Fanny Price is Annoying.  Why Do I Still Like Her?

Fanny Price is Annoying. Why Do I Still Like Her?

I’ve always had a soft spot for Mansfield Park, although I know it’s not Austen’s most popular work. Recently, as I re-read the story, I asked myself two questions: why do some readers (even readers who love Austen) find Mansfield Park problematic? And why do I find the book appealing despite that? Below are my conclusions.

Why is Mansfield Park Problematic?
Mansfield Park has many of the elements we love in other Austen books: great characters, sharp dialogue, a wonderfully satirical view of society, and an engaging plot. Yet even Austen’s own family received it with lukewarm praise. Most readers would agree that the primary problem is the protagonist, Fanny Price. A fellow JAFF writer once complained to me that Fanny doesn’t do anything. And that criticism is mostly accurate. As an indigent relation, she is essentially a passive character, having little influence over the events in her life.

While many of Austen’s other heroines are often forced into passive positions (by virtue of social custom), Fanny is particularly passive. When challenged she is likely to fold like a house of cards and retreat to her attic room. She never argues and defends her views like Elizabeth Bennet. She takes no bold actions to help members of her family like Elinor Dashwood. Even Catherine Morland exhibits more gumption in the face of opposition. But Fanny initiates almost nothing of her own will. The one time she takes a stand is when she refuses to marry Henry Crawford—a decision she stands by in the face of some quite strong opposition. Ultimately, through no actions of her own, Fanny’s view of the Crawfords is vindicated and everyone comes to recognize her superior judgment.

What’s the problem with passive protagonists? They’re not very interesting. They do not take action; they are acted upon. Often they come across as victims, subject to the will of others. After a while that gets annoying to the reader.  Passive protagonists are one of those things they warn beginning writers to avoid. Fanny is passive, and she never changes (also a bad quality in a protagonist). No wonder some people find the book distasteful.

Why Do I Like It?

If I can so readily identify Fanny’s flaws, why do I still find myself liking her and enjoying the book? I think one factor is that Fanny’s virtue becomes its own reward. Fanny is not particularly clever or brave or beautiful, but she is good. She is sweet, nice, virtuous. No one could possibly say a bad word about her. And she is the only one who sees the truth of the Crawfords’ moral failings. Ultimately her goodness is rewarded. When Lord Bertram’s other daughters fail him, he turns to Fanny, the daughter of his heart. When Edmund is disillusioned about Mary Crawford, he realizes he loves Fanny. It takes a while, but ultimately her superior virtues are recognized and rewarded.

If I perform a little psychoanalysis on myself, I think some part of me responds to that idea. I think I’m a good person (doesn’t everyone?). I feel underappreciated (doesn’t everyone?). I can identify with Fanny. Isn’t it an appealing thought that good things will come to me—and all of my problems will be resolved—simply because others eventually recognize my goodness? Wouldn’t it be nice if the world worked that way?

In some ways, Mansfield Park is like a fairytale. Like a fairytale princess, Fanny doesn’t need to do anything to earn her prince. She receives her reward by being good and virtuous. Wouldn’t we all like that?

20 Responses to Fanny Price is Annoying. Why Do I Still Like Her?

  1. I just re-read MP again, for maybe the 5th or 6th time in 40 years, and while it’s not my favorite in the canon, I certainly prefer it to Northanger Abbey and maybe even Emma. I like Fanny better than Catherine and Emma as well, who just seem very silly to me. I think I relate to Fanny Price because of some things that happened to me as a young person, and maybe I see her through what my own thoughts and insecurities were at the time. I almost didn’t think Edmund deserved her, as he was foolish enough to be taken in by Mary Crawford, who was so greedy and grasping. Henry and Mary are some of my least favorite characters in JA’s books, though there are certainly many unlikable ones to choose from (and Mrs. Norris is certainly even worse)! I enjoyed reading your thoughts; thank you!

  2. Many people say they love Jane Austen but mean they like the movies made of her books or love Pride and Prejudice. People have fought “wars” online over Fanny. The names she has been called range from mild “boring” to words usually represented by *^&%% and dashes. I long thought that the heroine Austen thought no one but she would like was Fanny and was surprised to discover it was Emma she meant. There are those who hate Emma because she has the qualities so many wish Fanny had. Austen’s heroines are like people and have different personalities. Sir Thomas comes to appreciate Fanny later. According to her letters, Jane Austen had been reading about Hannah More and the Evangelicals. Evangelicals had been in the forefront of the fight for abolition of the slave trade . It is hard to decide whether Fanny or Emma is disliked the most. Fanny for not being assertive enough and Emma for being too assertive. Mary Crawford is liked because she is like Elizabeth Bennet in her speech but without Elizabeth’s core values.
    I have always been sympathetic to fanny who was snatched away from her family at age ten and sent into exile among hostile people. She knew that if she did anything wrong or spoke out of turn she could be sent away again and who knew where she might end up. Remember she was a child with a child’s reasoning powers. Adults might speak of giving her benefits. At the time it was that her parents gave her away to strangers.

  3. Fanny has never stirred my emotions for the reasons you state. Yes, she is rewarded as she should be with winning the man she loves (even if he is her first cousin). We never read that she is hurt emotionally by the abuse and neglect among her relatives, especially Mrs. Norris. Oh, I know some try to protect her but I would love to read her thoughts, jealousy, anger, resentment, loneliness, etc. I want her to be more “human”, not an angel!

  4. I am team Fanny waving my stadium banner proudly and wearing my Team Fanny t-shirt.

    I see Mary and Henry Crawford as proud, self-loving in their beauty/handsomeness, pride in their wealth, socially savvy and world wise… slumming in the country for want of anything better to do. Here they are in this quaint little village with this quaint little family of eligible men and women whose father has a minor title. They are probably burnt-out with the ton and the behavior of their uncle, the Admiral, since his wife died. So they will spend a little time in the fresh air and company of Mansfield Park.

    Note of comparison: Henry was intrigued by Fanny, because she was unlike anyone he knew… sound familiar? Darcy was intrigued with Lizzy because she was unlike anyone he knew. If Fanny had, at any point in the story, given Henry the same attention as her cousins… he wouldn’t even have given her a second thought. No… she was different. The snake…

    • Hi JW, I think your description of the Crawfords is spot on. I hadn’t thought about comparing Henry C. and his reaction to Fanny to Darcy and his reaction to Elizabeth. But it’s an interesting parallel. Of course, Darcy has principles and he’s willing to correct his behavior. Maybe Henry is what Darcy would turn into without those qualities?

      • Oooh, that is a good point. Yes, Darcy was willing to change, because he wanted Elizabeth bad enough that he was willing to see his behavior through her eyes. Henry was not willing to change and refused to see how egregious his behavior was to Fanny. [His behavior?? What Behavior??] He just kept banging at her door trying to persuade her how fortunate she was for his condescension and all the things he could do for her.

    • Hi Caryl, I would encourage you to read it. Although it does have protagonist problems, it’s still a great story with lots of Austen’s trademark wit. Don’t be put off by the film adaptations. There hasn’t been a single one that comes close to the book.

  5. I love MP, though, like you, I feel Fanny leaves something to be desired in the heroine department. It also bothers me that she marries her first cousin though I know it was the norm back then. Overall, I love the tension of MP, and Fanny is a Jane Erye kind of figure in the midst of all those strong personalities. And, you have to admit, Mrs. Norris is the best antagonist to hate. J.k. Rowling even named a wicked little cat after her!

  6. My problem is that Edmund is such a dud. I like how Crawford learns Fanny’s great qualities, but Edmund never expresses his love for Fanny (it all happens off-stage). He expresses sisterly love, sure, but he is a rotten love interest.

      • Mind. Blown. Of course it isn’t really a romance novel! It really is a case study of different kinds of bad or naughty people, that We as Fanny, see and see through. And she had to throw in the marriage at the end. You are a genius. Now I like MP better.

  7. For me, frankly, it’s that I would prefer to see Fanny and Edmund exert enough will to help shape the Crawfords into better people, ones worth marrying. Then, people in the book would grow and change. It’s not only Fanny. It’s the whole lot of them. Nobody grows or changes much. No one seems very challenged, aside from the one part where Fanny is pressured to marry Crawford. Then, the challenge is to even more so do nothing than she already was.

    I do want to like her. As you said, she’s like Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty or Snow White, and I like them. Maybe it’s the lack of glimpses into her inner thoughts? Austen made her so very thoroughly what she is, inside and out. With, say, Cinderella, we see her rail against her circumstances, at least in private. With Fanny, I would applaud her persona more if, when away from others, she exhibited more personality. There’s a difference between contained and absent. Her personality seems absent to me.

    • Hi Summer, I agree that her personality seems absent. I think that blandness is a result of her inability to take action. I also agree that MP would be a more interesting book if F and E tried to reform the Crawfords, but I think Austen sees them as beyond reformation — much like Wickham.

  8. My problem with Fanny Price is that she is a harsh judge of character. She doesn’t allow for a person’s character to be shaped by their circumstances until she gets to know Susan, but she shows some character growth in this respect. She never judges Mary Crawford fairly at all or makes any allowance for her upbringing having contributed to her views. I dont blame Fanny at all for being passive, given her character and circumstances. I think she’s Austen’s attempt at a heroine who would have been deemed ‘perfect’ by the standards of the time and it’s ironic in that case that she is probably the least popular heroine.

    • Hi Ceri, That’s interesting. I don’t think F. judges Mary Crawford too severely. Yes, F is a bit of a goody two shoes, but Mary is manipulative and greedy. Even if she had a bad upbringing (and it’s not that bad), it doesn’t excuse her interest in Edmund mostly for the money he could bring in and her attempts to persuade him away from a career he loves. I also don’t believe she really likes F — it’s just way to get close to E and the rest of the family. I see F as the only one who sees through Mary much like Elizabeth can tell that the Bingley sisters don’t care for Jane.

      • Mary’s interest in Edmund is genuine – she goes to MP hoping to snare the elder son for the money but prefers Edmund. At first, not seriously, but in time her feelings for him are real. It isn’t kind of her to try and steer him away from his chosen profession, but she hasn’t been raised in an environment where religious beliefs are taken seriously, and, from the conversations she has with Edmund on the subject, it seems that most of the clergymen she has been exposed to are the Mr Collins type, who are doing it for the money, rather than because they were genuine Christians like Edmund. If Mary and Edmund had married, one of them would have had to have compromised in respect of his profession – he wanted only to be a clergyman and she would have been unhappy to be a clergyman’s wife.

        Fanny sees the flaws in Mary’s character, but she judges her as a bad person rather that chalking down any of them to upbringing. Morally, I think Mary is absolutely a product of her environment. She is not that dissimilar in morals to Fanny’s other cousins, who Fanny accepts without the same level of judgement, and she actually behaves better than them.

        Re. MP not being a romance, I couldn’t agree more. If you are expecting a romance you will be disappointed, but go in with different expectations and you’ll enjoy it much more.

    • Mary Crawford gets judged guilty/naughty/bad/fast by association with the vile General (right?) who raised her. As Fanny is judged to be slovenly like her family, etc. You were judged based on family reputation, thus trying to hide faults.

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