Mansfield Park consistently comes up as the least favorite Jane Austen novel to many readers who greatly dislike Fanny Price, especially when she is compared to the more sparkling heroines of Austen’s body of work. In general, it may be said that there are roughly two types of Jane Austen heroines, one type which wins friends through wit and imagination and the other kind which approaches the challenges of life with a sense of Christian stoic resignation. In the former kind are Catherine Moreland, Marianne Dashwood (if she can be termed a heroine), Elizabeth Bennet, and Emma Woodhouse. In the latter one finds Elinor Dashwood, Fanny Price, and Anne Eliot. For those who come to Jane Austen novels looking for sparkling wit and heroines whose highspiritedness makes them easy to appreciate for contemporary high-spirited women, the novels whose heroines are more dutiful and less sparkling are often liked less. But that need not deter those readers who fancy themselves above the common heard, which is to say most of those who appreciate Jane Austen and cannot put up with those dull souls who find no pleasure in the great novelist.
Recently I took the opportunity to listen to an audiobook recording of Jane Austen’s novel spend up to 1.25 speed to make it go faster, and I was struck by the foreshadowing that happened in the novel. Whatever may be said about the gender of the pug who serves as Lady Bertram’s nearly sole tie to the concerns of this world, Austen was in control of her plot and characters and the novel as a whole is as full of wit and irony as Pride & Prejudice is. The main difference is that the wit and irony of Mansfield Park cannot be found in its heroine, about whom much can and has been said, but rather in the attitude of the novelist towards her characters. Indeed, the heavy-handedness of that wit is such that it frequently allows the reader to overlook what the author is saying about first appearances, and since Fanny’s mental world and her feelings are largely hidden to both other characters and to ourselves, it is easy for us to assume that they do not exist, which allows us to think meanly of Fanny as a character and to see her as dull and interesting, as priggish and unsympathetic. Of all of Austen’s heroines, Fanny Price draws the most of my sympathies in the same way that Anne Eliot and Elinor Dashwood most provoke my sense of empathy. All three of these heroines are characters who find it necessary to be gracious and polite to those who have little understanding of their worth and of their feelings, and in Fanny’s case in particular she has been willfully misunderstood by readers and by the other characters of her novel the most, approaching the unreasonableness of the world around and the people within it with a sense of quiet stubbornness and a refusal to be coerced.
Indeed, Mansfield Park is a particularly worthwhile novel to contemporary readers in forcing us to examine ourselves by subjecting our own blameworthy tendencies to withering scorn. To the extent that the reader sees themselves as seeking freedom through marriage and relationships, Jane Austen shows what a dead end that is through the tragic fate of Maria Bertram. To the extent that the reader expects good girls to redeem charming rakes, as is the common in much contemporary romantic fiction, Austen presents us in Fanny Price a sensible heroine who refuses to perform such a service despite being pressured to do so by everyone around her, even at heavy cost to herself. And her refusal to do so is vindicated in the persistence of his rakish tendencies in bringing to pass the novel’s final crisis. To the extent that we see the officious business without moral sensitivity of Mrs. Norris as being acceptable, Jane Austen shows her as immensely abusive towards others and worthless as a moral guide despite long service as a minister’s wife who nonetheless seeks to take advantage of others to satisfy her own mean and selfish pleasures. And yet those who want to fancy that Father knows best are subjected to three particularly repellant fathers in the novel, none of whom are in center stage but all of whom provide plenty of food for reflection, starting with the severe and harsh Sir Thomas Bertram who sees in Fanny a means of providing generosity to poor relations and, when she becomes an attractive young woman, an asset to increase the family’s ties to others, and whose moral authority is undercut by his undue harshness as well as the fact that the family’s wealth is tied to a plantation in Antigua. If that is not enough then the novel gives us the Crawford’s father in the immoral admiral whose bad moral example corrupts both of his children by increasing their cynicism and in pushing the plot along through keeping his mistress rather than resolving to take care of his daughter better, thus passing off the Crawfords to the attention and care of Mansfield Park. And if that is not enough we are given a deeply unpleasant look at the drunk and handicapped Mr. Price, who is impotent in every sense but one in being able to squire a great many children but not to raise any of them well, whose only thoughts about his fine and delicate daughter are that she looks quite attractive now that she has a womanly bosom, the sort of fatherly notice that leads a young woman to determine to lock her door at night. Indeed, only those characters who are good to Fanny Price come off well at all, as she is seen from the beginning to be a genuinely good character, and those who cannot see it cannot see the goodness in the novel as a whole.
I have read some commentaries on the novel which suggest that some readers see Fanny Price as being a stand-in for the author. I think, given the complexity of Jane Austen’s heroines, that she was a complex personality herself, for to recognize the goodness and to inhabit the interior space of young women with such varied personalities as hers do suggests that she had at least some sort of pull and divide within her that encouraged her both to use her novels as a means of encouraging her wit and opinionated side as well as her more dutiful and less sparkling side, and that efforts which encouraged one side tended to lead to later efforts that opened up new internal questions about the dynamic balance that Miss Austen kept with regards to her own internal gyroscope. In Mansfield Park, Jane Austen, a witty and insightful novelist whose concern about material matters and whose earthiness is still shocking to some readers who cannot see how a secluded spinster could be so aware of the ways of the world and yet so subtle in her portrayal of such matters, gives us a heroine whose lack of emotional affect makes her seem unsympathetic to a world of readers who have little appreciation of duty and restraint and whose reasoning and judgment take place nearly solely on the emotional level without either rational or spiritual reflection. Fanny Price has a deep emotional life, but it is not a very pleasant one, with the subterranean approach of someone who lives in the presence of powerful enemies who would exploit vulnerabilities, including a leering and potentially predatory father, a sadistic aunt, selfish cousins, and a severe uncle who fancies himself a moral example despite his own lack of attention to spiritual matters. Such feelings as come to the attention of other characters and the reader are a hopeless attraction to her first cousin Edmund, something which strikes modern readers as slightly incestuous, and her own warmth and devotion to her older brother William, as well as her similar devotion to her next youngest sister Susan. Mansfield Park as a novel gives us a chance to examine ourselves and our own prejudices with regards to appearances and surface level understanding, and it is a chance that all too many people fail to undertake, as it is easy to make fun of others but hard for us to examine ourselves.