I’m re-reading Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park for the fourth time as part of an online book club. As we make our way through the book, I’m hearing all the comments I expected to hear about the book: “This is my least favorite Austen novel.” “Fanny just isn’t likable.” “Why is she so boring and prudish?” “Mary Crawford would make a much better heroine.” “Lighten up, Fanny.”
And those reactions are so understandable. Mansfield Park is hard to love. There’s no getting around that. The heroine, Fanny Price, is painfully shy, serious, and introverted. Elizabeth Bennet she is not! She doesn’t sparkle across the pages with witty banter (that’s Mary Crawford’s job). And she isn’t transformed throughout the course of the book like Emma Woodhouse or Marianne Dashwood. Fanny of Chapter 1 is very much the Fanny of the final page. She’s hard to identify with and her strong moral convictions often makes her come across as a killjoy.
What is Austen up to? I think she intentionally makes Fanny difficult to fall in love with. I think she planned for us to like the Crawfords best for most of the novel. Even though I know how it all turns out, when I get to the point when Henry appears to be reformed, I always find myself rooting for him to win Fanny. He’s so charming! But why would Jane Austen make it so hard for us to love the right characters?
In A Jane Austen Education, William Deresiewicz claims that Austen’s main theme in MP is money and how it corrupts. He notes how the Crawfords both are skilled at playing a part–being charmers, being pleasant, knowing how to act to win someone over. But he explains their depravity with the boredom that comes with wealth: needing to be entertained and to always entertain others. He seems to miss the idea that it’s their moral education (and the Bertram siblings’ moral education) not their place in society that failed them. Without embracing Austen’s moral philosophy, Mansfield Park will always be misunderstood. Perhaps that’s why every film adaption of the novel seems to get it wrong.
Austen is masterful and complicated, so I’m not saying that themes of wealth and critiques of the aristocracy aren’t present in the novel. They are, and Deresiewicz is right to point them out. But I think Deresiewicz completely missed the main point. Mansfield Park is about superficiality versus substance. It’s about charm versus goodness. It’s about mere conventional propriety versus true virtue and it’s hard for an entertainment-obsessed culture that glorifies appearances and laughs at the idea of character to understand. All of the characters struggle and are tried and tested…but some fight the good fight and others reveal that they never had virtue to begin with.
Let’s talk about Mary Crawford. Oh, Mary. She’s beautiful and funny and witty. She pokes fun at herself and other people. And sometimes she’s even thoughtful (when it makes her look good). But it’s clear by the end of the novel to the romantic hero of the story, Edmund, that she’s actually a selfish vicious woman who’s simply very skilled at making people like her. It’s like that scene in High Fidelity with John Cusack when he attends a dinner party at an ex-girlfriend’s house. He’s always been under the spell of this beautiful, cultured, witty, and sparkling woman named Charlie. But listening to her conversations after not seeing her for several years, he realizes that’s it’s all a big show. She can manipulative people into liking her…but she has no substance. She’s just a petty, catty woman who wants to feel good about herself. In his character Rob Gordon’s words, “And then it dawns on me…..Charlie’s awful.”
Edmund, all of the Bertrams, and we, the readers, are taken in by Mary. She’s so fun! She’s incredibly perceptive. She’s enchanting. It takes most of the novel for him (and us) to get there, but finally it dawns on Edmund: Mary’s awful. Everything she does is to promote her own interests. She does nice things when someone who matters is watching. She is so skilled at charming people that she probably even has herself convinced that she’s a kind person.
Fanny sees through her from the very beginning. It’s not that everything she does is vicious or cruel, but she’s only kind so that other people will like her, not kind out of genuine concern for them, not because she cares for them for their own sake. I can identify with Mary. I’m a people pleaser. I desperately want to be liked and I’m pretty good at getting people to like me. But if I’m not careful, that can become my all-consuming purpose. It’s an inner struggle to put virtue and genuine care for other people ahead of my desire to please, but Austen shows me what a monster I might become if I don’t keep fighting that battle within myself.
And then there’s Henry Crawford. Easy to hate at the beginning, and hard to deny when he seems to be reformed from his life of selfishness and vice and truly in love with Fanny. Yet, Fanny’s moral intuition is right again. Henry Crawford’s vanity and selfishness isn’t merely a personal flaw that affects his own soul and his own prospects for a happy union with Fanny. His obsession with being liked by everyone, or as Mary puts it, needing to “have a somebody” at all times, destroys his sister’s marital prospects, the Rushworth’s marriage, and the Bertram family’s reputation. Every sin is a sin against our community. No matter how secret we’d like them to be, our vices hurt people and we don’t like to be reminded of that. Austen illustrates that truth for us in Henry and Maria’s foolish affair.
Mary’s claim that if only Maria had cheated on her husband with Henry without being detected, all would have been well, shows Edmund that she has no sense of the moral evil of their actions. Edmund is devastated by the crime itself, not merely that Maria and Henry’s affair has elicited a public scandal. Edmund notes that if only Mary had been given a good foundation in virtue, what a wonderful woman she would have been! Austen realizes how vital a good moral education is in order to develop virtue.
The Bertram girls, Maria and Julia had a more complex problem than Mary and Henry’s very obvious lack of moral education. They seemed to understand what it meant to have character, but really they only learned how to behave. They may have been elegant ladies but they had no sense of the gravity of marriage, faithfulness, and virtue. It was all superficial, all external. They could enter a room with an air of grace, but they had been taught (by their selfish Aunt Norris) to think of themselves first and others as an afterthought.
And then there’s our quiet, shy, and unlikely heroine. Fanny is kind, thoughtful, smart, and passionate. She’s a devoted friend and a good listener. Although she isn’t taken in by charm, she wants to believe the best of people and treats everyone with respect, whether they deserve it or not. So why don’t we like her?
First of all, I think we’re not used to introverted heroines. A shy, soft-spoken heroine is both unexpected and dissatisfying. And as a culture, we want to be perpetually entertained (just like the Crawfords….yikes). This is more true now than when Mansfield Park was published. Fanny isn’t the sort of “strong heroine” we like to extol. What we really mean when we say “strong” is “outgoing,” like Elizabeth Bennet. But even though Fanny isn’t an extrovert, she is indeed strong. With a painfully shy temperament that dearly longs to please those she loves, she has the strength to stand up for what she believes to be right even when everyone (including Edmund) is participating. Even when she’s ridiculed for it. Edmund looks like a spineless whelp compared to Fanny with her unshakeable moral fiber and devotion.
Developing a friendship with Fanny is slow going for the reader, but it’s worth it. She’s like the quiet girl in class that you didn’t talk to until halfway through the year and then turns out to be your new best friend. She’s the friend you can talk to for hours and who really listens. She remembers to call on your birthday and brings over a meal when there’s a crisis. Fanny knows that charming people only care about how others perceive them, not about what’s really inside.
By the end of the book, at least after the second reading of the novel, I hope you like Fanny. Because I think that Austen is slowly and surely bringing us along to have better vision of the worth of others and our own obsession with being liked. In some ways, Mansfield Park could also be understood as Austen’s indictment of herself. Every bit as clever as Elizabeth Bennet, Austen surely had the capability to mask pride or selfishness with wit and charm anyone she desired to charm. But as Elizabeth learns in Pride and Prejudice, a sharp tongue isn’t a virtue, even if it makes you entertaining. Austen surely knew this as well, and perhaps that’s why she created a character without wit and with true virtue. Fanny Price might be nearly impossible for our culture to understand, but that’s why we need her more than ever.