To be a Fanny Price in a world of Mary Crawford's
I'm so glad you could join me today. Whether you're new to Austens & Alcotts or have been around for awhile now, I think you may guess that this is an Austen-loving corner of the blogosphere that wholeheartedly encourages a good discussion or discourse on all-things-Jane. Today I wanted to bring up some of my thoughts regarding what I personally have always believed to be the most under-appreciated Austen novel...
I frequently see it listed in Austen-book rankings as the last in a list, and quite often see an Austen anthology of several-books-in-one actually leave it out. A bit like it's heroine Fanny Price, Mansfield Park is the lonely, unloved duckling of the Janeite world. I'm aware it will never be popular to say it, but let me be the first to say, if first I sadly am, that I love this Austen—and quite especially its meek, gentle, persevering heroine who has been subject to passionate dislike from readers for more than two Centuries.
I've always had a special fondness for Mansfield Park because it was the very first Austen I ever read at 15. I had grown up on Austen adaptations (particularly those of Pride & Prejudice and Sense & Sensibility) and while I had vaguely heard of Persuasion or Northanger Abbey, at the time I'd never even heard of Mansfield Park. Funnily enough, the way I found out about it in the first place was due to a teenage love-affair with Doctor Who. Ha! I discovered that Billie Piper (better known as Rose Tyler to anyone else who had an obsession with the long-running British sci-fi series back in its prime) played Fanny in the 2007 PBS adaptation of the book, and, with no prior knowledge of the plot or characters, I gave it a watch. By no means a perfect adaptation, the storyline intrigued me enough to read the book straightaway—my very first Austen! I was wholly engrossed and enjoyed every moment of it, from sympathizing with the poor, emotionally-abused Fanny to finding frustration with the spell-binded Edmund Bertram.
But I'd never yet revisited the book since then...until now! I figured it was finally time to see whether approaching Mansfield Park in my twenties would vary much with my teens. It's not one that I find myself rereading like I do Emma or Sense & Sensibility, but over the years I've held a special fondness for it on account of the untouchable golden memory of that first interaction...
At its core, Mansfield Park is about moral conviction. It studies the lives of people who are guided by a sense of right and wrong and contrasts them to those who have no such guides. It's a powerful commentary that is carried by character dynamics rather than plot points, meant to challenge the reader instead of purely entertain them. This is where the book creates a stumbling block for so many readers: it's slow-paced, somewhat dull in terms of plot, and intrinsically complex—but only if you actually look at it that way. It's terribly easy to read Mansfield Park and find it a bore if you already believe in the generalization surrounding it that it's "not a very good Austen, rather boring, with a tedious heroine." It's really too bad, because in many ways this book is a hidden gem, and Jane Austen herself actually believed it was her masterpiece.
An Unconquerable Heroine
Fanny Price is commonly referred to as the "anti-Lizzie" for obvious reasons, but that comparison always amuses me; it's almost meant to insult Fanny because Elizabeth Bennet is so universally beloved, but for me, if you actually compare the two, Fanny turns out on top in a few ways. While Lizzie (often mistakenly) believes she can sum up people, Fanny is the real deal who sees through everyone. Lizzie thinks she knows her own mind, and yet is rather easily taken in by others (like Wickham). Fanny, on the other hand, never once strays from her original convictions (which are always correctly founded). Yet it's always Fanny who seems to get the short end of the stick.
I think it must be a truth universally acknowledged that just about every Janeite reads Pride and Prejudice and believes "Oh, I'm so Lizzie. She's just like me." I confess I feel the same way! But to be honest, I think I've said that about nearly all of the Austen heroines. Ha! They all feel like different facets of ourselves, don't they? And yet, I realize now that if I had to actually narrow it down and say, "Ah, yes, that's the heroine most like me," then I would have to say it's Fanny. I adore her through and through.
“Her own thoughts and reflections were habitually her best companions.”
I'm baffled whenever I hear her called a "weak" heroine. I think she's actually one of the very strongest—largely due to her incredible perseverance despite immense familial pressure and emotional manipulation. Actually, I think she's a lot like Jane Eyre in a few aspects. When I first realized that, I had to ask myself why in the world people don't adore Fanny as they do Jane—and I still haven't figured that one out yet.
Readers and critics really love to limit Fanny to merely "a rigid, moral heroine" and leave all the heart out of it, but really, Fanny is just a shy, kind-hearted girl who wants to do the right thing, and who is very often taken advantage of because of her open-heartedness. She's unfailingly kind, a bit awkward, and incredibly observant of what's going on around her. While her relatives or acquaintances forget her or try to manipulate her, they never realize that they underestimate her—or that she sees right through them. There's no "getting round" her. She's unconquerable.
The Other Woman
I've heard from a lot of readers that they felt Mary Crawford was the real star of the novel and that they actually preferred her to Fanny as a choice of heroine—and I don't know about you, but that's the kind of statement that makes me question whether we actually read the same book! Mary Crawford is exceptionally written, but the reader has to pay attention to what Austen is really doing with these characters in order to grasp the real villainy at play here. You could argue that Mrs. Norris is the villain of the book...or even Henry Crawford (of whom readers are divided in their opinions about). But the real villain is Mary, who is an expert at manipulating situations and people in order to get her desired results.
The villainy of Mary is, to me at least, the cruelest of all of Austen's "baddies", surpassing even Lucy Steele, who I absolutely loathe. I think, if I were a heroine, it would be easier to endure Lucy Steele in the knowledge which Elinor had, that Edward intended to do "rightly" and dutifully by her, than it would be to have Mary Crawford feigning politeness and false friendship in order to actively manipulate everyone, but especially the man you love, into falling in love with her...right in front of you. The worst bit about Mary is that nobody but Fanny can see what she's really about. She's a master manipulator because she's so tempting and charming—and by all appearances, she's a lively, spirited young woman with humor, passion and vivacity. But at her core, she's determined to get what she wants out of life and to resent anything that refuses to bend to her will. She can appear as though she really does care about Fanny and doesn't mean to be replacing her in Edmund's affections, but Fanny sees exactly what's going on and isn't fooled for a second.
“I was quiet, but I was not blind.”
What I think happens to a lot of readers when it comes to Mary Crawford is that they, like Edmund, seem to fall under her spell. In all honesty, some of the praise I hear for Mary doesn't differ much from Edmund's spell-bound speeches! Again, the commentary is only there for those who want to see it. Fanny and Edmund see Mary in two totally opposite lights, but Fanny's judgement proves faultless. After all, it's Edmund in the end who says,
“Could you have believed it possible? But the charm is broken. My eyes are opened. […] It had been the creature of my own imagination, not Miss Crawford, that I had been too apt to dwell on for many months past.”
A Choice of Suitors
Now, I've already made it clear that I adore Fanny, but what I don't admire in Mansfield Park is her choice of love interests. I love the way Austen leads Fanny into navigating those two persons, but its the persons themselves that I find absolutely exasperating. Edmund Bertram or Henry Crawford, either way you choose, Fanny was way too good for either of them.
I was a little surprised with myself on this reread to find myself absolutely loathing Edmund, as I remember pitying him at 15 and finding much more sympathy with his character. Oh, dear, we had none of that this time round. I think he's the very last on my list of "ranking the heroes of Austen." Edmund, heroic? Not at all. Even Edward Ferrars, who despite being incredibly spineless and exasperating himself, always manages to win me over in the end because his intentions are honorable—but Edmund doesn't have a single heroic quality in him. There's literally nothing to defend in him. He starts out very well, and we know that he's always been the only real friend Fanny had at Mansfield Park, that he values truth and uprightness almost as much as she does, and that he's the sensible, responsible member of the family. Oh, but how soon that all changes...
In hardly no time at all he becomes unendurable, constantly forgetting that Fanny exists, practically tormenting her with his ever-blinded praises of Mary Crawford, and going back on his word time and time again. That last item was the real unforgivable offense for me. He's very hypocritical! "Oh, I completely forgot about you Fanny, I won't let it happen again..." just two pages before he manages to forget her...yet again. His stance on the play, Lover's Vows, was another instance. He spent way too much time and energy arguing with everyone about stopping this play for someone who manages to be eventually convinced into participating in it...because Mary Crawford tempted him to. Fanny's inner monologue says it all...
“He is blinded, and nothing will open his eyes; nothing can, after having had truths before him so long in vain. […] ‘So very fond of me!’ ’tis nonsense all. [Mary Crawford] loves nobody but herself and her brother. Her friends leading her astray for years! She is quite as likely to have led them astray. […] Edmund, you do not know me.
And it's true...Edmund didn't really know her. At least, he didn't understand her. I think the real problem with Edmund as the hero of the novel is that we have to blindly trust that before Mary Crawford came on the scene, he really was a wonderful friend and companion of Fanny's, and had been a genuinely good, highly upright, determined young man. It's a pity we spend about 92% of the book seeing him be the exact opposite of that. It really makes the reader forget he was ever supposed to be likable in the first place!
Literally every single major character in Mansfield Park is subject to controversy, but Henry Crawford is the controversy I find the most interesting. It genuinely astonished me when I first heard that so many readers admit to rooting for Fanny to give into Henry's proposal, and that they far and away preferred him to Edmund as her choice of suitor. It's amusing really, that none of the four characters actually work well together. Edmund and Mary, not at all. Edmund and Fanny? She deserves better. Fanny and Henry? Ha!! She'd be a miserable woman indeed!
Henry is interesting though, because you could look at his obsession with Fanny two different ways, and you can't be proved wrong. A) he genuinely learned to love her, or B) it was all in his head. I'm going to firmly settle with B on this one, but I do know a few readers who are fixed under the first option. I think he really did imagine and believe that he loved Fanny, but she really put his priorly-dubious character to the test. She can't trust his love because she knows how easily prone he is to slipping up in decorum. Henry might trust himself and his newfound love, but Fanny knows better.
Here was again a want of delicacy and regard for others which had formerly so struck and disgusted her. Here was again a something of the same Mr. Crawford whom she had so reprobated before. How evidently was there a gross want of feeling and humanity where his own pleasure was concerned…
The really painful part of Henry Crawford's pursuit after Fanny is that it causes everyone to turn against her, accusing her dreadfully of being ungrateful because she won't accept his proposals. Suddenly it's not just Henry trying doggedly to persuade her—it's literally everyone around her. Even Edmund tries to convince her to accept him!! My heart was absolutely wrung for Fanny because she had nobody in the world to support her independence—nothing to fall back on except herself and what she believes is right. That in itself marks her, to me, as one of the very strongest of Austen's heroines. Fanny's physical weakness and her social standing are a barrier, but it's on the inside that she is stronger and more independent than anyone in the book. She's a force to be reckoned with, and will never, ever renounce what she believes in. Ah! I just love her. Again, she's unconquerable!
But in the end, it's Edmund to whom Fanny's heart belongs, and Edmund she marries. I think it's the best way to end the book, because it's what our heroine wants to be happy—but it's hard on the reader to see how little Edmund deserves her. I love that Austen tells us so herself in the last chapter.
She was of course only too good for [Edmund]; but as nobody minds having what is too good for them, he was very steadily earnest in the pursuit of the blessing, and it was not possible that encouragement from [Fanny] should be long wanting.
I'm very glad Henry Crawford's pursuit is diverted in a bit of scandal with Maria, because Fanny is proved right after all. She knew her heart best!
Truly, Mansfield Park is a hidden gem among Austen's novels, and though it might not be as romantic as Persuasion or as entertaining as Pride & Prejudice or Emma, I think it really does deserve more recognition. Especially in the film-adaptation department!! It's a shame that all we really have is a mini-series from the '80s, a truly book-butchering film from '98, and a very minced-up PBS version from 2007 (which, while by no means very good, I still have a fondness for because it led me to Austen to begin with). It's time we finally had a proper adaptation!
Are you a fan of Mansfield Park? I would absolutely love to hear from you if you fancy leaving a comment below and sharing your thoughts!
Thanks for reading with me! :)
Until next time,
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