Literary Wisdom

Literary Wisdom: Mansfield Park’s Fanny Price

“…I am acquainted with no more charming figure in fiction than Fanny; she is so completely, perfectly, deliciously feminine in instinct, feeling, manner, and intelligence, and in every way a most engaging revelation of a budding womanliness…Jane Austen certainly accomplishes the delineation of the character of Fanny with a fascinating, unobtrusive fidelity to feminine nature, and with a clearness and wholeness in the creation, miniaturely Shakespearean.” ~Hiram M. Stanley, Essays on Literary Art (sourced from Barnes and Noble ed. of Mansfield Park)

If there was ever a character I loved almost as much as Prince Hamlet, it would be Fanny Price, the mistreated, always-pensive, and chronically ill leading lady of Mansfield Park.

I could never explain why I have been so delighted with this character since I first met her. She seems to have nothing to offer in this world, no worthiness for any gifts or special treatment. Yet Austen created her, not as a fierce feminist tomboy or an always-adored belle from the Disney princess phenomenon, but as a woman who rises beyond her imperfection with classy integrity, a lady who rises above her suffering through looking past it and delighting in whatever beauty is around her, whether that beauty is found in books, in creation, or in her Lord. It’s in her example I see the ideal woman, and it’s in this little but thankful writing that I’ll pay my long-due tribute to her.


“[S]he was a great deal too much frightened to have any enjoyment till she could suppose herself no longer looked at. Young, pretty, and gentle, however, she had no awkwardnesses that were not as good as graces, and there were few persons present that were not disposed to praise her.” ~Chapter 28

These two sentences, if anything, celebrate Fanny’s feminine humility. Who, in their “sensible” and “mature” minds, can ever say that they enjoy themselves most when no one notices them? And yet, this soul, who’d selflessly and meekly served and seldom received for years, earns the warm and genuine praise of all in the ballroom. Her gentleness radiated from her face, her face appeared youthful and pretty as a result, and those left marveling almost subconsciously overlooked all her social “awkwardnesses” for the sake of her “graces”—and, I might add, for the sake of the grace given her from the Son of her heavenly King (as we shall see in the next quote).


“[W]hen he talked of her having such a steadiness and regularity of conduct, such a high notion of honor, and such an observance of decorum as might warrant any man in the fullest dependence on her faith and integrity, he expressed what was inspired by the knowledge of her being well principled and religious.” ~Chapter 30

If there is any unreligious person in the world of Mansfield Park, it would be Henry Crawford. Pretend as he might, Miss Price always sees through his pretending; in looking back at her, however, Mr. Crawford sees no deceit. She is “religious”—a Christian, as displayed throughout the novel—and no matter how hard he tried, nothing could be said of her that was not somehow tied her faith, and thus it was that he was so hopelessly attracted to her. As for Fanny…she thought otherwise, to say the least.


“I had not, Miss Crawford, been an inattentive observer of what was passing between him and some part of this family in the summer and autumn. I was quiet, but I was not blind…I cannot think well of a man who sports with any woman’s feelings; and there may often be a great deal more suffered than a stander-by can judge of.” ~Fanny Price, Chapter 36

“I was quiet, but I was not blind”—my favorite description of the simple and keen observer, a role so rare in modern society. In a world of gossip magazines lining the shelves at the grocery store and Facebook addiction, the people of the twenty-first century subconsciously learn to discredit the ones who bring innocent reform through silence, those who speak but also shush when appropriate. This kind of quietness, unfortunately, is deemed synonymous with blindness today and thus also with stupidity, but is there not truth in saying that the most effective reformers knew how to be still when the winds of haughty opinion and debate sweep so close to their heads?


She was nice only from natural delicacy, but he had been brought up in a school of luxury and epicurism.” ~Chapter 41

At times, learning wins over natural behavior, but if a girl is brought up uneducated and yet maintains a noble character, she is more glorious than the courtly scholar. Henry Crawford, the “he” in the above quote, was certainly educated, but all the etiquette he knew was from books and “epicurism”; Fanny, however, learned from experience, from being a servant since she was a child. Her manners, then, appeared more innate, vivid, and mature than those of the laughably refined Crawford.


“All that followed was the result of her imprudence; and he went off with her at last, because he could not help it, regretting Fanny, even at the moment, but regretting her infinitely more when all the bustle of intrigue was over, and a very few months had taught him, by the force of contrast, to place a yet higher value on the sweetness of her temper, the purity of her mind, and the excellence of her principles.” ~Chapter 48

In this quotation, Edmund Bertram learns what to look for in a lady to marry. The woman with whom he’d previously fallen in love, Mary Crawford, was an outrageous flirt, a subtle manipulator who was never ashamed when it came to indulgence in sin. Fanny, however, stands as the very antithesis of such a creature. She is almost overly conscientious, quiet, and careful with her attentions and actions, though it was because of her silence that Edmund had failed to see Mary’s weaknesses. Now, however, that her mask had been removed, Mary was no longer able to toy with the younger Bertram brother’s emotions, and Fanny’s sweetness of temper, purity of mind, and excellence of principle thus won Edmund’s love with virtue and honor.


Perhaps this may go without an explicit statement, but if you want to be inspired, to see godly womanhood given a life and person in classic fiction, I would advise that you look no further than Mansfield Park‘s Fanny Price. Argue as they may, critics can never deny her charm with enough evidence on their side. I leave you, and Fanny, with these classic words:

“Charm is deceitful and beauty is passing, but a woman who fears the LORD, she shall be praised. Give her of the fruit of her hands, and let her own works praise her in the gates.” ~Proverbs 31:30-31, NKJV

 

~Sarah Merly

February 21, 2018

Isaiah 53