Sunday, 19 June 2016

Some Thoughts About Jane Austen's Fanny Price

Fanny Price did not just happen to lack robustness. Jane Austen embraced the challenge of depicting a girl who was puny and yet who would prove her worth through her behaviour.

At ten, Fanny is small of her age, with no glow of complexion, nor any other striking beauty; exceedingly timid and shy, and shrinking from notice. She is on the verge of tears during her early hours at Mansfield Park. Her homesickness and sense of being out of place are exacerbated by the admonitions of Mrs. Norris.

However, Fanny is not colourless and weak. Jane Austen triumphs in making her gentleness and seeming pliability vessels of steadiness and truth.

When she reaches the age of fifteen and is expected to be transferred to Mrs. Norris's house, Edmund (now 21) approves of the idea. At this age, she has no sense of self- worth: 

‘I can never be important to anyone.' 

'What is to prevent you?' 

'Every thing – my situation – my foolishness and awkwardness.' 

Fanny's unrequited love for Edmund, who regards her merely as a little step-sister, causes her years of suspense and suffering, particularly while she witnesses his infatuation with Mary Crawford. Mary's chatter grates on Edmund (though it brings a chuckle to the reader); yet Mary's ready sympathies, her discreet admirations, her touch of exoticism, her delight in music and her endless physical grace make her seductive – pretty, lively, with a harp as elegant as herself; and both placed near a window cut down to the ground and opening on a little lawn surrounded by shrubs in the rich foliage of summer... . (Jane Austen may have been including a tease for her harp-playing niece Fanny as she wrote these words.) What a wonderful paragraph this is! It explains perfectly how Edmund and Mary fall into their superficial kind of love. Mary, without being able to ‘understand it’, senses that she is succumbing to his sincerity and steadiness, despite his dullness and inability to amuse her with the frivolous small talk she enjoys. Edmund has only to watch and listen to pretty Mary playing the harp in the picturesque setting in order to lose his heart. 

The contrast between Mary's disposition towards Edmund and Fanny's true devotion is shown by Fanny's reaction to the letters she receives from Mary: 

The woman who could speak of him, and speak only of his appearance! What an unworthy attachment! To be deriving support from the commendations of Mrs. Fraser! She who had known him intimately half a year! Fanny was ashamed of her. 

To Fanny at least, some moments are evocative of courtship – moments when she and Edmund share opinions, reactions and emotions. When Edmund insists on providing Fanny with a mare for exercise, her gratitude solidifies her respect for him into something more than a teenage crush. 

Even their response to Miss Crawford may be seen in this light: 

'...was there nothing in her conversation, Fanny, as not quite right?' 

'Oh! Yes, she ought not to have spoken of her uncle as she did. I was quite astonished. An uncle with whom she has been living so many years.... .' 

'I thought you would be struck. It was very wrong – very indecorous.' 

Fanny regards her cousin as an example of every thing good and great, as possessing worth which no one but herself could ever appreciate, and as entitled to such gratitude from her as no feelings could be strong enough to pay. Her sentiments towards him are said to be compounded of all that was respectful, grateful, confiding, and tender. It is a pity that Edmund is not the person who notices that Fanny needs a fire in her room! 

Fanny's perfections are contrasted with Mary's selfish frivolity. Unfortunately, Fanny can seem stuffy in the comparison. G. B. Stern (in Talking of Jane Austen [1943]) says 'Fanny was a prig. All her inward struggles, therefore, the perpetual shredding and the tedding of her conscience, leave me faintly impatient. A little less of it would have been enough, and might have left her more time to mend that torn carpet which was such a permanent affliction in her poor mother's temper ... ' but by sitting upstairs with Susan, Fanny avoided the disturbance of the house. 

If she does not repair a carpet, at least Fanny makes Sam's shirts. And she does not exult in being proved right. Over the theatricals, she feels as guilty as the others, whom she pities. 

Miss Stern also notes with disappointment that Fanny is always weary: 'it is hard to understand quite what is the matter with Fanny's health, though all through Mansfield Park she is perpetually being told to rest, to keep her feet up, to go to bed before the others, to take a little careful exercise but not too much'. 

She concludes that Fanny must be an exhibitionist, enjoying having Edmund fussing about her. However, life expectancy at the time was low. Fanny lived when many girls were far less robust than the average young person today. 

Fanny is certainly not a complete paragon. If she had been, she surely would not have cruelly told Edmund that Mary Crawford had half-hoped that Tom’s illness would prove fatal.