The pantheon of Jane Austen heroines is populated with many intelligent, strong, and independent women. Elizabeth Bennet is beloved for her sparkling wit; Emma Woodhouse, for her generous heart; and Fanny Price . . . well, the heroine of Mansfield Park can be a little harder to like. She’s painfully shy and just so . . . good all the time.
But is Fanny Price really “too good” for her own good? Too accommodating? Too weak? She certainly is not your typical strong female lead. But I think if we read a little more closely we can better appreciate how Fanny’s silence is also her strength.
The story of Mansfield Park
I think one of the reasons we tend to dismiss Fanny is that we miss how Fanny’s low social status shapes her story. Unlike today, when women can attend university and enter the workplace, women in the Regency era only had a few ways to make a living. If she did not marry, a woman could teach, work as a governess, or write—all of which were looked down upon to varying degrees. Without money or social connections, Fanny’s options would have been quite limited.
In the first chapter of the novel, Fanny’s wealthy uncle and aunt, Lord and Lady Bertram, discuss whether to open their home to Fanny (the daughter of Lady Bertram’s sister). This kind of arrangement was not uncommon at the time. However, it often came with strings attached. Other Austen characters whose livelihoods come from more affluent relatives, like Frank Churchill in Emma and Edward Ferrars in Sense and Sensibility, must cater to the wishes of their richer relations—especially when it comes to marriage. Fanny is no exception.
Fanny’s entire life is marked by her inequality with her richer cousins. Her cousins go out in society while she stays home to attend to household duties. Her Aunt Norris sends her on errands out of doors in the heat of summer and then forbids her to keep a fire in her room in the winter. At first glance, her story is a variation on Cinderella, complete with two selfish stepsisters (her female cousins, Maria and Julia Bertram) and a cruel stepmother (her Aunt Norris). Even though Fanny shares a home with her cousins, she will never be their equal. She remains in her family’s debt, not only for her daily bread, but for her education and social connections.
Yet Fanny is always worried about whether she has shown her family sufficient gratitude for their generosity. This is where modern readers tend to get frustrated. Why should Fanny be thankful when she is mistreated? Why does she not stand up for herself? This pattern of quiet acceptance repeats itself over and over again throughout the novel. Most notably, her uncle intentionally sends her to bed early at her first ball, in order to show potential suitors how docile a wife she would be! The independent modern woman may well wonder, is Fanny’s humble and silent obedience a weakness on her part?
Nowadays, we are used to main characters who are outspoken, empowered, and ahead of their time. In this regard, Fanny is not your typical modern heroine. She is shy, eager to escape notice, and thinks little of herself.
Contrast Fanny’s reserve with the self-assurance of Mary Crawford (the half-sister of Mrs. Grant, the wife of the rector of Mansfield parsonage). When Mary and her brother, Henry, arrive at Mansfield from London, she leverages her intelligence and wit to capture the attention of the man Fanny loves, Edmund Bertram. She is everything Fanny is not: rich, confident, and outspoken.
She’s also everything we would expect in a modern heroine. When the Crawfords and Bertrams decide to put on a play, Lover’s Vows, Mary takes control of her own fate. Through subtle and clever persuasion, she convinces Edmund to play her romantic interest, despite his moral objections to acting in a rather raunchy piece of theater. Fanny, meanwhile, refuses to take a part in the play and is stuck reading lines to the couple.
Fanny’s choice might not sound like empowerment, but this is exactly what makes Fanny’s example so valuable to us. She can teach us about the values we tend to overlook, such as the long-suffering virtue of fortitude. Take the play, for example. Fanny succeeds where Edmund fails. While he caves to peer pressure, Fanny stands her ground. Her refusal to act might sound prudish today, but if we keep in mind the adult content of the play, her decision is pretty modern in its own right. Fanny draws and maintains healthy boundaries—and refuses to compromise, even when it tests her natural shyness.
Even if Fanny is often silent, that does not make her weak. Fanny knows her mind and holds her ground when it really matters, as evidenced by the greatest test of her strength: rejecting Henry Crawford’s marriage proposal.
Fanny watched as Henry played with the hearts of her cousins and, because of what this indicates about his character, she stands by her judgment to decline his offer, despite plenty of pressure from family and friends. When Mary attempts to persuade Fanny to accept her brother, Fanny recalls Henry’s past conduct. “I was quiet, but I was not blind,” Fanny says. Silence is not the same thing as passivity.
The success of a quiet kind of strength
And Fanny turns out to be right in her judgment. While she is traveling, Henry goes to London and begins an affair with Fanny’s married cousin, Maria Bertram. In the face of scandal, the Bertrams call her home to Mansfield.
Not only is Fanny’s judgment vindicated in the end, her role at Mansfield changes as a result. Edmund, the true object of Fanny’s affections, falls out of love with Mary Crawford when she dismisses Henry and Maria’s affair. His disappointment is short-lived as he begins to appreciate Fanny in a new light, and the two are later wed. Fanny’s character not only saves her from a bad match, but lays the foundation for a new life at Mansfield.
Fanny’s quiet brand of strength might not be as flashy or spirited as that of other modern heroines, but she stands by her conscience even when it causes her to be maligned and misunderstood, even when her future is on the line.
Her story prompts some introspection on our part. Are we willing to do the right thing, even if we will be punished for it? Even if those close to us might not understand? Are we willing to be strong when it does not feel “empowering”? Suffering evil is the less glamorous aspect of strength, but sometimes, it’s the most important part. Fanny reminds us not to forget this truth.
It’s easy to miss Fanny’s merits unless we appreciate that Fanny is not your typical heroine, and Mansfield Park is not your typical novel. Fanny Price offers us an opportunity to reconsider what real strength consists in—and to reflect on what kind of heroines we want to be.