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.
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?