Mansfield Park is Austen’s ‘problem novel’ and its heroine Fanny Price is her ‘problem’ heroine. Even leading Austen scholars such as Lionel Trilling claim that she is impossible to like. Reading the book again though, I began to think about why that was and what Austen was trying to achieve. C S Lewis has called Fanny a ‘Brontë heroine in a Jane Austen situation’. But what is an ‘Austen situation’? We associate Austen with serenity and good manners. Her novels evoke bonnets, white gloves and dainty cups of tea. From the earliest pages, the Bertrams make clear that Fanny Price is not to expect these luxuries of life. She is to be forever grateful for the crumbs from their table, to stand to one side and keep her eyes forever lowered. In comparison to all the other heroines, Fanny Price’s situation is not an Austen one at all. But such a marked change in tone can really be no accident. What then was the character of Fanny Price supposed to show us?
Fanny is the only Austen heroine who we are introduced to as a child, when she is delivered up to her aunt and uncle like a parcel. She is terrified of her rich relatives, feels incredibly alone and is harangued by her Aunt Norris to be grateful at all times. Having had a position of authority within her own family as eldest daughter, she is suddenly thrust to the absolute bottom of the household pecking order. Her cousins Maria and Julia mock her ignorance and carry tales about her to their Aunt Norris. Fanny is a little girl, a child of ten years old and she is utterly alone in an unfriendly household. Austen conjures up very vividly the unenviable position of being the poor relation, but then she would understand that role intimately. Austen had after all been a poor relation herself.
There is more to this set up though than what immediately meets the eye. Of all Austen’s novels, Mansfield Park is the one which most directly confronts sexuality and particularly female autonomy in relationships. Think about all the situations that run through the novel. Mary Crawford is sexually forward, frank about young ladies appraising a man’s physical appearance. Maria Bertram goes through a severe ‘agony of mind’ when she realises that Henry Crawford is not going to propose to her but when he attempts to toy with her heart again (when he is supposedly paying court to Fanny), she takes charge of the situation and seems not to take no for an answer. Henry is apparently swept off his feet by her sexuality. When Julia hears of her sister’s adultery, she immediately elopes with the first available man, Mr Yates. In a society where a woman was supposed to be unaware of her own feelings for a man before he had declared his for her, this recurring theme is very subversive.
With this in mind, Fanny’s conduct makes for an interesting contrast. She spends most of the novel quietly and unrequitedly in love with her cousin Edmund. When they do get together in the final pages, it seems to be on his timetable and on his terms. In contrast to the other young female characters, Fanny is completely passive. Indeed, this is one of the key reasons that her character is routinely dismissed as dull. I think though that calling her boring misses the point of Fanny. Jane Austen was one of the most accomplished writers who ever lived. She did not slip up with Mansfield Park and forget how to write a compelling heroine. She spent over three years in its creation – she knew what she was doing. It’s just that what she was doing was quite different to what she set out to do in her other novels.
Earlier in this year’s run of Austen in Autumn, I discussed Pride and Prejudice‘s Mary Bennet and how in the modern era, a new generation have tried to make the character a Cinderella and find her a happy ending. My own view was that Mary Bennet is significant only in her insignificance. Jane Austen made a character who was utterly futile because she was making a point about the way society treated women, particularly the unenviable position of ‘surplus females’. However, Mary is at best a side-character and no matter how hard writers try to make her story arc compelling, there just is not enough material there to work with for it to work. I am tempted to wonder whether Fanny Price represents a return to the problem of the ‘surplus female’.
Mansfield Park is not a Cinderella story. It teases us with the figure of Henry Crawford whose marriage proposal to Fanny seems like a dream come true. It seems as though Fanny is about to be raised far above her original station. Certainly Sir Thomas Bertram is embarrassed when he goes to speak to her about it and see how she has been living, up in her tiny sitting room with no fire in the hearth. While this might have been an acceptable way to treat a poor relation, it would not do for it to be known that these were the conditions endured by the future wife of a wealthy man. It also serves as a neat punishment for the ghastly Mrs Norris, who realises that her own favourite nieces have been passed over for her long-term object of disdain. But the twist is that Fanny will not accept this happy ending. She may be passive but she is resolute. Where the other female characters choose their ‘yes’, she is just as decided in her ‘no’.
On my most recent reading, I was caught by Fanny’s acute vulnerability to the male gaze. Before her arrival at Mansfield, her uncle had expressed reservations about taking her in, fretting about ‘cousins in love’. Mrs Norris assured him that this would never happen in they were all brought up together from a young age. Due to Fanny’s poverty-stricken status, she is not a suitable wife. Her agreed fate is to wait upon her aunts as an unpaid servant for the rest of her days and to be grateful for her servitude. But she is still a young woman of pleasant appearance. As the novel opens, her departing uncle berates her for still looking like a child. When he returns, he sees her quite differently and his remarks about her person make her uncomfortable. Edmund tells Fanny that she should get used to men liking how she looks but Fanny is clearly unsettled by the attention. Fanny is not under the same protection as Austen’s other heroines. This is underlined by the confusion she prompts in Mary Crawford, who cannot work out whether Fanny is ‘out’ in society. Mary ultimately concludes that she most likely is not. The very fact that Austen deems this conversation necessary must be to signal something to the reader. Fanny is an outsider. Unlike Austen’s other heroines, Fanny is not operating within the marriage market. She is beneath the status of prospective wife but the suggestion hovers that men are still free to look upon her with other intentions.
While I loathed the recent television adaption of Sanditon, it did give me pause on one point. Clara confronts Esther and comments on how difficult it can be to get away from a man’s advances when you owe him the roof over your head. Clara states that she had had to contend with an abusive uncle. This reminded me of A S Byatt’s The Children’s Book, admittedly set some seventy or so years later but also detailing several ‘surplus women’ in sexually abusive scenarios from which they had no means of escape other than matrimony. Austen would never be so direct as to state that anything like that is going on at Mansfield Park but when you look at the book again, she is hinting at it. Reading Austen’s surviving letters, it would be folly to think that she did not know that such things occurred. She knew and she also knew that it was women such as Fanny who were most vulnerable.
I wondered then if now it becomes clear why Fanny refused Henry Crawford. She had seen him flirt with first Julia and then Maria. She knew that his attentions meant nothing. But then he turned his eye on her. When the whole household turns on Fanny for declining Henry’s proposal, Fanny protests that how could she possibly have loved him when she had been told constantly that marriage to a man like him was utterly impossible for someone like her. What then did she think he was trying to do? He had been trying to get her attention for weeks. He had even gone so far as to assist her brother professionally. It was clear what kind of a man Henry was – a total sex-pest. Is it so outlandish to wonder whether Fanny thought he might be expecting payment in kind?
What was truly startling to me as a twenty-first century woman is that Fanny’s ‘no’ was not accepted by anyone. Nobody, from Sir Thomas to Edmund to Mary Crawford to Henry himself, seemed to take her at her word. She is scolded by Mary, ranted at by the Bertrams and Mrs Norris unleashes a whole new level of venom. But it gets stranger. Henry Crawford remains a welcome guest. He is allowed to sit next to Fanny after dinner. He is encouraged to continue paying his addresses. She said no and she still has no way of putting distance between herself and this creepy man who she has already tried telling to take a hike. Nobody takes Fanny’s part and instead she is sent home to her own family in Portsmouth to be taught a lesson in humility and marrying where she has been told.
Even upon arrival, even though Fanny is technically back with her own parents and protectors, her situation does not improve. Her father greets her with a ‘hug’, but in eighteenth century language, that does not have positive connotations. He is rough and rude and speaks only in those terms. Her younger sisters squabble over a knife, both wanting to have it in their possession for reasons unclear. Her family life is a savage place. The house in Portsmouth does not offer a sanctuary and it is certainly not a home. Yet Fanny has once again no means of escape. Sir Thomas is making a point and will not summon her back. Yet the dynamics in Portsmouth and that in Mansfield are mirrors of each other. Austen underlines this by remarking on the close resemblance between Mrs Price and Lady Bertram. Both were once good-looking women and neither are effective house-keepers. Their daughters both fight over the same objects. Their husbands are both authoritarian and intimidating. Fanny has merely moved from one dysfunctional situation to another. But this is the house of her parents. She has no right to leave it except through marriage, as Mary Crawford makes explicit. All Fanny has to do is to call on the Crawford and they will take her away but in so doing, she will be tacitly agreeing to be Henry Crawford’s wife.
It is here that Austen intervenes. Fanny never has to make that choice. Henry is overpowered by Maria Rushworth and the die is cast. It is Edmund who comes to Fanny’s aid instead. He even lets her rescue her sister Susan too. In the wake of the scandals around the Bertram girls and Edmund’s rupture with Mary Crawford, Mansfield Park would surely have become a much quieter place. It is perhaps unsurprising that Edmund turned towards the familiar and decided to marry his cousin instead. But regardless of whether she loved him – and it does seem rather unlikely that he loved her – she knew him to be offering a respectable home. For someone in Fanny’s position, this was a winning lottery ticket of an opportunity. No more Portsmouth. No more drudgery. A home of her own. Of course she accepted.
Fanny Price is the Austen heroine who nobody defends. Unlike Lizzy who charms wherever she goes or Emma who is adored by all of Highbury or even the Dashwood sisters who are firmly under Mrs Jennings’ protection or Anne who has the Musgroves, Mrs Smith and Lady Russell all keeping an eye out for her – Fanny has nobody. I was struck by the similarity between her and Villette‘s Lucy Snowe. While Lucy loves Dr John, she will not compromise her own intelligence to attract him and so he marries the child-wife Paulina instead. Despite her meek exterior, Fanny is similarly iron-willed. Fanny spends so much of the book pushing down her emotions and hiding them from the Bertrams that even the reader is not able to get in close.
And yet, if Fanny did speak her mind, would it have made any difference? Mary Crawford is condemned by Edmund for giving her opinion on her aunt and uncle’s marriage. Mary speaks in favour of her aunt who had been treated poorly by her uncle. Edmund sees this as highly inappropriate, partly because Admiral Crawford had paid for Mary’s upbringing but mostly because females were not supposed to be so frank. Women were best off smiling sweetly and forgiving all, with Jane Bennet as an excellent role model. Fanny recognised this and keeps her mouth shut in a way that Elizabeth Bennet would never have managed. Fanny never condemns Sir Thomas’ bullying, never explains to anyone exactly why she dislikes Henry Crawford and never even tells Mrs Norris that she is a hag. For Fanny, there would never be any #MeToo or #TimesUp because to be a victim was to have somehow earned one’s suffering.
So is the point of Fanny that you can survive by other methods? By the end of the novel, she is mistress of a comfortable household, her brother is rising in his career and her sister has taken her own old role as helpmeet while her female cousins both languish in divorce and a bad marriage respectively. Indeed, Lynn Shepherd even wrote a reimagined version of Mansfield Park which places Fanny as villain and it is intriguing to imagine that the story is secretly a tale of revenge. Yet while marriage to Edmund may represent a hard-won security, it is hardly the fitting coup de grace at the end of such a story. No, I think that in the creation of Fanny Price, Jane Austen was shining a light on the everyday courage and tenacity of surplus women who had to fight hard for their corner of someone else’s drawing room. The humiliation of having to toady and tend to the comfort of those who show you little kindness, to be forever on your guard. That even a lukewarm offer of love was to be seized upon. Austen had an eye for the lone and friendless woman, ignored and treated with contempt. Yet the irony is that in making one such girl her heroine, she created a character that so much of male literary scholarship was never going to bother trying to understand.