I have always considered Fanny Price from Mansfield Park the secret “Weapon of Mass Destruction” that Jane Austen created to be “discovered” by those readers who can read closely enough, who can read in tune with the Regency times, and who can read between the lines…
Fanny is the small, quiet, shy, self-effacing but perfectly put-together individual with an amazing level of personal integrity, loyalty, perceptive discrimination, and adherence to a moral code. Basically her ability to perceive the true worth of others and be constant to what she believes in is off the charts, compared to pretty much everyone else around her. And if that’s not rock-strength, I don’t know what is. (Incidentally, these are the two qualities I chose to focus on and enhance to a supernatural degree in my own treatment of Fanny Price in Mansfield Park and Mummies).
As such a powerfully charged personality, Fanny is potentially a formidable force in whatever direction she chooses to exert herself, a true WMD. But – as a true WMD – much of her strength comes from not being deployed at all.
Furthermore, fortunately she chooses to be a steady unshakable force for good. And, in emerging thus, as portrayed by Jane Austen, she is perfectly in tune with the contemporary notions and standards of her time — which are not the same as our own modern standards, and therein lies the modern reader’s confusion.
How so? Allow me to illustrate.
Let’s take the classic example of unbreakable courage – in Fanny’s time, it was unthinkable for a young woman to go against the will of a parent figure, and especially a powerful benefactor such as her uncle Sir Thomas Bertram who basically took her in and paid for her livelihood for the greater portion of her childhood and teen years. And yet, against her uncle’s direct wishes, Fanny refuses the offer of marriage from Henry Crawford, a superficially excellent match, but a man she considers wrong and unworthy.
Fanny recognizes that Henry is like a splendid but freshly spoiled buffet – so much amazing rare deliciousness is in front of you, but little of it is truly palatable, and if you try eating any of it, much of it will give you food poisoning, but you cannot really tell just by looking – you need to come closely, sniff, walk around it, poke it with a fork, maybe stick it on the tip of your tongue, etc. Such is Henry Crawford. And no one can tell her otherwise, because Fanny knows and trusts her own keen senses.
Hence, the refusal. This is an act of pure defiance for her time – going directly against the will of her paternal authority figure. And yet, Fanny’s final authority is her own set of inner principles.
And when Sir Thomas (in all fairness) asks Fanny to explain her refusal, and maybe gives her a way to excuse her behavior, she does not take the easy way out and reveal the negative aspects of Crawford’s personality because she knows it would badly implicate her cousins (engaged Maria has been shamelessly flirting with Henry behind the back of her fiancee). So, Fanny basically keeps the secret, and shoulders the blame for “irrational behavior,” for being “willful” and for being “ungrateful” to her benefactors, just so as not to compromise the life of other people she cares about. This is another act of courage and integrity, in the face of dire consequences to her own person. Not to mention, Fanny now risks losing the affection and approval of Sir. Thomas who truly cares about her – something which means a lot to her.
Next, Fanny submits to the subtle “punishment” of being sent away indefinitely from the high quality of life at Mansfield Park and returned to her own parents, to live in squalor and neglect in Portsmouth. She endures it, even though she longs more and more every day to return to that better kinder life at Mansfield.
Finally, when Henry Crawford makes a surprise appearance specifically to woo her, rescue her and “take her away” to a good life, and nearly succeeds in changing her mind about his personality and worthiness, Fanny keeps her head and retains above all else the counsel of her common sense and instinct. People do not change so quickly, so easily — nor do some people change at all, knows Fanny. And so, she trusts her own gut enough to not be seduced by Crawford’s onslaught of charm, and to still refuse him yet again (albeit not with such fervor as before). It’s a good chance that, had Henry not “given up” on Fanny at that point (for it is ultimately his way of giving up that he goes off with Maria Rushworth), and had he continued in his steady honorable attentions, Fanny might have ended up as Mrs. Crawford.
And then there are the little things – Fanny’s stubbornness in refusing to participate in the tacky play Lover’s Vows, because again she believes it is simply wrong for so many reasons (inappropriate especially to the engaged Maria, being a thinly veiled way for everyone to flirt with everyone else, not to mention directly against the will of her uncle). There’s Fanny’s modernly inexplicable quiet mousiness as she basically runs errands for everyone in the household and acts like a glorified chaperon or companion, and almost stoops to the level of servant – when in fact she simply believes with all her heart and every fiber of her being that it is her obligation and duty to do all this, in gratitude for being taken in by her rich relatives, and it’s the least she could do (according to her personal code of integrity, and the mores of her time).
Now, here is where the modern reader balks. What’s the point, many of us wonder, to not break out of a bad situation, make a better life for herself, and take the chance on personal happiness? Wouldn’t a modern strong woman – a .k. a. feminist – have jumped on such an opportunity? And, for that matter, if Fanny is so “strong,” why did she allow herself to be trampled on by the whole household of Mansfield Park, to be overworked by Lady Bertram, to be verbally abused by Mrs. Norris, pushed around and taken advantage of by her cousins Maria and Julia, and to a lesser degree Tom? Finally, why did she let herself be so utterly invisible to Edmund, her true love interest?
The answer to all of this discrepancy lies in the unwritten “definition” of a modern feminist, which I believe is fundamentally faulty, and yet we have all grown accustomed to it.
In our modern opinion, first and foremost, a strong woman does not allow herself to be used, trampled, put down, or abused – regardless of reason.
Second, a modern feminist is a rebel, who struggles against the status quo.
Third, a modern feminist uses her strength in an overt and aggressive manner, and is not afraid to be a warrior and use force to get her will.
In other words – a modern feminist is a perfect free agent with a full set of rights and unlimited choices – freed of all pressures, obligations, hangups, fears, and consequences, in order to aggressively pursue her own personal actualized will and fulfill her needs.
And that’s the flaw.
Because in our modern desire to right all the compounded wrongs of the past, all the abuse, neglect, and limitation of women’s rights as full human beings, we forget that a woman, even an actualized feminist, does not exist in a selfish vacuum. Sometimes it is her will to make choices that may seem to be detrimental to her own person in order to remain genuinely true to her values and hence to herself. A real feminist has the strength and freedom to limit herself when it is her choice to do so – if necessary, against all odds and guided only by her own will.
Now let’s look at how Fanny stacks up in this respect.
Does she rebel? Yes. Does she make her own choices? Yes. Does she use loud, brash, aggressive extrovert force to get her will? No! But does she use force? Heck , yes! She uses a different kind of force – not overt aggression but the strength of an introvert anchor, a bulwark, a fortress of principled integrity. It is a force turned inward, the force of a concrete wall raised up against the onslaught of external wrongness that assails her very self and threatens her being.
So I say to you, Fanny Price is a feminist of the truest kind — not a selfish extroverted individualist, but an unshakable believer in the strength and rightness that resides inside herself – and, without shame, intimidation, or regret, willing and able always to share it with others.