Mansfield Park (Jane Austen) Round Two

This reread was a challenge to myself to see if my initial reading of the character Fanny Price in Jane Austen’s, Mansfield Park, would change. In that first reading I found her moralizing tone and timidity quite tedious.  Although I have softened that assessment somewhat—and I wouldn’t call her conniving now, either—she remains one of my least liked of Jane Austen’s characters second only to Elizabeth Bennett.

In my initial reading I did not appreciate the liminal state in which Fanny Price enters Mansfield Park, a sort of “no-woman’s” status that gives her confusing messages. She comes to Mansfield Park as the 10 year-old daughter of Lady Bertram’s sister, Mrs. Price, whose large family is in difficult financial circumstances. As a niece and cousin to the Bertram’s four children Fanny really isn’t “upstairs” or “downstairs” and thanks to her Aunt Norris, who is Lady Bertram’s other sister and lives in the parsonage, she won’t ever be able to forget it. Fanny grows up as an afterthought, invisible until it is remembered that she might like similar things to her female cousins. Edmund remembers her most as does Sir Bertram when he is home, but she is easily forgotten when other more pressing issues impose. In social situations that call away her cousins she often stays behind to attend to Lady Bertram for whom she has become the de facto companion to whom “I can’t do without.” In this awkward, rankless state she finishes her childhood and grows into adolescence and beyond.

It is this awkward state in the family that I think shaped Fanny’s personality from her early days. She can’t speak up for herself without receiving a verbal wallop from Aunt Norris who constantly reminds her to be grateful of the tiniest scraps of attention and to remember her place. Yet, there are times she is treated like any member of the family, for example when she is given a horse to ride daily for her health or a fire in her room each day. It is a hard society to live in when you are never sure what you deserve. It is easier to try and stay invisible and out of the way, and not be put in a position that would call you out.

In this regard there is another aspect to Fanny Price I did not see in my first reading that is apparent now. From the very beginning of her life at Mansfield Park while she was often present in the action, she was put or placed herself, in the background, in the corner, by the curtains or at the end of the couch. By staying out of the way, she became a witness to all of the dynamics of the household. She became an astute observer to the looks, the tiny actions and tones of voices that may have said one thing, but meant another.

This makes Fanny wiser than most of her contemporaries, because as an observer who is on the outside, she must also keep so much to herself. Except when she goes running to Edmund to reveal all these observations and conversations that ruined it for me in my first reading, when I initially described her as being a moralizing tattle-tale, and very irritatingly so.

I should have read more carefully, as it is obvious that she goes to Edmund because he is one of the few people who actually listens to her, and who regards her feelings as honest and important. Those many ‘asides’ to Edmund, do get on my nerves, especially against Mary Crawford, but of course, it is because she likes him and she feels he is being led astray. I realize now it isn’t because Fanny is prudish when she tries to point out when Mary’s remarks are questionable, it is because she sincerely cares about Edmund’s reputation and does not want him to be brought down. And as we see at the end, this insight Providentially pays off. 

And then we come to the end of the book and Edmund and Fanny are neatly wrapped up in a fine and bountiful bow. In my initial reading, while I assumed they’d be together, the swiftness and tidiness of their lives coming together was rather hard to believe, especially against all of the chaos that precedes it. And isn’t this often the case when characters lives change in seconds and the reader is left puzzled with brows furrowed? But Austen is a sly one and beats the critics to their objections with this lovely gem:

I purposely abstain from dates on this occasion, that every one may be at liberty to fix their own, aware that the cure of the unconquerable passions, and the transfer of unchanging attachments, must vary much as to time in different people. I only entreat everybody to believe that exactly at the time when it was quite natural that it should be so, and not a week earlier, Edmund did cease to care about Miss Crawford, and became as anxious to marry Fanny as Fanny herself could desire.

And everyone (mostly) lives happily ever after. Just as they should!

Finally

I read Mansfield Park with a particular purpose in mind and I did find insights that deepened my understanding of Fanny Price. But not enough to change my overall perception. However, in reading slowly and thoughtfully the reading experience was itself a great pleasure. I often read quickly and then go on to the next book forgetting that wonderful experience of being completely immersed in a book, taking my time to understand the large cast of characters and their stories. I didn’t realize my summer called for an exclusive read, but that became evident from the first few pages.


11 thoughts on “Mansfield Park (Jane Austen) Round Two

  1. Pingback: Mansfield Park by Jane Austen • Chris Wolak • Stay Curious

  2. I agree with FF that I’m not sure I’d want to spend an afternoon with Fanny but I liked her steadfastness and her realisation that ‘home’ wasn’t really with her parents was quite a surprise I think. I also thought she was quite refreshing after the Bennet sisters who are all so sure of themselves!

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  3. I wrote a post, possibly it was in a review, of Austen intruding her authorial comments late on in many of the novels with a fine aperçu or other. I ought to analyse them now that you’ve reminded me of her intervention in MP. 🙂

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  4. I’m not sure I’d have enjoyed Fanny’s company much as a person, but as a character I love her. I love that despite her lowly position and total dependency on her relations she refuses to bow to the pressure to make what looks like an advantageous marriage, because she knows she can’t love the man. And I love that she’s honest enough to recognise that a life of relative poverty with her immediate family holds few attractions for someone used to the wealthier surroundings of her adopted home. For me, these two points make her one of the strongest of the Austen heroines, even if not one of the most entertaining.

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  5. Ah, the “problem” of Fanny Price. I’m glad this reading helped you rethink your earlier assessment. As TRG wrote in their comment, we change as readers over time, so of course our responses to what we read will change as well.

    Like you, I find Fanny “insipid”, way too passive for her own good — yet she manages to wind up married to the love of her life. She has “earned” him through her patience and her moral stances, against unbelievable external pressures, including from the man she loves. I’m still trying to figure out Austen’s purpose here. You’ve given me something to think about: outsiders and insiders, and what it takes to move from one position to the other. Thanks for that.

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    1. I hope this isn’t what Austen was trying to say with Fanny, although I do not really know what she was trying to say! For me Mary Crawford was the more interesting female character and her failings at the end that turned Edmund against her seemed forced to me. Was it really in character that she was more concerned with how her brother and Maria ‘looked’ than the immorality of what they did? And in saying it to Edmund would she have been so blind not to know how it would hurt him? I can’t believe that. Oh, you have NO idea how much I would like to talk to the author about this book!!

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      1. I read the introduction of the Crawfords as an early warning that their morals and values (influenced by that rakish uncle) would be lacking. Perhaps a comment on city-living vs country-living? I don’t know. But Mary’s behavior at the end didn’t surprise me, if only because throughout their interactions with the Bertrams, Mary and Henry treated the others like toys lined up to provide amusement, to be dropped when no longer of interest.

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    1. For some reason Mansfield Park is quite popular this #AustenInAugust. It’s always interesting to see what other readers have to say about a book or character you have such strong feelings about. I just don’t get Fanny and it looks like I never will!

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