Fanny Price is no Elizabeth Bennett. But really, why should she be? There is no reason for Jane Austen to have written the same character and the same story over and over. However, it seems that many people fall in love with Pride and Prejudice and then expect Austen's other works to be the same. They want all her novels to be "light and bright and sparkling" as Austen described Pride and Prejudice. Mansfield Park is a darker, less sparkling book but it stands squarely on its own merit. It is a novel with a quiet, meek, yet morally strong heroine and it contains a biting commentary on the society of the day.
It is possible that a meek yet morally strong heroine is hard for people to relate to in this day and age. Modern day sensibilities value the feisty, opinionated woman, the woman who won't take any nonsense from anybody and the one who goes after what she wants with a single-minded determination that crushes all in her path. Fanny Price is none of these things. She is quiet, shy, easily upset, easily moved to tears, someone who, in the vernacular of the day, knows her place. Her place was that of a poor relation. She was taken in by her aunt's family and raised by them from the time she was ten years old. This did not mean she was equal to the daughters of the family. She was poor. This meant more back then than it does to us today. She accepted her position. That is a thought that is hard for the modern day reader to understand. I think it is possible many get frustrated with her and want her to throw off the traces and rebel against her position. However, Fanny was constantly reminded, sometimes simply by events and sometimes by unkind words, exactly what her position was. Her aunt, Mrs. Norris says;
'But I shall think her a very obstinate, ungrateful girl, if she does not do what her aunt and cousins wish her--very ungrateful indeed, considering who and what she is.
This comment by Mrs. Norris was not widely approved of but it did crudely express the position Fanny was in, a position common to many poor relations who felt an obligation to their richer relatives who took them in. Poor relations have so much to lose, they cannot be a rebel because a rebel can end up out in the cold.
Fanny's values are clear cut and she expects the rest of society to feel the same way she does. She is obedient, respectful to those in authority even when they do not seem to deserve that respect, and she has an elevated moral sense. It is through Fanny and her moral sense that Austen comments on the society of her day. Fanny is disturbed when her cousin flirts with one man while engaged to another and she is disgusted by the man who knowingly flirts with that cousin. She disapproves of the play that is being put on because it is a vehicle for that flirtation and because the play itself is questionable. Fanny disapproves of the way Mary Crawford speaks of the clergy and she also dislikes the lack of respect Mary shows toward her own uncle. She believes in upholding the standards of the day and is truly disturbed as she watches the slow disintegration of those standards in those around her.
Meek and mild Fanny has the courage to stand up to opposition when she feels it is necessary. She refuses to act in the play even though pressured to do so. She refuses to accept an offer of marriage even though she is called willful and perverse and ungrateful, hard words for a girl who has built her life around being grateful for what she has been given, little though it may be. Some find Fanny judgmental, but is it judgmental to have high standards and stick to them when those around you are not doing so? Fanny was not perfect and she knew that. However, she had the courage of her convictions. Isn't that admirable?
Fanny is not the most appealing character in the book in many ways. She is quiet and meek and Mary Crawford is her antithesis. Mary is light and bright and sparkling but she is also worldly and disrespectful. She is full of fun and essentially kind, yet self-centered and hardened to the things that offend Fanny. It is interesting to see how the coming of Mary and her brother, Henry, into the community infect the inhabitants with a different attitude. Those around Fanny are the ones who throw off the traces and it is through her eyes that we see what is happening. For really, this is not the story of Fanny Price specifically. As the title suggests it is the story of Mansfield Park as a whole.
I feel like I am not doing a good job of selling Mansfield Park. Many may not be pulled in by the thought of a prim and proper, shy heroine. But let's be clear here. This is Jane Austen. Anything she writes is going to be superior to most other novels. Mansfield Park is written with her customary wit and incisive language. I must say that I do have a fondness for a heroine who is described this way;
her happiness was of a quiet, deep, heart-swelling sort; and though never a great talker, she was always more inclined to silence when feeling most strongly.
Mansfield Park is undoubtedly the most controversial and the most sophisticated of Austen's novels. It is definitely one that bears repeated reading. It is not as bright and sparkling as Emma or Pride and Prejudice. It may not appeal to the teenager in us as Sense and Sensibility does. It is not just plain fun as Northanger Abbey is. It is not as romantic as Persuasion. It does not have to be any of these things. Fanny Price should be valued for her quiet strengths and so should the novel that contains her.
This was reviewed as part of my Classics Club list.