Originally published in 2016
I have been doing one of my semi-regular Jane Austen re-reads. Every time I find new things: This time I was chagrinned to realize the extent to which certain film versions had overwritten Miss Austen’s original text in my mind–not necessarily to their detriment, but I was looking for a scene in Sense and Sensibility that turned out to be a clever Emma Thompson way of compacting a good deal of information. But the original Austen is still there on the page, and still smart and incisive and funny.
So far I have gone through Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Emma, and Persuasion, and I’m almost through Mansfield Park (I skip Northanger Abbey, because Catherine Morland annoys the hell out of me). I started out, as one does, loving Pride and Prejudice; then for a long time Sense and Sensibility was my favorite; then, for almost as long, Persuasion. Now it’s quite possible that I am going over to Team Mansfield Park.
This is, apparently, unusual.
The Paris Review stated that Mansfield Park was Austen’s least popular book:
Austen’s own mother reportedly found Fanny “insipid”; the critic Reginald Farrer described her as “repulsive in her cast-iron self-righteousness and steely rigidity of prejudice.” Even C.S. Lewis—in the voice of his demon Screwtape in The Screwtape Letters—let loose a vitriolic rant about Austen’s most priggish heroine, calling her “not only a Christian, but such a Christian—a vile, sneaking, simpering, demure, monosyllabic, mouselike, watery, insignificant, virginal, bread-and-butter miss … A two-faced little cheat (I know the sort) who looks as if she’d faint at the sight of blood, and then dies with a smile … Filthy, insipid little prude!”
Wow, that’s a little over the top, don’t you think, Clive?
Okay, I get it. Fanny is physically delicate, shy, easily overwhelmed. She doesn’t have her cousins’ robust physical health, and she certainly doesn’t have their robust egos. She’s meek and self-effacing (though I don’t think she simpers once, thank you very much). But do you blame her? Here’s a child who, at the age of ten, is sent to live with her very privileged cousins. Her aunt Norris (and to a lesser extent her uncle Sir Thomas) are determined to make the distinction between Maria and Julia and Tom and Edmund (the cousins) and Fanny’s charity-case self. She’s constantly reminded of it, and of the fact that she can’t (and shouldn’t) expect to be treated the same way. She’s physically slight and easily overwhelmed (I suspect nutritional issues and an anxiety disorder, but can’t find any textual evidence to prove it), and initially she’s academically and socially way behind her cousins. It might be satisfying to see the worm turn, the mouse face down the cat, and so forth. That’s bread and butter in a 21st century YA novel. but in Austen-land, where class suffuses everything so deeply that it’s hardly necessary to mention it, it would be hard to make it believable.
Like the Bertram girls, Fanny studies with a governess. But her real teacher, the one who informs her tastes and her heart, is her cousin Edmund. And Edmund, destined for the Church, is a prig. He’s kind to Fanny; he’s really the only one who sees, and values, Fanny for who she is. Everyone else sees only her utility, the perfect poor-relation who can be counted upon to fetch a shawl or stay tactfully home so there won’t be an odd number at the dinner party. Her frankly loathsome Aunt Norris sees her as someone further down the class scale whom she can bully without fear of repercussion. It’s no wonder Fanny loves Edmund, who encourages her to explore literature and history, who talks about religion and principles and right thought–who treats her as if she were intelligent which, as it happens, she is.
Look, I had a serious crush in 6th grade on a kid who held the door for me (because I wasn’t used to people being, um, nice to me at school). I totally get Fanny seeing Edmund as a combination of Parfit Gentil Knight and Moral Arbiter. About the only thing that saves Edmund from being an irredeemable prig is that he falls in love with Mary Crawford, whose moral compass is–shall we say–variable. For once Edmund’s rectitude abandons him and he is blinded by, and led around by parts of himself he would ordinarily not admit to owning. He sees Mary’s witty, shiny, beautiful, feckless self and tries to believe that deep down she’s got the same sort of moral center as Fanny–in a sense, the woman Edmund created. It’s hardly surprising that when Mary displays her lack of moral base, Edmund recoils. At that point it’s inevitable that he’ll back to Fanny.
A lot of people think of Jane Austen as a “romance writer,” a notion that would very likely have made her head explode just a little bit. But, as Austen herself said, she wrote of “love and money.” And class. Austen writes about class all the time. Elizabeth Bennet’s comment to Lady Catherine de Bourgh that Darcy “is a gentleman and I am a gentleman’s daughter” is quite correct. They may be at different ends of the “gentleman spectrum”*–he’s got relatives in the peerage, and centuries of economic and class privilege behind him, and she’s got “inferior connections:” relatives in trade–but they in terms of class they are equals. Sir Walter Elliot may regard himself as the very model of a modern country baronet… but he can’t suck up fast enough to his cousin the viscountess. Fanny Price, whose mother married beneath her, is introduced to a world very different from her own when she moves to Mansfield Park.
Fanny Price has good reason for being the person she is. And she continues as that person despite pressure from within and without her family. For a woman constitutionally skittish and anxious as she is, that in itself is heroic. It’s nice that she gets the guy in the end. It’s nicer that she does so without having to become a Mary Crawford or a Maria Bertram.