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In Defense of Fanny Price

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Books

Mansfield Park at two hundred.

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A publicity still of Billie Piper as Fanny Price in a 2007 adaptation of Mansfield Park.

Poor Fanny Price. The unabashedly mousy, pathologically virtuous protagonist of Mansfield Park—which turns two hundred this year—is Jane Austen’s least popular heroine. She spends most of the novel creeping around the periphery of the titular park, taciturn and swallowing tears; she tires after the briefest of physical exertions; she looks down on her wealthier cousins for engaging in flirtatious amateur theatrics; and for most of the book’s five hundred pages, she refuses to voice her long-held love for her cousin Edmund.

Austen’s own mother reportedly found Fanny “insipid”; the critic Reginald Farrer described her as “repulsive in her cast-iron self-righteousness and steely rigidity of prejudice.” Even C. S. Lewis—in the voice of his demon Screwtape in The Screwtape Letters—let loose a vitriolic rant about Austen’s most priggish heroine, calling her “not only a Christian, but such a Christian—a vile, sneaking, simpering, demure, monosyllabic, mouselike, watery, insignificant, virginal, bread-and-butter miss … A two-faced little cheat (I know the sort) who looks as if she’d faint at the sight of blood, and then dies with a smile … Filthy, insipid little prude!” Even if we are to separate Lewis from Screwtape, it’s difficult to see Fanny as anything but, to quote Nietzsche’s famous description, “a moralistic little female à la [George] Eliot.”

And indeed, those who defend Fanny tend to see her as a Christian heroine in the mold of a Dorothea Brooke. As the Austen biographer Claire Tomalin puts it, “it is in rejecting obedience in favor of the higher dictate of remaining true to her own conscience that Fanny rises to her moment of heroism.” But to read Mansfield Park as a kind of Middlemarch is to miss the far more complicated story Austen has told. Fanny Price’s story is less about her individual virtue, or her richer relatives’ lack thereof, but about class, about privilege in its most insidious form—before the term ever cropped up in contemporary social justice discourse. Fanny isn’t moral or upright because she wants to be, but because the role—along with a whole host of so-called middle-class values—is forced upon her. For all we know, she may well wish to be as carefree, as filled with dynamic sprezzatura, as Woodhouse or Elizabeth Bennet, Austen’s more fortunate heroines, but the social dynamic, and the circumstances of her birth, deny her the security necessary for such frivolity. Fanny has too much at stake to be easygoing.

She is, after all, a poor relation, sent to live with her wealthier cousins at Mansfield Park by a kind of nominal charity. From the first, her rich aunt insists that she never forget her social inferiority to her cousins:

I should wish to see them very good friends, and would, on no account, authorise in my girls the smallest degree of arrogance towards their relation; but still they cannot be equals. Their rank, fortune, rights, and expectations will always be different. It is a point of great delicacy, and you must assist us in our endeavours to choose exactly the right line of conduct.

When Fanny is first understood by her cousins to be dull and stupid—qualities the reader soon comes to find in her, too—it’s not because of anything she has done but simply because of what lacks in her background:

They could not but hold her cheap on finding that she had but two sashes, and had never learned French; and when they perceived her to be little struck with the duet they were so good as to play, they could do no more than make her a generous present of some of their least valued toys, and leave her to herself, while they adjourned to whatever might be the favourite holiday sport of the moment, making artificial flowers or wasting gold paper.

Their aunt’s reply to this disdain is telling: “It is very bad,” she tells her children, “but you must not expect everybody to be as forward and quick at learning as yourself.”

The qualities of your typical Austen heroine—charming, forward, quick at learning—are rooted in privilege; Mrs. Norris is blind to the fact that such qualities, along with the possession of scarves or an in-depth knowledge of French, are learned, not inherent. And so Fanny is never given the chance to exhibit the qualities of a “good” Austen heroine; she’s told from childhood that she is dull, stupid, and inadequate until she herself internalizes “my situation—my foolishness and awkwardness.”

Many critics of Fanny focus on her approach to an amateur production of the flirtatious Lover’s Vows—performed by her cousins, along with two charismatic acquaintances, Henry and Mary Crawford—who embody the charm and worldliness Fanny lacks. She disapproves of the proceedings, which see the arrangement, under the guise of acting, of various romantic alliances and mésalliances. But her disapproval, as too few critics note, comes less from prudery about the theater itself than from an awareness that acting Lovers’ Vows is an a excuse to get away with essentially cuckolding her cousin’s hapless fiancé. While she is tempted by the idea of acting in theory—“For her own gratification she could have wished that something might be acted, for she had never seen even half a play”—in practice, Fanny is well aware that Lovers’ Vows will (and does) offend Sir Thomas, the family’s absent patriarch, upon his return. It’s the latter argument that underpins the objections of Fanny’s cousin Edmund—her sole ally in the house: “I am convinced that my father would totally disapprove it … my father wished us, as schoolboys, to speak well, but he would never wish his grown-up daughters to be acting plays. His sense of decorum is strict.”

Fanny’s fear of giving offense may seem like further evidence of her priggishness. After all, Sir Thomas’s own children have no such fear. Coddled, spoiled, and beloved, they’re perfectly aware that Sir Thomas’s wrath, whatever form it might take, will have few material consequences for them. So, too, Henry and Mary Crawford, who, by their wealth and social status, are largely shielded from consequence. But Fanny has no such protection. She’s reminded at every turn that her presence in the house is contingent upon the good will of her social betters. Should she offend her foster family—as she does, later on in the novel, by refusing to marry the eligible Henry Crawford—she will be considered “a very obstinate, ungrateful girl.” And then it’s back to her comparatively impoverished biological family.

Compare Fanny with Mary Crawford, the novel’s ostensible antagonist. Witty, charming, beautiful, and carelessly rich, Mary has more surface qualities in common with the typical heroines of Austen’s fiction than Fanny does. She schemes like Woodhouse; she’s as witty as, if not wittier than, Elizabeth Bennet; she makes risqué remarks, acts in flirtatious plays, and risks offending Sir Thomas. But she gets away with all this only because her actions have few real consequences. Her blithe worldliness, her willingness to transgress ostensible taboos, comes from the fact that she resides firmly within a fundamentally safe social sphere of immense privilege. It’s Fanny, really, who’s the more authentically transgressive of the two. By reminding her cousins of Sir Thomas’s potential disapproval, as well as of the morally questionable (and quasi-adulterous) flirtations the Bertrams and the Crawfords use Lovers’ Vows to disguise, she calls attention to her middle-class inability to engage in the same carefree pseudo-risks of her aristocratic peers. (Even when Maria Bertram’s adulterous affair with Henry Crawford becomes public, she’s hardly left to fend for herself in the street—her punishment is to spend the rest of her life abroad with her garrulous aunt.)

Arguably, by contrasting Fanny with a “typical” Austen heroine like Mary, Austen challenges us to read with a sharper eye to social class, and how such class informs her work as a whole. It can hardly be an accident that Austen is explicit about Mansfield Park’s wealth’s dependence on the slave trade—a dependence she does not highlight in connection with, for example, Mr. Darcy’s Pemberley. By seeing Mary through Fanny’s eyes, we wonder, too, how Austen’s and Elizabeth might appear to someone like Fanny, and whether they, too, get their literary appeal from qualities inherent to their social position. In wanting Fanny to be cleverer, bolder, sexier than she is—in wanting her to be more like Mary—we become complicit in the world of Mansfield Park, and in the politics of exclusion through which Mansfield thrives.

If we construe Mansfield Park as a morality tale, or as a book about Fanny herself, we fundamentally misread Austen’s novel. It’s not called Fanny Price, after all. Mansfield Park highlights, as no other Austen novel does, the role that class and class privilege play in determining the popular qualities for a heroine’s charm and wit—characteristics that depend on an ability to transgress without consequence. It might be the most quietly subversive of Austen’s novels—weakening the foundations not only of its titular park but of Pemberley as well.

Tara Isabella Burton’s work has appeared in National Geographic Traveler, Al Jazeera America, the BBC, the Atlantic, and more. She is working on a doctorate in theology and literature at Trinity College, Oxford and has recently completed a novel.