Scoundrels and (unintended) literary crushes

One of the best things about reading or watching fiction is that you can stop whenever you’d like without worrying about whether or not you’re denying reality. Say you’re watching an adaptation of one of your favorite books. Obviously you have your favorite characters, and you know to never fall for the villain’s tricks. Except maybe this villain was a bit too charming, even more charming than one of the heroes. You know how this person is going to ruin everything, but in the moment, they’re being so nice that you can’t bear the idea of their duplicity being discovered. You have an unintended literary crush, so you shut the book and turn off the laptop so you can pretend for another few weeks in real time that fictional characters in fictional time are frozen in “niceness” forever.

I’m talking about Henry Crawford, the womanizer of Mansfield Park.

This is the guy who attaches himself to a household, flirts with two sisters (one of whom is engaged), and then decides to woo and break the heart of the one girl who’s not interested. He likes the challenge of getting the one person who’s genuinely a nice person. He thinks broken hearts are his personal service to society.

I will not do her any harm, dear little soul! only want her to look kindly on me, to give me smiles as well as blushes, to keep a chair for me by herself wherever we are, and be all animation when I take it and 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.

We know from the start that Henry is a horrible person, and we see him try (and fail) to woo Fanny.

The webseries adaptation, From Mansfield with Love, showed the contrast between Frankie’s goodness and Henry’s… badness. He went skinny dipping with an engaged girl and flirted in front of her fiancé. Really, he just liked flirting, and he caused a rift in a relationship between sisters.

I had no problem with hating him when he was a jerk, but once he started befriending Frankie, I got confused. He showed vulnerability and a heart below his shallow little mind. He borrowed Frankie’s books so he could pretend to like her favorites, but then he confessed to learning poetry so he could learn eloquence. As he fell for Frankie, he began to act less like the scoundrel and more like a decent guy. Wait, no. He wasn’t acting, he started to change. Frankie’s goodness melted Henry’s heart.

I took a FMWL break after watching Frankie reject his job/relationship offer. She was right to reject him; nothing is worth depending on the strength of a guy’s crush to get and keep a job. She was right, yet I know what happens next. Henry is going to return to his old ways and break up Rhea’s marriage. He’s going to prove that people don’t change and poetry isn’t a good reason for a crush.

Apparently I’m more shallow than I thought. Or maybe social norms and cultural conventions play a bigger part in literary crushes than I had realized. 19th century flirting can be summed up as “dancing, tea, and home renovations.” It’s hard to feel like Henry’s really trying that hard to make Fanny fall in love with him when you’re reading about his actions through Fanny’s prejudiced and uninterested lens. On a vlog, though, you actually watch him pursue her, and you have the opportunity make your own decisions about the character. Henry’s 21st century flirting is “poetry, drawing, and garden giggles.” Okay, maybe it’s more of the stereotypical romancing, but those things are typically considered more romantic today.

A scoundrel is a scoundrel because people believe them. The inside never changes, but the ways they woo and the ways they flirt can adapt over 200 years. It’s sad because I want to believe that people are good and kind, but that’s not always true. Thank goodness for fiction, then. Close the Youtube tab, and the scoundrel never returns to his old ways.

I believe in you, Henry Crawford. In an alternate (fictional) universe, you’ll be the charming architect who has chosen goodness over roguishness. One day, you might win Frankie’s heart, but even if you don’t, you will be sincere. And good. Forever.

Never change [back], Henry Crawford. I believe in you.

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