Fanny Price, A Heroine For Our Times

Fanny Price, A Heroine For Our Times

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.

15 Responses to Fanny Price, A Heroine For Our Times

  1. For the longest time, Fanny was my least favorite Austen character. But as I have aged I have come to appreciate Austens work in Mansfield Park. It really is a quiet gem, much like Fanny herself.

  2. I agree that Fanny is a great character. It really does take a strong character to stand up for your principles when everyone else around you disagrees or trying to persuade you to give in to their point of view.

  3. Hurrah for Team Fanny!! I agree completely with your assessment. I am a gentle person by nature [most of the time] so I can relate to her being quiet, unassuming, and perfectly content being in the shadow of her self-centered, pampered, cousins… while being useful to her Aunt Bertram.

    When I think of MP… I like using the term ‘moral compass’ when dealing with the characters. They are all such a varied and complex study, that we could argue for days on the justifications and motivations behind their behaviors. There are only a few of Austen’s characters that I am really passionate about. Fanny is one of them. She is so misunderstood that I would be willing to fight tigers in order to champion her. Yep, I am Team Fanny.

  4. Friends have know that MP is my favorite Canon novel. Fanny Price’s character (and the underlying discourse about the morality of the Bertram fortune) stand as a beacon for the seminal moral question driving British politics during the first third of the 19th Century. Great post EO!

    • Thanks Don! I can’t say MP is my favorite, but Fanny is a character I aspire to be. And yes, I think MP raises more moral questions than any of Austen’s other books. It’s the only one that I know of where slavery is mentioned even in passing, for instance.

    • Thank you, Karylee! Just this morning there was another famous person accused of unspeakable acts against other people. There are far worse things Fanny could be besides weak or timid. I’d rather hang with her than with certain real life personalities who look good in front of the camera, but whose true character is sadly lacking.

      • Agreed! I’m so damned sick of all the bad things humans do to each other, animals, the planet. WHAT would JANE say??!!?

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