Everyone should know what their favorite Jane Austen novel is (and if not, they’d better start reading). In my case, it’s a close tie between Persuasion and Mansfield Park at the moment (having just reread Persuasion). Historically, however, Mansfield Park has always been in the lead. The reason? Fanny Price.
Fanny has had few defenders since her introduction to the literary world. She has been criticized as priggish, insipid, boring, and most recently by my grandmother, “too angelic”. In light of this, I felt that it was time for the Fanny Price fans to start coming out of the woodwork.
Jane Austen is perhaps most beloved for her ability to capture human life and human folly in vivid detail. The romances in her works are surprisingly simple, when examined closely; by far the most interesting one is the relationship between Anne Elliot and Frederick Wentworth in Persuasion, which is worthy of its own post. The enduring popularity of Pride and Prejudice, I would argue, lies more in its characters than in its love story; Elizabeth Bennet and her family are enough to carry any novel to excellence. I am not looking to set up Fanny Price as another Elizabeth Bennet. It is undeniable, however, that Fanny can and does carry an entire novel on her own. Mansfield Park belongs to her and her alone. It is, in many ways, a Cinderella story, and yet no one criticizes Cinderella for being “too angelic”. Of course Cinderella is virtuous: that’s the point of the character. Fanny Price, however, is subject to different constraints; she is a Jane Austen heroine, and thus we expect more realism from her than from a Charles Perrault fairy tale.
What is it, then, that makes Fanny Price unrealistic? I would argue: nothing at all. What makes her the object of such widespread dislike and/or dismissal amongst readers? The very thing that makes her disliked and dismissed within the novel itself: she’s an easy target.
C.S. Lewis wrote, “[I]nto Fanny, Jane Austen, to counterbalance her apparent insignificance, has put really nothing except rectitude of mind; neither passion, nor physical courage, nor wit, nor resource. Her very love is only calf-love— a schoolgirl’s hero worship for a man who has been kind to her when they were both children” (“A Note on Jane Austen”). This is all, more or less, true. Lewis seeks to condemn her for this characterization. Fanny and her story, however, could not exist under any other circumstances.
The “point” of any novel is a difficult thing to pin down, and far too often the attempt itself destroys the enjoyment of the novel. Yet I would argue that Fanny’s so-called “insipidity” is what allows Austen to convey the point of Mansfield Park. The witty, resourceful heroine that Lewis seeks is already supplied in this novel, in the form of Mary Crawford. If rectitude of mind makes Fanny uninteresting, however, it is Mary’s “interesting” qualities that make her deplorable. And that, if I may make such a dangerous assertion, seems to be the “point” of Mansfield Park. Rectitude of mind might not be enough to make Fanny as fascinating as an Elizabeth Bennet or an Emma Woodhouse (or, indeed, a Mary Crawford), but it is in itself impressive for someone in Fanny’s circumstances. And in my eyes, that alone is enough to make her interesting.
It is difficult for rectitude of mind to survive in a setting where it is continually downtrodden. Strength of mind and strength of conviction are both necessary to the survival of principle. In a setting where one’s values and ideals are constantly being reaffirmed and upheld by one’s companions, it’s easy to hang on to those values. The Bertram siblings are Austen’s example. When one is alone, however, in one’s ideals, or, like Fanny, hideously outnumbered and silenced, it becomes a constant struggle to retain one’s beliefs in the face of an unsympathetic or even openly hostile world. Fanny is not to be denounced for lacking the wit or passion of a Mary Crawford. She is to be lauded for the strength of mind that allows her to survive the cruelty and neglect that effectively beat all the potential for wit or passion out of her.
The end result is that Fanny is vulnerable in almost every aspect, save one. Her one strength, however, is of a kind which historically has been too little praised. It is this one strength that draws the accusations of being too priggish, too boring, too angelic.
As for the accusations that Fanny is “priggish”, I’ll simply refer any interested readers to C.S. Lewis’s excellent essay “A Note on Jane Austen”. He answers that charge far more eloquently than I could ever hope to. I’ll take a crack at the other accusations, though.
Fanny herself is dismissed as boring, and yet Mansfield Park is lauded as one of Jane Austen’s best novels (although the point would stand even if it were her worst, because even at her worst Jane Austen’s writing far surpasses that of almost any other author). This, however, is a paradox. As I said before, Mansfield Park belongs to Fanny, in the same way that Persuasion belongs to Anne Elliot. In both of these cases, this possession is less brash and authoritative than the titular character’s domination of Emma, and yet that is what (in my opinion) makes Mansfield Park and Persuasion better novels. There is a subtlety to Fanny’s personality that pervades the entire novel. Most obviously, she has her principles, and yet she also has her insecurities, her wants, her amusements, her affections, and her understanding. Readers have noticed all of these things, but have failed to value them. She is quiet, she is shy, and she is kind. Her perceptions of events are colored by these traits, and they are simultaneously the cause and the consequence of the treatment she receives, both by the novel’s characters and by its audience. How can Fanny be perceived as anything but boring, if her personality is passed over and credited to the excellence of the novel rather than to the excellence of the character?
Fanny’s combination of quietness and kindness married to a lack of resentment for harsh treatment is probably enough to explain the charge that she is “too angelic”. And I admit, it’s hard to explain goodness and patience based in a strong foundation of principle, since it’s something so rarely noticed in reality. It exists, though. And that’s what saves Fanny from this final charge: people like her do exist. They get ignored and passed over in favor of the louder, wittier, more passionate, more “interesting” characters. A Mary Crawford will always drown out a Fanny Price in real life. But isn’t that, in the end, the point? If Fanny Price does seem too good to be true, perhaps it’s because we’re just not used to hearing her speak.
There has never been a really good movie adaptation of Mansfield Park, and I don’t think there ever will be. It would be easy enough to cast the Crawfords and the Bertrams and even Mrs. Norris, but it’d be well-nigh impossible to find an actress talented enough to portray Fanny. Her character is written to make it possible to pass over and ignore, but to modern audiences such a personality is not acceptable in a female lead. So Fanny will continue to be pushed aside in favor of another Elizabeth Bennet, another Marianne Dashwood, maybe even another Catherine Morland rather than the quiet girl sitting in the East Room, reading her books with no fire in the grate on a chilly December morning. She won’t mind. She’s used to it.