Mousy, Monstrous Fanny Price
Jane Austen takes this misunderstood heroine from cry-baby to conqueror
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Hope your world is beautiful right now - and that you have the energy and curiosity to walk with us again into the depths and corridors of the stately and sinister Mansfield Park. Thanks for staying with us as we traverse these halls!
And today it’s: all about Fanny Price.
This might be the least-loved of Austen’s heroines today. Austen famously spoke of Emma, the heroine she created right after Mansfield Park, as a heroine “no one but myself will much like.” But for many of us Emma might be easier to like than Fanny. Emma is, after all, “clever, handsome, and rich” - and Fanny is at first uneducated, miserable, unloved and, yes friends, she cries an awful lot (has anyone else noticed this?)
Today, it’s Fanny that is hard to love.
But I think we can do something about this, thanks to the late great critic Nina Auerbach who, writing in the 1980s and reprinted in Claudia Johnson’s Norton Critical Edition of Mansfield Park, compared our dear Fanny to Frankenstein’s - or Mary Shelley’s - Monster.
So how does Fanny Price go from mousy to monstrous? Let us count the ways.
Fanny Price, The Outsider
First, as Nina Auerbach points out, Fanny is an outsider. She’s alienated, as Auerbach observes. And this alienation puts her in an extreme, nothing-to-lose position with us from the start.
Have you ever wondered why Fanny cries so bloody much?! When it comes to Austen heroes, you have the dignity and resolve of heroines like Elizabeth, Anne, and Elinor; and then you have Fanny - constantly turning on the water works.
Call it outlandish, friends, but I’m going to raise Nina Auerbach one - and suggest that Fanny is crying because she is a monster. Not of course a literal monster, but because Austen can’t make Fanny rage and curse and scream her way through the proceedings, what she does instead is have Fanny cry herself a river - and the proceedings are unsocial and monstrous.
The crying, in a way, dehumanizes her.
Because Fanny doesn’t melt just into her tears, she bawls and weeps uncontrollably and usually without even trying to hide or halt her tears. It’s one more way she’s alienated and just not like the rest of them.
Student conquers teacher, monster conquers creator
Another way Austen effects Fanny’s transformation is through her - and this is a favorite theme of Austen - education. In Austen, building up those inner reserves of information, intelligence, astuteness, and manners, can provide a girl with armor, and in Mansfield Park, Fanny’s education is the key to her growing power. She will use it to upend the established order of things.
Fanny arrives ignorant, embarrassed that she can’t find something on the map, and is rescued and schooled by the kind Edmund.
But, it doesn't take long for Austen to completely turn the tables - in a process so studied and gradual that it appears very relentless, haunting even.
There are a couple of scenes where Edmund seeks out Fanny’s opinions, most notably about Mary Crawford, particularly after Mary’s dinner-time indiscretions.
Edmund is clever, and he condescendingly praises Fanny for her own worthy opinions on Mary Crawford’s character, simultaneously taking the role of educator and also getting Mary’s character completely wrong. But despite the condescension, Fanny starts being right - about Mary, about theatrics. About literally everything.
The lurching forward of this upward trajectory occurs during the theatrics. Even though she remains outside the process, stubbornly refusing to participate, it’s Fanny whom all the lost souls wandering around Mansfield Park want to rehearse with - and she memorizes and masters all of their lines better than they themselves. At this point, already: She’s better. She’s superior. And she’s the judge of this chaotic underworld.
Tyrannic, beyond control, a miracle in every way
But in a foreshadowing of the chaos to come, the “actors” of these theatrics also complain about each other.
Those lost souls are wandering about, dismantling Mansfield Park, and while enacting a charade about love, they are beginning to hate each other. This is funny, but only slightly - it’s actually pretty sinister, and you feel that. This is just not as much fun as Austen usually brings.
At this point, it’s Mary Crawford and Edmund who appear to be the smartest people in the room - and we’ve discussed in a previous letter, in Austen it’s the two smartest people in the room who find each other and live happily ever after.
But soon, in her race to the top, Fanny has easily passed up even Mary, who strikes me as rare in Austen as being an anti-hero who is as astute and lively and admirable as the heroes, and maybe more so.
When everyone is out of town, Fanny and Mary begin a friendship that is warmer on Mary’s side. This cleverest and worldly of characters, Mary, is pursuing friendship with Fanny - another push on her upward trajectory. Fanny and Mary take a turn in the gardens at Mary’s sister’s house, where Fanny is sent into a revery about how nature can effect transformation, in a treatise on nature that could easily be about herself. Check it out:
“How wonderful, how very wonderful the operations of time,” Fanny reflects, “and the changes of the human mind! … The memory is sometimes so retentive, so serviceable, so obedient - at others, so bewildered and so weak - and at others again, so tyrannic, so beyond controul! - We are sure to be a miracle every way ..”
Here Austen has decided to place words like tyranny and obedience, bewilderment and weakness, into a reverie about a garden.
Meanwhile Mary’s own response - clever, worldly, on-top-of-things Mary: She is “untouched and inattentive, had nothing to say …”
Fanny is an intellectual, sensual critic; Mary has nothing. Fanny is slaying Mary.
Those lost souls are wandering about, dismantling Mansfield Park, and while enacting a charade about love, they are beginning to hate each other.
Mary slain, Fanny must grow in stature enough to catch up and pass up Edmund. Monster must overpower creator.
There are so many instances of Edmund educating Fanny in the early parts of the novel, and then so many instances of that table being turned and Fanny becoming the wiser and more astute - about Maria’s follies, about Mary’s shallowness - that I won’t cherry pick them all here. But this switching of places between Fanny and Edmund in wisdom and education is central to the story.
But let’s save Edmund for the end.
For now we can say that: Midway through the novel, Fanny is already schooling everyone.
The only one left to overpower with our new-found armor is Sir Thomas himself, landlord of Mansfield Park as well as an Antigua plantation that could also be tied to the horrors of the slave trade. This is a big mountain to climb. But climb it we must.
Sir Thomas is a benevolent dictator, correct? Those words mean something, and we choose them carefully.
Here comes the clash - and it occurs, of course, over Henry Crawford’s proposal. And in this clash, while maintaining the benevolent-benefactor role, Sir Thomas exhibits a power backed up not only by patriarchy but also by empire and the very structures of Mansfield Park - a power that makes us, first, awed and then, wary.
After benevolently giving a ball in her honor, he tells Fanny, in the presence of her suitor, to go to bed, and she goes - but not without the narrator reflecting on why that would be, and reminding us that though it was “advice,” it was the advice of “absolute power.” Why does Austen and her narrator feel it necessary to deconstruct a simple command to go to bed? We are being asked, friends, to notice both the benevolence and the power that comes with it - notice the power exchange - both in proceedings at home and perhaps elsewhere too.
It’s only with the powerful, charming Henry Crawford’s proposal, and Fanny’s refusal of him, that Sir Thomas is shocked by this once-timid girl, now a woman who stands before him. And his shock leads to a reflection and a reverie in an attempt for him to understand her rebellion and explain it:
Sir Thomas’s reflections on Fanny’s situation in his house could be read as a metaphor for England and its subjects, for colonialism itself (I’m assuming others have pointed this out - please point us to other discussions of this!), as he tells Fanny:
“You will take in the whole of the past, you will consider times, persons, and probabilities, and you will feel that they were not least your friends who were educating and preparing you for that mediocrity of condition which seemed to be your lot. - Though their caution may prove eventually unnecessary, it was kindly meant; and of this you may be assured, that every advantage of affluence will be doubled by the little privations and restrictions that may have been imposed.”
Talk about micro-aggressions - Fanny is being told, and many of us, readers, will relate - whatever insults you’ve suffered at the hands of those above you, it’s all being handed down for your own good and for the good of our traditions, our way as we know it, so bear with us. Our intentions are good. History will bear it out. But, will it?
Hang on though, very soon in this novel no one will be handing down anything to Fanny - because she will come out on top.
From marginalized, to Center of Attention
One thing that upends the established order of Mansfield Park is simple: Fanny merely grows up. The ascendence occurs not just around her but through her very body. She becomes smarter, taller, more beautiful, and stronger of character, a character based on strong principles (but as usual in Austen, not necessarily the principles followed by society), while those around her such as the Bertram sisters become unmoored in their morals and character, and frankly become more boring, finally leave Mansfield Park, so that Fanny is by default the princess of the house.
Even where it adheres to the traditional Courtship plot, still three-fifths into the novel, a transformation has occurred. Fanny has metamorphosed from a lonely, neglected child who doesn’t even warrant a fire in her rooms, to being the most needed and desired and frankly the center of attention.
First, she becomes the object of Henry Crawford, who proposes to her - and his love grows in proportion to the firmness of her refusal.
Then of course Fanny becomes the object of Sir Thomas’s attention and focus when he attempts to persuade her to accept Henry Crawford, and finally as Edmund joins in this campaign.
Add that to the fact that Lady Bertram desperately needs her, and Aunt Norris despises her even more, and basically in the last quarter of the novel everyone is thinking all the time about the formerly invisible Fanny Price.
At this point, friends, our dear Fanny is gaining her strength. And gathering her rage.
Austen gives us this subtext with her actual words: Fanny’s humiliations, her invisibility, her loneliness, her pain caused by the existence of Mary Crawford and her love for Edmund, is smoldering under the surface, with rage, pain and desire.
The only sexy moment in Mansfield
We interrupt this horror show for a brief romantic interlude: Enter Henry Crawford.
Through Henry we have what may be the most romantic, singularly sexy moment in the book. And when it arrives we realize that Fanny, even while living in the chaos of her humble home in Portsmouth, has indeed ascended to something.
By the time Fanny is in Portsmouth, a specter in the “dusk,” unnoticed and “undiscovered” by her neglectful parents, in turn she has actually conquered. She is doted on by her brother William - who helps place her in the center, now becoming a naval officer, an essential member of the Mansfield Park family.
And now here comes Henry - gallant and arresting and assertively in pursuit. And, even to Fanny’s mind, Henry is “much improved.”
This is as romantic as Mansfield Park gets, friends.
Henry is becoming - has become, if only briefly, before being “slain” truly by conqueror Fanny - “much improved.” She’s improved him. She’s made him want to try better, and he’s done so.
Now, walking in Portsmouth with her father and her sister nearby, Henry sees her well and truly. He watches her, and notices she’s not well in Portsmouth. (She’s as “bewitching” as ever, he notices, but less “blooming.”) He observes that she needs, desires, and deserves better. He urges her to call him immediately when she wants to remove from Portsmouth.
Here’s the passage that is the one and only sexy moment of this novel, when Henry Crawford insists that she call him when she’s ready to head back to Mansfield Park, and to make it soon:
“Fanny thanked him, but tried to laugh it off.”
“I am perfectly serious,” - he replied, -”as you perfectly know.”
That’s it, friends. Fanny has slain everyone around her, and is about to kill off Henry too - but first, for a brief moment, they connect. He is improved. He sees her. He has the power to make her life better. And she sees him back, though she tries to laugh it off and he doesn’t let her.
While Austen pretends to give us the traditional marriage plot, she actually gives it only to take it away from us. It too must be destroyed with the embers of Mansfield Park.
So Fanny returns to Mansfield Park, without Henry, without anyone, and we see this Great House in all its outward glory, in beautiful Romantic passages of nostalgia and return that make you love England.
But inside the walls of Mansfield Park, under the surface, Fanny returns to what Nina Auerbach calls a “terrifyingly malleable world.” It’s malleable throughout; and it’s decimated, tamed, at the end.
Jane Austen phones it in
Ah, the end.
Austen, as we’ve discussed, always has an agenda that is happening in parallel to and outside of the outlines of the conservative novel of her time.
Here, in Mansfield Park, she doesn’t even pretend.
While Austen pretends to give us the traditional marriage plot, she actually gives it only to take it away from us. It too must be destroyed with the embers of Mansfield Park.
This is why we get this baffling ending - where Austen’s narrator breaks the barrier between novelist and novel and inserts herself into the proceedings to tell us, from a chilly distance, “I purposely abstain from dates on this occasion, that everyone might be at liberty to fix their own …”
What? This, friends, is in the final passages of the book - the part of the book where the romance, the resolve, the mutual understanding and love and connection we’ve been longing for, for pages and pages within this sh*t-show of a stately home, and this is what we get: A chilly invitation, in the most formal language possible, to go ahead and finish the story ourselves.
Insert the date you want, insert the timeline, Austen urges, because I can’t be bothered.
What she does tell us is, while keeping up the narrative of Edmund as educator, that Fanny is now his “superior.” “She was of course only too good for him,” Austen tell us, like Fanny trying to laugh it off, and then with her trademark sarcasm, reminds us that it works out just fine since “nobody minds having what is too good for them.”
So, if we’re going to buy Nina Auerbach’s argument that Fanny is conqueror of a “terrifyingly malleable” world of horrors; and that Austen appears to be granting a slaying ascendency to her deceptively meek heroine and destroying the world of Mansfield Park and withholding from us all the ending we all want and deserve, we have to ask: To what end?
Why? What is Austen accomplishing with this subtext?
We wish I had an answer for you, friends. We’re still working on this one, and would love to hear your thoughts.
What do you think? Do you agree with this slayer-conqueror-terrifyingly-malleable-world theory, or do you read this differently?
If you agree, what do you think Austen is showing us?
Here's a guess: Maybe Austen saw mutability and chaos in the cruelty of the world around her - cruel in too many ways to count. And she chose - unconsciously or consciously - to damn with feint praise the structures upholding society. Structures that were not only dangerous for women, or people who were poor, marginalized, or unconnected, disconnected in any way, but also dangerous for colonized people, enslaved people, and indigenous and marginalized groups, as was very much being discussed in the world around her. (Fanny Price, in the East Room, is reading Lord Macartney’s “great book” on his embassy to China - which, as JASNA’s Susan Allen Ford points out, could be seen as reading on the complex, despotic relationships that emerge from England’s role in the world through international trade.)
Maybe Austen herself didn’t know why she was decimating a revered English institution and tearing down its very columns. Maybe that’s how she, and her stories, are still talking to us. And why it’s powerful to keep listening, and talk back.
Thank you, friends for indulging this long, horrifying, philosophical letter.
Write me! And stay tuned, as next week we’ll continue with the horrors of Austen.
Yours most truly,
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Susan Allen Ford, in JASNA, on what Fanny Price is reading in the East Room: https://jasna.org/persuasions/on-line/vol28no2/ford.htm
Discussion on Dido Belle as Fanny Price: http://jasna.org/publications-2/essay-contest-winning-entries/2017/a-biracial-fanny-price/
Race and the Regency talk with Professor Danielle Christmas on Lord Mansfield and the slave ship Zong: https://www.janeaustensummer.org/raceandtheregency
Race and the Regency series with Professor Gretchen Gerzina: https://www.janeaustensummer.org/raceandtheregency
See: National Trust research into the connection to the slave trade in its great houses: https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/features/addressing-the-histories-of-slavery-and-colonialism-at-the-national-trust
Edward Said’s books of essays “Culture and Imperialism,” that contains the highly influential essay “Jane Austen and Empire” and discusses the need to read what’s there and not-there in Jane Austen: https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/159778/culture-and-imperialism-by-edward-w-said/
Interesting paper by University of Leicester Professor Corinne Fowler: https://www.cambridge.org/core/services/aop-cambridge-core/content/view/7150923DBA78AF990C19AD62CA822487/S2052261417000265a.pdf/div-class-title-revisiting-mansfield-park-the-critical-and-literary-legacies-of-edward-w-said-s-essay-jane-austen-and-empire-in-span-class-italic-culture-and-imperialism-span-1993-div.pdf