PERSUASIONS ON-LINE V.29, NO.1 (Winter 2008)

Fanny’s Moral Limits



Theodore M. Benditt


Theodore M. Benditt (email: is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Alabama at Birmingham with interests in moral, legal, and political thought.  He has published “The Virtue of Pride: Jane Austen as Moralist” (Journal of Value Inquiry, 2003) and more recently “Revenge” (Philosophical Forum, 2007).


Ever since the publication of Mansfield Park readers and critics have debated how to understand the novel and particularly its heroine Fanny Price.  Some have disliked Fanny, have thought of her as prudish and priggish, and perhaps have preferred Mary Crawford and wished for a different ending to the story.  Others have defended Fanny’s virtue, her judgment, and her mind, regarding them as quite superior to the virtue, judgment, and minds of all of the other women in the novel, and all the men too, excepting (perhaps) Edmund.  The debate, quite clearly, is about what Jane Austen was up to in a novel with a heroine so different from those in her other novels.  The question is unclear in part because the narrator’s voice in Mansfield Park is so much like Mary Crawford’s voice.  In her article “Searching for Jane Austen in Mary Crawford,” Emily Auerbach offers us quotations from Mary Crawford and from Jane Austen’s own letters and challenges us to figure out which are which—and it is very difficult.  Mary Crawford, like Jane Austen, is frequently sparkling and edgy while Fanny is not, yet Fanny is the star. 


Despite many of the claims about Fanny’s virtue and judgment, there are, I believe, difficulties about them that are not always addressed in the critical literature.  I will, accordingly, offer what seem to be moral weaknesses in Fanny.  I do not mean to imply, in presenting these, that Fanny does not develop, in the course of the story, greater independence of thought and judgment, or that she does not think about what is going on around her and have considered views about it.  Nor would I deny that she has increasing moral strength, and I do not think her especially priggish.  Nevertheless, there are problems for which there do not seem to be ready explanations, problems that add to the wonder about Jane Austen’s purpose in Mansfield Park.  What I conjecture is that the novel highlights moral confusion and the ultimate achievement—or more precisely, the “achievement”—of moral clarity.


The Case against Fanny


Fanny Price is principled; she has moral convictions and she steadfastly acts in accordance with them.  Or so it is frequently said.  It is true that Fanny frequently voices moral convictions and does often display a determination with regard to them, though there is much evidence that the external pressures on Fanny and her inner turmoil are such that she does not always succeed.  What I will be asking at this point, however, is whether Fanny’s principles themselves are as they should be.


Early in Mansfield Park, in its first few pages, while considering the prospect of inviting young Fanny Price to live with, and be brought up by, the Bertrams at Mansfield, issues about her future are raised.  It is a serious matter, Sir Thomas reflects, as “a girl so brought up must be adequately provided for” (6).  Mrs. Norris responds to the concern by observing that “‘[a] niece of . . . your’s, would not grow up in this neighbourhood without many advantages. . . . [S]he would be introduced into the society of this country under such very favourable circumstances as, in all human probability, would get her a creditable establishment’” (6).  To which Sir Thomas replies, “‘[W]e must secure to the child, or consider ourselves engaged to secure to her hereafter, as circumstances may arise, the provision of a gentlewoman, if no such establishment should offer as you are so sanguine in expecting’” (7).  The matter of an establishment for Fanny returns later in the novel, in the course of Henry Crawford’s proposal to Fanny and Sir Thomas’s attempts to forward the match.  On learning of Fanny’s determination not to accept Henry Crawford, Sir Thomas objects that “‘[t]he advantage or disadvantage of your family . . . never seems to have had a moment’s share in your thoughts on this occasion.  How they might be benefited, how they must rejoice in such an establishment for you—is nothing to you’” (318).  Fanny is, he says, “‘throwing away . . . such an opportunity of being settled in life, eligibly, honourably, nobly settled, as will, probably, never occur to you again’” (319).


Much is made in the novel of Fanny’s belief in her uncle’s rectitude; it is largely (though not entirely) in his name, and with reference to his principles, that she opposes the theatricals.  More precisely, Fanny herself sees the harm that can come from the intimacies of acting, and at the least opposes the chosen play on this ground:  “Agatha and Amelia appeared to her in their different ways so totally improper for home representation—the situation of one, and the language of the other, so unfit to be expressed by any woman of modesty . . .” (137).1  Her opposition to putting on any theatricals at all, though, appears to derive largely from her sense of what Sir Thomas would think of it.  Satisfied in her own mind of what she is sure would be “Sir Thomas’s disapprobation of the whole” (153), “she could never have been easy in joining a scheme which, considering only her uncle, she must condemn altogether” (160).2  But however deferential Fanny is with regard to theatricals, she appears to be quite selective in her reliance on her uncle’s judgment.  Whereas she relies on her uncle’s judgment with regard to the theatricals, when it comes to Crawford’s proposal she ignores what she must know to be Sir Thomas’s views on her relationship to his family—that is, that she may not, should not, depend on him perpetually for support, that he regards her having an establishment of her own as quite important, as something that is both his and her duty to promote.  Indeed, she does not even consult his opinion on the matter:  “‘you have now shewn me that you can be wilful and perverse, that you can and will decide for yourself, without any consideration or deference for those who have surely some right to guide you—without even asking their advice’” (318).


How is Fanny’s attitude to be explained?  Clearly Sir Thomas believes that having assumed responsibility for Fanny’s upbringing, an establishment for her is of the first importance, and, as he observes, it also has implications for the welfare of the rest of his family.  And Fanny is aware of these matters.  What does she think her future will be?  What does she think her responsibility is with respect to her future?  Fanny must know that she has a responsibility to think about her future and the costs she imposes on the Bertram family (even if it is now in some sense her family).3  Certainly she cannot suppose she will wind up with Edmund.


Given what Fanny must know, and given her delicacy and sense of duty, she must have some idea of what is incumbent on her—but it does not influence her.  Is she right to resist?  Are there moral counterweights to these considerations that she might be adverting to?  One possibility is that what she knows about Henry, that her uncle does not know—namely, his flirtatious behavior toward Maria (and Julia) during the theatricals and at Sotherton—is a moral concern weighty enough to offset her responsibilities regarding her future.  And it is reasonable to believe that Sir Thomas might agree with her if he knew, for he was willing for Maria not to marry Rushworth if she thought him too stupid—Sir Thomas, we are told, sees that “Mr Rushworth was an inferior young man” and that Maria “could not, did not like him. . . . [He] assured her that every inconvenience should be braved, and the connection entirely given up, if she felt herself unhappy in the prospect of it” (200).


There are two questions here.  First, is Henry’s improper behavior a weighty enough matter, morally speaking, to counter obligations Fanny may have with regard to her future?  It is difficult to know how to go about answering this question, for most of us have no experience, either first-hand or by observation, with obligations such as Fanny’s for her future, and the convictions we normally bring to questions about marriage may not translate readily to the circumstances in question.  The second question, though, is not so difficult to confront—namely, why Fanny does not relate some of Henry Crawford’s behavior in explanation and justification of her refusal.  Presumably it is because she does not want to implicate Maria, for she has seen how Maria quite improperly received Crawford’s attentions:  “Her ill opinion of him was founded chiefly on observations, which, for her cousins’ sake, she could scarcely dare mention to their father.  Maria and Julia—and especially Maria, were so closely implicated in Mr. Crawford’s misconduct, that she could not give his character, such as she believed it, without betraying them” (317-18).  Though there is some plausibility in this consideration, nevertheless it is not completely convincing, for Fanny could criticize Henry without seriously exposing Maria, as she does several pages later in justifying her behavior to Edmund.  It is hard to see why this recourse would not, arguably, be adequate with regard to Sir Thomas, whose delicacy would very likely forbid his questioning Maria on the matter—though we can only conjecture whether a Sir Thomas would have regarded the information as bad enough to offset the desirability of the establishment Crawford has offered.


A second possibility involves Fanny’s conviction that one should not marry without love, in which she is supported by Edmund:  “‘I consider Crawford’s proposals as . . . desirable, if you could return his affection . . . but . . . as you cannot, you have done exactly as you ought in refusing him’” (346); “‘You did not love him—nothing could have justified your accepting him’” (347).  If, then, we suppose that finding an establishment is something that Fanny’s situation calls on her to advert to, is the absence of love a consideration that outweighs it?  Though the idea that one should not marry without love is arguable and is certainly a sentiment shared by most if not all readers of the novel, Fanny’s opposition to her uncle presents a dilemma in our reading of the novel.  It is important, in confronting this issue, to distinguish between accounting for Fanny’s moral convictions in the sense of explaining them, and in the sense of justifying them.  For example, one writer offers the suggestion that Fanny’s moral independence comes from her life prior to her coming to, and coming under the influence of, Mansfield.4  But such an explanation of Fanny’s having her own independent convictions would not get us anywhere on the question of whose convictions are superior and should prevail.


Mansfield Park presents a serious, dutiful, morally upright, and some would say religious heroine.  Fanny is principled, and it is part of the idea of constancy permeating the novel that the principles involved are meant to be fully correct moral principles and not simply social standards that happen to be widely held at a given time.  Yet here is a question on which Fanny and her uncle do not agree, and no doubt her Aunt Bertram’s remark that “‘you must be aware, Fanny, that it is every young woman’s duty to accept such a very unexceptionable offer as this’” (333) reflects Sir Thomas’s view of the matter.  Fanny’s attitude toward her uncle on the issue is a bit surprising:  “She had hoped that to a man like her uncle, so discerning, so honourable, so good, the simple acknowledgement of settled dislike on her side, would have been sufficient.  To her infinite grief she found it was not” (318).  To the contrary, Sir Thomas tells Fanny that she has disappointed every expectation that he had formed and that he regards her attitude as a display of willfulness, temper, self-conceit, and perversity (318).  Further on she is represented as hoping that her uncle’s displeasure would “abate farther as he considered the matter with more impartiality, and felt, as a good man must feel, how wretched, and how unpardonable, how hopeless and how wicked it was, to marry without affection” (324). 


It is difficult not to see these reflections as implying criticism of her uncle; there is every appearance that Fanny regards her principles on marriage as superior to her uncle’s.5  Indeed, the language the narrator uses in expressing Fanny’s thoughts suggests that on this question she regards her uncle as a moral simpleton.  This occasion is the first on which Fanny has a serious disagreement with her uncle, and certainly the first on which she resists his authority.  It underscores the degree to which Fanny is, or has recently become, an independent thinker who makes and acts on her own judgments.  But it does leave us with a difficult problem:  how are we to account for Fanny’s conviction that she is correct and for her failure, or refusal, to contemplate her future?  Why is she so sure she is right, not simply that love in marriage is desirable, but that absence of love outweighs all else?  And how are we to account for her determination that her moral convictions are superior to her uncle’s?  What justifies Fanny in being so sure that her uncle is wrong?  The question is unanswered.


There is, in addition, another matter of great consequence—that Fanny loves Edmund.  The narrator tells us that “I have no inclination to believe Fanny . . . could have escaped heart-whole from the courtship . . . of such a man as Crawford, in spite of there being some previous ill-opinion of him to be overcome, had not her affection been engaged elsewhere” (231), and that Crawford “knew not that he had a pre-engaged heart to attack” (326).  What is here characterized as Fanny’s affection is later characterized as love:  “to find herself forced into a purpose of that kind, compelled into a correspondence which was bringing her the addresses of the man she did not love, and obliging her to administer to the adverse passion of the man she did, was cruelly mortifying” (376).  Something of the nature and depth of her feelings is captured in the Harriet-Smith-like moment when “she seized the scrap of paper on which Edmund had begun writing to her, as a treasure beyond all her hopes” (265), about which the narrator says that “[t]he enthusiasm of a woman’s love is even beyond the biographer’s” (265).


Fanny’s affections raise a number of issues that bear on her moral judgment.  First, should not Fanny have some concern about the possible impropriety of her feelings for Edmund?  After all, the possibility of such a connection is of concern to those who brought her to Mansfield, as when Mrs. Norris says to Sir Thomas, “‘You are thinking of your sons—but do not you know that of all things upon earth that is the least likely to happen; brought up, as they would be, always together like brothers and sisters?  It is morally impossible’” (6).  Ultimately, we know, Sir Thomas, in the context of the complete upset of his family, comes to change his mind about such a relationship between the cousins (472), but it cannot relieve a principled Fanny, prior to the change of situation and circumstance, from having moral qualms about her feelings, yet there is little indication that she does.


The second issue has to do with how Fanny’s behavior looks from the standpoint of her affection for Edmund.  Obviously she has concerns about how it might appear, for she keeps that affection secret (there is no suggestion that she keeps it secret because she herself questions its propriety):


Sir Thomas looked at her with deeper surprise.  “This is beyond me,” said he.  “This requires explanation.  Young as you are, and having seen scarcely anyone, it is hardly possible that your affections——”

He paused and eyed her fixedly.  He saw her lips formed into a no, though the sound was inarticulate, but her face was like scarlet.

. . .

She would rather die than own the truth. . . .  (316-17)


And later, following an interchange with Mary Crawford,


It was over, and she had escaped without reproaches and without detection.  Her secret was still her own. . . .  (365)


Let us imagine that one of the characters in the story is in on Fanny’s secret:  how would Fanny’s behavior, especially her pronouncements, appear to that character?  Self-serving?  Hypocritical?6  We should recall that, to a considerable extent, Fanny’s views about Mary Crawford are based on what she knows of, or surmises about, Mary’s ambitions, and now suppose that others were to evaluate Fanny from a similar perspective.  Is the moral of the story that basing part of one’s behavior on questionable desire is all right so long as others are not aware of it?


Finally, it is reasonable to think that Fanny deceives herself.  “[S]he trusted . . . that she had done right, that her judgment had not misled her; for the purity of her intentions she could answer . . .” (324).  It is difficult to accept that a principled Fanny would have no doubt at all about “the purity of her intentions” given that she secretly loves Edmund.7  But Fanny apparently believes, or has convinced herself, that her judgment is not clouded by her affections (which may not be terribly surprising, as most people probably congratulate themselves in this way).  We are told a few pages later that “Had her own affections been as free—as perhaps they ought to have been—[Crawford] never could have engaged them.”  The narrator, though, immediately registers some doubt with the remark, “So thought Fanny . . .” (329).  At one point Fanny feels certain that Edmund will ask to marry Mary and that she will accept:  “Her acceptance must be as certain as his offer; and yet, there were bad feelings still remaining which made the prospect of it most sorrowful to her, independently—she believed independently of self” (367).  About which the narrator again demurs:  “Experience might have hoped more for any young people, so circumstanced, and impartiality would not have denied to Miss Crawford’s nature, that participation of the general nature of women, which would lead her to adopt the opinions of the man she loved and respected, as her own.—But . . . such were Fanny’s persuasions . . .” (367).8


There is an earlier occasion in the novel on which we are told that Fanny has concern about her affections influencing her judgment:  “It was her intention, as she felt it to be her duty, to try to overcome all that was excessive, all that bordered on selfishness in her affection for Edmund” (264).  More specifically, she worries that her opinions about Mary Crawford might be influenced by her own affection for Edmund; thus she wants to “overcome all that was excessive” in her affections so that she would be “rational” and “deserve the right of judging Miss Crawford’s character” (264-65).  But though wanting to “deserve the right,” she in no way thinks her opinions of Mary could really have been improperly influenced—which is particularly surprising given what we are immediately told about the self-acknowledged direction of her feelings for Edmund:


To think of him as Miss Crawford might be justified in thinking, would in her be insanity.  To her, he could be nothing under any circumstances—nothing dearer than a friend.  Why did such an idea occur to her even enough to be reprobated and forbidden?  It ought not to have touched on the confines of her imagination.  (264-65).


But she does imagine it.


Moral confusion


There are varieties of moral confusion, all or most of which, I believe, are presented in Mansfield Park.  First, there is moral confusion when a person is not sure of what is right.  We must not confuse lack of certainty with any kind of moral relativism, in which there really is nothing that is objectively right or wrong.  Rather, there being an objectively correct moral viewpoint on an issue does not mean that a person is always clear about what it is—one may simply be in doubt and may ultimately be mistaken.  Second, people frequently disagree about what is right or wrong, which can breed confusion particularly when those who disagree morally need to find a way to function together.  The confusion in such situations has to do with what a person should actually do in the circumstances:  I may be clear enough in my own mind as to what is right yet be unsure about what to do in the face of disagreement.  It is often said that a person should always do what she believes to be right (act in accord with her principles), but in many cases it is not so easy and most of us try to find an accommodation.  Third, a person’s judgment may be clouded by his or her wishes or interests.  And fourth, a person’s judgment might not be clouded by her wishes or desires.  She may be clear enough about what is (in her judgment) right, but may nevertheless lack the will to act appropriately owing to her wishes or interests.


In Mansfield Park Jane Austen has given us a story of moral confusion.  Part of the confusion derives from the fact that in this novel there is, more than in her other novels, a significant level of moral difference of opinion and moral disagreement.  Fanny and her uncle have different ideas about marriage, and however certain Fanny is that she is correct (and however much the reader agrees with her), the difference must still be negotiated:  she must figure out how to live with someone who thinks differently from herself.  Likewise for some of the ideas and behaviors of the Grants, Mrs. Norris, and Mary and Henry:  at least some of what Fanny disapproves of, they see no moral difficulty with, which is not to say that Fanny is wrong or that we should give credit to their outlooks, but that the characters—not only Fanny, but also Edmund and Mary and Henry—must figure out how to deal with differences of moral judgment.  Fanny, of course, makes hardly any such effort, whereas Edmund makes a serious effort to embrace some of the moral confusion (i.e., reach a sort of détente with Mary), but finally gives it up.


We have in Fanny Price a heroine who wants to live a life directed by sound moral principle and is notable for evaluating those around her in the light of her principles.  In contrast, in most of Austen’s other novels the heroine evaluates herself at least as much as she evaluates others—that is, in most of the other novels the main character, in the course of the story, comes to learn about herself and thus to develop into the person she will become and to find the life she will lead.  But in Mansfield Park the heroine already knows (she believes) what is right, evaluates others in light of her established convictions, does little in the way of self-evaluation and self-correction, changes little if at all, and yearns for and ultimately finds the life that accords with her already-developed self.  Yet in the critical moral action of the novel, Fanny is either wrong (or at least should have more substantial doubts about her judgment than she has), or muddled, or self-deceiving.  As to her being wrong, what I mean is that there are concerns that she does not even acknowledge or take into account in her thinking, and that she ignores rather than responding to the claims of her uncle to provide moral guidance.  The level of her self-deception is considerable.  In many cases the reader cannot determine the extent to which Fanny is driven by her moral appraisal of people and events around her as opposed to her own barely acknowledged desires, a difficulty that the narrator highlights; in other cases it is clear that, however correct her judgments of Mary and Henry, she frequently fails, for reasons of self-interest, to give them credit for their sometimes generous thoughts or behavior.


As the story progresses some of the moral confusion dissipates, for the outstanding moral moments toward the end of the story (Henry’s affair and Mary’s proposal for covering it over) are hardly open to dispute (even if not all of the characters would completely agree).  Of course these occurrences have the effect of justifying Fanny’s earlier misgivings and encouraging the notion that she was right all along and that she was the only one to see things clearly.  But though there are critics who see this result as the point of the exercise, I believe the story takes us elsewhere.


The rejection of society


We are invited in Mansfield Park to consider three social environments—the one in Portsmouth, the one in Mansfield, and London, the last being a placeholder, or metaphor, for “society” and known to Fanny not by experience but through others.  Portsmouth for Fanny is an environment highlighting family, but it is crowded and noisy and its occupants do not behave properly, presumably owing to lack of education and a proper upbringing (though limited resources seem to be a contributing factor).  Mansfield too is a family-oriented environment, one that is not crowded and noisy, and though some of its occupants do not think and behave properly, “in her uncle’s house there would have been a consideration of times and seasons, a regulation of subject, a propriety, an attention towards every body which there was not here [in Portsmouth]” (383).  Finally there is “society”—the outer world, as it were—represented often by London; it is an environment largely characterized in terms of its liveliness and cleverness and self-serving concerns but in which, in the examples we are given, people do not think and behave properly.  London is, as Fanny sees it, the antithesis of Mansfield and the major source of her difficulties, for it conflicts with her personality, stands in the way of her desires, and is responsible for much of the moral confusion she experiences.  The direction of the story, I believe, is toward the rejection of “society,” a development that not only accords with Fanny’s personality and deepest desires, but which answers to the moral confusion that has permeated Mansfield.


Fanny Price is the only major character in a Jane Austen novel who lives, metaphorically, in a cocoon.  She has little contact with the outer world, for she is embedded in either her Portsmouth family or her Mansfield family.  She does not go to town or deal with people not related to her.  The outside world is more absent from this story than from the others, and it is hard to see how Fanny could get along in the larger world.  Indeed, Fanny thoroughly rejects the larger world (“society”), in part because of her personality and in part owing to what she takes to be its values.  For one thing, Fanny is a very serious person.  In the course of the novel we see little if anything from her that could be regarded as wit, few times at which she is amused or seeks to be amusing.  She can be engaging, in the sense that she can engage others (particularly Edmund) on such things as nature and the skies, and she is engaging in conversation with her brother as they reminisce about their youth together.  But Fanny almost seems determined against any sort of repartee.  When, for example, Henry Crawford makes teasing remarks about attending Edmund’s first sermon, Edmund responds seemingly in kind—his response is serious but is at the same time a jousting retort suggesting that he does not take Henry very seriously.  Fanny, however, will not hear the teasing:  “‘Will he not feel this?’ thought Fanny.  ‘No, he can feel nothing as he ought’” (227).


Fanny decidedly does not covet what others would consider a desirable or comfortable situation in society.  She does not want to live a life in which she can be (and worse, may be called upon to be) outgoing and entertaining and interesting.  She is shy and reserved and fears a world where such traits might be called for.  Part of the attraction of Edmund is that with him she can remain quiet and reserved; with Edmund she can, as far as the outer world is concerned, be as invisible as she wishes.  Fanny’s interests and concerns lie not in social interaction but, perhaps like some poets and to a considerable extent like Edmund, in nature and in contemplation of the grander things of the universe.  Of course Fanny does have some interest in the wider world—she delights in the conversation of her brother William, but his wider world is quite different from the social world of Mary, Henry, and others.  Beyond these interests, much of Fanny’s life and outlook involve service to others, and here too she and Edmund have common ground.  Both live lives of service—Edmund as a family man and a clergyman, Fanny as workhorse for Lady Bertram:  “neither Lady Bertram nor Tom had received from [Mrs. Norris] the smallest support or attempt at support.”  But when the others arrive from Portsmouth, “Edmund was almost as welcome to his brother, as Fanny to her aunt” (448)—i.e., to support or serve them.


What Fanny honors and values is quite different from what she takes to be the values of society, which she sees as having to do with concern for self and paying little heed to proper principles.  Indeed, there is a strain in Mansfield Park strongly suggesting an intimate connection between the sparkling, teasing, attractive behavior of people in “society” and behavior that is morally questionable, as reflected in the following:  “Mrs. Rushworth had gone, for the Easter holidays, to Twickenham, with a family whom she had just grown intimate with—a family of lively, agreeable manners, and probably of morals and discretion to suit . . .” (450).  Arguably Mary Crawford is presented as so dazzling in order to represent the epitome of society and its values.  Ultimately, of course, Mary and everything associated with her are rejected, a rejection meant to be understood, I believe, as the rejection of the larger society.


From this perspective we might speculate that the “view” in the last line of the novel (“as thoroughly perfect in her eyes, as every thing else, within the view and patronage of Mansfield Park, had long been” [473]) refers not, or not only, to the landscape, but to the moral domain, a self-contained domain that is morally perfect because unaffected by outside ideas or ways (and note that all of the former inhabitants whose ideas and ways were questionable, are gone).  Such an understanding is fortified by the reference to the “parsonage . . . , which under each of its two former owners, Fanny had never been able to approach but with some painful sensation of restraint or alarm . . .” (473).  Why?  No doubt because the former occupants reflected or espoused things associated with society and with moral fault—first Mrs. Norris, and later Dr. Grant and the Crawfords.  Perhaps the point is that both Mansfield and the parsonage have now been cleansed and made morally fit for a proper life, one that is steady and quiet.9  The rejection of the morality of the larger society is thus a rejection of the larger society itself in favor of a limited, controlled, unchanging environment in which moral verities remain verities and in which there is constancy and no moral confusion.  Fanny’s rhapsodizing about nature seems to symbolize the rejection of society:  nature is steady and, as God’s creation, inspires awe and reflects larger truths, the eternal verities.  We note, though, that it is in Fanny’s eyes, but not the narrator’s, that “society” is rejected in favor of the perfection of Mansfield—a point made obvious in the last three words of the novel (“had long been”), for Mansfield clearly had not been perfect.  The idea that it had always been perfect is simply wishful thinking, or wishful remembering, on Fanny’s part.  Whatever perfection Mansfield now claims is achieved by withdrawing from and exorcising the influence of the larger world.




It is an irony of the story, one that must be deliberate, that in spite of Fanny’s wish for moral purity and constancy, it is moral confusion that gets her what she wants; moral clarity would not.  Had she adverted to considerations regarding marriage that her uncle thought important, or had she been more generous regarding the efforts of Mary and Henry to be more suitable people, or had she not repeatedly deceived herself, she would not have gained the outcome she preferred.  At the end of Northanger Abbey the narrator invites us to consider whether “the tendency of this work” might be to “reward filial disobedience” (252).  Might not we wonder whether the tendency of Mansfield Park is likewise to reward disobedience, or something like it, in this case to a parental surrogate?




1. Mary Waldron observes, however, that Fanny “has somehow sufficiently cleared away her earlier conviction that the play Lovers’ Vows was ‘improper’ and the language ‘unfit to be expressed by any woman of modesty’ to learn most of it by heart; she believes herself ‘to derive as much innocent enjoyment from the play as any of them’” (98).


2. Apologizing to his father on the latter’s return from Antigua, Edmund says, “‘Her feelings have been steadily against it from first to last.  She never ceased to think of what was due to you’” (187).


3. On the first page of Mansfield Park we are told that Fanny’s mother “married, in the common phrase, to disoblige her family” (3).  It might not be completely clear what is intended by this phrase, for “disoblige” can mean either to refuse to oblige, as by disregarding the wishes of others, or to release from obligation.  The former appears to be the more current use, though the Oxford English Dictionary and other sources identify the latter as well.  If, as I believe, the idea that Fanny’s mother married to relieve her family from the burden of supporting her (as did Charlotte Lucas in Pride and Prejudice) is what Jane Austen intends, then Fanny has in front of her an example that pointedly raises the question of her responsibility for her future.


4. “Mansfield Park shows that adopted, fostered, and reconsigned children are loose cannons in the battlefield of intra- and inter-family transactions. They have independent moral codes and may not see obligations as others do; they do not necessarily align with family expectations” (Souter 211).  Fanny, Souter says, has a “uniquely composed moral code” (212), combining the values of her childhood with those of her uncle and Edmund.


5. In so doing she seems to fall into inconsistency:  “Convinced that to marry for worldly advancement (that is, without love) is wrong, she must resist Sir Thomas’s authority.  (She never really acknowledges that in now taking the stance that he can be wrong, she is partly undermining her own earlier resistance to the theatricals.)” (Ellwood 10).


6. Jenny Davidson explores the extent of Fanny’s concealment and hypocrisy and the aspects of her condition and character that make them effective:  “Perhaps the best evidence of Fanny Price’s hypocrisy is that despite everyone’s low opinion of her, she successfully conceals from Mansfield’s other inhabitants all of her most important thoughts and motives.  Of course, ‘despite’ in the previous sentence also means ‘because’:  Fanny is able to deceive in part because she is beneath notice” (257).


7. Some critics, however, do accept Fanny’s evaluation of her own purity:  “The decision Fanny makes, to reject Crawford on the basis of a carefully considered judgment of his past behavior, is not priggish, it is admirable.  And she does reject him on that basis:  it is her judgment of his character even more than her prior love for Edmund that leads her to this decision” (Emsley 110-11).  However, no support for the latter claim is presented.


8. Mary Waldron comments that “[t]his authorial comment puts a stop to any certainty about the purity of Fanny’s state of mind.  No moral system could blame her for being inexperienced, but a failure of ‘impartiality’ is much less excusable.  But Fanny is unaware of this kind of failure in herself” (107).


9. Maggie Lane characterizes “the quiet, domestic, serious tenor of life at Mansfield once it has been cleansed of all that is morally questionable” as “proto-Victorian” (165).



Works Cited


Auerbach, Emily.  “Searching for Jane Austen in Mary Crawford.”  Persuasions 28 (2006): 199-207.

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

Davidson, Jenny.  “A Modest Question about Mansfield Park.”  Eighteenth-Century Fiction 16 (2004): 245-64.

Ellwood, Gracia Fay.  “‘Such a Dead Silence’: Cultural Evil, Challenge, Deliberate Evil, and Metanoia in Mansfield Park.”  Persuasions On-Line 24.1 (2003).

Emsley, Sarah.  Jane Austen’s Philosophy of the Virtues.  New York: Palgrave, 2005.

Lane, Maggie.  “Star-gazing with Fanny Price.”  Persuasions 28 (2006): 150-65.

Souter, Kay Torney.  “Jane Austen and the Reconsigned Child: The True Identity of Fanny Price.”  Persuasions 23 (2001): 205-14.

Waldron, Mary.  Jane Austen and the Fiction of Her Time.  Cambridge: CUP, 1999.

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