Mitt as a Jane Austen Villain

Over the past year I have compared Mitt Romney to a range of literary characters in an attempt to figure him out. (A list can be found at the end of this post.) As I was teaching Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park yesterday, I found another one that fits: Henry Crawford.

Henry is a stylish and charming Regency rake born to privilege who enjoys toying with women’s affections. He manages to break the hearts of the two Bertram sisters but then surprises everyone by proposing marriage to their poor half sister Fanny Price, the book’s heroine. Of course, Romney is neither stylish, nor charming, nor promiscuous so there’s no similarity there. But both he and Crawford are noteworthy for their lack of constancy and for their readiness to say anything at a moment’s notice.

I started comparing Romney to Crawford after noting the way that he flummoxed Obama in last week’s debate, which was not unlike the way he threw his Republican opponents off stride in the primaries. Romney dazzles by his readiness to take unexpected positions, many of which his staff must retract afterwards. Crawford, meanwhile, dazzles by the way he reads Shakespeare aloud.

Crawford is a brilliant reader of the bard, but it’s clear that he is all about performance, not about substance. We see this impression confirmed by a conversation he later has with Edmund Bertram, who is preparing for the ministry. Henry is imagining himself as a clergyman but not because he wants to save souls. No, Henry just likes the idea of delivering captivating sermons.

Romney too plays fast and loose with words. To give a recent example, William Saletan of Slate and Amy Henderson of The New Republic both commented on Romney’s “weaselly” language in an interview Tuesday when he said, “There’s no legislation with regards to abortion that I’m familiar with that would become part of my agenda.” He backpedaled the following day, but Henderson writes of his initial statement,

That sort of blanket cynicism blinds people to just how outrageously shameless and morally hollow Romney is willing to be. It’s gotten so bad that the following rule is no exaggeration: If Romney’s lips are moving and he’s talking about abortion, he is lying.

Although everyone else in Mansfield Park is captivated by Crawford’s wealth and easy manner and regards his proposal as a real coup for Fanny, she sees through the rake and rejects him. She also bridles at his smug sense of entitlement, how he just assumes she’ll come around. Crawford, however is not deterred and becomes as fixated on Fanny as Romney is on the presidency, less because he’s in love with her than with what she represents. He can imagine himself as magnanimous if he marries her, rescuing her from her Cinderella-like existence and showing up her insensitive cousins. With Romney, meanwhile, it’s as though he’s more interested in the ego boost of being president than in using the power to fulfill a vision.

Regarding similarities with debater Romney, one sees how quick on his feet Crawford is when he starts courting Fanny. Every time she says anything and even when she responds with a simple shake of her head, he is all over her, figuring out what she is thinking and fashioning an appropriate response. When he realizes that she considers him an inconstant man, he turns even that to his advantage, telling her that she will be the angel who will reform him and promising her that he will win her love by being constant.

It’s a bit like what blogger Andrew Sullivan says of the businessman Romney:

He’ll do or say anything for 51 percent market share, after which it’s Etch-A-Sketch again.

As it turns out, Crawford doesn’t live up to his promise: the interval between his vows and the fling he has with Fanny’s married cousin is almost as short as that between Romney making a firm declaration and saying just the opposite. Crawford is exposed before the election—excuse me, before he manages to convince Fanny to accept him—and she is saved from what in all probability would be an unhappy marriage. (I imagine it would resemble a cross between the General Tilney marriage in Northanger Abbey and the Sir Walter Elliott marriage in Persuasion.)

Austen makes it clear that Crawford’s faults are the faults of the age. He has been raised in the era of the dissolute Prince Regent George (later George IV) and, as a result, lacks the moral grounding that would make him a good man. There’s a sense that his potential has been wasted, just as Willoughby’s potential is wasted in Sense and Sensibility. He has been spoiled by the times.

Likewise, I can imagine Romney as once having been a man of integrity, but he has been so twisted by the need to please the extreme right that he no longer knows what he believes. Republicans with deeper principles were either weeded out early or wisely chose not to run, and as a result the GOP ended up choosing a candidate that practically no body likes or trusts.

As Henderson writes of Romney at the end of her article,

Like everyone, I would rather not be governed by a president whose convictions are contrary to my own. But I’m terrified of being governed by a president who doesn’t have any moral convictions at all.


Past posts about Romney, describing him as

–Marlowe’s Faustus

Chauncey Gardener, Holden Caulfield, and Oakland (“no there there”)

Alice (in Wonderland)

Richard Cory, Tom Buchanan, Eliot’s Hollow Men, Kurtz, Holden again, and a Philip Pullman character with a chameleon as his daemon

–Belloc’s Matilda (who told lies and was burned to death)

Jack in Lord of the Flies and the Baron in Rape of the Lock

Tom Buchanan again

Citizen Kane

Hemingway’s dead leopard in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro”

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  • Mary

    The thought of having General Tilney for President frankly fills me with dread. Henry Crawford at least had a conscience.
    “We may fairly consider a man of sense, like Henry Crawford, to be providing for himself no small portion of vexation and regret: vexation that must rise sometimes to self–reproach, and regret to wretchedness, in having so requited hospitality, so injured family peace, so forfeited his best, most estimable, and endeared acquaintance, and so lost the woman whom he had rationally as well as passionately loved.
    General Tilney is never wrong in his own eyes.

  • Robin Bates

    Mary, I was in the midst of teaching Mansfield Park when I wrote my post and started rethinking it a bit along your lines as I finished the book. Yes, Henry does have a conscience and it is almost tragic the way that his life of self-indulgence leads him to flirt with Maria when (so the author informs us) he could have ended up with Fanny. So I withdraw my comment about him becoming a General Tilney. Nor is he like the Romney that Maureen Dowd described in a column today: “Mitt may have made so many compromises to get the prize that he doesn’t have a true self anymore. And that’s the scariest thought of all.”

    I hadn’t realized what a romantic that Jane Austen is–I think that she believes that, married to Fanny, Henry would have learned that virtue is its own reward. Fanny, unlike some of the women who say yes to weak men (Mrs. Tilney, Mrs. Elliot) has so much backbone that she wouldn’t have accepted Crawford until he demonstrated that he was truly ready to change.

    I am less optimistic about Mary Crawford–but then again, she never finds anyone with as much substance as Edmund, so maybe she would have learned to appreciate the soulful life that he offers her. But unlike Fanny, he’s not willing to negotiate as hard before the marriage and so might end up with a perpetually discontented wife. But I go back and forth on this.

    General Tilney–there’s one cold, cold man. A true Ann Radcliffe villain. You’re right, Henry is no Tilney. Does Romney have Tilney’s mean streak? He doesn’t seem to, but, on the other hand, he had little compunction about firing their workers (or taking away their pensions) to make a profit.

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