Mansfield Park: The Enigma that is Fanny Price

Image of a steel engraving by Nathaniel Whittock of Newby Hall Yorkshire, circa 1831 

GENTLENESS 

The gentleness and gratitude of her disposition would secure her all your own immediately. From my soul I do not think she would marry you without love; that is, if there is a girl in the world capable of being uninfluenced by ambition, I can suppose it her;

 Mary Crawford on Fanny Price, Mansfield Park, Chapter 30  

If Pride and Prejudice is the darling of Jane Austen’s oeuvre, then Mansfield Park is the red headed step child. Even opinions of it were divided among Jane Austen’s friends and family prior and after publication, which she collected into an undated manuscript circa 1814 and 1815.

“We certainly do not think it as a whole, equal to P. & P. — but it has many & great beauties. Fanny is a delightful Character! and Aunt Norris is a great favourite of mine. The Characters are natural & well supported, & many of the Dialogues excellent. — You need not fear the publication being considered as discreditable to the talents of it’s Author.” F. W. A. (Francis William Austen)

“liked it better than P. & P. — but not so well as S. & S. — could not bear Fanny. — Delighted with Mrs. Norris, the scene at Portsmouth, & all the humourous parts.” Anna Lefroy

“owned that she thought S. & S. — and P. & P. downright nonsense, but expected to like M. P. better, & having finished the 1st vol. — flattered herself she had got through the worst.” Mrs. Augusta Bramstone

“All who think deeply & feel much will give the Preference to Mansfield Park.” Mrs. Carrick

“did not much like it — not to be compared to P. & P. — nothing interesting in the characters — Language poor. — Characters natural & well supported — Improved as it went on.” Fanny Cage

Such enlightening comments! In fact, a quick analysis of all of the collected remarks by family and friends reveals that readers today feel much the same; Mansfield Park is not equal to Pride & Prejudice and Fanny Price is annoying and insipid. What is it about this novel that is so unsatisfying in comparison to Pride & Prejudice? Why do readers dislike Fanny?

To answer completely would require more time and space then I can impart at this moment, but I can give you a quick response. The themes and characters in Mansfield Park make us uneasy. They introduce the reader to some of the dark aspects of human nature, and more disturbingly, how we treat each other. That is unsettling. Fanny Price as a heroine is picked upon, belittled and degraded. She has been so un-empowered by her circumstances that she chooses not to oppose them. This angers and frustrates us. We want her to speak up for herself like Lizzy Bennet or tell others what to do like Emma Woodhouse, but that does not happen. Instead, Fanny is silent, patient and dutiful. Why?

The answers are eventually revealed by Jane Austen. The ending does reach a satisfying conclusion, rewarding the patient and dutiful reader who like Fanny must wait for the happy ending in Mansfield Park. Understanding the enigma that is Fanny Price, – – well, I fear that will remain one of the mysteries of the ages.

Image of Billie Piper as Fanny Price, Mansfield Park, PBS (2007)Be sure to mark your calendars and set you watches for the premiere of Masterpiece Classics’s Mansfield Park, starring Billie Piper as saintly Fanny Price, Blake Ritson as Edmund Bertram her friend and saviour, and Hayley Atwell and Joseph Beattie as twisted siblings Mary & Henry Crawford on Sunday, January 27th. at 9:00 pm on PBS. It should be a enigmatic and elightening evening.

*Steel engraving of Newby Hall, Yorkshire by Nathaniel Whittock, from A New and Complete History of the County of York by Thomas Allen (1831). Newby Hall stared as Mansfield Park in the ITV production that will air on The Complete Jane Austen presented by PBS this week. On a very weird side note to anyone who knows how family history can connect serendipitously, Newby Hall was originally owned by the Blackett family who built the present manor designed by Christopher Wren circa 1690. The Blackett family made their fortune in lead ore mines in Yorkshire and Northumberland. My ancestors were miners working for the Blackett-Beamont family for centuries in Allendale, NBL. So, you could say in a round-about way, that my family helped pay for the hall.

10 thoughts on “Mansfield Park: The Enigma that is Fanny Price

  1. Hello onlyanovel, thank you for dropping by tonight. Opinions of Fanny vary so widely or more appropriately wildly, that for being such a gentle heroine, she envokes quite a fervor in Janeites. We all identify with one of Jane Austen’s heroines more than another. I love Fanny also because she is closest to my nature as a young girl.

    Many aspire to be Lizzy Bennet, but Fanny might be closer to our real nature. I am confident that after her marriage in a more positive environment with Edmund’s love, she bloomed away from aunt Norris and the Bertams. She had bright potental to be her own woman. At least I like to wish that for her, and all of us.

    Cheers, Laurel Ann

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  2. Its not Fanny that gets to me. Many heroines in novels and fairy tales are lacking the ability to do something for themselves and are at the mercy of the villains or heroes. The reverse idea is a fairly modern feminist one. What, or rather who, gets to me is Edmund. He is so blind toward Mary and Fanny, seeing only what he wants to see. It is only at the very end, after he finds he can no longer make excuses for Mary that he turns around and finally sees poor, long-suffering Fanny and suddenly he finds the girl he’s always wanted. He doesn’t deserve to win her hand in the end. Though Fanny deserves true love, he deserves to do a little penance before getting the girl as even Emma does before getting her Mr. Knightly.

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  3. I have also never understood why people don’t like Fanny. Like Laurel Ann said, everyone aspires to be Lizzie Bennet, but Fanny might be closer to our real nature. I know she sure is mine: I’m an enormous social phobe, and her instict to avoid attention are the same as mine. If anything, I always found comfort as a girl that in Mansfield Park, the most invisible, ignored person in the room can still find happiness and comfort.

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  4. Pingback: Mansfield Park Revelation: I am Fanny Price! Are You? « Austenprose

  5. Pingback: In Which We Rant and Rave in Favor of Mansfield Park « Austenprose

  6. I am among the vocal minority of Jane-ites who absolutely love Mansfield Park! I’ve read it several times and have pursued as many literary articles as I can find on this particular book.
    It’s my humble opinion that many Austen lovers are too hard on Fanny Price. I believe the real answers to Fanny’s behavior have to do with her early years at Portsmouth, before she moved to MP. Jane Austen, for whatever reason, is quite vague on that period of time in Fanny’s life. So those of us who love the heroine “fuss and flap,” because she’s not universally understood…
    Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all girls were brought up to be strong, intelligent, and beautiful heroines, like Lizzy Bennett, Emma, and the Dashwood sisters? My hunch is that Jane Austen wanted to avoid being “predictable” in her stories, to whatever degree was possible…and still arrive at endings that satisfied herself and her readership.

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      • I hope this 2008 thread is still going on. I have an article that I plan on submitting to the Austen journal Persuasions, and I’d like to preview its ideas and ask if anyone feels it is an article people might like to read.
        I resonate with Fanny. I am a man and wonder if there are men among the writers in this thread. I see her as a lonesome person like we all are in a way, existentially are we not alone, and trying, in our ways, to be? I also see her as a contemplative person, and I believe she is like Jane Austen in this. I believe Austen felt human singleness strongly and that this was compounded when she went to “help” at her brother’s wealthy home.
        Fanny’s consciousness becomes the center of the novel when she cannot agree with the time Mary takes with “her” horse. Fanny develops her spirit and nourishes it with every comparison she makes between herself and the Others at Mansfield Park. In this way I daresay she is like a religious-minded person who takes inventory of the good and bad within themselves and tries to keep pure those things that should be pure. This is not at all about priggishness: religious thinkers can have fun and laughs!
        Austern shows us Fanny protecting her goodness, and in the end this is rewarded by a true love with Edmund. In this relationship one imagines she will laugh out loud a lot because she has found her soulmate. One should aspire to these kinds of things.
        Lastly, in my research I found the esteemed Lionel Trilling’s comment in print that no reader likes Fanny, none. That is a mistake by a famous critic and I think it has repercussions down the years. We have few role models in this life, and if for many it turns out that Fanny is one and Jane another, no one with power should turn off the effect a character might have on a life. Because he does not approve of her to say no one does! Impudence and show-off-ery! One problem we have as a human society is that we do not respect the beauty a certain beholder sees and that matters to them, but instead attempt to drag others down a road of selfishness and cynicism. A character is not currency to be haggled over and owned by the strongest; it is a prism. If we manhandle one another’s personal prisms/feelings we are retarding (further!) the evolution of the human species towards altruism and generosity. In other words critics have a responsibility to be fair and examine their own prejudices.

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