2014 JASNA Essay Contest Third Place Winner High School Division
Fanny, the Enigma: Two Levels of Love, Two of Silence, and Two of Penetration
“I begin now to understand you all, except Miss Price,” Mary Crawford remarks to Edmund Bertram early in Mansfield Park, the novel by Jane Austen, summing up in one neat statement Fanny Price’s enigmatic nature in the microcosm of Mansfield Park (Austen 48). Quiet and shy, Fanny often seems to disappear beneath the exterior bustle of the Bertrams and the Crawfords, divulging herself only to those who endeavor to understand the emotions beneath her silences. For Fanny’s inner life exists on two planes: one that includes her innate timidity and fraternal affection for her brother William, and the other consisting of her romantic love for Edmund cloaked by strict secrecy. To comprehend the enigma of Fanny Price, one must penetrate her silence on both levels—a feat attempted by both Edmund and Mr. Crawford but ultimately accomplished by only one.
Fanny Price’s first degree of silence, her shyness, characterizes her from the beginning and gathers strength by the combined aspects of natural disposition, circumstances, and treatment from others. “Exceedingly timid and shy, and shrinking from notice” when she first comes to Mansfield, she had been duly stifled even before arrival by Mrs. Norris’ lecture on “gratitude and good behavior” (10, 11). Though Mrs. Norris’ ideas of excessive humility and class distinction contain a large amount of balderdash, nearly everyone in the Bertram household—Fanny included—internalizes them to some degree. Consciousness of the lavish favor bestowed on her by Sir Thomas Bertram keeps Fanny’s opinion of herself excessively modest, as do Maria’s and Julia’s disdain of her mediocre talents and scholastic ignorance. Indeed, even Lady Bertram, who holds a higher opinion of Fanny, appraises her merely as “‘very handy, and quick in carrying messages, and fetching what [Lady Bertram] wanted’” and never displays curiosity about Fanny’s inner personality. By exerting minimum effort to understand her, nearly everyone in Mansfield Park encourages, however involuntarily, Fanny’s silence—nearly everyone, except for her cousin Edmund.
Edmund Bertram represents the first person to break Fanny’s silence and uncover her true character beneath. Finding Fanny in tears one day, he took “great pains to overcome her shame in being so surprized, and persuade her to speak openly”—the exact opposite of Mrs. Norris’s preaching tactics (13). For the first time Fanny receives encouragement to speak her mind—and to speak her mind about the person she loves best, for “it was William whom she talked of most, and wanted most to see” (14). Eventually Edmund gathers that she wishes to write to William and provides her with the necessary materials—a kindness the neglected Fanny considers a tremendous favor. After this first encounter, Austen writes that “her cousin began to find her an interesting object. He talked to her more, and, from all that she said, was convinced of her having an affectionate heart, and a strong desire of doing right” (15). Understanding Fanny’s personality causes Edmund to realize her true worth. Moreover, once Edmund overcomes Fanny’s silence by attentively listening to her and discovering her affection for William, his kindness “gave her better spirits with everyone else,” not to mention securing her loyalty and affection (15). Edmund’s success in comprehending Fanny’s character spans the first level of silence—her inherent shyness.
Similarly successful, though not as welcome to Fanny, is Mr. Crawford’s penetration, whose approach approximates Edmund’s, though with a distinct difference of motivation. Captivated by her emerging beauty and intrigued by her inscrutability—“‘I do not quite know what to make of Miss Fanny’”—Mr. Crawford decides to “‘make Fanny Price in love with [him]’” (233, 232). His attempt to understand Fanny Price begins after she rather sharply rebukes him about his attitude toward Sir Thomas: “He was surprized; but after a few moments’ silent consideration of her, replied in a calmer, graver tone . . . And then turning the conversation, he would have engaged her on some other subject” (p 228). Like Edmund, Crawford displays genuine interest in Fanny’s opinions, which—although Fanny does not reward Crawford with her confidence as she did Edmund—raises him in her opinion. More fruitful is Crawford’s encounter with Fanny’s devotion to William. When Crawford appears bearing the news of William’s return to England, Fanny “was elevated beyond the common timidity of her mind by the flow of her love for William” as she thanks Crawford, who now “no longer [doubts] the capabilities of her heart. She had feeling, genuine feeling . . . She interested him more than he had foreseen” (235, 238). Although Fanny keeps him at a distance, Crawford’s endeavors to understand Fanny increase his regard for her, now that her silent exterior no longer completely hides her from him.
However successful Mr. Crawford has been in comprehending the true Fanny beneath the silence, he will fail in “‘making a small hole in Fanny Price’s heart’” (231). In a rare hypothetical, Austen tells us that Fanny very well may have succumbed to Mr. Crawford’s courtship “had not her affection been engaged elsewhere” (233). But although both Edmund and Mr. Crawford have penetrated Fanny’s natural shyness, neither of them—nor anyone in the novel—ever guesses the state of Fanny’s affections. Indeed, this is the first time that Austen herself explicitly mentions the romantic love Fanny has for Edmund—and, with concealment reminiscent of Fanny’s, Austen does not even disclose Edmund’s name. Fanny’s complete silence regarding her passion for Edmund—her second plane of silence—does not stem merely from her reserved disposition: she has deliberately imposed secrecy of the strictest sort upon herself. “She would rather die than own the truth” (319), probably, in part, because Aunt Norris’s inevitable castigation would wound Fanny too much even to consider, and Sir Thomas’ censure would surpass even his disapproval of her refusal of Mr. Crawford. But even supposing Fanny had not so feared her aunt’s and uncle’s displeasure, she would doubtless realize that if Edmund, who intends to marry Mary Crawford, knew of her secret, it would destroy their relationship—Fanny’s only true friendship—and injure them both. Although she has been in love with Edmund for some time, the subject has never before figured greatly into Fanny’s decisions until Mr. Crawford proposes to her. Now, in spite of her absolute silence, Fanny’s love seeps out through her actions, providing her primary motivation for refusing Mr. Crawford. In their ignorance of Fanny’s passion, Edmund and Mr. Crawford cannot properly understand her anymore, and Fanny, once more an enigma, sinks back into silence.
As soon as Fanny receives Mr. Crawford’s proposal, her love for Edmund raises a barrier of secrecy between the two cousins: “Fanny estranged from him, silent, and reserved, was an unnatural state of things” (349). Saddened by the change, Edmund determines to “know Fanny’s feelings,” but unfortunately, his endeavor to pierce her second level of silence does not produce nearly the success that his first attempt at penetration did years before (349). Although he specifically aims to learn her mind, a glance at the pages that cover their conversation reveals that Edmund instead pontificates in long paragraphs too reminiscent of Aunt Norris’ lectures, logically refuting Fanny’s objections to Mr. Crawford rather than trying to grasp the deeper issues behind them. Disregarding the validity of Fanny’s opinions, he maintains that Fanny will eventually “be persuaded into [proper feelings]” (355). Although Edmund could have better understood Fanny by coaxing her out of her silence rather than talking at her, he could not have avoided ignorance of Fanny’s true motivation—love. When Fanny energetically exclaims that Mr. Crawford “‘never will succeed with [her],’” Edmund references the discrepancy he perceives between Fanny’s personality and her decisions: “‘Never! Fanny!—so very determined and positive! This is not like yourself, your rational self’” (p 351). Lacking knowledge of the key factor that now guides Fanny’s actions, Edmund cannot integrate his two conflicting views of Fanny until she finally gives a particularly persuasive reason for her rejection of Mr. Crawford. After hearing the explanation Edmund naively exclaims, “‘My dear, dear Fanny, now I have the truth . . . I thought I could understand you’” (358). Edmund may think he understands Fanny, but in reality he knows no more of Fanny’s actual feelings, covered by her deeper silence, than he did before their conversation.
Comparable illusion awaits Mr. Crawford as he tries to plumb the depths of Fanny’s silence. After failing to gain her heart at Mansfield, Mr. Crawford—to Fanny’s infinite relief—leaves for London. Reappearing at Portsmouth, Mr. Crawford changes his passionate conduct into a manner more suited to Fanny’s demeanor, accomplishing the transformation by attentively observing her, divining her inclinations, and changing conversation accordingly: “He perceived that enough had been said of Everingham, and that it would be as well to talk of something else, and turned to Mansfield. He could not have chosen better; that was a topic to bring back her attention and her looks almost instantly” (411-412). Although by these tactics he gains knowledge of Fanny and rises in her estimation, Mr. Crawford can never fathom Fanny’s second silence. Because “he knew not that he had a pre-engaged heart to attack,” Mr. Crawford remains optimistic about the end result of his courtship: “Must it not follow of course, that, when he was understood, he should succeed? He believed it fully” (329). Based on an assumption that natural diffidence—instead of deep-seated passion—motivates Fanny to reject his advances, Mr. Crawford will not succeed in truly understanding her.
Thus Fanny, through the consummate concealment that characterizes her second level of silence, has trapped herself in an inevitable paradox. Her determined refusal of Mr. Crawford constitutes a riddle which no one can understand but those who already know the answer—in other words, nobody. Kept in silence on one side by her love for Edmund and on the other side by her fear of Sir Thomas and Aunt Norris, Fanny remains an enigma that both Edmund’s blundering efforts and even Mr. Crawford’s attentive attempts cannot probe. Even if Fanny had eventually accepted Mr. Crawford, her secrecy would probably continue to cast a shadow over her interactions with Edmund and Mary, perpetuating her inexplicability. The only person who could free Fanny from her self-imposed silence is Edmund Bertram, whose newly developed romantic love for Fanny finally enables him to comprehend both levels of her inner life. Ironically, as Austen describes the return of complete mutual understanding to the two cousins, she refuses to portray Fanny’s ecstasy in more detail than that which a simple silhouette affords: “But there was happiness elsewhere which no description can reach. Let no one presume to give the feelings of a young woman on receiving the assurance of that affection of which she has scarcely allowed herself to entertain a hope” (477). Austen treats the resolution of her heroine’s paradox with fitting reticence, providing a reminder of the silences that Fanny has sustained throughout the book.
In Mansfield Park, the character of Fanny irrevocably binds together silence, love, and understanding. Edmund and Mr. Crawford’s successes in comprehending Fanny demonstrate the type of consideration upon which Fanny thrives, while their failed attempts highlight Fanny’s dilemma of perpetual misunderstanding resulting from two planes of silence. Confusion destroys, but attentive observation and care rebuilds. To Austen’s characters in Mansfield Park, as in life itself, complete inscrutability begets pain and isolation, while human sympathy—along with fortunate coincidence in love—restores relationships and pierces the most impenetrable silence.
Austen, Jane. Mansfield Park. London: Penguin Classics, 1994. Print.