I was originally going to write about Fanny first because she’s so ridiculously underrated. Why? Good question! Let me explain.
Fanny Price is the heroine of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. Her rich relatives disowned her mother when she married a poorer man than they liked. After her husband’s injury and subsequent descent into alcoholism and sloth, Fanny’s mother appeals to her family for help taking care of her children. She ends up sending Fanny to live with her aunt and uncle Lord and Lady Bertram, and her widowed aunt Mrs. Norris.
Wonderful! She’s going to have such a better life there, right?
Her material quality of life was objectively better, but it came at a cost. She had to endure the (mostly unwitting) selfishness and sloth of Lady Bertram, the cruelty of Mrs. Norris and her cousins Maria and Julia, the thoughtlessness of her cousin Tom, and the emotional distance and general gravity of Lord Bertram. Her only consolation is the letters she relieves from her beloved brother William and her relationship with her cousin Edmund–the only relative truly solicitous for Fanny’s welfare.
Many would probably consider her a doormat or a pushover for enduring all these things. But there is little indication that Fanny truly thought less of herself, despite the many put-downs issued by her Aunt Norris, reminding her that she was essentially a charity case, that she was not on equal footing with her cousins, and that it was her duty to serve them. Fanny simply cooperated and did not make a fuss.
“But of course that makes her a doormat!”
What? Endurance makes you a doormat? Since when did putting up with people’s crappy behavior automatically mean you let people walk all over you? Deciding that you’re not going to respond angrily to the people who hurt you is a weakness? Being calm and even-tempered is a bad thing? Thinking of other people first makes you a pushover? So she has a quieter, less aggressive personality: what the frack is the the problem with that?
Think about the situation here: Fanny’s mother has too many mouths to feed, and her relatives have been kind enough to take Fanny’s rearing upon themselves, disregarding their previous disagreements. Therefore, Fanny has a responsibility to her family to behave well and thrive, so her relatives do not revert to their previously angry state and send her back. She knows her Aunt Norris well enough to realize that no amount of ruckus she makes against her will change her aunt’s cruel behavior; and she also sees that her Aunt Bertram is weak-willed enough to be influenced by Aunt Norris. Her uncle is distant and expects her to behave well; her cousin Tom has little care for her, and Maria and Julia are under Mrs. Norris’ tutelage. Edmund cares for her, but he has his own life to live and his own responsibilities as second son–and he (eventually) has to study for his ordination.
While she is living a place that she is fed, clothed, and not asked to do anything evil, and never pressed to do any harsh work, why should she complain and make trouble for her family? She is mistreated by her aunt and her cousins, but she’s treated well by Edmund, and sometimes by Lord and Lady Bertram and by Tom. She clearly believes that she can deal with the evils from the others.
And it would also seem that generally these cruelties don’t bother her. When the people that she cares for and respects are disappointed in her, then she is bothered. But–and this is the other thing that makes her so great–even if they’re disappointed in her, she does what she believes to be right. Even when it hurts.
For instance, when her cousins and their guests want to put on a play that was considered rather racy at the time, she protested and urged Edmund to protest. More importantly, Fanny refuses Henry Crawford’s marriage proposal because she knows he’s a player (Henry kept up a flirtation with her engaged-then-married cousin Maria). Her uncle, who had warmed up to her, becomes extremely upset because he doesn’t know Henry’s true nature. Fanny refuses to reveal it to him because it involves Maria and is now in the past, so Lord Bertram continues to try and force Henry on her. Her concerns are ultimately vindicated when Henry runs off with Maria after a short visit to London.
Fanny is also simply a just and courteous person. She never condemns her Aunt Norris or Lady Bertram or her cousins, though she could. She judges their actions, not their worth or potential. She is even quite kind to her rival in love, Henry’s sister Mary (who has set her sights on Edmund). When Edmund asks what she thinks of Miss Crawford, Fanny replies that she is very intelligent and engaging; yet, she also remarks that she speaks more slightingly and less respectfully of her guardians than she ought. Still, she never actively discourages Edmund from courting Mary, despite her own feelings and misgivings. She merely cautions him about Mary’s propensities only when he asks for her counsel.
Thus Fanny is kind, patient, enduring, just, and prudent. She never coldly criticizes anyone, and she refuses to marry a man whose behavior heretofore has proved his inconstancy. She puts others first and practices self-denial.
Perhaps Fanny seems too perfect; and perhaps she is, in some respects. Perhaps Austen ought to have written her with more obvious flaws–and Fanny does have flaws. She allows herself to be intimidated by her uncle, does not always think of herself as much as she should, and sometimes chooses harmony at the expense of good (though not, as we can see, in the most important cases).
But still, flaws and all, Fanny is quite strong, and should not be disregarded in favor of Mary Crawford. Mary Crawford is her own post of don’ts. She’s not someone you want to emulate–though I have seen an argument that she is! And I say this even after writing a ten page character study on her in order to get to know her better.
Maybe I’ll write a post about Mary for you all…
Anyway, I think I have found an example from more contemporary fiction! So expect that…in a bit.
**For whatever reason if I put captions on my pictures they move left, so my captions are here.
The first picture features the cast of the BBC’s 2007 Mansfield Park, starring Billie Piper (of Doctor Who fame) as Fanny. This is a relatively good condensed version of the book with a few small changes.
The second features Sylvestra Le Touzel as Fanny in a BBC Mansfield Park from 1983. Not the best production quality, and not always the best acting, but very faithful to the book and relatively well done. Better for those who like longer series.
I would not recommend watching the 1999 Mansfield Park. I’ve never seen it, but I have read about it and what I have read is absolutely deplorable. It deviates from the book not only in content but in spirit: Fanny is brash, outspoken, a writer, and an abolitionist (there is one line referencing slavery in the book. Talk about a stretch!)–which is all very well, except that that’s not who Fanny was. Also,there’s drug use and a sex scene, apparently lesbian undertones, and other 180-degree character changes. I would strongly recommend not watching it, as it sounds like a complete butchering and subversion of Austen’s novel.