2006 JASNA Essay Contest First Place Winner College/University Division
Amy F. Bass
Union College
Schenectady, NY

“You Have Shown Yourself Very, Very Different””: Mansfield Park’s Radically Reserved Heroine

“Fanny Price is no Elizabeth Bennet,” critic Douglas Murray bemoans of Jane Austen’s notoriously “timid” heroine in Mansfield Park—but such a claim isn’t necessarily so dreadful (or even entirely true) (17). Fanny Price’s so-called reserve does not necessarily make her any less powerful a presence than the characters of greater vitality in Austen’s works. The heroine’s reserve, or her desire to remain “invisible” in the text, remains quite radical on the novelist’s part. Fanny’s reticence lends her a powerful sense of self worth and leads to her successful act of self-preservation within the Park. Considering the severe humbling a heroine such as Pride and Prejudice’s Elizabeth Bennet undergoes at the hands of the patriarchy, Fanny Price’s story is as uplifting (and progressive) as a female reader of Austen’s time could have hoped for: here is an Austen novel solely about an individual woman pursuing and achieving her ultimate desires.

It is difficult to jump into a discussion of Austen’s handling of Fanny Price without contending with such views as Nina Auerbach’s assertion of the “silent, stubborn Fanny Price appealing less than any of Austen’s heroines” (446). This negative notion of Fanny Price must be addressed because Mansfield Park is Austen’s most controversial novel in terms of theme and character portrayal. Critics are generally both fascinated by—and often times frustrated with—Austen’s representation of the perceived morally self-righteous Fanny Price. Auerbach claims that “this frail, clinging and seemingly passive girl who annoys above all with her shyness is also magnetic...[existing] like Frankenstein as a silent censorious pall... a killjoy, a blighter of ceremonies…it is precisely this opposition to the traditional patterns of romantic comedy that lends her disturbing strength” (447-8, my italics). Likewise, Mary Poovey asserts that “Austen seeks to control the reader’s [moral] judgment through the symbolism [of Fanny’s character]…like Mary Shelley’s symbolism [of societal isolation] in Frankenstein” (222). This parallel between Fanny Price and Frankenstein’s monster devalues Austen’s heroine even while making an important point about her power. Yes, Auerbach’s claim of Fanny’s social isolation leading to a break from Austen’s traditional patterns of a socially “corrected” heroine is true. I argue, however, that Fanny is not the malevolent, vengeful monster that Auerbach observes in Fanny’s critique of other characters. Instead, Fanny’s rejection from conventional male and female spheres in Mansfield Park illustrates Fanny’s power emanating from her success in finding her own way in a society intent on imposing their will on her.

Auerbach claims that Fanny’s power stems from her anger about her isolation from society while Poovey insists Fanny’s strength comes from her concern with moral and religious codes of behavior versus other characters’ ethically-ambiguous actions. I contend, however, that Mansfield’s heroine retains a decidedly powerful individual strength of will outside concerns with morality, propriety, or the need for society’s approval. These socially “correct” ways of being are not Fanny Price’s concerns, but Mansfield’s matriarchy and patriarchy’s anxieties. Austen reveals in her fourth novel patriarchy’s and matriarchy’s oppressive abuses of power in an atmosphere intent on destroying individual attempts at personal autonomy. By resisting male intrusions, female neglect, and the use of her own gaze to direct the text’s narration and viewpoint, Fanny eventually succeeds in Mansfield Park. Her sense of self-worth is contingent upon the quality that often labels her as “prudish,” or less exuberant, than other Austen characters; her clever use of “ladylike” reserve masks Fanny Price’s radical triumph beneath her veil of conservative behavior.  

As the novel traces Fanny’s growth process—from a young girl to a “marriageable” woman—it also traces the young men and women at Mansfield as they cross all sorts of social and sexual lines through increasingly salacious schemes. The unassuming Fanny Price remains the silent auditor of the whole, critiquing both matriarchy and patriarchy in the text with her gaze and narration. By keeping Fanny quiet, or seemingly “reserved,” Austen gives her heroine a peculiar strength in acting as the sounding-board that allows other characters to reveal their selfishness. Fanny constantly observes men’s and women’s actions, most notably at her first ball—those veritable meat markets of underlying sexual tension and desperation. In this instance, Austen reveals Fanny’s indirect narration as she critiques the social ideals embodied, here, by Mrs. Norris and Mrs. Rushworth:

“Mr. Rushworth is never remiss. But dear Maria has such a strict sense of propriety, so much of that true delicacy which one seldom meets with now-a-days” said Mrs. Norris… “It is quite delightful to see young people so properly happy, so well-suited” she continued…

“Miss Julia and Mr. Crawford [too]… what is his property?” asked Mrs. Rushworth…

“Four thousand a year”

“Very well…Four thousand a year is a pretty estate, and he seems a very genteel, steady young man, so I hope Miss Julia will be very happy”… Fanny could listen no farther (83-84, my italics).

Without Fanny’s reserve, or silent speculation, the readers would not be privy to such a conversation. Ironically, in this text, Fanny’s detachment makes the action or, at the very least, provides a central perspective for the action to work around. Moreover, Fanny’s silence during the women’s’ conversation speaks volumes about society’s marriage expectations in the text. Mrs. Norris almost fanatically declares Maria has (or is supposed to have, the dialogue implies) a “strict sense of propriety” and “delicacy” as a female. Julia and Henry Crawford, Mrs. Rushworth additionally claims in the dialogue, are so delighted (or they should be) with one another and Crawford has four-thousand a year and seems (operative word) such a genteel young man (which Austen will soon reveal as entirely false). If all these parentheses seem dizzying, then consider it a proper side-effect of the double-meanings and double-plays characterizing the narrative of Mansfield Park. The young men and women present themselves one way in polite company while remaining more “vivacious,” or markedly self-interested, away from the Park’s authority figures. Fanny, alone, not only perceives their true characters while remaining consistent throughout, but also asserts her “reserved” self the same way in public as she does in private—all the while continuing to adhere to her own belief system.

Fanny Price’s interaction with Henry Crawford similarly reveals the heroine’s seemingly conservative reserve as a successful measure to insure her own sense of self. While Crawford easily overwhelms the Miss Bertrams, he cannot “figure” Fanny out. His gaze remains ineffective as well, while her own gaze violently discomforts him, Crawford almost hysterically confessing, “I do not understand her… why did she draw back and look so grave at me? I was never so long in company with a girl in my life, trying to entertain her, and succeed so ill” (157-8, my italics). Henry Crawford remains entirely stumped by Fanny, not to mention insecure about his assumed masculine potency and charm. Fooled by what he initially thought of as Fanny’s reserved “plainness,” Crawford remains baffled (and rather outdone by) the heroine’s steady resistance and appraising gaze (158).

Much like her resistance to Crawford’s deceptive charm, Fanny’s reserve in Mansfield Park, reveals Austen’s heroine as literally less to look at and almost impossible to “display,” providing a strange freedom in an Austen text (or, indeed, in Austen’s society), where the majority of balls and dinners were staged for visually gratifying men and treating women as commodities in the marriage market. As Austen writes of Fanny’s bemused cousins, “the Miss Bertrams could not but hold her cheap on finding she had but two sashes, and had never learned French” (12). Women’s accomplishments for male pleasures were considered such a cultural norm that Fanny’s cousins remain astounded with her disinterest to please men because it is all they have ever known or have been expected to know about male and female relationships. Lacking female “accomplishments” and a charming (perhaps calculated) demureness in regards to courtship rituals and public behavior, Fanny Price can be taken only at face-value—as a true individual—away from women’s usual forced posing and primping for men.

However, for Mansfield Park’s heroine to truly triumph by novel’s end she must overcome her most challenging obstacle—the damaging intrusions of the patriarchy. Her outward reserve “properly” adheres to safe conservative patriarchal values before the heroine affectively defies what men begin to demand of Fanny. And this is where Fanny’s narrative parallel—Mary Crawford—comes in. The exuberant Mary Crawford is not so very different from the supposedly timid Fanny Price. Thus, characters of reserve in Austen, particularly Fanny Price, do not remain any less powerful than those of more vitality, especially if these two seemingly opposite characters reveal to have much in common. Whatever the individual reader may think of her penchant for scheming, Mary Crawford remains the only woman in the text to offer Fanny any sort of protection from men’s overwhelming influence. “Fanny did not love Miss Crawford but she felt very much obliged to her for her kindness,” Austen writes when, during the fiasco of the “Lover’s Vows” stage play performance, Tom Bertam cries, “‘Fanny we want your services …you may be as creep mouse as you like, but we must have you to look at’ …Fanny, shocked … unwilling” (103). Fanny is able to withstand the male gaze more often than other Austen heroines; however, Tom seems quite ready (and able) to force Fanny beyond her own comfort line: only Mary Crawford steps in on her behalf.

Further significant, Fanny Price and Mary Crawford consistently shock men without resorting to the sneakiness and double-plays marking other female characters’ defiance of the patriarchy in the text. The “creep mouse” Fanny Price defies—face-to-face—Sir Thomas’s somewhat sinister demands and, further, does so in much the same way the more outwardly vivacious Mary Crawford repeatedly defies male expectations. “I do not catch your meaning,” Sir Thomas almost breathlessly responds to Fanny’s refusal to marry Henry Crawford (213). “Refuse Mr. Crawford? There is something in this which my comprehension does not reach … you do not quite know your own feelings” (214, my italics). Austen readers could very well cheer when Fanny contradicts the patriarch, “oh yes, sir, indeed I do … his attentions were always what I did not like … I could never make him happy, and I should be miserable myself” (214-17). Austen throws down a gauntlet here, for “Fanny knew her own meaning” about what she wants or desires (222, my italics). Fanny and Mary each “know herself,” for Mary “acknowledged the Mr. Bertrams were very fine young men … but she had felt an early presentiment that she should like the eldest best. She knew it was her way” (35, my italics). Fanny and Mary, particularly when it comes to how they view men and marriage, know their own meaning, or understand their true selves and personal wishes outside of men’s authority. However, while the outrageous and more traditionally engaging character of Mary Crawford is cast out of the Park in disgrace, Fanny triumphs and remains at Mansfield. Unfortunately, the eighteenth-century social ideals embodied by Mansfield Park realistically punish Mary for her outward display of defiance and “unladylike” behavior. Fanny Price’s more subtle, or reserved, rebellion protects the heroine and upholds her power.

Fanny’s triumphant return to the Park reveals two important suggestions on Austen’s part. First, on the outside, Fanny Price is everything a “proper lady” should be for the dictatorial matriarchy and patriarchy of Mansfield Park (and culture at large): she is silent, modest, and malleable. However, as her indirect narration, her gaze, and her resistance to others’ attempted manipulation of her stresses, she is also a critical thinker and an individual. Austen could only realistically maintain her heroine’s success if she presented Fanny’s resistance as shaded and obscured, crossing the line of propriety only indirectly. Through her reserve, the so-called “drab” Fanny Price presents the most defiance by evading easy categorization and repeatedly defying other characters’ efforts to alter her. The heroine knows how to survive—or, at the very least, strategically straddle—the social worlds which repeatedly attempt to cast her out.

Works Cited

Auerbach, Nina. “Jane Austen’s Dangerous Charm: Feeling as One Ought about Fanny Price.” Mansfield Park: Norton Critical Edition. New York: W.W. Norton and Company Inc., 1998.

Austen, Jane. Mansfield Park. Ed. Claudia Johnson. New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company Inc., 1998.

Murray, Douglas. “Spectatorship in Mansfield Park: Looking and Overlooking.” Nineteenth-Century Literature 52:1 (1997): 1 Oct. 2005 .

Poovey, Mary. The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer: Ideology as Style in the Works of Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley, and Jane Austen. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1984.