PERSUASIONS ON-LINE V.28, NO.1 (Winter 2007)

Fanny and the Beatitudes


Josephine Singer

Josephine Singer (email: majored in Biology at Radcliffe six decades ago.  Two years of graduate work elsewhere yielded nothing useful.  Four children eventually left an empty nest.  Jane Austen is a pleasure to read and to puzzle over.  Current work in progress:  “Austen’s Contrition.”


As Claudia Johnson admits in her critical edition of Mansfield Park, “Many readers have agreed that something went wrong with Austen in Mansfield Park” (xii).  “For some,” she reports, “Fanny Price is a prig extraordinaire” (xii).  Lionel Trilling, whose essay is reprinted in the same volume, would have concurred:  “Nobody, I believe, has ever found it possible to like the heroine in Mansfield Park” (425). 


I now know the answer to what “went wrong” with Fanny Price.  Austen set for herself an almost impossible task:  Fanny Price must personify each and every one of the nine Beatitudes that Matthew listed in his version of Jesus’s Sermon on The Mount.  Why in the world would Austen undertake so difficult and unusual a task?  It seems to me most probable that her motive was didactic.  Perhaps, as suggested by Irene Collins, she was influenced by Edmund Burke’s assertion that “virtues [would] be likely to win more hearts if they were attractively presented” (152).  Austen had dozens of nieces and nephews who, sooner or later, would need to imagine ways of bringing their religious principles into daily practice.  We know she saw the importance of this need since, at the dénouement, her Sir Thomas Bertram keenly regrets his failure to reckon with it during his daughters’ younger years (463).  It is easy to understand how Austen could have believed that her novels might be helpful in solving this problem for her young relatives, especially her nieces.


For a teenager, the most baffling set of religious principles is found in the Beatitudes.  How can any youngster be attracted by a set of recommendations that appears to encourage Christians to be meek, mournful, poor in spirit, and the object of persecution?  Jesus’s solution was to promise these woeful believers extravagant rewards in Heaven.  But even these attractions create logical problems of their own.  If the righteous become both meek and poor in spirit, do they end up with the kingdom of Heaven (“theirs is the kingdom of Heaven”) while also inheriting the earth?  This is the kind of quandary any devout teenager would want solved.  Although Fanny Price is only imaginary, her achievement in meriting a reward an amazing nine times sets this issue clearly before the administrators in Heaven.  Let them deal with it.


That there is this problem must be a mild embarrassment for dutiful clergymen.  Austen deals with it by ignoring the rewards promised by Jesus and instead granting to Fanny the earthly reward she cares about most, namely Edmund.  Since Austen avoids speaking of the rewards that appear in Matthew 5, I will too.


All the Beatitudes are buried, then, incognito, in the text of Mansfield Park.  Fanny’s meekness, for example, is never named as such.  This enables young readers to engage in a kind of game, call it Find-the-Beatitudes.  Without being tipped off that this game exists, few readers would be likely to think it possible.  While explaining the game, perhaps Austen told her chosen few that she had struggled to keep each Beatitude discrete, allowing overlaps only when she found them unavoidable.  I think the first teenager on whom Austen tried out Mansfield Park was her brother Edward’s eldest daughter, Fanny Knight.  We have evidence from Austen’s letters that she and Fanny had discussed the Evangelical movement.  Austen would have wanted Fanny Knight to see how a comparatively modest, quiet-living Christian can, with luck or divine guidance, achieve enough happiness to last her lifetime.


Serendipity was responsible for my stumbling upon these buried Beatitudes.  I had been reading Mansfield Park recently when, on a sunny day in March, my man and I decided to look for scrub-jays.  No scrub-jays appeared that day, but after a while we came to a deserted church with inviting woods behind it.  We saw a trail that seemed likely to loop through the woods, so we set out to explore it.  Before long we came to a white bench opposite a small wooden sign that read, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”  A few hundred yards further, another bench:  “Blessed are they that mourn.”  Then “Blessed are the meek.”  (Did I stop to rest on this bench?  I don’t remember.  Everyone classifies Fanny as meek.)  Then “Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness,” followed by “the merciful,” “the pure in heart,” and “the peacemakers.”  I remember nothing about the eighth and ninth Beatitudes.  Perhaps the sign-maker quit after Beatitude 7 because the remaining two involve active persecution, which is no subject for quiet meditation in the woods.  I don’t remember how many benches I rested on.  In fact, I don’t even remember whether the language of the signs dated back to The King James Bible, which I have been quoting here.  All I know is that invisible scrub-jays are responsible for my slow decision to take another look at Fanny Price.


I feel an urge to admit here that I have no personal stake in Austen’s religiosity.  I would much prefer that she favor altruism, pacifism and integrity from the standpoint of an atheist (like me).  I delight in Austen’s novels because, like nurse Rooke in Persuasion, “‘she is sure to have something to relate that is entertaining and profitable, something that makes one know one’s species better’” (155).  We need to learn, for example, that since all humans are potential killers, military might is a burden, thwarting the noble commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.”  Our instincts make hypocrites of us all.


Well then, let’s see how this aged heretic (me) manages to find nine Beatitudes exemplified by young Fanny in Mansfield Park.


1.  Blessed are the poor in spirit . . .


My very personal definition of “spirit” is a vastly comforting sensation at the back of one’s chest.  Spirit is often spread by “contagion” from one person or group of people to another.  Convictions of rightness (whether warranted or not) depend on it.  A feeling of total dejection is incompatible with this feeling of spirit.  Because of this incompatibility, I interpret “poor in spirit” to signify a feeling of depression.  In fact, Austen uses this very word for Fanny’s misery at Sotherton after Edmund has left her behind for a whole hour in order to be alone with Miss Crawford:  “the result of the whole was to [Fanny] disappointment and depression” (103). 


There are examples throughout the novel.  In an earlier instance, Fanny is upset by the likelihood that she must move in with aunt Norris and tells Edmund, “‘I can never be important to any one,’” blaming her state on “‘[e]very thing—my situation—my foolishness and awkwardness’” (26).  So overwhelming a self-condemnation could result only from depression.  During the horse episode (66-70), when Fanny “struggl[es]” for days against “discontent and envy” (74), she can properly be labeled depressed.  One last example:  when Fanny sees that Edmund plans to act in the play, she feels that “it was all misery now” (157).  Edmund sums up these bouts of depression when he tells her, “‘It is your disposition to be easily dejected, and to fancy difficulties greater than they are’” (348).


2. Blessed are they that mourn . . .


One can mourn a human (or animal) loss that is not actual death.  Soon after her move to Mansfield Park, Fanny mourns for the people in her Portsmouth home so much that for a while “she . . . ended every day’s sorrows by sobbing herself to sleep” (15).  Her brother William, who soon joins the Royal Navy, is often the focus of this mourning.  Then, years later, Fanny mourns her stately second home and its occupants while disapproving of her first home.  The latter is now too squalid and disorderly and her parents apparently lack sympathy for her.


I think of grieving as absolutely synonymous with mourning.  But Austen teases us by twice mentioning grief in the same sentence although neither usage signifies mourning.  As Sir Thomas was leaving for Antigua, Fanny “grieved because she could not grieve” (33).  She would have liked to produce tears to signify her distress at this departure of her major benefactor.  She feels it “a shameful insensibility” on her part that keeps her from weeping.  But how can she expect to grieve for this stiff, preoccupied patriarch who frightens her whenever he notices her?  A feeling of relief is certain to drown out sorrow.  But can it be called grief that she feels because of the inappropriateness of her response?  Hardly.  She feels guilt, frustration, even a sense of inadequacy, but these do not add up to grief.


What strikes me here is that Fanny does not pretend, either to herself or to anyone else, that she is grieved by her uncle’s departure.  Many people fool themselves into believing they feel whatever they think they ought to feel.  Fanny is too honest for that.  Austen here gives us a lesson in integrity while at the same time causing us to puzzle over the limits of what we are willing to accept as authentic grief or mourning.


3.  Blessed are the meek . . . 


Fanny is almost always meek.  She starts out in the novel “exceedingly timid and shy, and shrinking from notice” (12) and ends up “[t]imid, anxious, doubting” (471).  I think timidity always underlies meekness.  Austen writes of Fanny’s “habits of ready submission” (357).  Examples are easy to come by.  In the horse episode, Fanny yields to Edmund’s desire to lend to Mary the horse he had bought specifically for Fanny’s use and tries to conceal the anguish that Edmund’s thoughtlessness causes her (66-70).  Although Fanny is responsible for the idea that initiates a group-trip to view Mr. Rushworth’s estate at Sotherton, for quite a while she is excluded from the travel plans.  During this period we hear no peep of disappointment from her (76-78).  She is too meek to complain.  It is all reminiscent of the earlier occasion when Fanny “thought too lowly of her own situation to imagine she should ever be admitted to [balls]” (35).  Fanny always disapproves of selfishness, and, except with her younger sisters, she is always humble:  these are characteristics of extremely meek women.


4.  Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness . . . 


“Hunger” and “thirst” are words too passionate to apply to timid Fanny, nor would Edmund, as a proper English gentleman, be likely to use them.  Edmund therefore offers the following translation more in keeping with his culture and social rank:  Fanny, he recognizes, has “a strong desire of doing right” (17).  Later, after the Lovers’ Vows fiasco, he tells his father, “‘Fanny is the only one who has judged rightly throughout, who has been consistent’” (187).  


Although I wish to do justice to “righteousness” in this context, I find it daunting.  Nevertheless, we can proceed part way by studying the “lesser virtues” (as I think of them) that Austen allowed Henry Crawford to itemize when, totally in love, he extolled Fanny’s attributes to his sister Mary.  These are obviously characteristics that Austen thought important since she gave them to Fanny, who was always in training for sainthood.  Here is Henry’s list.


Fanny’s graces of manner and goodness of heart were the exhaustless theme.  The gentleness, modesty, and sweetness of her character were warmly expatiated on. . . . Her temper he had good reason to depend on and to praise. . . . Was there one of the family, excepting Edmund, who had not in some way or other continually exercised her patience and forbearance?  Her affections were evidently strong.  To see her with her brother!  What could more delightfully prove that the warmth of her heart was equal to its gentleness?  Then, her understanding was beyond every suspicion, quick and clear; and her manners were the mirror of her own modest and elegant mind. . . . [W]hen he talked of her having such a steadiness and regularity of conduct, such a high notion of honour, and such an observance of decorum as might warrant any man in the fullest dependence on her faith and integrity, he expressed what was inspired by the knowledge of her being well principled and religious.  (294) 


No wonder such a person is considered “well principled and religious,” even though the big commandments and doctrines of the church are predictably overlooked by Henry as he hastens toward his doom.


Gentleness, modesty, sweetness of character:  these do not sound Biblical, but surely they overlap with traits extolled in the Bible.  Patience and forbearance:  ditto.  Her strong affections and warm-heartedness:  these signify a capacity for love and are definitely Biblical.  Her quick, clear understanding and elegant mind:  no.  Jesus sought obedience in his followers more than any capacity to judge shrewdly.  Her steadiness and regularity of conduct—something resembling that description appears in the catechism Austen once recited.  Her high notion of honor and observance of decorum:  maybe somewhat Biblical.  Her faith and integrity:  obviously Biblical. 


Probably some blend of Henry’s list with the Church of England’s rules of behavior would yield the proper meaning of “righteousness” as interpreted by Austen.  I would not dare to analyze the mix.


5.  Blessed are the merciful . . . 


Almost always—or is it always?—pity precedes mercy.  First we feel at least a little better off than another person, which enables us to consider him pitiable.  It is our pity that moves us to want to help him.  Even when they are needy, proud people who care about status often refuse charity because accepting it makes them feel inferior.


Fanny’s recognition that her living quarters are now better than her aunt Norris’s underscores the role of pity:  “Fanny’s disposition was such that she could never even think of her aunt Norris in the meagreness and cheerlessness of her own small house, without reproaching herself for some little want of attention to her when they had been last together” (282).  Fanny’s feeling of pity towards her vicious aunt sets off her wish that she had been nicer to this aunt in the course of the day.  Assuming that past regret will lead to future improvement, Fanny can be expected to try to do merciful acts that will benefit this nasty hypocrite.  Perhaps what this instance is mainly designed to show is that Fanny bears no malice nor hatred in her heart—a thoroughly implausible virtue (albeit a laudable one) considering the harm Mrs. Norris keeps inflicting on Fanny.  Fanny’s pity toward dim-witted Mr. Rushworth also definitely leads to merciful action.  She tries hard to teach him his lines in the play (166), and, without lying, she does what she can to soothe his fury at being left on the wrong side of the gate at Sotherton (102).  Even meek, modest Fanny cannot avoid feeling superior to poor Mr. Rushworth.  These are probably the clearest instances of Fanny being merciful.


Routinely, Fanny’s attitude toward Lady Bertram is extremely caring and considerate.  Does this count as being merciful?  Perhaps sometimes yes, sometimes no.  Occasionally she may pity the older woman’s ineptness, which often seems to border on dementia.  More often, I would suppose, Fanny feels dutiful toward her aunt rather than merciful.  Lady Bertram is spoiled by her domestic power and takes other people’s kind deeds for granted.  Such a person rarely elicits either pity or genuine feelings of mercy from others.


6.  Blessed are the pure in heart . . . 


If Fanny is designed to illustrate all the Beatitudes, she must be “pure in heart.”  But what does that mean?  Henry’s list of Fanny’s lesser virtues introduced us to goodness of heart, but prepositions matter.  Purity in heart is likely to be different from purity of heart in this context since Austen always seeks to differentiate each Beatitude from the others.  I think Austen’s first step was to recognize that any emotion or feeling that is heartfelt, whether religious or sinful, involves more authenticity than one that feels relatively superficial or contrived.  Next, Austen would have considered which kind of activities result in heartfelt feelings and which do not.  Examples of activities favoring heartfelt feelings might include 1) earnest, ardent feelings about anything, 2) uncontrived weeping, 3) falling in love, 4) justifiable pride, 5) sense of danger.  Those incompatible with heartfelt feelings might be 1) boredom, 2) condescension, 3) finding something laughable, 4) fatigue.


Except for times when Fanny feels fatigue, such as after her ball (279) and after running endless errands for Mrs. Norris (71-73), Fanny is always characterized by heartfelt feelings rather than their opposite.  (I find it remarkable that Austen endowed her with no sense of humor.  Does Fanny find anything laughable?  Doubtless, the responsibility of personifying each Beatitude is no laughing matter.)  Two kinds of heartfelt feelings are irrelevant to Fanny.  She is too well protected by her extended family to sense heart-stirring danger, and, for the most part, she lacks a sense of pride—a deficiency attributable, perhaps, to the weight of the first three Beatitudes on her.  Fanny weeps enough and routinely feels her feelings so intensely that it’s unnecessary to illustrate these traits by referring to incidents in the novel.  The important thing that Austen sought to convey in all the foregoing examples of heartfelt feelings is that Fanny’s concern for doing right is heartfelt.  She is pure in heart, not simply pure.  As Edmund comments late in the novel, “‘Fanny’s is the heart which knew no guile’” (455).


7.  Blessed are the peacemakers . . . 


Until she returns to Portsmouth near the end of the novel, Fanny is too humble and insecure to be an effective peacemaker.  Fanny’s soothing effect on Mr. Rushworth at the gate cannot count as an attempt at peacemaking because the offenders end up just as inconsiderate as they started out.  Fanny never even tries to mediate between the quarrelling Bertram sisters.  But finally, in Portsmouth, by giving Becky a silver knife of her own, Fanny settles a recurrent squabble between her younger sisters.  With an unmistakable paraphrase Austen’s narrator announces, “a source of domestic altercation was entirely done away” (397).  Blessed is Fanny, the peacemaker.


8.  Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake . . . 


It is a surprise at first to learn that Fanny’s persecutor here is female, but the gender difference serves the purpose of separating the persecutor of Beatitude 8 from those referred to by Beatitude 9.  Fanny is steadily persecuted by a barrage of put-downs from Mrs. Norris.  One of the worst is, “‘[P]eople are never respected when they step out of their proper sphere. . . . Remember, wherever you are, you must be the lowest and last’” (220-21).  Accordingly, Fanny should not expect the carriage to be sent for her if it rains; she can walk home from the Grants’ (221).  (Sir Thomas soon invalidates this ugly advice.)  Elsewhere, too, Mrs. Norris takes risks with Fanny’s health, thereby inflicting physical as well as verbal abuse.  Fanny is denied a warm fire during several winters (312), and in summer she is left with a bad headache as a result of too many errands for Mrs. Norris in hot weather (71-73).


And yet, aunt Norris prides herself on her Christian benevolence toward Fanny.  “‘Only think, my dear Sir Thomas,’” she says, “‘what extraordinary advantages you and I have been the means of giving her’” (272).  Mrs. Norris believes that “‘with all my faults I have a warm heart’” (7).  Her hypocrisy, of course, adds comedy to family scenes that would otherwise be rather grim.  How then, does “for righteousness’ sake” (mentioned in the Biblical description) enter into this picture?  Mrs. Norris cannot tolerate the overwhelming goodness of Fanny because she feels competitive with her.  Because Fanny simply is more righteous than everybody else, Mrs. Norris is always trying to downgrade Fanny’s successes.  That would explain why Mrs. Norris picks on Fanny “for righteousness’ sake” whenever the opportunity arises.


9.  Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake . . .


In my opinion, the astonishing craft and effort Austen uses to accommodate this Beatitude are virtual proof that she was deliberately illustrating all nine Beatitudes.  I believe the process of plotting Mansfield Park must have begun with Beatitude 9.  How do you arrange for a meek, well-intentioned peacemaker to incite a near-riot?  Where will Austen find a band of rowdy, vengeful liars intent on attacking sweet little Fanny?  (That, at least, was my initial notion of what was required.)


Austen’s imagination allows her to take refuge in a supremely literal interpretation of these persecutors:  there need be no more than two men involved, and they may each be incensed over different causes, and even at different times.  The religious affiliation of the persecutors is not specified.  Both must speak falsely about Fanny, but neither needs to do so deliberately.  The persecution need be no worse than verbal abuse.


Fanny’s first male persecutor is her cousin Tom Bertram.  Hoping to induce her to fill a minor role in Lovers’ Vows, he teases Fanny, calling her “‘creepmouse’”—an unwarranted slur since she can be outspoken in small groups—and falsely insinuating that she may be too stupid to memorize the six short speeches that are required (145).  If no one can hear what she says onstage, no matter:  the part is a mere nothing.  It suits her well (145-46).  All this vilification, on top of her inborn stage fright, leads to paroxysms of tears from Fanny.  At this stage of his life, Tom is a persecutor.  Many weeks later Sir Thomas, trying to keep Fanny from rejecting Henry, becomes her second male persecutor.  His falsehoods—which he does not recognize as such—are the accusations that Fanny is self-willed, obstinate, selfish and ungrateful (319).


One thing is certain about seeing the plot of Mansfield Park as based primarily on the nine Beatitudes:  Austen’s strict policy of not preaching her religion—of teaching instead by example in her novels—can never be interpreted as any kind of dissent from the teachings of her pastor father.  Conformity to what she often refers to as “principles” rather than as “religious principles” (which she always meant) was the mainspring that motivated her life.  The intense planning and work that must have gone into Mansfield Park corroborates the words her family put on her tombstone extolling her devotion, faith and purity.


If only Austen had shown that morality can exist without religion, I would be better pleased.



Austen, Jane.  The Novels of Jane Austen.  Ed. R. W. Chapman.  3rd ed.  Oxford: OUP, 1933-69.

Collins, Irene.  Jane Austen and the Clergy.  New York: Hambledon, 2002.

Johnson, Claudia L.  Introduction.  Mansfield Park.  Norton Critical Edition.  New York: Norton, 1998.  xi-xxi.

Trilling, Lionel.  “Mansfield Park.”  1955.  Mansfield Park.  Ed. Claudia L. Johnson.  Norton Critical Edition.  New York: Norton, 1998.  423-34.

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