Mansfield Park, Wildfell Hall, Lord Byron, and Me: A Reflection On Inspiration and Influence
Though Jane Austen could never have known it at the time of writing, I can’t help but find (unwitting on Austen’s part) parallels between characters in Mansfield Park and real life scandalous figures in the Regency Era and Victorian Era.
In 1814, Jane Austen published Mansfield Park. However, in that same year, famed poet and public persona Lord Byron married Anna Isabella Milbanke (she liked to be called Annabella). The two had met in 1812 and he proposed in 1813, but she refused him. Remember, this would have happened in the same period of time that Austen was writing Mansfield Park and perhaps she heard rumors of Byron being rejected and incorporated them into her latest novel. The idea of a pious and virtuous young woman rejecting the advances of a charming rake makes up the last act of Mansfield Park, where Henry Crawford can be seen as a stand-in for a Lord Byron-esque character, while Fanny Price is an impoverished version of Annabella.
Lovable rouges were in style and would continue to spike in popularity due to the Byronic hero, a favorite trope of two of the Bronte sisters, Charlotte and Emily. This archetype is still popular now (look at all of the romance novels featuring reformed playboys and the many Austen readers that think Fanny should have chosen Henry over Edmund.)
There are some interesting parallels between the two couples. Byron made his intentions of marriage known to Annabella’s aunt, who told her niece of his offer. In Mansfield Park, Henry proposes through Fanny’s uncle, whom Fanny feels indebted to, thus changing the playing field dramatically.
While Henry attempts to woo Fanny again after she has rejected him, he soon becomes restless and moves on to committing adultery with Fanny’s very married cousin Maria, which breaks off any hope of romance between Henry and Fanny and then Henry and Maria when he callously rejects the later after ruining her.
Annabella, however, was not so fortunate. She did not have the same resilience as Fanny did and eventually accepted Lord Byron after his second proposal, believing it was her Christian duty to marry him. She, like so many other unfortunate women, believed that she could “change him.”
Lord Byron fell on hard times and with that came the drinking and the anger and many humiliating affairs. Their marriage became emotionally distant and mentally abusive. Annabella started to fear for her husband’s sanity. The couple separated after not even two years of marriage.
Byron died in 1824, never seeing his wife or child again. Annabella went on to better things: she became involved with many social causes, even becoming a vocal critic of slavery and calling for its abolition. Yet today Byron is remembered and Annabella is not because while Byron’s poetry has lasted through the ages, Annabella’s work is a shadow, felt on through her influence on others.
Annabella shared her abolitionist beliefs with her friend, the American writer Harriet Beecher Stowe (infamous in America for publishing Uncle Tom’s Cabin which was highly critical of slavery and helped bring its injustices to the public eye). Stowe later wrote about Annabella and Byron’s marriage, which exposed Byron’s less admirable qualities (such as sleeping with his half-sister and nearly any other woman he could get his hands on).
Part of what makes Annabella memorable today, apart from her failed marriage, is her intelligence. Annabella had a particularly great education for a woman at the time, so much so that she developed a love of mathematics and science. Her daughter Ada would inherit her mother’s love of mathematics and is now famous for her work with Charles Babbage’s precursor to a computer, earning her a place in history as the first computer programmer (before the computer as we know it was even built). While the fictional Fanny Price had less of an education, showing a devotion to reading more than math, it is fun to imagine her daughter becoming a mathematic or scientific genius!
Jane Austen published Mansfield Park before Byron and Annabella married and then their subsequent estrangement, so she might have been only loosely inspired by Byron’s (then rejected) initial proposal. But another famous English writer was certainly inspired by the failed marriage in its entirety, which became the basis for another underrated but important English novel—Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.
Bronte’s novel is notable for being one of the first realistic portraits of an abusive relationship. Her Helen Graham (a stand in for Annabella who is just as virtuous and morally strong as Fanny Price) did stand up for herself and finally slammed the door in her husband’s face, a slam that reverberated throughout literature long before Henrik Ibsen’s Nora from A Doll’s House slams the door on her own unhappy marriage. While Fanny never literally slammed the door in Henry’s face, her loud and clear declaration of “Never, never, never” is just as impactful. After all, Fanny Price is not one to “act,” as she admits earlier in the novel.
The ties between the Byron’s unhappy marriage and Henry Crawford’s failed courtship with Fanny Price might seen tenuous compared to the strong bond between the Byron’s marriage and Bronte’s Wildfell Hall. Still, it is likely that Austen was inspired by the latest news and gossip of her day the way modern writers are influenced by our generation’s latest news. A writer can’t help but be influenced by the world around them and I doubt Jane Austen was an exception to this rule.