The Secret Fanny Price Fanclub

It appears there is no Austen heroine as universally disliked as Fanny Price from Mansfield Park is. It always surprises me a little, the way people are annoyed with her silent observations, her inactiveness, or the way she strictly keeps to her own moral guidelines. Most consider Mary Crawford the true heroine of the story, wishing she would have ended up with Edmund. You see, the thing is, I never really looked at Mansfield Park in this light, but then again, I have secretly always considered myself a member of the Fanny Price Fanclub.

Oh, I can see the appeal of Mary Crawford. Her easy manner, her liveliness. She, in many ways, is more like Elizabeth Bennet, and thus the expected Jane Austen heroine, than any other of Austen’s characters. Mary Crawford is much easier to fall in love with than Fanny is, as Austen herself expresses:

“A young woman, pretty, lively, with a harp as elegant as herself, and both placed near a window, cut down to the ground, and opening on a little lawn, surrounded by shrubs in the rich foliage of summer, was enough to catch any man’s heart.”

But is not that all the warning we need from Austen? Although it is usually the man who the heroine first falls in love with that is eventually unmasked as immoral, here it is the woman who first wins Edmund’s affections who is later illustrated to lack morals.

Here, again, I can see why Mary Crawford appeals. At times, she expresses such “modern” opinions that readers (and I suspect especially us 21st century readers) cannot help but respect the sentiments expressed. Everybody wants to rebel, occasionally. It is as if she is the very example of reading texts against the grain, and so, to some extent, we want Austen to have considered her the heroine, want to think of Austen as condoning women taking on initiative, making the most of the restricted position they have in society. In many ways, Austen does approve of this. And I am sure she must have enjoyed having Mary Crawford express modern and slightly rebellious opinions about religion, marriage and affairs. But, at the same time, Austen undermines Crawford’s opinions, Crawford’s very appeal as a heroine, by contrasting Mary’s liveliness with her being so focused on her own gains, her own opinions and views, that she does not take Edmund’s into account, that, in the end, in her stating that the affair of Maria Bertram and Henry Crawford is merely a “folly”, she shows how careless she is of everything the family at Crawford, and I think society at large, considered the most important at that time. To me, it is not Mary’s “lack of morals” that makes me dislike her, it is her inability to consider the feelings of those around her, the ones she claims to love. Surely, had she truly loved Edmund, she would not have expressed her own opinions so unfeelingly? I am all for her having her own points of view despite feeling an attachment to a man (and I think that is the appeal of Mary, there’s something feminist in her storyline), but there is a line between having your own opinions and holding to them, and shrugging your shoulders in the face of issues that are of the utmost importance to your close friends.

Compared to Mary, Fanny may be dull. She observes, but often remains silent. And I can imagine that her morality makes many roll their eyes. But to me it is her practicality and her morality that makes her strong. She stands up for her own opinions, despite knowing that everyone disagrees with her. In a way, she has the same feminist streak we see in Mary: sticking with her own opinions despite what everyone around her thinks is best. Except where Mary’s opinions are unfeeling and affect those around her, Fanny’s concern her own future (and moral propriety, in her eyes) more than those of her family and friends. Fanny’s opinions may be conservative in our eyes, while Mary’s are more rebellious and thus easier to love, perhaps?, but I like Fanny exactly because she chooses her own path in live, not by following every opportunity open to her, not by wishing for the grandest despite all that occurs, but exactly because she retains her sense of self, is willing to sacrifice her own stable future (in marriage to a man of means, that she is nonetheless convinced is immoral), because she wants to keep to the principles she believes are just. Perhaps I like Fanny because I identify with that shy, observant, nature. I recognise in Fanny the feeling that because you do not stand up for what you want, does not mean you do not have an opinion. I admire her for proclaiming against that which she feels is wrong, and keeping to it, never submitting to peer pressure. There is, simply, an integrity to Fanny, that I do not find boring at all, although I do understand now, having heard it often enough, that others think it is.

I had to think of this, when I read Murder at Mansfield Park this year.  As the Good Reads description for this novel reads:

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

In this ingenious new twist on Mansfield Park, the famously meek Fanny Price–whom Jane Austen’s own mother called “insipid”–has been utterly transformed; she is now a rich heiress who is spoiled, condescending, and generally hated throughout the county. Mary Crawford, on the other hand, is now as good as Fanny is bad, and suffers great indignities at the hands of her vindictive neighbor.

Murder at Mansfield Park - Lynn Shepherd

Murder at Mansfield Park - Lynn Shepherd // Beautiful Books, 2010

What I found interesting about this reworking of the characters of Mansfield Park, is that Fanny becomes more like her cousins Maria and Lydia Bertram, spoiled and arrogant in the face of people they consider “below them”. In contrast, in an effort to cast Mary Crawford in the role of heroine, she is not rewritten with much of Fanny’s original integrity. Murder at Mansfield Park is an interesting rewrite, because it is very original in its take on Jane Austen’s novel. It is also very well written. However, at times I found it hard to like the book, because it seemed to underline the stereotypes that so often get associated with Fanny and Mary: Mary as the true heroine, Fanny as the shy and moral one, which is translated to arrogance. But in the end, this is exactly what makes the novel interesting as well. When I came to the discussion questions at the end of the novel, my eye fell on this one:

“Fanny Price in Mansfield Park is very unlike a typical Austen heroine – in fact it’s Mary Crawford who is much closer to Elizabeth Bennet or Emma Woodhouse. What do you think about the role and idea of the heroine, both in Austen’s novel(s) and in this one?”

The above made me question my initial dislike of recasting the story’s characters as Shepherd had done, because in a way, she undermines the idea of Mary Crawford as the should-be heroine in the original Mansfield Park, since in order to make her the lead character in her own story, she gave her so many of Fanny’s admirable character traits.

How do you feel about Mansfield Park? Is it one of Austen’s novels you love most or one of your least favourites? What is your take on Fanny vs. Mary? Are there any others, who, like me, actually feel sympathetic towards Fanny Price?

11 responses to “The Secret Fanny Price Fanclub

  1. I read Mansfield Park for the first time this year and struggled through it. I liked it in the end but I didn’t have the same affection for it as her other books. I’m a character person and I didn’t particularly like any of the characters in Mansfield Park. Fanny was interesting and was the reason I kept reading; I wanted to know what would happen to the only person in the book who seemed to have any sense of reality. Beyond that though, I mostly found myself annoyed. Yes, I wanted the typical Austen heroine and she wasn’t there for me.

    This is an interesting take. I plan, at some point, to re-read Mansfield Park to see if I feel differently about it. I may also take a look at Murder at Mansfield Park. I wonder if a role reversal would change my opinion about the story.

  2. I love Fanny Price for the same reasons as you do. She is kind, loyal, loving, and true to herself. Fanny has integrity! She sticks to her principles and has moral courage. I think Mary Crawford is fake, nasty, and conniving. I don’t see anything admirable about her at all. Whereas Mary was set on marrying for money and social position, Fanny would only marry for love. Edmund was slow to realise what a treasure Fanny was, but he figured it out. [And they lived happily ever after.]

    I have nothing to say about the Austen-inspired books. :)

  3. Sorry, Iris, I can’t join your club. :( Fanny is my least favorite Austen heroine. I always felt Edmund married her because she was nearby and convenient.

  4. Mansfield Park definitely isn’t my favorite Austen but I didn’t necessarily hate it. Fanny doesn’t appeal to me in the way Elizabeth Bennet does, but you know from Austen’s description of Mary Crawford that she’s not the book’s true heroine. I actually found Mary very annoying. I didn’t necessarily buy Edmund’s change of heart from Mary to Fanny, but I can see why Austen didn’t have him end up with Mary.

  5. Really, people interpret Mary Crawford to be the heroine of Mansfield Park? That’s weird; she’s conniving. (Not to say one can’t read creatively, of course.)

    Good for you to write such a spirited defense of Fanny. I don’t particularly like any of the characters in Mansfield Park, but neither do I like any of the characters in Northanger Abbey or, most of all, Emma. Emma‘s probably my least favorite Austen just because of my visceral dislike of the Woodhouses and everyone they know – and it’s unusual for me to NEED to like the characters in a novel, or at least unusual that disliking them kills my entire enjoyment of a book, but it certainly does in that case.

    I have a hard time with Mansfield Park as well, not because of the characters per se but because the supposedly egregious sin of staging a play in one’s own home is one I find hard to take seriously, however much historical context is provided. :-P

  6. I have yet to read Mansfield Park, but have heard that Fanny is Austen’s least sympathetic protagonist. It’s nice to hear another perspective before actually reading the book…I’ll keep your words in mind!

  7. I have never thought Mary Crawford was the true heroine of the book- she’s not very nice at all! That said, I don’t like Fanny, either. I think she’s boring, but I think Edmund is pretty boring, too. How much did he overthink that play?! Too much. Definitely my least favorite Austen.

  8. het is lang gelezen sinds ik het voor het eerst las en ik beschouw Mansfield Park dan ook als ‘to-read’, ik weet echter wel nog dat ik eigenlijk niets tegen Fanny had. ze is niet mijn favoriete Austen-heroine, maar ik kan haar niet haten. ik heb meerdere versies van Mansfield Park-adaptions gezien en iedere keer vond ik het juist verfrissend, zo’n heroine in stilte. niet een die alles van de daken schreeuwt.
    ik vind dan ook dat je een mooi stuk hebt geschreven en ben het volledig met je eens. ik moet nu het boek toch maar snel (weer) eens gaan lezen.

  9. ugh.. *adaptations. of course.

  10. Pingback: Taking up the TBR Double Dare « The Indiscriminate Reader

  11. Pingback: Mansfield Park « Ardent Reader

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