PERSUASIONS ON-LINE V.23, NO.1 (Winter 2002)

 
 
A Space for Fanny: The Significance of Her Rooms in Mansfield Park
  MELISSA EDMUNDSON

Melissa Edmundson (email: EDMUNDSONROXIE@aol.com)  recently completed her MA degree in English from East Carolina University and is looking forward to entering a Ph.D. program next fall. Her work has appeared in the North Carolina Literary Review, where she was Senior Assistant Editor.

Fanny Price of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park is an unusual heroine. Unlike other Austen heroines, Fanny is quiet, passive, and never wants to disturb anyone. On her arrival at Mansfield Park, Fanny feels like an outsider in the household and does not connect emotionally with any of her relatives. She spends much of her time in her little room and cries herself to sleep. Gradually, however, Fanny begins to be more comfortable in the house and makes strong attachments with members of the Bertram family. Specific areas of the house correspond to Fanny’s emotional growth, and the description of the rooms she inhabits throughout Mansfield Park helps readers better understand her growth as a character and her status within the Bertram household. 

While Mrs. Norris and the Bertrams are discussing Fanny’s living arrangements after she leaves her parents’ home in Portsmouth, Mrs. Norris decides that she cannot take Fanny into her house because Mr. Norris is too sick to “bear the noise of a child” (9). Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram agree to accept Fanny at their house, and they are instructed by Mrs. Norris to put their niece in “‘the little white attic’” (9) of the house. Mrs. Norris believes that the attic will be “‘the best place for [Fanny], so near Miss Lee, and not far from the [Bertram] girls, and close by the housemaids’” (9-10). This description of Fanny’s placement in the house shows that she is initially an outsider at Mansfield Park. She stays between the Bertram girls, Maria and Julia, and the housemaids; and until the end of the novel, Fanny is treated as both a family member and as a servant. The Bertrams acknowledge her as their niece and cousin but her status is always somewhat lower than theirs, thus Fanny is called on to perform errands, relay messages, and provide company to Lady Bertram.  

As readers come to know Fanny better in the course of the novel, her placement in “the little white attic” takes on more significance. The attic is white, a color usually associated with innocence, and Fanny’s mind is innocent, as Austen frequently shows her heroine as the moral guide for the Bertram and Crawford families. The attic is also the highest room in the house, and this corresponds with the high-mindedness of Fanny. The Bertrams, on the other hand, view the attic as a place of low significance, just as they view Fanny when she comes to stay with them. As the novel progresses, however, Fanny’s morals are far above those of any other character, and her significance within the family increases. During the production of Lovers’ Vows at Mansfield Park, Fanny is the sole dissenter, while the Bertram children and the Crawfords relish the chance to act because it gives them freedom to express their immodest feelings under the guise of fictional characters from a play. Lovers’ Vows is planned while Sir Thomas is in Antigua despite the knowledge of his disapproval of acting. Fanny refuses to act and in turn becomes the source for moral judgment in Sir Thomas’ absence. Upon his return, Sir Thomas scolds his family for attempting the play, but he commends Fanny for her moral obedience during his absence. 

The stairs leading to the attic also have significance in the novel. A week after Fanny’s arrival at Mansfield Park, Edmund finds his cousin sitting on the stairs that lead to the attic. Her placement on the stairs reinforces the view of Fanny as a person between two worlds. She can no longer live with her family in Portsmouth and does not feel that the Bertram house is her home either. She is never completely part of the Bertram family until later in the novel; and in her first years with the family, Fanny does not feel fully accepted as a member of the household. She wants to be loved by the people downstairs but is too frightened to venture far from her safe attic hideaway. Edmund sees that his cousin is crying and becomes the first person who shows genuine concern for Fanny’s feelings. He joins her physically by sitting on the stairs with her but also mentally as he begins to sympathize with her feelings. Fanny opens herself emotionally to Edmund and tells him that she has not been able to write to her brother William because she has no paper. The image of Fanny and Edmund sitting together on the stairs is significant because it foreshadows their relationship throughout the novel. Fanny and Edmund connect on a deeper level and share their feelings more freely with one another than any other characters in Mansfield Park. The two cousins are frequently caught between two views on subjects and try to decide which direction to take in their actions. As the novel progresses, Edmund is caught between his feelings of love for Mary Crawford and his disapproval of her morals, and Fanny is continually caught between her knowledge of people’s true personalities and her inability to express that insight to others.  

In Volume Two of Mansfield Park, the stairway is the site of another meeting between Fanny and Edmund. The meeting recalls their first conversation on the stairs when Fanny was a child, but this second engagement shows the emotional growth of Fanny. Unlike the younger Fanny, who needed encouragement from Edmund, it is now Edmund who unknowingly depends on Fanny’s guidance and advice. Edmund is in love with Mary Crawford but refuses to see her true character. He believes that he has “‘never been blinded’” (270) by his feelings for Mary, but Fanny recognizes that Edmund is increasingly falling victim to Mary’s manipulations. Fanny is no longer the crying, helpless girl sitting on the stairs, and Austen returns her readers to this familiar area of the house to show how the student has surpassed the teacher. Edmund has taught Fanny to appreciate books and romantic literature, but Fanny possesses a greater knowledge of Mary’s character and must teach Edmund that his feelings are indeed delusive.

 After a few years at Mansfield Park, Fanny adopts the East room of the house. Austen describes the room as “more spacious and more meet for walking about in, and thinking” (150). The East room was formerly used as the girls’ schoolroom and was the place where they were taught to read and write by Miss Lee, their governess. After Miss Lee leaves Mansfield Park, the room is not occupied by anyone until Fanny chooses to become “mistress” of it. The furniture is plain, but Fanny prefers it to the other pieces in the house. She keeps her writing desk in the room and spends much time there. The presence of the writing desk shows that Fanny is no longer the helpless child without any paper on which to write and is now able to communicate through her letter writing. In the room, she keeps her plants and books and continues to add her own possessions to the room. There are three transparencies over the windowpanes, one showing Tintern Abbey. The picture of the abbey symbolizes Fanny’s appreciation of nature, which is apparent when she laments the loss of an avenue of old trees at Sotherton, and when she urges Edmund to look at the stars on the night of their dinner with the Crawfords. There is also “a collection of family profiles thought unworthy of being anywhere else” (152). The presence of these pictures in the East room forwards the idea of Fanny being an overseer of the Bertram family. She sees the family and their personalities when no one else sees clearly and sees the faults of the family while the Bertrams prefer to turn their sight away from the true characters of the “profiles.” During her first years at Mansfield Park, Fanny keeps the Bertram’s material possessions but then moves on to possess their hearts and minds. In her role as a collector, Fanny is able to connect materialistically with her new family until she and they are emotionally able to connect with one another on a deeper level. 

In his book Character and Conflict in Jane Austen’s Novels, Bernard J. Paris believes that Fanny’s use of the East room symbolizes her separation from the Bertram family. He asserts that she uses the room as a retreat where “her own thoughts and reflections [are] habitually her best companions” (Austen qtd. in Paris 47). Fanny can only be herself in her own mind, not outwardly in public, just as she can only feel comfortable in the East room, away from the more public rooms in the house (Paris 47). Kenneth L. Moler, in his article “Miss Price All Alone,” calls Austen’s use of the East room “the most prominent metaphor expressive of Fanny’s spiritual distance from the Mansfield world” (190). However, this “spiritual distance” does not have to be viewed in a negative light. If Fanny is distant from the other members of the Bertram family, it is because she recognizes their faults but is too timid to verbally communicate her feelings. Her visitors in the East room, especially Edmund, are not necessarily intruders, as Moler calls them. Fanny is surprised but delighted to see Edmund in the East room as he writes her a note about the chain he has for her. She treasures the unfinished letter and keeps it with her other prized possessions in the room. The visitors to the room do not show Fanny’s distance from the outside world, but her connection with that world, whether she likes it or not. Mary and Edmund only feel comfortable rehearsing their lines from the play in the privacy of Fanny’s room. If the subject matter of the play were less risqué, Fanny might have welcomed their company even more. Later in the novel, Sir Thomas’ scolding of Fanny also takes place in the East room, but the encounter culminates with the addition of a warm fire and Fanny’s increasing feelings of gratitude towards her uncle. The attic shows Fanny’s distance from the Bertrams when she first arrives at the house, but the East room has more to do with unity than with separation. 

 Fanny’s use of the East room shows that as she becomes more comfortable at Mansfield Park and occupies more space in the house, she also occupies more space in the hearts of the Bertrams. Edmund cares deeply for Fanny and grows increasingly dependent on her counsel throughout the novel but does not realize his true feelings of romantic love for her until the end of Mansfield Park. Lady Bertram moves from worrying that Fanny will tease her pug to genuinely wanting her niece’s companionship. Lady Bertram is so pleased with Fanny after her coming-out ball, that she offers her niece a puppy from her pug’s next litter. She tells Fanny that her gift “‘is more than I did for Maria’” (333). Fanny becomes Lady Bertram’s emotional support, and Lady Bertram repeatedly says that she could not do without Fanny. When Tom Bertram becomes sick, Lady Bertram begins to write to Fanny in Portsmouth; and Edmund tells his cousin that his mother talks of her hourly while she is away in Portsmouth. In a letter, he says to Fanny, “‘You are very much wanted. I miss you more than I can express. My mother desires her best love, and hopes to hear from you soon. She talks of you almost every hour, and I am sorry to find how many weeks more she is likely to be without you’” (423).  

While she visits her parents in Portsmouth, Fanny realizes how much she misses Mansfield Park. Moler suggests that Fanny turns her room in her parents’ Portsmouth house into an imitation of her East room in an effort to bring her closer to Mansfield Park. When she first arrived at the Bertram house, Fanny would go to her upstairs room in order to avoid the troubles and squabbles of the Bertrams. In her room, she could sit quietly and think through her problems or escape from the moment by reading one of her books. When she is in her room at Portsmouth, Fanny immediately notices the lack of quiet and the lack of any books to read. To improve her situation, Fanny becomes proactive by subscribing to a circulating library and transforms the room into another schoolroom. Instead of Miss Lee or Edmund being the teacher, Fanny becomes the instructor of her younger sister Susan. She teaches Susan to appreciate literature, much the same as Edmund did for Fanny. She again makes a space for herself where she can pursue her interests, and at the same time, educate Susan. This action shows Fanny’s emotional growth, her independence, and her ability to give to other people. Moler adds that Fanny’s bedroom in Portsmouth as the “symbolic equivalent of the East room” (192). Austen uses the comparison to show Fanny’s connection to Mansfield Park, saying:  

They sat without a fire; but that was a privation familiar even to Fanny, and she suffered the less by being reminded by it of the East room. It was the only point of resemblance.  In space, light, furniture, and prospect, there was nothing alike in the two apartments; and she often heaved a sigh at the remembrance of all her books and boxes, and various comforts there. (qtd. in Moler 192)  

 The addition of a fire in the East room symbolizes the increase of warmth in Sir Thomas’ heart for Fanny. When Fanny first adopts the room as her own, Mrs. Norris commands that no fire ever be built in it to make Fanny more comfortable. Fanny accepts this lack of warmth and enjoys her room anyway, making use of it in the spring and autumn and in the winter “while there was a gleam of sunshine” (151). The addition of a fire comes about as a result of Sir Thomas’s visit to Fanny while she is in the room. He wants to speak to Fanny and questions her as to why she does not accept Henry Crawford’s marriage proposal. His approaching footsteps outside the room frighten Fanny, and she has memories of her uncle coming into the room to question her on French and English when she and the Bertram girls had school there. The first thing that Sir Thomas notices upon entering the room is the absence of a fire. Austen mentions that there is snow outside and that Fanny is wearing a shawl. When Sir Thomas inquires about the coldness of the room, Fanny says she is not cold. Sir Thomas pursues the subject by asking, “‘But, - you have a fire in general?’” (312). When Fanny answers that there is never any fire in the room, her uncle is very surprised and says that he assumed she was “perfectly comfortable” (312) in her room. Because of his niece’s fragile health, he says that it is not acceptable for Fanny to sit in the room for any amount of time without a fire. When Fanny finally admits that Mrs. Norris ordered that no fire be built in the room, Sir Thomas becomes more agitated, saying:

“I understand. Your aunt Norris has always been an advocate, . . . for young people’s being brought up without unnecessary indulgences; but there should be moderation in every thing. . . . I know what her sentiments have always been. The principle was good in itself, but it may have been, and I believe has been carried too far in your case. - I am aware that there has been sometimes, in some points, a misplaced distinction; but I think too well of you, Fanny, to suppose you will ever harbour resentment on that account.” (312-13)

 Sir Thomas goes on to ask Fanny why she will not accept the marriage proposal of Henry Crawford and says he fears she is becoming too willful. Fanny cries because of the scolding, and Sir Thomas decides not to make her go downstairs to face Henry. As angry as he is with Fanny, Sir Thomas returns from talking to Mr. Crawford and tries to calm Fanny by saying that she does not have to speak with Crawford. He spares her from the admonishments of Mrs. Norris by agreeing to keep the matter private and advises Fanny to go for a walk in the garden to clear her mind. When she returns to the East room, there is a fire burning. She questions the housemaid about it and is told that Sir Thomas gave orders for a fire to be kept in the room every day. Her uncle’s concern for her well-being creates feelings of gratitude in Fanny and helps to lift her spirits. 

Although he is never able to show outward love, Sir Thomas becomes more attached to Fanny than to his own children. His order for a fire to be built in the East room shows his concern for Fanny’s comfort and well-being. By the end of the novel, and after his own daughters have met with scandal, Sir Thomas realizes his mistaken emphasis on marriage based on wealth instead of love and approves of the union between Edmund and Fanny because he knows they genuinely love one another. Of the relationship between Fanny and her uncle, Austen says:

Fanny was indeed the daughter that [Sir Thomas] wanted. . . . He might have made her childhood happier; but it had been an error of judgment only which had given him the appearance of harshness, and deprived him of her early love; and now, on really knowing each other, their mutual attachment became very strong. (472)

 By the end of Mansfield Park, Fanny has moved physically from only one small room in the Bertram house to occupying and improving the East room for her personal use. At the same time, Fanny is moving emotionally from the miserable girl who was completely alone at Mansfield Park to the heroine who is the moral center of the house and of the novel. She becomes closer to the members of the Bertram family and feels that Mansfield Park is her true home. In the end, Fanny is needed by the Bertrams just as much as she needs them.  

Works Cited

Austen, Jane. Mansfield Park.  Ed. R. W. Chapman. 3rd ed. Oxford: OUP, 1934. 

Moler, Kenneth L. “Miss Price All Alone: Metaphors of Distance in Mansfield Park.” Studies in the Novel 17 (Summer 1985): 189-92. 

Paris, Bernard L. Character and Conflict in Jane Austen’s Novels. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1978.

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