Or maybe this should really be called, “Elaine, have you lost your mind?”
I get it. I really do. Mansfield Park is probably Austen’s most controversial novel. Certainly it’s the one most likely to earn you a few raised eyebrows, Darcy-style, if you announce how much you enjoyed reading it.
And I understand why. About halfway through my first reading of Mansfield Park, when Fanny was too weak to dance much, when she was unbearably shy with her cousins and primly refused to take part in a small play, staged in her own home, I was tempted to bang my head on the desk and ask, “Why, Jane Austen, why? Why are you wasting my time with this character?”
But remember the biggest lesson from Pride and Prejudice: appearances can be deceiving. Fanny is the strongest character in the novel. Nobody else even comes close.
First off, Fanny has no problem standing up for her principles. She may be timid and mousy, but out of all the inhabitants of Mansfield Park, she is the only one who refuses to take part in the play that her cousins and their guests plan to put on in the house. We modern readers are confounded by all the fuss over a simple play, but there are good reasons to object to it.*** Edmund, morally her strongest cousin, objects as well but in the end he goes weakly along with the scheme. It is left to Fanny, the despised poor relation, to provide the only real conscience in the group.
Fanny is also far more perceptive about other people than her family members are. She realizes, even if she can’t fully explain, the trouble that the Crawford siblings will bring to Mansfield Park. She recognizes that Mary Crawford is the wrong bride for Edmund, not just because of her own love for him, but because of Mary’s moral failings. And she remains strong in her refusal of Henry Crawford’s marriage proposal because she doubts that his character has truly changed. In the end her instincts are completely confirmed and it is Fanny who becomes the moral center of Mansfield Park.
Fanny may not be a typical Austen heroine, who are almost all witty, clever, physically strong, and charming. She’s just good-morally and spiritually good. And in the end, that may have been Austen’s point: not all of us can have Elizabeth’s intelligence or Emma’s perception or Eleanor’s patience (what’s with all the first names starting with E?), but we can all be good. We can all live up to the best that our moral code teaches us to be, and perhaps experience happiness in life as a result.
In this current moral climate, when every day brings news of yet another bright, successful, famous and wealthy person facing ruin after having their secret sins exposed, we can all be grateful for someone with an unswerving moral compass. And that makes Fanny Price a heroine for our times.
***These reasons are too complicated to go into here, but you can follow this link if you’re curious.