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In Defense of Fanny Price

July 10, 2014 | by

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. Read More »

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Keep Smiling

February 20, 2014 | by

For the origins of the selfie, look to the dandy.

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Honoré Daumier, Dandy, oil on canvas, 1871.

When selfie was crowned the Word of 2013 by the Oxford Dictionaries, the media reaction ranged from apocalyptic to cautiously optimistic. For the Calgary Herald’s Andrew Cohen, “selfie culture” represents the “critical mass” of selfish entitlement; for Navneet Alang in the Globe and Mail, selfies are inextricable from the need for self-expression, a “reminder of what it means to be human.” For the Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland, the selfie is both: at once “the ultimate emblem of the age of narcissism” and a function of the “timeless human need to connect.”

With a few exceptions, commentators tended to converge on one point: the selfie, and the unencumbered act of self-creation it represents, is unmistakably of our time, shorthand for a whole host of cultural tropes wedded to the era of the smartphone. As Jennifer O’Connell, writing for the Irish Times, puts it: “It’s hard to think of a more appropriate—or more depressing—symbol of the kind of society we have become. We are living in an age of narcissism, an age in which only our best, most attractive, most carefully constructed selves are presented to the world.”

But our obsession with the power of self-creation—and its symbiotic relationship with the technology that makes it possible—is hardly new. Even the “selfie artist” is hardly a creation of 2013. Its genesis isn’t in the iPhone, but in the painted portrait: not among the Twitterati, but among the silk-waistcoated dandies of nineteenth-century Paris. Read More »

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