How do you solve a problem like Fanny Price?

“Nobody, I believe, has ever found it possible to like the heroine of Mansfield Park”

I doubt there’s another Austen heroine – even another Austen character – who’s inspired more discussion, disagreement and debate down the years than Fanny Price. There was a recent online debate on this very subject entitled ‘Fanny Price, love her or loathe her?, and that pretty much sums up the state of play when it comes to the central character of Mansfield Park.  Fanny fans admire her unstinting virtue, her gentleness, and her self-effacing concern for others; while the anti-Fanny faction find the very fact that she’s so self-effacing overpoweringly irritating, and want her to get off the sofa and take some control of her own destiny.

Now obviously there was only so much control a genteel unmarried young woman – and especially a poor one – could actually take in the first half of the 19th century. She couldn’t travel alone, earn her own living (other than as a governess), or make any number of other decisions we now take for granted, including – in many cases – deciding who to marry. To that extent we can sympathise with Fanny, but Elizabeth Bennet faces many of the same challenges, without becoming so deplorably feeble and passive. And even Jane Austen’s mother was said to find Fanny ‘insipid’, so it isn’t entirely a modern prejudice. Indeed, in some ways we’re more equipped to understand Fanny now, than her contemporaries were. As Carol Shields puts it, “That the pattern of abuse [in her childhood] has created a being as repressed as Fanny is not in the least surprising. The modern reader understands precisely why Fanny is Fanny. Hers is a case of the Cinderella syndrome, of the prisoner’s self-protective strategy. The problem is: How can we love her?”

How indeed.

I first read Mansfield Park for my school-leaving exams, and even then I was struck by the contrast between Fanny and more feisty Austen heroines, and wondered why it was she chose to make Fanny the heroine of the book, when there seemed to be a far more obvious candidate in Mary Crawford. I’ve always seen Mary as something of a cross between Elizabeth Bennet and Emma – as clever as the one, and as rich as the other. But the fact that Fanny is the heroine of Mansfield Park goes to the heart of what Austen is trying to do with this book. Even when she was still writing it, she acknowledged that it was “not half so entertaining” as Pride & Prejudice, which she famously referred to as “rather too light, and bright, and sparkling; it wants shade; it wants to be stretched out here and there with a long chapter of sense.”

Well, we certainly get our ration of ‘sense’ in Mansfield Park, much of it gleaned either from Fanny’s thoughts, or from Edmund’s speeches. Indeed, I’ve often thought that Edmund is at the root of many of the problems readers have with the novel – we tend to blame Fanny for the book’s rather ponderous tone, but Edmund is just as responsible for that as she is. Not only has he “formed her mind” so more often than not she “think[s] like him”, but we also have to sit through rather too much of Edmund’s self-righteous pontificating about other people behind their backs. So while Mansfield Park does undeniably offer us the same Austen ‘boy meets girl’ plot, the boy and girl in question are much harder to like than in the other novels. The critic Kingsley Amis didn’t mince his words, not merely calling both of them “morally detestable”, but making the hilariously waspish observation that to “invite Mr and Mrs Edmund Bertram round for the evening would not be lightly undertaken.”

Amis was also responsible for perhaps the single most infamous condemnation of Fanny Price, calling her “a monster of complacency and pride, who, under a cloak of cringing self-abasement, dominates and gives meaning to the novel”. This quote was one of my original inspirations for The Mansfield Park Murder: whether or not you agree with it as a judgment on Austen’s Fanny, it describes my own to perfection. My Fanny uses that ‘cloak’ of demure modesty to disguise her selfish scheming, and get exactly what she wants. But despite the dramatic changes I made in her character, I found it quite revealing that I was still able to use quite a bit of what the original Fanny actually says.

So what of Mary Crawford? I’m not alone in feeling Austen loads the dice against Mary, and wrenches the natural trajectory of the plot to achieve the ending she has clearly decided on at the outset. All the same, you do get the distinct sense towards the end that the plot is getting away from her, and the characters are assuming lives of their own (a strange sensation for a writer, this, but one I can confirm does actually happen). One reason for this is that Austen gives the feeble Fanny a rival who’s funny, lively, and confident, and who both the reader and Edmund are in danger of finding irresistible. And even though Austen ladles on more and more evidence of Mary’s supposed shallowness (to the extent of making her use a pun so obscene it’s still shocking, even now), she still ends up having to resort to the literary equivalent of a sledgehammer to force Edmund and Mary apart once and for all.

The scandalous and frankly improbable elopement between Henry and the married Maria is a dirty trick, and Austen knows it. You can see this first in her rather strident refusal to tell us how long, precisely, it takes for Edmund to stop thinking of Fanny as “my only sister”, and start thinking of her as a potential wife. But this passage is just as revealing in its way: “Would [Henry] have persevered, and uprightly, Fanny must have been his reward—and a reward very voluntarily bestowed—within a reasonable period from Edmund’s marrying Mary.” In other words – ‘if I’d left them all alone, this is what would have happened.’ It’s like the ghost of another ending to Mansfield Park, and it was another of the inspirations for my own book. For years I’ve thought there was another novel buried in there – a novel Austen could have written, and decided not to. A much lighter, sharper and more playful novel, with Mary as its heroine, and that’s what I’ve tried to write.

In fact, the origins of my own take on Austen’s novel go back at least ten years. The first book I tried to get published was a modern-day mystery that revolved round the discovery of the manuscript of an early version of Mansfield Park. This was called Improvements and (in my story) was supposedly written in the 1790s, after the first versions of Sense & Sensibility and Pride & Prejudice, but before either of those were published. In Improvements Mary was indeed the heroine and Fanny her bête noire. That novel included some pastiche Austen text too, and that’s when I got a taste for it. I also had a lot of fun looking for a plausible reason why Austen might have started with Mary as the heroine, and then later changed her mind, but I found a very interesting one in Jane Austen’s own life.

There one particular episode in her history which remains shadowy – not least because her sister Cassandra burned all the letters that referred to it. In the summer of 1801 Austen met and supposedly fell in love with a young clergyman while on holiday in Sidmouth. Three weeks later he told her he had to go away, and the next they heard he was dead.  That much is well-known, and you can read an interesting fictional take on it in Jane Gardam’s short story, The Sidmouth Letters, and it’s also covered in biographies like David Nokes’ excellent Jane Austen: A Life. But in my novel I didn’t have to stick to the facts  – slight as they are – which gave me the freedom to suggest a version of events in which Austen had lost her clergyman’s heart even before he died, and he had proposed instead to a livelier, richer rival who made her look dull and drab by comparison. My theory, then, was that making Fanny her heroine was Austen’s revenge on the ‘Mary Crawfords’ of the world, and she’d tried to right the wrong done to her in life, in the text of her novel. It’s all pure speculation, of course, but as in Mansfield Park, a game of ‘speculation’ can often be “very entertaining indeed.” 

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