In Praise of Fanny Price

Fanny PriceI have been doing one of my semi-regular Jane Austen re-reads. Every time I find new things: This time I was chagrinned to realize the extent to which certain film versions had overwritten Miss Austen’s original text in my mind–not necessarily to their detriment, but I was looking for a scene in Sense and Sensibility that turned out to be a clever Emma Thompson way of compacting a good deal of information. But the original Austen is still there on the page, and still smart and incisive and funny.

So far I have gone through Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Emma, and Persuasion, and I’m almost through Mansfield Park (I skip Northanger Abbey, because Catherine Morland annoys the hell out of me). I started out, as one does, loving Pride and Prejudice; then for a long time Sense and Sensibility was my favorite; then, for almost as long, Persuasion. Now it’s quite possible that I am going over to Team Mansfield Park.

This is, apparently, unusual.

The Paris Review stated that Mansfield Park was Austen’s least popular book:

Austen’s own mother reportedly found Fanny “insipid”; the critic Reginald Farrer described her as “repulsive in her cast-iron self-righteousness and steely rigidity of prejudice.” Even C.?S. Lewis—in the voice of his demon Screwtape in The Screwtape Letters—let loose a vitriolic rant about Austen’s most priggish heroine, calling her “not only a Christian, but such a Christian—a vile, sneaking, simpering, demure, monosyllabic, mouselike, watery, insignificant, virginal, bread-and-butter miss … A two-faced little cheat (I know the sort) who looks as if she’d faint at the sight of blood, and then dies with a smile … Filthy, insipid little prude!”

Wow, that’s a little over the top, don’t you think, Clive?

Okay, I get it. Fanny is physically delicate, shy, easily overwhelmed. She doesn’t have her cousins’ robust physical health, and she certainly doesn’t have their robust egos. She’s meek and self-effacing (though I don’t think she simpers once, thank you very much). But do you blame her? Here’s a child who, at the age of ten, is sent to live with her very privileged cousins. Her aunt Norris (and to a lesser extent her uncle Sir Thomas) are determined to make the distinction between Maria and Julia and Tom and Edmund (the cousins) and Fanny’s charity-case self. She’s constantly reminded of it, and of the fact that she can’t (and shouldn’t) expect to be treated the same way. She’s physically slight and easily overwhelmed (I suspect nutritional issues and an anxiety disorder, but can’t find any textual evidence to prove it), and initially she’s academically and socially way behind her cousins. It might be satisfying to see the worm turn, the mouse face down the cat, and so forth. That’s bread and butter in a 21st century YA novel. but in Austen-land, where class suffuses everything so deeply that it’s hardly necessary to mention it, it would be hard to make it believable.

Like the Bertram girls, Fanny studies with a governess. But her real teacher, the one who informs her tastes and her heart, is her cousin Edmund. And Edmund, destined for the Church, is a prig. He’s kind to Fanny; he’s really the only one who sees, and values, Fanny for who she is. Everyone else sees only her utility, the perfect poor-relation who can be counted upon to fetch a shawl or stay tactfully home so there won’t be an odd number at the dinner party. Her frankly loathsome Aunt Norris sees her as someone further down the class scale whom she can bully without fear of repercussion. It’s no wonder Fanny loves Edmund, who encourages her to explore literature and history, who talks about religion and principles and right thought–who treats her as if she were intelligent which, as it happens, she is.

Look, I had a serious crush in 6th grade on a kid who held the door for me (because I wasn’t used to people being, um, nice to me at school). I totally get Fanny seeing Edmund as a combination of Parfit Gentil Knight and Moral Arbiter. About the only thing that saves Edmund from being an irredeemable prig is that he falls in love with Mary Crawford, whose moral compass is–shall we say–variable. For once Edmund’s rectitude abandons him and he is blinded by, and led around by parts of himself he would ordinarily not admit to owning. He sees Mary’s witty, shiny, beautiful, feckless self and tries to believe that deep down she’s got the same sort of moral center as Fanny–in a sense, the woman Edmund created. It’s hardly surprising that when Mary displays her lack of moral base, Edmund recoils. At that point it’s inevitable that he’ll back to Fanny.

A lot of people think of Jane Austen as a “romance writer,” a notion that would very likely have made her head explode just a little bit. But, as Austen herself said, she wrote of “love and money.” And class. Austen writes about class all the time. Elizabeth Bennet’s comment to Lady Catherine de Bourgh that Darcy “is a gentleman and I am a gentleman’s daughter” is quite correct. They may be at different ends of the “gentleman spectrum”*–he’s got relatives in the peerage, and centuries of economic and class privilege behind him, and she’s got “inferior connections:” relatives in trade–but they in terms of class they are equals. Sir Walter Elliot may regard himself as the very model of a modern country baronet… but he can’t suck up fast enough to his cousin the viscountess. Fanny Price, whose mother married beneath her, is introduced to a world very different from her own when she moves to Mansfield Park.

Fanny Price has good reason for being the person she is. And she continues as that person despite pressure from within and without her family. For a woman constitutionally skittish and anxious as she is, that in itself is heroic. It’s nice that she gets the guy in the end. It’s nicer that she does so without having to become a Mary Crawford or a Maria Bertram.

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In Praise of Fanny Price — 25 Comments

  1. “The day which dismissed the music-master was one of the happiest of Catherine’s life.” I fell in love with Catherine before being two pages into NA, and I respectfully suggest a re-read. I do wish we had seen more of her as a baseball-loving tomboy, but I did appreciate the defense of novel as literary form. Also, in a sense it’s a gently mocking fan-fiction, the equivalent of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies except it’s the zombies she’s making fun of.

    Back to Mansfield Park: it is my personal opinion that JK Rowling likes this novel, and that the choice of naming one of her characters Mrs Norris was a tribute to what Austen always did best, namely the vilains.

    It is also my personal opinion that Henry Crawford looks and sounds exactly like Dominic Cooper.

  2. I hope you’ll reread Northanger Abbey, which I believe Austen was rewriting when she got ill. The first half is brilliant, alive with satire, and with a marvelous defense of novels embedded in it. The second half is fun, but essentially a one-joke book that I think reflects the early Austen.

    Catherine, I think, is a riff on Lennox’s The Female Quixote but much smarter and more fun.

    Re Mansfield, I agree–I wrote a long review that defends Fanny and discusses the problematical ending.

  3. I always loved Fanny Price. I do wish Edmund was less of a prig… and sometimes I wish that Fanny had chosen Henry Crawford, and that we could see him changing himself because of Fanny — a long and difficult road, but an interesting one. But Mansfield Park is probably my third favorite of the Austens.

    (And I never liked Catherine Morland either.)

    • If Fanny had chosen Henry Crawford, wouldn’t the book have become a “man saved by love of a good woman” narrative?

      Actually, given Sir Thomas, I’m only surprised that Edmund is less of a prig than he could have turned out. I really do like Harold Pinter’s portrayal of Sir Thomas in the 1999 movie–all charm and parental authority layered over dark.

      • You have a good point, which never occurred to me. I was looking at it as a possible growth in maturity for Henry, but also a possible growth in maturity for Fanny.

        I can see why Edmund appeals to Fanny, but I also see a Pygmalion trope in it — he’s built her character to be the perfect female of his reading. {And I have a strong dislike for Pygmalion themes, which is bizarre, since I have used them repeatedly in writing}. I would have liked to see all four of the love quartet accustoming themselves to a partner who was different than their idealized partner.

        However, I am very fond of Mansfield Park, and Fanny as the neglected and abused child is the interpretation I’ve usually given it. Of course she loves Edmund; why wouldn’t she? He’s the only person in her life who sees her as a person and treats her as one.

  4. I also wish that Fanny had found it in herself to select Henry. It cannot bode well, this marriage of first cousins. Fanny herself is not exactly Xena the Warrior Princess; her children by Edmund cannot going to be prime specimens. She would have done better to breed out.
    There is an entire hidden subtext, about the foundation of the Bertram fortune: slavery, on the sugar plantations of Jamaica.

  5. CS Lewis admired Fanny. It’s his devil figure that hates her simply because she is, in Lewis’s mind, so admirable.

    • The Screwtape Letters are in the first person. Cute at first, then very tedious because the demon is so petty. As, I suppose, demons tend to be.

  6. For a long time Emma was my most preferred Austen, but some time ago already Mansfield Park displaced Emma. Much of that is likely due to the portraits and explorations of class and gender, moral and ethical behaviors, all within family connections.

    However Emma remains the most intricately, impeccably plotted of Austen’s titles, because it is that. After multiple re-reads one sometimes loses awareness of how intricate and impeccable it is, because one is so familiar with all the twists and turns. Emma’s self-revelations reflect the reveals of all the members of the Highbury community.

    By the way this map of Highbury environs is a delight:

    http://www.jasna.org/persuasions/on-line/vol36no1/gay.html

  7. Btw + — The Bertrams’ West Indies plantation isn’t on Jamaica, but Antigua, one of the Leeward islands. It’s also the island from which came that most angry of female writers, Jamaica Kincaid. Now it’s fortunes are made from off shore banking, harboring tax evasion accounts of corps and the other preposterously wealthy.

  8. My favorite Austen has always been Sense and Sensibility (because I love Elinor Dashwood), but I’m also fond of Emma. But you all have almost convinced me to read Mansfield Park. Mad and Foxessa’s descriptions make me think the undercurrent in that book might make it worthwhile.

    I have trouble reading Austen, despite the fact that her work is so brilliant, because the life and culture she depicts so well makes me so angry. (And I’ve never been fond of Pride and Prejudice because I can’t stand Darcy.)

    • Oh, that’s fascinating! Why don’t you like Darcy? {I mean, I don’t like him at first, but he grows on me.}

      • I probably overstated my dislike of Darcy a bit, because I do not comprehend all the modern women who swoon over him. (Swooning over the actors who’ve played him I can more or less understand.) Certainly he has the good sense to eventually recognize that Elizabeth would make a good wife — despite the “deficiencies” of her birth — and part of that is because he values her intelligence and ability to hold her own with him. And, of course, it is the best possible marriage for her, because their relationship makes it interesting and the other choices were dreadful.

        But he is such an example of pompous upper class male privilege, so condescending, so obsessed with protecting himself and his legacy from inferior people that he irritates me even when he’s realizing what a catch Lizzie is. Yes, I know that’s a modern interpretation, but Austen, by writing about a class-ridden society in which the best option for most women is marriage to someone with enough money who is decent to them, makes me so grateful I was born in a different time and place.

        Or maybe it’s just this simple: I can’t imagine wanting to marry Mr. Darcy.

        • I agree with Nancy — I don’t like Darcy either. He’s a prig, and the fact that he realizes he screwed up big time doesn’t really change that as far as I’m concerned.

          I understand why Elizabeth accepts him, given the her available appalling alternatives (and is the scene in which she realizes “I could have been mistress of all this” in the novel, or am I remembering the line from one of the filmed versions?), but how can anybody with any self-respect *and any other path* (which she did not have) ever speak to the SOB again after what he said to her?

          That is to say, I understand why things play out the way they do in the novel. I even understand why Austen has Darcy say *out loud* his awful comments — otherwise she would have had to treat POV with Dickens-like abandon. But anybody with any manners might think what he says, but *keep their big mouth shut on the subject.*

          So I still think Darcy is an inexcusable prig.

          V.

          • He is, however, self-aware, which makes all the difference. He claims (and I believe it) that he was not well brought up, the pride and priggishness instilled by his parents and, doubtless, the redoubtable Lady Catherine. He demonstrates a willingness to change, and (as Lizzie’s aunt says) if he marries -prudently- many of his faults will be fixed by Lizzie herself.

          • I have never been able to shake off my distaste that Elizabeth’s reversal on Darcy was first shown by “I could have been mistress of all this.” I saw it as an error, a major error, because she didn’t first soften to him as a man. But that is me, as a contemporary woman, wanting something that clearly ran counter to what Austen was telling us?

            And I frankly don’t remember the point that Darcy was a gentleman and Elizabeth a gentleman’s daughter was made–that instead of the great distance between them, there was, after all, none.

            It’s worth pondering.

        • Reading Pride and Prejudice this time I was looking for something I’d always brought to the text, and that the newish P&P film (the one with Keira Knightly and Matthew McFadyen) does. It isn’t just that Darcy is a snob (at a period of snobbery) or that he’s been brought up to value his position in a way that makes no sense to us. It’s also that he’s shy. He hides behind manners as a way to defuse public situations with people he doesn’t know. As he starts to know Elizabeth (when she’s staying at Netherfield when Jane is ill) he starts to be more cordial–but she’s not having any.

          Darcy can learn, and does. If he were unable to learn and change, and be horrified by his own behavior, he’d been Lady Catherine deBourgh without a skirt.

          • Here is what I hate about that film. Every other telling of P&P I have read or seen makes it so clear that Darcy is an arrogant ass–or so he seems, even though he tells her [and us] that he is not at ease among strangers. Darcy’s arrogance is so much a part of his character that we have to finally get past–that I resented that the Matthew McFayden version just spelled it out for us from the beginning. I felt it was a betrayal of canon.

  9. The section that clinches Mansfield Park for me is when Fanny is turned out of it and returns to the family she’s not seen in years, with the exception of her dearest brother. (This brother is another reason Fanny cleaves to Edmund; he respects her and treats her kindly, as her beloved brother did / does.)

    The conditions of her family’s life, led by hard-drinking father, a lieutenant in the marine’s, on shore half-pay, as at the moment the Napoleonic wars at sea are more quiescent, are equal to anything written by George Eliot, though with a bite of comic sensibility of which perhaps Eliot possessed less. Fanny takes over and slowly starts making some order out of the family chaos, and does so with tact and respect. She even admits to herself, that of the three Price sisters, her unpleasant Aunt Norris would have done far better in running such a household as her mother’s than her mother has, or that Mrs. Bertram could. That Fanny can begin pulling order out of this chaotic life that is organized, if organized at all around the Royal navy, is due in no little to the training she received from her Aunt Norris.

    Mansfield Park is an amazing achievement all the way around. Is there really any other novel like it?

  10. The issue of perspective is also interesting. Fanny views that whole awful summer when Henry flirts desperately with both Bertram sisters while Mary looks on with amusement and Edmund is falling in love with Mary… from below, socially. She is disregarded, she is unnoticed, and in her mild, anxious way, she is an utterly clear-eyed witness.

    On the other hand, if the activities of the summer and the whole mess of the play were viewed from the perspective of the participants, it’s a farce. Mrs. Norris, who should know better, approves of what’s going on because her darlings, the Bertram children, are involved; Lady Bertram is too inert to have a real sense of what’s going on (and without Sir Thomas to guide her, I’m not sure she has the principles to object). So imagine this without Fanny’s anxious perspective, with some sprightly music in the background, and it’s a farce.

    Which would be a different book, of course.