“We have all a better guide in ourselves, if we would attend to it, than any other person can be.”
Thus Mansfield Park‘s improbable heroine, Fanny Price, admonishes her would-be suitor Henry Crawford when he purports to ask for her advice in a bid to win her around, after having already seduced her much wealthier cousins Maria and Julia Bertram. And in many ways, this one statement sums up the entire novel: More than in almost any other book – with the sole exception of Persuasion – Austen’s emphasis here is on self-knowledge and self-guidedness, on knowing what is morally right and acting accordingly.
Mansfield Park was the first book by Jane Austen that I ever read, and that was perhaps fortunate: After all, if you fall in love with Austen’s exquisite use of language, her delicate characterization, and her dry and often sardonic wit while reading about a little wallflower like Fanny Price, how much more easily are you going to take to the likes of Lizzy Bennet, the Dashwood sisters, and Catherine Moreland? For a wallflower Fanny Price certainly is – and what is perhaps even worse, a wallflower not only by our contemporary definition but also by the standards of Austen’s own time – and that is probably at least one of the reasons why many modern readers find her less accessible than, say, the near-universally beloved heroine of Pride and Prejudice (and why also, incidentally, virtually every screen adaptation of Mansfield Park, instead of taking Fanny’s character as actually written, seeks to “improve” upon her, with results ranging from the merely irritating to the downright disastrous). For where Lizzy Bennet has no compunctions about giving her opinion (whether called-for or not), Fanny holds back and keeps her own counsel. Where Lizzy is in the habit of taking long walks, is at one point found to have become downright “brown” (tanned) from all her outdoor activities and exposure to the sun, and bravely even undertakes a several miles long cross country march to get to Mr. Bingley’s Netherfield upon hearing that her sister Jane has fallen ill there, Fanny is prone to sun strokes, therefore unable to spend too much time outdoors, and on occasion so weak and poorly that she is even unable to mount a horse (a physical condition that she shares with her aunt, Lady Bertram, and which some scholars now interpret as symptoms of bulimia, which in Austen’s day was a frequent, and usually misdiagnosed complaint resulting from the fact that women, especially genteel women, were actively discouraged from eating: the frailer a woman, the more marriageable she was). And where Lizzy Bennet, though not as beautiful as her sister Jane, can at the very least boast a pair of “fine eyes” that, in Mr. Darcy’s estimation, are “brightened by the exercise” of her outdoor activities, Fanny is described, from the very first, as small, awkward, “with no glow of complexion, nor any other striking beauty; exceedingly timid and shy, and shrinking from notice,” albeit with a sweet voice and a pretty countenance whenever she does dare open her mouth at all.
Yet, the very attributes that make Lizzy Bennet so attractive in a modern reader’s view would have made her supremely unattractive in the views of her contemporaries; it is not for nothing that Miss Bingley, in her constant bid to denigrate Lizzy in Mr. Darcy’s eyes, keeps harping on the inappropriateness of Lizzy’s decidedly voiced opinions and, even worse, her outdoor exercise (and the state in which walking through a few puddles too many has left her clothes by the time she gets to Netherfield). Indeed, the second eldest Miss Bennet, who in addition to her unspeakably low connections, the manifold social gaffes committed near-constantly by virtually her entire family (except for Jane), as well as her own inappropriate frankness and her propensity for merrily cavorting outdoors, has also failed to seek perfection in the one accomplishment seen as a virtual “must” in a genteel young lady – musical proficiency – would very much have had to be seen as a surprising match, to say the least, for Mr. Darcy and his “ten thousand a year”: In an age where a woman’s sole hope of financial security lay in either inheriting a large fortune or marrying well, and where (as Lizzy’s friend Charlotte soberly observes) “happiness in marriage [was] entirely a matter of chance”, Lizzy Bennet was the embodiment of Jane Austen’s novelized hope that no matter how you were placed socially, and even if you dared, at least to a certain extent, to defy convention and not abide by the corset placed on genteel young ladies by the social norms of their times, there was still at least a slim hope of attaching the man of your dreams after all.
To Fanny Price, all of this does not apply; indeed, to the point that Austen is making with Mansfield Park, any heroine other than a complete wallflower would not have been conducive at all.
As a setting, for all intents and purposes, Mansfield Park is initially presented as a rural paradise; a place of propriety and quiet serenity, where the steady hand of Sir Thomas Bertram keeps the lives of all of its inhabitants on the orderly, largely pre-ordained and respectable course that life should have in store for the family of a baronet in Regency England. Fanny – the daughter of Lady Bertram’s sister, who has married a poor (and later, alcoholic) sailor – is brought in to join the family at age ten, and raised together with the Bertrams’ children; her cousins Tom, Edmund, Maria and Julia. Since the details of child-rearing are not a man’s job (besides, Sir Thomas’s business and political obligations compel him to leave Mansfield Park every so often), and Lady Bertram’s chief merit as the mistress of the house does not greatly exceed her (now waning) beauty, much of the day-to-day education is left to Aunt Norris, another – widowed – sister of Lady Bertram and of Fanny’s mother. This is unfortunate, as Aunt Norris (one of Austen’s finest creations; worthy sister in spirit to the likes of Mrs. Bennet and Sir Walter Eliot in Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion, respectively) is a vexed combination of stupidity, favoritism, prejudice, greed, and a mouth ten times bigger than her willingness to stand by her own proclamations; all of which not only makes for an entirely unwholesome influence over Maria and Julia, but also causes Fanny to be consistently bossed around, by Aunt Norris as much as by the Bertram girls. But Fanny at least has her cousin Edmund to stand by her side, and it is in no small part thanks to his remedial influence (as well as, siginificantly, her own disposition) that unlike Maria and Julia, she develops the sound moral principles that will later enable her alone to steadfastly brave the trials and tribulations that will come very near to ripping her rural paradise to shreds.
For trouble ensues the moment that Sir Thomas is forced to leave Mansfield Park for an indefinite period, this time not merely to go to London but to Antigua, where he will be out of the way for good, and leave his family behind without his guidance and protection. Exit, thus, Sir Thomas, and enter, not long thereafter, Trouble with a capital “T”: cue for the intrusion of rakish, unprincipled city life into rural serenity, for the intrusion of the up-and-coming urbaneness that Austen herself dreaded and disdained, into her very own cherished, placid rural life. The intrusion, in this novel’s instance, is represented by Mary and Henry Crawford, the sister and brother of the local parson’s wife, who have until now shared the urban household of their uncle, an admiral of rather ill repute, and have left London when the admiral deigned to introduce his mistress into his household. In short order, Henry manages to seduce both Bertram sisters, in Maria’s case even though at this point she is already engaged to their rich and respectable but stupid neighbor Mr. Rushworth (even Edmund Bertram has come to think about his brother in law-to-be that “if this man had not twelve thousand a year, he would be a very stupid fellow”). Shamelessly flirtatious Mary Crawford, for her part, sets her cap at Edmund – since Tom, the older Bertram brother, has accompanied his father to Antigua – and he is soon so besotted with her charms that no matter what impropriety she utters, no matter how indecorously she behaves, he, although destined for the clergy (a profession he wholeheartedly embraces), and although he himself not so long ago guided Fanny away from the very same unprincipled conduct that Mary embodies to perfection, all that Mary says and does he now simply disregards. (If Austen didn’t occasionally strike her female protagonists with that same sort of blindness, including and in particular the otherwise astute Lizzy Bennet in her initial dealings with Mr. Wickham, I’d be tempted to read this as a somewhat generalized statement on Austen’s part on the reliability of even the otherwise most virtuous male judgment as soon as a pretty woman’s face and pleasing manner is nigh.)
Things come to a head when Tom Bertram (to his father and younger brother’s chagrin, not the most principled young gentleman, either) reappears a few months later in the company of a Mr. Yates, who, egged on by Henry Bertram and by his own delusions of grandeur, talks the others into staging a play: in and of itself, the very essence of impropriety in genteel society already – one did, after all, under no circumstances whatsoever make a spectacle of oneself –, but combined with the nature of the play chosen (a now-forgotten comedy named Lovers’ Vows by Elizabeth Inchbald, adapted from August von Kotzebue’s The Natural Son: for a summary and further background information, see the blog posts on the subject on Only a Novel and The Republic of Pemberley), as well as the casting eventually agreed on, makes the play an entirely unsuitable choice and thus merely piles impropriety upon impropriety. Against his better judgment, even Edmund is drawn into the scheme (by none other than Mary Crawford, of course); only Fanny, horrified, adamantly refuses to be a party to it. Eventually, Sir Thomas returns home just in time to prevent the play from actually being performed, and restores order and decorum forthwith; including to his own study, which the young insouciants had converted into their green room. Maria Bertram is married to Mr. Rushworth, and the newlyweds, accompanied by Julia, head off to London.
Sir Thomas returned, propriety reestablished, no more rich young ladies around for Henry to seduce, and Edmund off to Peterborough and Oxford for his ordination, an event on which Mary Crawford looks with scathing disdain: Exit, surely therefore now, Mary and Henry Crawford?
Far from it. Indeed, now follows their most daring coup. For the events of the recent months, not least Fanny’s adamant refusal to be drawn into the acting scheme, have revealed that the true prize to be captured in the Bertram household is none other than shy, withdrawn Fanny herself: She, and only she, is the family’s true moral authority. Seducing Maria and Julia had been easy; morally unstable as they were, they had been ripe for the picking from the start. And Edmund Bertram had never been anything more than a toy to Mary; whatever budding interest she might initially have developed in him was extinguished in a snap the very moment she learned that he was not Sir Edmund-to-be but merely a younger brother, moreover destined for the clergy and fully embracing that profession, with zero appetite for a flashier, more prestigious career path. But Fanny presents a real challenge; ultimately even dually so: First and foremost, Fanny herself must be made to intensely interact with Henry Crawford, for as long as she keeps avoiding him (as she has been doing to the best of her ability, recognizing him for the profoundly immoral creature that he is), he won’t have the opportunity to cast the spell of his charm on her and break the iron resolve of her moral stance. And once she has been “cooked” to perfection, Sir Thomas must be made to give his consent to her being married to Henry Crawford, the last person on earth – would Sir Thomas but realize this, as Fanny herself does – to whom Fanny’s hand should actually be given in marriage. (This last challenge arises only after Henry, to a certain extent, gets tangled up in his own web, as he actually manages to fall in love with Fanny, or at least, very much believes himself in love with her for a while.)
I won’t elaborate on the novel’s conclusion, but Austen wouldn’t be Austen if Henry actually did succeed, and if Fanny and Edmund – the couple she has set up to eventually fall in love with each other practically from their first encounter – didn’t come together in the end. (Yes, go ahead, say “ewww, a marriage of first cousins.” I readily admit that that bit was difficult to stomach for me as well, and it was only after some reading up on the marriage habits and intermingling lineage of the European aristocracy, as well as the discovery that a marriage of first cousins is still not outlawed in many countries, including the UK, Germany, and a number of American states, that I’ve come to figure that Austen was simply portraying what was still very much the done thing in her time.)
But just try to imagine how effectively the central message to be taken away from this novel – the statement that “we have all a better guide in ourselves, if we would attend to it, than any other person can be” – would be transported if the book’s heroine, and the person who utters this one key sentence, were just another Lizzy Bennet or, for that matter, another Elinor Dashwood (or if Edmund weren’t humble clergyman-to-be and younger brother without any expectations of inheriting his father’s title and fortune but in the league of the Darcys, Bingleys and Brandons). BIG f*cking deal: Oh, so Henry Crawford now tries his hand at Lizzy after he’s already seduced her sisters or cousins under her very eyes? Well, remember the dressing down that Mr. Wickham and, even more so, Lady Catherine de Bourgh gets from Lizzy’s mouth? Henry would get a wallop of the very same treatment, and that would be that, once and for all. Great, memorable lines to be sure, but not a chance in hell that Lizzy would ever actually fall for him, especially not after the play acting business. Same essentially, with Elinor Dashwood: She would be more polite and restrained than Lizzy, but Henry Crawford would not get anywhere near her, either; if anything, she’d set herself up as moral authority to Maria and Julia to their very faces, and at best give Henry Crawford the sort of response that Willoughby gets when (contrite and quite possibly genuinely worried about Marianne) he shows up at the Palmers’ estate to inquire about Marianne’s health towards the end of Sense and Sensibility. And if Edmund were the heir to his father’s title and fortune that Mary Crawford so clearly covets in him, and in the league of the Darcys and Brandons in other respects as well, he’d see our Miss Crawford for the shameless gold digger that she is right from the start and send her on her merry way without ever even letting her get near him – their story, too, would have been over before it had ever really started.
No: The steadfastness that Austen advocates here – and which she will come to advocate again in Persuasion, through another heroine who is likewise not exactly the belle of every ball – not only requires a very sound knowledge of oneself and a firm anchoring in moral principles; as the play acting scheme shows in particular, it also requires the firmness of resolve called for in a lone dissenter, moreover, the lone dissenter’s firmness of resolve that becomes necessary in times when a given society’s or social circle’s opinion leaders are merrily dropping standards right and left and are set on a path leading straight to ruin. And shy, meek Fanny Price is just about the very last person whom you would ever expect to display that sort of resolve, and therefore to transport this book’s central message – and it is ultimately precisely because of her own nature that she is such an effective messenger. And it is this, too, that still so very much endears her to me, even decades after I read Mansfield Park for the very first time.
“We have all a better guide in ourselves, if we would attend to it, than any other person can be.”
“Give a girl an education and introduce her properly into the world, and ten to one but she has the means of settling well, without further expense to anybody.”
“If this man had not twelve thousand a year, he would be a very stupid fellow.”
“A fondness for reading, properly directed, must be an education in itself.”
“But Shakespeare one gets acquainted with without knowing how. It is a part of an Englishman’s constitution. His thoughts and beauties are so spread abroad that one touches them everywhere; one is intimate with him by instinct. No man of any brain can open at a good part of one of his plays without falling into the flow of his meaning immediately.”