When the Bertrams and the Crawfords meet for the first time, they immediately like each other. Though Maria and Julia don’t find Henry especially attractive, his charm quickly wins them over. Julia begins to think she is in love with him. Maria also finds herself drawn to Henry, but feels conflicted because she is engaged to Mr. Rushworth. Henry, who is actively flirting with both young women, rationalizes his flirtation by telling himself he means no harm, and is only trying to get them to like him.
As Henry’s charm and flirtation win Maria over, Austen shows how love, rather than being the driving force for marriage, can actually be a threat to it in the highly monetized system of marriage of 19th century England. Moreover, Henry has excellent manners, but his inner thoughts reveal that he lacks moral fiber.
After Henry and Mary dine with the Bertrams, Henry, Mrs. Grant, and Mary discuss the relative merits of each Bertram girl. Henry implies that he prefers Maria, and Mary waves him off, tells him she likes Julia best, and reminds him that Maria is engaged.
Henry Crawford clearly does not especially respect the rules of courtship and the marriage process, as shown by his willingness to go after Maria despite her engagement.
Mary considers her romantic options in the Bertram brothers, deciding she prefers Tom, since he has been to London more often and is older, and so stands to inherit his father’s title and estate. In order to try to win Tom’s favor, Mary tries to learn about horse racing, on which Tom often bets.
Unlike Henry, Mary must think about marriage more seriously, since it is her only means to gaining wealth and power. Her preference for Tom emphasizes the role of inheritance in another seemingly unrelated field: romance.
Mary is puzzled by Fanny’s reserve and lack of interest in Henry, commenting to Tom and Edmund that she does not understand whether Fanny has debuted in society yet or not (which is to say, whether she is looking for a fiancé). Edmund replies that Fanny is an adult, but that he doesn’t concern himself with questions of “outs or not outs.” They discuss debutantes at length.
The idea of debuting and the difference in behavior between women who are looking for fiancés and those who are not shows how the institution of marriage even affects women’s personalities, shaping their manners and determining who they should talk to and how.