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29 June 2013 @ 09:20 pm
Defending Fanny Price  
A post packed with teal deer on a frequently-bashed character two centuries ago, Jane Austen's Mansfield Park. (Cross-posted.)

"a monster of complacency and pride, who, under a cloak of cringing self-abasement, dominates and gives meaning to the novel" - Kingsley Amis

"I have looked up this girl's dossier and am horrified at what I find. Not only a Christian, but such a Christian -- a vile, sneaking, simpering, demure, monosyllabic, mouselike, watery, insignificant, virginal, bread-and-butter miss! The little brute! She makes me vomit. She stinks and scalds through the very pages of the dossier. It drives me mad, the way the world has worsened. We'd have had her to the arena in the old days. That's what her sort is made for. Not that she'd do much good there, either. 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. A cheat every way. Looks as if butter wouldn't melt in her mouth, [...a] Filthy, insipid little prude -- and yet ready to fall into this booby's arms like any other breeding animal." - CS Lewis, Screwtape Letters, context not quite the same thing (source Pemberley)

Fanny Price is the poor relation sent to Mansfield Park to live with her uncle Sir Thomas and his wife Lady Bertram, who mean well but tend to spoil their own children. Her dreadful aunt Mrs Norris tends to dominate Fanny in her upbringing and emphasise her status as living on charity. Fanny falls in love with her cousin Edmund, Sir Thomas' second son and the only person to show her kindness as a child, but he only sees her as a cousin. Then Edmund falls in love with Mary Crawford, while Mary's brother Henry begins to fall for Fanny. Fanny is shy, demure, timid, scrupulous, has frail health, and loves nature and reading. Among Jane Austen heroines, Fanny tends to be misunderstood.

What does Fanny Price that's allegedly so terrible?

  • Believes it's good for a family and their servants to all worship together. This opinion doesn't go well with the twenty-first century, but Fanny is not in the least being hypocritical. She would worship herself and believes it is good for everyone. She has a point, relative to that era: communal gatherings can indeed be good for everyone.

  • Tells the man she loves, Edmund, that the woman he previously loved, Mary Crawford, wrote a letter hoping for his brother Tom's death so that Edmund would inherit. Fanny tells this fact after Edmund was already disillusioned about Mary. Previously, Fanny carefully restrained herself against criticising Mary, and on any number of occasions in the novel stops herself from being a tell-tale, such as against her abusive aunt Mrs Norris or against her cousins Maria and Julia's questionable conduct with Henry Crawford.

  • Is willing for Maria Bertram to be exiled from her family and forced into retirement with Mrs Norris after her running away from her marriage with Henry caused societal scandal. Again, this is in keeping with the standards of the times, and Fanny's standard is far from a double standard. She finds Henry's conduct equally repulsive, even though he does not receive nearly as severe a punishment. Maria is supported by her family; she won't be received by them.

  • Disapproves of a play in the house despite appreciating some of the acting: because the play is being done behind Fanny's uncle's Sir Thomas' back, and because it's is a thiny veiled excuse for Henry to selfishly exploit Maria's and Julia's emotions. Also, Lover's Vows is not a very uplifting play nor strong in literary merit - let's settle for rating it as about as well written as Twilight, slightly more feminist relative to its time, and primarily relevant today as a historical document.

  • Dares to hold ethical and religious standards that she has thought through herself.

  • Refuses to marry a man she does not love and who holds contrary values and goals to her own, in spite of incredible familial pressure brought to bear on her.

  • Refuses to sacrifice her hopes and dreams in order to redeem a bad boy.

  • A two-faced agenda? We spend most of the novel inside Fanny's head. She tries to live all her standards and she's reluctant to condemn or attack anyone. An utterly unsubstantiated and completely false charge, referable to the above-mentioned lack of reading comprehension.


That's it.

Fanny is an introvert: timid, shy, and insecure. This is partly because of the Bertrams and Aunt Norris raising her as inferior to her cousins and teaching her that her wishes are not worthy of consideration. Edmund is the only one to show her kindness. How Fanny turned out is no surprise.

And were Fanny more a Scarlett O'Hara or Anne of Green Gables sort, Mrs Norris would have eaten her alive.

This Mrs Norris quote almost sums up their relationship:

Mrs. Norris fetched breath, and went on again.

"The nonsense and folly of people's stepping out of their rank and trying to appear above themselves, makes me think it right to give you a hint, Fanny, now that you are going into company without any of us; and I do beseech and entreat you not to be putting yourself forward, and talking and giving your opinion as if you were one of your cousins—as if you were dear Mrs. Rushworth or Julia. That will never do, believe me. Remember, wherever you are, you must be the lowest and last."...

Her niece thought it perfectly reasonable. She rated her own claims to comfort as low even as Mrs. Norris could.


Even Sir Thomas' original philosophy about taking Fanny comes across to the modern eye as a little iffy.

"There will be some difficulty in our way, Mrs. Norris," observed Sir Thomas, "as to the distinction proper to be made between the girls as they grow up: how to preserve in the minds of my daughters the consciousness of what they are, without making them think too lowly of their cousin; and how, without depressing her spirits too far, to make her remember that she is not a Miss Bertram.

Fanny's diffidence and scrupulousness probably come naturally to her. At Fanny's first home, she had some prestige as the eldest daughter and a close friendship with William and the younger children looking up to her.

[D]ear as all these brothers and sisters generally were, there was one among them who ran more in her thoughts than the rest. It was William whom she talked of most, and wanted most to see. William, the eldest, a year older than herself, her constant companion and friend; her advocate with her mother (of whom he was the darling) in every distress.

Fanny was William's favourite, and Fanny even had a favourite of her own among her younger sisters: the deceased Mary. This attention certainly didn't turn Fanny into a spoilt, extroverted darling like Maria Bertram. This doesn't mean that Fanny lacks flaws: her timidity is a key one, and it's a flaw that leads to sins of omission. Austen explicitly says that Susan Price is more effective than Fanny simply because she's more confident. There are also plenty of occasions in the novel where Austen pokes fun at Fanny's uncertainties, inexperience, and small ironies.

Why had not she [Fanny] rather gone to her own room, as she had felt to be safest, instead of attending the rehearsal at all? She had known it would irritate and distress her; she had known it her duty to keep away. She was properly punished.

--

Fanny, having been sent into the village on some errand by her aunt Norris, was overtaken by a heavy shower close to the Parsonage; and being descried from one of the windows endeavouring to find shelter under the branches and lingering leaves of an oak just beyond their premises, was forced, though not without some modest reluctance on her part, to come in. A civil servant she had withstood; but when Dr. Grant himself went out with an umbrella, there was nothing to be done but to be very much ashamed, and to get into the house as fast as possible...The two sisters were so kind to her, and so pleasant, that Fanny might have enjoyed her visit could she have believed herself not in the way, and could she have foreseen that the weather would certainly clear at the end of the hour, and save her from the shame of having Dr. Grant's carriage and horses out to take her home, with which she was threatened.

--

[A]lthough there doubtless are such unconquerable young ladies of eighteen (or one should not read about them) as are never to be persuaded into love against their judgment by all that talent, manner, attention, and flattery can do, I have no inclination to believe Fanny one of them, or to think that with so much tenderness of disposition, and so much taste as belonged to her, she could have escaped heart-whole from the courtship (though the courtship only of a fortnight) of such a man as Crawford, in spite of there being some previous ill opinion of him to be overcome, had not her affection been engaged elsewhere.

--

[Fanny] had all the heroism of principle, and was determined to do her duty; but having also many of the feelings of youth and nature, let her not be much wondered at, if, after making all these good resolutions on the side of self-government, she seized the scrap of paper on which Edmund had begun writing to her, as a treasure beyond all her hopes, and reading with the tenderest emotion these words, "My very dear Fanny, you must do me the favour to accept" locked it up with the chain, as the dearest part of the gift. It was the only thing approaching to a letter which she had ever received from him; she might never receive another; it was impossible that she ever should receive another so perfectly gratifying in the occasion and the style. Two lines more prized had never fallen from the pen of the most distinguished author—never more completely blessed the researches of the fondest biographer. The enthusiasm of a woman's love is even beyond the biographer's. To her, the handwriting itself, independent of anything it may convey, is a blessedness. Never were such characters cut by any other human being as Edmund's commonest handwriting gave! This specimen, written in haste as it was, had not a fault; and there was a felicity in the flow of the first four words, in the arrangement of "My very dear Fanny," which she could have looked at for ever.

Even the very last paragraph of the novel inserts some gentle irony toward Fanny and her tendency to very deeply and idealistically attach herself to her immediate surrounds:

On that event they removed to Mansfield; and the Parsonage there, which, under each of its two former owners, Fanny had never been able to approach but with some painful sensation of restraint or alarm, soon grew as dear to her heart, and as thoroughly perfect in her eyes, as everything else within the view and patronage of Mansfield Park had long been.

On a trivial note, Austen additionally makes sure that the reader cannot think that Fanny's crying is attractive! Sympathetic, but not attractive.

[W]hen [Sir Thomas] looked at his niece, and saw the state of feature and complexion which her crying had brought her into, he thought there might be as much lost as gained by an immediate interview.

Fanny is deeply concerned about doing right - and about thinking right. There are so many passages in the books where she tries to redirect even her thoughts to consider the best of people and to pity those who don't pity her.

Fanny could not but be sensible of [the nature of the Portsmouth household]. She might scruple to make use of the words, but she must and did feel that her mother was a partial, ill-judging parent, a dawdle, a slattern, who neither taught nor restrained her children, whose house was the scene of mismanagement and discomfort from beginning to end, and who had no talent, no conversation, no affection towards herself; no curiosity to know her better, no desire of her friendship, and no inclination for her company that could lessen her sense of such feelings.

Fanny was very anxious to be useful, and not to appear above her home, or in any way disqualified or disinclined, by her foreign education, from contributing her help to its comforts, and therefore set about working for Sam immediately.


--

"Do not be afraid of my wanting the character," cried Julia, with angry quickness: "I am not to be Agatha, and I am sure I will do nothing else; and as to Amelia, it is of all parts in the world the most disgusting to me. I quite detest her. An odious, little, pert, unnatural, impudent girl. I have always protested against comedy, and this is comedy in its worst form." And so saying, she walked hastily out of the room, leaving awkward feelings to more than one, but exciting small compassion in any except Fanny, who had been a quiet auditor of the whole, and who could not think of her as under the agitations of jealousy without great pity.

--

"I never will, no, I certainly never will wish for a letter again," was Fanny's secret declaration as she finished this. "What do they bring but disappointment and sorrow? Not till after Easter! How shall I bear it? And my poor aunt talking of me every hour!"
Fanny checked the tendency of these thoughts as well as she could, but she was within half a minute of starting the idea that Sir Thomas was quite unkind, both to her aunt and to herself...
Such sensations, however, were too near akin to resentment to be long guiding Fanny's soliloquies. She was soon more softened and sorrowful.


Fanny also interrogates her own motives and is willing to suspect herself of bad faith, weighing her gratitude against her natural inclinations and her reasoning.

Was she right in refusing what was so warmly asked, so strongly wished for—what might be so essential to a scheme on which some of those to whom she owed the greatest complaisance had set their hearts? Was it not ill-nature, selfishness, and a fear of exposing herself? And would Edmund's judgment, would his persuasion of Sir Thomas's disapprobation of the whole, be enough to justify her in a determined denial in spite of all the rest? It would be so horrible to her to act that she was inclined to suspect the truth and purity of her own scruples; and as she looked around her, the claims of her cousins to being obliged were strengthened by the sight of present upon present that she had received from them. The table between the windows was covered with work-boxes and netting-boxes which had been given her at different times, principally by Tom; and she grew bewildered as to the amount of the debt which all these kind remembrances produced.

She earnestly, and despite her insecurities, tries to do good. She uses her attic for small charitable works.

Her plants, her books—of which she had been a collector from the first hour of her commanding a shilling—her writing-desk, and her works of charity and ingenuity, were all within her reach.

Fanny is ideally suited to have a career as clergyman's wife, and not at all suited to have a career as society leader (for which Elizabeth Bennet or Emma, say, are better fitted). And, in the end, since Fanny's flaws are timidity and obedience, her central conflict in the novel is one which one would think she was the *least* equipped to win. The Bertrams all try to persuade her to marry a man she doesn't wish. In her time in Portsmouth her health visibly suffers and she cannot even eat much food there. Yet Fanny has courage to overcome even her worst flaws when it's important. I'd vote Fanny Price as Austen's most courageous heroine.

All this adds up to a personality that might certainly be annoying, and not the sort of person everyone would choose as a best friend or lover. Some people are easily impatient at the excessively timid and introverted. But it's important to understand that Fanny's character traits are partially the result of her upbringing as the poor relation under Mrs Norris' thumb. People who fail to do this clearly fail at reading comprehension, again. Austen chooses to write a plausible and heroic character. Fanny is constantly, sincerely trying to do right. She tries to help her relatives and to harm none, not even the people she dislikes. Fanny is one of Austen's most interesting, complicated, and empathic heroines, and heroine she is.

For some better analysis of Fanny's personality, crepe_suzettes wrote a fantastic review of a dreadful movie version of Mansfield Park. The thoughts on Fanny's character are beautiful, and it contains this brilliant line:

I could only hope that if this mob of clowns could misread Fanny Price so badly that they never get their paws on Ibsen ("Mrs Tesman moves serenely through the house like the pillar of the WI and epitome of domestic stolidity she is").
 
 
 
Lighthearted Cynic: Orihime - Don't Think Soslayerofgod on July 14th, 2013 01:26 pm (UTC)
Character bashing. Not just for people on the internet anymore!

Mind = Blown
RPowell: pic#121417574rpowell on July 18th, 2013 10:33 pm (UTC)
I wish I could agree with you. But I find it hard to like a character that fails to develop. Even worse, I get the feeling that readers are supposed to view Fanny's lack of development as something positive.
...and the stains drip between fingers...: Canon necrophiliablueinkedpalm on July 18th, 2013 10:41 pm (UTC)
Disagree that Fanny lacks development. The whole novel is effectively Fanny's bildungsroman. She achieves her cultural standards of growing up by "coming out" at the ball at Mansfield, and she gains some confidence in her judgments across the course of the novel. She at least somewhat yields in the matter of the play, but she later gains the courage to refuse Henry Crawford. She also gains insights and is tested through her time at Portsmouth.
RPowellrpowell on July 17th, 2014 06:02 pm (UTC)
And yet . . . she fails to face her own flaws or the flaws of her beloved Edmund. In that regard, Fanny failed to develop as a character.

If the novel had acknowledged that hardly any of the characters had developed, I would have appreciated what Austen was trying to achieve.