Note: I wrote something like this in my earlier iteration of the blog. This is a better-developed version.
It is no secret that Fanny Price is my favorite Jane Austen heroine, and it is no secret why. Throughout most of Mansfield Park, Fanny is a shy, introverted 18-year-old, struggling to control her own feelings and surrounded by a more confident world. She is looking for a place to belong and dealing with unpleasant changes to her surroundings. This is very much how I felt when I first read the novel-I too was a shy, introverted 18-year-old, and living away from home for the first time. It is no surprise that I identified strongly with Fanny.
This is why (amongst other reasons) I find many criticisms about Fanny as a character to be so annoying. Most of the criticisms are either about her character (she is not a witty, spirited heroine) or about her religious beliefs. The high-brows insist this was a strange novel for Austen, and they can’t figure out just what was going on in her mind, as though an author can’t deviate from the norm and write a different sort of character, or write their characters with notions they don’t necessarily hold. (And I surely hope authors don’t always agree with their own characters-otherwise we’ll have J.K. Rowling running around with masked minions any day now.)
Firstly, critics like to condemn Fanny with that dreadful word “boring”. Boring…to whom? Boring because she is not Elizabeth Bennett, essentially. True, leaving the sparkling world of Pride and Prejudice for the quiet, sometimes oppressive atmosphere of Mansfield Park is a startling contrast. But that does not mean Fanny is any less a heroine in her own right. She is quiet, but she is intelligent. She is intently thoughtful about everything, and yes, is quite serious. But that does not mean “boring” to everyone. Extroverts may find her boring, but a quick look at different opinions of the novel will show that it is the introverts that seem to appreciate Fanny as a character more.
Fanny is a passive character. She rarely acts, unless absolutely driven to it; but she is not indolent like Lady Bertram. She observes the world around her and tries to make appropriate judgments based on her observations. Aye, there’s the rub, there’s what drives critics insane. Judgments.
Despite the fact we still use the phrase “use your judgment” all the time, people hate it when this applies to studying another person’s actions. Then, as now, you have people who get antsy the moment you mention something might be wrong. We live in a relativist’s world. Who says what’s right for you is right for me? And it is Fanny’s judgment that some things are wrong that leaves her open to rather savage critique.
She is called “priggish”, because she doesn’t like the theater. Never mind that, thanks to her observing her surroundings, she is aware that the play is being used by the others to act out their own wrong desires; and never mind that they are using Sir Thomas’ property in a way that would displease him. She is still priggish. Why should the others not be allowed to do whatever they want, anyways? She is also priggish because she doesn’t like the Crawfords’ sense of humor, which seems mainly devoted to being mean to other people.
Which is doubly ironic, because Fanny is often accused of being mean to other people, even if it is just mentally.
Though Fanny rarely voices her opinions aloud, and when she does she uses tact and kindness to soften the blow, she is still accused of being quite the self-righteous Pharisee. This is the most puzzling of critiques. Fanny is a hypocrite, apparently, though no one can quite point out why, except that she gets mad sometimes.
The critics have placed Fanny in a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation. If Fanny shows no flaws (one accusation made), then she is “too perfect” and an unrealistic, boring character. If Fanny does show flaws (such as her annoyance with Henry, her anger at Mary, her occasional tears over her situation), then she is a hypocrite, because she says others are doing wrong things, and here she is doing wrong things!
A hypocrite is someone who deliberately does something they know to be wrong, and usually excoriates other people for the same action. Throughout the novel, Fanny does struggle with some sins, such as jealousy. But that is the point: she struggles. Furthermore, she shows more sympathy for the others than herself: she thinks that they’ve been raised in the wrong environment, or they’re struggling with their own feelings, etc. This, of course, takes us back to “Fanny is too perfect”. Just trying to sort through the critiques is dizzying.
However, Austen has played the finest joke ever on her audience. She rightfully made both Mary and Henry complex, somewhat sympathetic characters. Yet in the end, they couldn’t break out of their own shallow thought processes. In reality, Mary is the narrow-minded character, expecting the world to conform wholly to her wishes, and behaving in an angry and petty manner when it does not. In reality, Mary, who claims to be open-minded and urbane, is the “self-righteous Pharisee”. She says she doesn’t want Fanny to be hurt by Henry; then turns around and helps Henry attempt to seduce her. She says she loves Edmund for himself; then turns around and says he needs to find a better paying job and one that isn’t so “religious”. Henry, too, does the same thing. He complains about how the family at Mansfield neglects Fanny; yet he himself more or less ignored her until he had no other female around to seduce. He says he will love Fanny forever; then turns around and has an affair with Maria Rushworth.
It is a fantastic trick to put critics firmly on the side of narrow-mindedness, shallow self-righteousness, and hypocrisy: all the things they hate so much.
And it is hilarious.