Mansfield Park: Jane Austen the Contrarian

Mansfield Park is probably the most controversial and least favored of all six Austen novels. Drawing the issue of slavery into the limelight, post-colonialist critic Edward Said had certainly stirred up some ripples in alleging Austen’s acceptance of British imperialism with her mention of Sir Thomas Bertram’s Antigua plantation. [1]   Susan Fraiman has aptly presented her rebuttal to Said’s argument, noting in particular Austen’s brilliant irony and metaphor upon deeper reading. [2]   So here, I would just like to concentrate on Austen’s characterization, which I believe is more in line with her central purpose in Mansfield Park. That brings me to the other major controversy.

What makes a heroine?

Published after Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park presents a very different heroine from that of Austen’s previous success. Fanny Price is often measured against Elizabeth Bennet, consequently being looked upon as inferior. On the outset, Fanny is indeed everything Lizzy is not. First of all, she is physically fragile, easily succumbs to exhaustion and fainting spells, very unlike Lizzy who can take on extensive walks in the outdoors, happily treading through miles of muddy paths. No rosy cheeks from such exercise for Fanny. She may have grown into a fair lady at eighteen, but she does not have Lizzy’s athletic prowess, or her pair of fine eyes, the trademark of her exuberance.

Further, Fanny Price is painfully shy, an introvert. Readers may find her insipid, lacking glamour, but they may be more impatient with her passive, yielding personality. Why does Jane Austen present to us such a heroine, especially after the very lively and charismatic Lizzy Bennet? Well, I, for one, am glad to see Austen has demonstrated her wisdom by depicting an anti-stereotyped heroine. With Fanny Price, Austen has shattered the image of the typical heroine: a captivating beauty, quick witted and forthright, even audacious at times, endowed with energy and charisma. Why is reticence, or introvert nature being frowned upon? When did we start thinking of long-suffering and perseverance as negative traits? Why is humility not getting its rightful esteem? And, why are the quiet, observant and thinking female not as attractive as those who are more expressive, or who possess only outward beauty?

What Fanny lacks in physical vigor, she more than compensates with her inner strength. And it is in the nobility of character that Austen has chosen to depict her heroine. Underneath Fanny’s fragile appearance is a quiet and principled perseverance. Seeing the impropriety of staging a play which entails the remodelling of Sir Thomas’ very private library in his absence, Fanny stands firm in not participating, despite the pressures and insults from her older cousins, the persuasion from the Crawfords, the scornful criticisms from Mrs. Norris, and even the eventual yielding of Edmund himself.

In her ingenious manner with biting irony, Austen pits Fanny Price against her formidable foe, Mary Crawford. At first sight, “Mary Crawford was remarkably pretty.” Not long after that, Austen adds:

She had none of Fanny’s delicacy of taste, of mind, of feeling; she saw nature, inanimate nature, with little observation; her attention was all for men and women, her talents for the light and lively.

When it comes to moral uprightness, Mary Crawford is no match. Thanks to the way she defends her brother Henry who has snatched Maria away from her husband, even Edmund can now see clearly. Henry Crawford is a carnal schemer, and Mary Crawford is equally manipulative and egotistic. Unfortunately, it takes a scandal and trepidations for others to learn what Fanny has seen clearly from the very beginning.

In a way, Fanny Price is more lucid than Elizabeth Bennet in not succumbing to the lure of vanity with Henry Crawford’s superfluous praise and wooing. If only Elizabeth had conquered that soft spot regarding Wickham earlier on….but of course, there wouldn’t be any story then. And if it is admirably bold for Lizzy to resist Lady Catherine de Bourgh, someone who is of no relation to her, Fanny is all the more courageous in her refusing to marry Henry Crawford by standing up against the very guardian to whom she owes her upbringing and her present living, the patriarch Sir Thomas Bertram. It takes extraordinary fortitude to go against everyone in Mansfield Park, and follow her own heart, while the privilege to explain herself is infeasible.

Compared to other Austen heroines, Fanny Price is equally, if not more, worthy. Fanny has the passion of Marianne, while possessing the rationale of Elinor. That is why her secret love for Edmund can endure unfavorable conditions. Her lucid sense of judgement restrains her to reveal it to Edmund, who, with his emotional frailty, would be exasperated knowing his own beloved cousin is a rival rather than a friend of Mary Crawford. Her perseverance can easily match and surpass that of Anne Elliot. And, she may be uneducated and naive like Catherine Morland to start with, and is equally moldable and respectful when taught, she has way surpassed her mentor in insights and maturity as the story progresses.

By presenting a heroine who may not be a typical favorite, Austen seems to be writing contrary to conventional norms. (But is it just modern audience who have differed in their expectations, resulting in recent film adaptations altering the very spirit and essence of Austen’s characters to appeal to them?) Has Austen created a character so different from her other heroines? Comparing Mansfield Park with all her other novels, I do not feel she is particularly off her usual standpoint. As with her other heroines, Austen is more concerned with character, virtues, and morals, the inner qualities of the person rather than the outer appearance. Mansfield Park is the best manifestation of her stance. Ultimately, what shine through for our Austenian heroine are:

…the sweetness of her temper, the purity of her mind, and the excellence of her principles.

At the end, the steadfast and long-suffering Fanny Price triumphs. And for critics who assert that Austen had silently condoned slavery, the ending of Mansfield Park should silent them all, for it is the socially and economically disenfranchised and marginalized that is exalted and vindicated. In my view, Edmund does not deserve her. However, it is Fanny’s heart and long unrequited love that Austen attempts to satisfy. And I totally concur with that, for our heroine deserves it. And no, Fanny does not become mistress of Mansfield Park, which is also ideal: It is not affluence and materialism that win after all, but spiritual values and nobility of character that overcome, and they are their own rewards. The Parsonage is a most fitting place for both Edmund and Fanny to begin their life together.

Notes:

1. Said, Edward W. Culture and Imperialism. (Alfred A. Knopf, 1993). His chapter on Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park can be read in Dorothy Hale’s The Novel: An Anthology of Criticism and Theory 1900-2000. (Blackwell, 2005) pp. 691-715. You can read part of it online on Google Books by clicking here.

2. Fairman, Susan. Jane Austen and Edward Said: Gender, Culture, and Imperialism. Critical Inquiry, 21 (4), pp. 805-821.

To read my other JA posts, book reviews, movie and TV adaptations, and other related books, just click on ‘Jane Austen’ under categories on my sidebar.

Update:  You can read this article as well as other interesting and informative articles on Jane and the Regency Period in the Jane Austen Centre Online Magazine by clicking here.

Published by

Arti

If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

14 thoughts on “Mansfield Park: Jane Austen the Contrarian”

  1. Hi Arti, I am glad that someone else thinks Fanny is worthy. She gets bashed about quite a bit. You made some excellent points in her defence. Bravo!

    Cheers, Laurel Ann

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  2. One of the main reasons I respect Mansfield Park is because Jane allows the characters to change and grow. Fanny is actually a strong character. She remains true to her convictions in the face of enormous pressures from those who hold her purse strings. She is dependent on the Bertrams in every respect, yet she has the strength to defy her cousins when they tried to pressure her in joining them in the play, and Mr. Bertram in the matter of Henry Crawford. Henry Crawford is quite wealthy, yet Fanny isn’t in the least tempted by his charms or willing to bow under his pressure. She knows what stuff he is made of.

    Mr. Bertram, to give him credit, recognizes the folly of his ways, and he makes amends to Fanny at the end. It is too late for Maria, but not for Tom, whose character becomes more subdued and serious after his illness. Even Henry is multi-dimensional, truly loving Fanny, but unable to withstand temptation. Although Fanny would have made a better man of him, I think she would have been sad and miserable as his wife, and she knew it.

    This is a mature novel, with complex characters and plot. I don’t think I will ever like it half as much as Persuasion or Pride and Prejudice, but I admire it more each time I read it.

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  3. Leah: Thanks for stopping by…yes, JA is as relevant today as she was 200 plus years ago.

    Laurel Ann: MP is not an easy novel to digest. But it’s worthwhile to explore and tap into its characterization in a deeper manner upon re-reading. I think modern values have eroded some of the very basic virtues and principles that we can find in Fanny. She is indeed an admirable character.

    Ms. Place: Thanks for wrapping it up so succinctly … your comment is a lucid synopsis of the character of Fanny. You’re right, I think JA presents such a heroine strictly because of her fortitude and character. Through FP, it seems that JA has defined, or re-defined, what ‘beauty’ is. FP is a good model for modern women in that inner beauty, virtues and principles are much more valuable than outward appeals and even physical prowess. That’s why I admire JA all the more in this day when a woman’s look and body count more than anything in our society. Thanks for your insights.

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  4. Wonderful post Arti, which expresses, beautifully, the things I argue about in relation to Fanny. I will post a link to this on my local JA group’s blog. You should see the trackback.

    .
    whisperinggums,

    Welcome and thanks for the link. Yes Fanny is not a readily likeable character, quite contrary to what we have in mind for a heroine, but her humility and quiet demeanour are rare qualities for today 🙂 Hope to hear from you again on Ripple Effects.

    Arti

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  5. omg … you have said precisely what I have felt about Fanny Price and Mansfield Park. Fanny is less confident, less charming and charismatic and less likeable to most people than Lizzy – therefore her resistance is all the more courageous. I didn’t appreciate Jane Austen till I read MP in its entirety.

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    1. Caroline,

      Thanks for stopping by to read this and leaving your comment. Isn’t Fanny a subversive force well masterminded by Jane Austen herself? I’m glad you share my thoughts. Glad to have found you and your blog. Hope we’ll continue with some mutual visiting. 😉

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      1. But I must beg to differ a little on Lizzy. She is actually an introvert, not a extrovert. She is a confident introvert, charming, charismatic and likeable, but not so likeable or sociable as Jane Bennet. Fanny is shyer and more introverted however, which gives the wrong impression that Lizzy is extroverted. Lizzy is luckier in the sense, and knows she can get away with things Fanny can’t.

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  6. I confess that I have only ever read about a third of Mansfield Park. It’s a long story I won’t go into here, but I’m determined to read right to the end this autumn. I very much enjoyed your defense of Fanny’s character and am more than ready to cheer on an introvert heroine. I agree there aren’t enough of them! 🙂

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    1. litlove,

      Well, you’re talking to one. Talking, ha, exactly. I consider interacting via comments a way of talking, as introverts would likely choose to do. (Remember I mentioned sometimes I’d rather be texting than actual talking over the phone.) As for Mansfield Park, I’d say, go for it. See how Austen turns an introvert (an impoverished one too) into a heroine.

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      1. Oh do read it LitLove … next year is, I believe, the 200th anniversary of its publication. As Austen’s 6 books were all published between 1811 and 1818, and as she died in 1817, there are many Austen bicentenaries coming up in the next few years. (This year is the 200th of Pride and prejudice, but you probably know that.) Anyhow, if you read MP this year you’ll be ready when people start – as I hope they do – talking about it next year!

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  7. Thank you for linking to this post, Arti. It’s all very insightful. I especially enjoyed your thoughts on how Fanny is stronger and wiser than Elizabeth. I think it’s no coincidence that Austen followed up her extrovert heroine with introverted Fanny. I also appreciate your point that Austen showed concern for the marginalized in MP. Fabulous essay!

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