Mansfield Park has proven to be one of the more problematic entries in Austen's canon. Mainly because it features a heroine that most people just don't favor. Even the novel's first audience (Austen's own family) were sharply divided on Price.
Fanny Price is either hated or loved and very rarely in-between.
I set forth to read the book and make my own decision. And I discovered that Fanny Price is a complex character. But she also seems to exist as a jab to a few chosen readers (Austen's brothers?). Jane Austen, an unmarried woman, depended entirely on her brothers for financial protection. The question of marriage in Austen's time and in her novels meant life or death. Most seem to ignore the highly arch cynicism running through most of Austen's novels. The little throwaway comments that convey what the author really thinks fill the novels and most of those were extremely unromantic. Many may say that Austen may have modeled Anne Elliot in Persuasion on her own experiences. However, I think Austen was more like Charlotte Lucas in Pride & Prejudice but most of all she was Fanny Price. She was poor and living at the mercy of her brothers.
Oddly being the heroine of her own novel, Fanny Price does not initiate any of the book's action. She remains a quiet and dutiful help maiden to her rich aunt. She patiently suffers the jealousy and hatred of her other aunt (Mrs. Norris). The only joy she derives from the rich home of her aunt and uncle, is the company of her cousin Edmund Bertram. While her cousins enjoy local flirtations and indulgences due to them from wealth, Fanny tries to be as unobtrusive and as inexpensive as possible (she never lights a fire in her nursery/studio despite cold weather). Some could say that Price is rather sanctimonious and has a persecution complex. But that isn't the impression that I receive from Fanny Price. What I received was the impression of a very intelligent and observant young women who was highly aware she was at the mercy of everyone in her vicinity. A wrong word could send her straight back to her impoverished home, so every situation Fanny is presented with is a minefield of social consequences.
The main theme of the novel in regards to social behavior is how money smooths over everything. Maria Bertram, Julia Bertram and Mary Crawford can luxuriate in trifles, high spirits, flirtations and gentle cruelty because their money allows it. Fanny Price, the poor relation, must never impinge on anyone and her behavior is always open to scrutiny. Most of the novel relies on Price's keen observation of her cousins and the Crawfords.
The arrival of Mary Crawford and her brother Henry Crawford, highlight to Fanny just how precarious her position is at her adopted home. She immediately loses the companionship of Edmund as he begins a rather awkward courtship of Mary Crawford. Fanny does notice Henry Crawford (plain upon first meeting but considerably more attractive afterwards) but rightly assumes that he was being groomed for her cousin Julia. She is the only one to perceive that Henry Crawford is an incurable flirt who chases after Maria (already engaged) at the expense of Julia's expectations.
Fanny only gains precedence after Maria marries and moves to London with Julia pulled along as her companion. Henry Crawford only turns his attentions to Fanny because he has no one left with which to flirt. It turns out that he is taken in by his own schemes and actually is surprised that he has fallen in love with Fanny. His marriage proposal finally involves Fanny in the action and not standing on the sidelines. Because she knows his character, she refuses him despite the fact that he was instrumental in garnering a naval commission for her brother. She places her own emotional clarity over material comfort which baffles her relatives and Crawford.
The question of money and how it makes everything easier, is again highlighted by Fanny's trip to visit her Mother and Father. Austen has Fanny's uncle note that he hopes Fanny's trip will reveal how important a good marriage and money are to life and that it will set forth Henry Crawford in a better light. It is during this part of the novel where I thought Fanny Price was less pleasant and a bit sanctimonious. Far from gaining appreciation of what wealth does for one's status and education, Fanny complains that her family is uncouth, messy and uneducated. She fails to see how money can infer manners and hire servants to keep a house clean. She fails to see how money can ease life in regards to good food and lit fireplaces to ward away the cold that leads to better humor in people. Most horrifically, Fanny compares her mother to her aunt and finds her wanting in beauty. But again fails to see how money has done much to preserve her aunt's good features.
Seemingly of the same mind as Fanny's uncle, Henry Crawford cannily presents himself to Fanny while at her family's poor home. Amazingly he does start to gain ground in her esteem. He knows it too and towards the end of his visit has every right to hope that he will gain Fanny's hand in marriage. This is where the novel stands, only a chapter or two before it ends.
Inexplicably, Henry Crawford runs off with Maria Bertram Rushworth, Julia runs off with a Mr. Yates, Edmund breaks off with Mary, and Thomas Bertram (Fanny's older cousin) becomes gravely ill. All of this occurs while Fanny is still at her family's house and once again she is on the sidelines of the story. Fanny returns to Mansfield Park at Edmund's behest, with her sister in tow, to take care of her shocked relatives. We learn in the wrap up that Fanny finally marries Edmund.
Austen dedicates quite a bit of ink in regards to Henry Crawford's disappointment regarding his own behavior and his loss of Fanny. Which leaves the book rather open ended and somewhat of a claw trap for the reader. On one hand Fanny is quite happy with Edmund but it was all done because of her cousin's loss of familial reputation due to one impudent sister. On the other hand Fanny could had prevented this loss if she had jumped at Henry Crawford's offer of marriage. As Mrs. Bertram she is the wife of a pastor in a small but comfortable home (and could only save one sister from destitution). Theoretically as Mrs. Crawford she would have been mistress of an estate and could pull her whole family from ruin. In this, Austen highlights the choices of good moral judgement against cold reality. And it seems that Fanny Price may have not made the right choice after all. But at least her hands are clean and conscious clear from dirty business.
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