Saturday, 3 September 2016

Jane Austen's Fanny Price ('Mansfield Park') - What Kind of Heroine is She?

Mansfield Park is a wonderful novel in unconventional ways. We derive much pleasure from the exchanges between the characters - major and minor. Every one is sharply realised.

But Fanny is the problem. I fear that Jane Austen intended us to accept her as an entirely admirable heroine, reliably virtuous in all her thoughts and judgements. Unfortunately, modern readers do not see her like that. So I hope I am wrong and that really Jane had some 'dark' intention that she nowhere makes explicit.

And alas, for those who find Fanny a dull heroine, the rot sets in early: 'I hope I am not ungrateful, aunt'; 'I can never be important to anyone'; 'my situation - my foolishness and awkwardness'.....; 'how shall I ever thank you as I ought, for thinking so well of me?'; 'I ought to believe you to be right rather than myself, and I am very much obliged to you for trying to reconcile me to what must be'!

Just after the Prices-of-Portsmouth teenager improbably expresses such smarmy, pantomime sentiments, the Crawfords pop up and talk with vitality about their schemes to flirt with and marry the local populace. They bring a breath of fresh air.

The heroine is a Cinderella, the poor relation brought up by a rich aunt and uncle. Her principal tormentor is her hypocritical aunt, Mrs. Norris, who harangues Fanny into a sense of inferiority: 'Remember, wherever you are, you must be the lowest and last'.

For much of her childhood, Fanny’s value for herself is so low that she does not allow herself the privilege of having an opinion. Fanny has no value for herself until after her stay at Portsmouth (and until she has value for herself, she lacks the wherewithal to judge the value of another). Portsmouth affords her several ways of re-valuing herself.

Fanny does not give the impression of ever having much to say. It is easy to forget that she is at times highly articulate. In Chapter 23, she tackles such profound topics as the miracle of the human mind and memory, evergreens as a symbol of the wonders of nature, and the chivalric connotations of the name ‘Edmund’. She is herself conscious of this: ‘You will think me rhapsodising’. Unlike Anne Elliot - Jane Austen’s other quiet, unrequited heroine – Fanny Price sometimes has an awful lot to say.

She is discussing these topics with Mary Crawford, whose views are contrasted with her own. Jane Austen as so often does not appear to take sides. She lets both ladies express themselves effectively.

Fanny also seems uncharacteristically sprightly before the ball in her honour, when we catch her ‘practising her steps about the drawing-room’.

Fanny's strength is the strength of the anchor. She is firm and steadfast. The others cling to her because she represents the only thing that is certain and secure. But anchors are boring - heavy, unmoving - even though they are needed in a world such as that of Mansfield Park, where people and events change and whirl in a confusing maelstrom. 

She is one of the few Jane Austen heroines who is truly brave - brave in enduring all she has to suffer when removed from her home and family, brave in knowing her own mind, acting or not acting on it as necessary, never wavering from her beliefs and opinions, and - amazingly - never wavering in her love. 

Fanny sees 'gross want of feeling and humanity' in Henry's persistence but readers may find it more difficult to discover evidence of this. He is, after all, in love with Fanny and entitled to say so. Fanny's failure to make her dislike of Henry fully known to him is a form of intellectual dishonesty.