than a man of honor would go – but I can go no further. You must be the one to say it, if you would spare me from utter villainy.”
Maria shuddered, breaking their passionate gaze. “I wish I had met you first.”
The trace of a smile appeared on his countenance, and he cupped her face in his hand, his expression one of searching. “Maria….”
She bit her lip. “I love you. You must know it – I know you do – and I have longed to believe you feel the same, but if you go away….”
She was spared having to give voice to what would have been so unpleasant to hear; his lips came down on hers as he drew her close. Maria gave herself up to the kiss, the culmination of every secret hope she had cherished for three long months.
When finally they separated, Maria instantly ached for more, and Henry held her against him. “I will stay away only a short while, my love.”
She looked up, half agony and half hope. “You still mean to go?”
“I do have some little business at Everingham. I will go in all haste, and return in four days, perhaps five. It will be a blessing, I think, to separate briefly like this. There is something to be done before we can be together, you know.”
“And I must be the one to do it,” Maria sighed. She was filled with dread at having such an interview with her father, or worse yet, being made to encounter Mr. Rushworth again. “I will break it off; I must.”
“I hope you are right, with all my heart.” He kissed the top of her head and drew away.
She lingered in the copse until he strode out of sight, and a quarter hour afterward to compose herself, wondering at what she had done. She had effectively cast off the expectation of such wealth and consequence as Rushworth could provide, which she had always depended upon as a sweetener to the tedium of his company. It was a decision made before she had known love, or understood how much more might be had in the sort of marriage she was now inclined to desire. And now, she had left her heart in possession of a man who was not yet at liberty to promise her anything in return. When the burst of sudden, impassioned courage had left her, she began to dread what must come next, that her father would mean to force her hand, or change her mind.