There is no frigate like a book
To take us lands away,
Nor any coursers like a page
Of prancing poetry.
~ Emily Dickinson

Literature is my Utopia. Here I am not disenfranchised. No barrier of the senses shuts me out from the sweet, gracious discourses of my book friends. They talk to me without embarrassment or awkwardness. ~ Helen Keller

Friday, 19 July 2013

Fanny Price and the Contemplative Life

It's ironic that Fanny Price, one of Austen's most quiet and (seemingly) timid heroines, is the subject of so much contention among critics and readers. Here's where I make the dreadful confession that despite wanting to kick Kinsley Amis* out of windows** I have not always appreciated Fanny as much as the other heroines. As I began reading the chapter I jotted down these words: "I think my own need is for her to be a little more tempted in all points, perhaps as a reaction to Edmund's characterization of her as a creature of habit. He claims novelty has almost no power over her, but it has so much power for people like myself, and for other literary heroines, such as Emma Woodhouse, Jane Eyre, or Maggie Tulliver." Well, it turns out that a significant portion of Emsley's argument takes on Edmund's characterization and makes me ashamed to have questioned the sovereign lady's judgment.

Emsley's main thesis in this chapter is that Fanny is Austen's heroine who most achieves philosophic wisdom. She has been criticized as a weak character for her submissiveness and deference to others. In urging her to act gratefully and accept Henry Crawford, the Bertrams expect of her what Wollsonecraft called "spaniel-like virtues". However, it is the fact Fanny has been "long used to submission" yet still resists these urgings that proves her real strength. And while much is made of Edmund having formed her mind, in fact, we see her independent judgments growing more confident and more distinct from Edmund's as the novel progresses. This view is reinforced by her words to Henry describing a "better guide in ourselves" that all possess.

Emsley also brings out the fascinating metaphor, introduced in the chapel scene, of Mansfield Park as a nation. Edmund's moral failing, in not giving the example he has stated the clergy should, augurs ill for his model of a clergy-directed nation. Fanny, however, is an individual who departs from the stus quo in refusing to participate in the play. Austen's belief in the prerequisite of moral individuals is reinforced by Emsley's epigraph from "Catherine", which states that "the welfare of every nation depends on the virtue of it's [sic] individuals".

Here I return to Fanny's attitude toward novelty. Emsley proves -- especially through surveying Fanny's expressions about plants and the changing seasons -- that she is not without appreciation for novelty and change. In fact, it is those around her who stifle her rapturous expressions, through their indifference to "intellectual subjects" (121). For instance, Fanny attempts to engage Mary Crawford on the "wonderful ... changes of the human mind" but is met with silence. Nor does Fanny advocate habit merely for its own sake. In the scene in which Henry reads Shakespeare and discusses the art of sermons, Fanny approves of recent changes in the manner of their delivery.

Emsley has rendered the claim that Fanny is static invalid. Another character frequently criticized is Sir Thomas. Emsley sheds light on how we are to view Sir Thomas through comparing him with Mr Bennet. The former is "the longest to suffer" his family's disgrace due to "errors in his own conduct as a parent", while Mr Bennet acknowledges his family's disgrace as his "own doing", but is "not afraid of being overpowered by the impression". Sir Thomas and his son Tom are characters who have been morally indictable, but change. Fanny is a character whose consistent habit of contemplation -- both privately and in "community" when consulting her uncle -- has led to moral comfort (peace), and also to growth of personality and intellect.


*I've frequently expressed my hatred of Amis' essay "What Became of Jane Austen?" Emsley provided an excellent clue to where Amis went wrong. In her S&S chapter she points to Aristotle who "says that there is an important distinction between vice and moral weakness, the difference being that while vice is an imbalance of emotion that makes us unable to see that what we do is wrong, moral weakness is the state of knowing what is right, behaving wrongly, and being conscious of regret at falling short of practicing the virtues" (Emsley, 71) Isn't this an exact description of the difference between the Crawfords and Edmund?

**See "Frederic and Elfrida" (Seriously, what awful names, Miss Austen!)


  1. Fanny's quiet, modest, stiff intellect is reminiscent of typical 18th century heroines a la Fanny Burney/Maria Edgeworth. But unlike her predecessors Austen recasts Fanny as a convincing character. She is not a mere goody-goody model of perfection: she is sensitive and delicate, and almost nobody admires her (even Edmund is somewhat patronising to her). She is a creature of habit, though like everyone else she likes a novelty off and on. It is startlingly similar to Susan Cain's book on introverts in today's world, and Fanny is one of them. Introverts can be creatures of habit, and need less excitement to be happy. I admit I was annoyed with her refusing to join the play, because I didn't think plays were immoral. But I now see that flirting onstage would be improper by Victorian standards, and the more severe Regency ladies. Fanny is uncomfortable with this. Fanny's love for novelty is from within, not from exciting activity. She seems to be more influenced by intellectual excitement than plays, because it shapes her way of thinking and feeling, and she is a dull moron with acting silly plays. And she is not totally averse to plays, because she admires Shakespeare. There is a reason Austen mentions Shakespeare as well as Kotzebue's silly play. Fanny's taste is high and selective. The others are selective for high society, she is selective for literary taste. I call Fanny a new Romantic, because she prefers the grand and noble, the emotional and the pastoral to the humorous and socially-elevated. She has more affinity with Cowper and Walter Scott than the 18th century wits. Her longing for nature and the good old days seems backward, and therefore casts doubt on her romanticism (because we thinking of romantics as radicals) but that is not true. The Romantics yearned for the days before industrialism and false taste, for inward bliss rather than mean gratifications. Ironically this makes her more progressive than the others, she has more soul than the other well-born characters. Shakespeare lost some reputation in the 17th century and the early 18th century, but in the latter half of the 18th century and the early 19th century he became king of drama, and the Romantics responded to him in kind. Fanny is an individual, never a member of a set, and I wonder if Austen was thinking of a literary bluestocking when she wrote MP. The character is so unusual and yet so convincing I suspect she had a friend with a similar character. If you look at Dorothy Wordsworth there are some similarities with Fanny Price.

    Lol, fancy awful names were the norm in 18th century novels. In Thomas Hardy's A Pair of Blue eyes the heroine's name is Elfride Swancourt.

    1. Caroline, sorry I haven't replied to this -- it deserved more than my pitiful phone typing. These are fabulous thoughts; you should post them on Tumblr so I can reblog them. I'd love to hear more thoughts on Dorothy Wordsworth and Fanny.

      I keep meaning to read Susan Cain's book. I assume from your mention that it's good?

      Ugh -- Elfride Swancourt. lol

    2. I'll write them up when I have time lol. I haven't actually read Susan Cain's book, but I've heard a lot about it and my best friend who has read it swears by it.

  2. Amis's essay is really horrid. And not in the nice gothic way, either. It's clear he tries to make Jane Austen work for him, and simplify her to a rebel against social conventions.

    However, Mansfield Park actually does rebel against many social conventions - but not in a spunky, winsome way. The rebellion is born of pain and brokenness and loneliness - everything that those of us who wish to see ourselves in the hero or heroine tend to reject.

    But I have always loved Fanny. Her passion and intelligence draw me, and her strength even while confined to her own limitations (internal and external) is incredible.

    I really like the insight about Sir Thomas vs Mr Bennet - their situations are not exact parallels, but the former is much more admirable. He is absolutely a flawed character, and responsible for much of what goes wrong with Maria - but I resent those who would make him on the same level as Mrs Norris, deliberately causing pain for the sake of making himself happier in his own power.

    Does Emsley talk at all about Mrs Norris?

    1. Hmm, your thoughts on the "pain and loneliness" in MP are so interesting. It's harder to twist into wish-fulfillment than P&P. In fact, even though she marries Edmund, it's still a less triumphant ending than Jane Eyre. (So could that mean there's some irony in JA's final words on "let others dwell on grief and misery"?)

      Yep, I liked the thoughts on Sir Thomas vs Mr Bennet too.

      Emsley briefly talks about Mrs Norris when discussing comfort -- how Mrs Norris journeying with them would have disrupted Fanny and William's comfort, but also how real comfort is moral peace. I don't have my notes with me, but it was quite impressive. That was all on Mrs Norris I recall though.

  3. I've enjoyed your expositions on Jane Austen's heroines. Appreciated your thoughtful analysis and fine writing. Fanny is one of my favourite characters among Austen's novels. I agree with you that she actually has tremendous strength of character, and quite a contrarian, not afraid to stand against the tide and peer pressure. I think she could well be a reflection of the brilliant author herself... one side of her at least. Some years ago I'd written my thoughts about Fanny too. If you're interested, here's the post.

    I found your blog again as I went back to some of the old comments on some of my old posts, in my review of C.S. Lewis's Surprised by Joy. Hope we can keep in touch in the blogging world. ;)

    1. Just to be clear, the posts are based on Sarah Emsley's book of literary criticism "Jane Austen's Philosophy of the Virtues". Anything in quotes is from there, though I have included a few thoughts of my own as commentary. Loved your post on Fanny!

      Yes, sorry I haven't kept up with many blogs lately, but yours is special. You're a great writer and we share many interests. (Also, I think we share a province. You're Albertan, right?)

  4. Why do so many act as if Fanny Price was the only Austen heroine who is quiet and righteous? Have they forgotten Elinor Dashwood and Anne Elliot? If those two share similar traits with Fanny, why is Fanny more unpopular?

    1. Interesting question. First, I think Elinor is usually considered as part of the Elinor and Marianne pair, so her prudence feels less like something we must admire unequivocally because she's the sole heroine, and more like part of a synthesis of opposing philosophies. She also sometimes makes comments (to her brother, for instance) that show her to have quite a keen sense of irony even if it must be kept hidden, so she doesn't seem like merely a moralist. (NOT that Fanny is merely a moralist, but the tradition of readers being annoyed with her goes all the way back to Mrs. Austen!)

      Anne Elliot is significantly older than Fanny, and has believed love to be irrevocably lost, so it may seem to some readers that she has more reason to be melancholy than (eighteen year old?) Fanny. The female antagonists in Persuasion are also mostly awful (Louisa Musgrove isn't, but she's still positioned as an intellectual and emotional light-weight). In Mansfield Park, Mary Crawford is charming and clever, so Fanny's disapprobation of her may come off as priggish.

      What do you think? Do you have a favorite and least favorite Austen heroine and novel?
      Thanks for commenting!