Monday, 13 June 2011

Fanny Price - Admirable Heroine or Dreary Killjoy?

Fanny Price is, in her own way, as much a heroine as any other. She may not have the confidence of Elisabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, or the careless naïveté of Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey, yet she experiences just as much as they do — if not more — and she has just as great an effect on the other characters in Mansfield Park. However, Fanny leads an extraordinarily quiet life. She only leaves Mansfield twice, barely has the strength to walk or ride a horse, and is kept very close by her aunt Lady Bertram. This essay intends to argue that Fanny both is and isn't a typical Austen heroine, and exemplify why both sides of this dichotomy are true.

According to her contemporary standards, Fanny Price is the stereotypical woman. By making her seem ridiculous and weak, Austen illustrates how ludicrous those standards really are. For a woman to accept her role to never show any taken offence, to be quiet in society and know that her place is the lowest everywhere, she must be someone like Fanny Price. Only Fanny would find pleasure in "being always a very courteous listener, and often the only listener at hand" (Austen, 167) and therefore the one knowing all the absurd complaints of the others. The fact that she is criticised as too dull or too frightened to be a heroine goes to show that those female standards were in every respect wrong.

Nothing ever happens to Fanny Price. Before going to visit Southerton she has never left Mansfield since arriving there. The reader is treated to her first dance, her first ball and her first proposal of marriage. This process of moving from being and having nothing to leading an eventful life is her story. In all respects she is a normal young woman to whom normal things happen. Yet, as the reader becomes increasingly aware, there is little normality in what happened to Fanny as she grew up. In fact, she has overcome more than most.

The change that is brought about in Fanny during the course of the novel is the same change that most heroes and heroines go through. However, since Fanny starts at a point much further behind these other heroines who already possess courage and confidence, she must first build a belief in herself before she can embark on a wild adventure. In some respects the story told in Mansfield Park is the beginning of another story; it is what comes before a typical hero story, when the heroine readies herself for her adventure. Fanny changes just as much as any heroine does; only she doesn't reach "normality" until late in the novel.

Fanny has other strengths than courage and confidence. She has a strong sense of morals, intelligence and a sense of duty for others, and she is also very compassionate and friendly. As Leithart (2004) claims, "Austen wants our judgments about her characters to be shaped by the principles they display, not by their ability to charm". If the reader does not like Fanny Price, the reader thus doesn't appreciate what she represents either. Fanny is untainted and unspoiled and can do nothing wrong if she follows her own heart. "It would be so horrible to her to act, that she was inclined to suspect the truth and purity of her own scruples..." (Austen, 156) Fanny reasons, showing the propriety she possesses.

It is possible to draw a comparison between Fanny and Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre from the novel with the same name. Both characters stem from humble beginnings and are treated badly by relations. They are both quiet and intelligent, and act morally correct in tough situations. The only difference lies in what happens to them in the course of the novels. Jane Eyre enters a home with a mystery room, finds relations she didn't know of, and eventually gains money through an inheritance — all quite typical Gothic elements. Fanny, on the other hand, refuses to act in a play, has an unwanted suitor and marries the man she has always loved. Thus, the situations in which these two characters find themselves are widely different.

Interestingly, Mansfield Park wasn't always considered the most tedious of Austen's novels (Leithart, 2004). The morals and qualities of Fanny were probably more appealing to the contemporary reader. Nevertheless, as the reader has changed, so has the view of Fanny. In order to appreciate Fanny one has to appreciate what she stands for, and the morals and values she represents. Mansfield Parkis perhaps Austen's only novel that cannot be considered timeless, for while for example the character of Elisabeth Bennet is still enjoyable to many, Fanny Price is less so. That does not make her less of a heroine though. In the end, the simple fact that Austen, in all her genius, chose to make Fanny the protagonist is enough to make her a strong and amiable heroine, however unexciting she might be.

Works Cited

Austen, Jane. Mansfield Park. London: Penguin Popular Classics. 1994.

Leithart, P. J. (2004). Jane Austen, Public Theologian. Retrieved 101110 from
http://catholiceducation.org/articles/arts/al0200.html?paid=5272&chid=21650&pgid=29320&stid=62967

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