mary crawford is a top
mansfield park, fanny price, and slavery, lol
First some news:
I had a new story published in Esquire called “Urgent, Necessary, Vital”
I am waiting for my new medium format camera to arrive, so I thought that I might spend the time writing a little thing about Fanny Price, the heroine of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. I first read the novel a few years ago, and at the time, I didn’t think much of it. Mansfield Park doesn’t have the snappy plot and delightful ridiculousness of Sense and Sensibility or the stately and moving irony of Persuasion. It doesn’t have the toxic hot boys and mean-spirited jealousies of Pride and Prejudice or the, you know, relatability of Emma, though I really don’t like Emma. It’s true that Mansfield Park is a slower, more meandering novel full of moral and emotional ambiguities.
In physics and mathematics, there are vector quantities and scalar quantities. They differ in many ways, but chief of which is that vector quantities have two characteristics (magnitude and direction) where scalar quantities have one (magnitude). It’s the difference between speed (scalar) and velocity (vector) because in the case of velocity, it’s not merely how fast one goes but in what direction. In the case of Jane Austen’s novels, Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion, and Sense and Sensibility are vector novels while Mansfield Park is a scalar novel. Pride and Prejudice begins with the arrival of Bingley’s party at Netherfield, and we understand that the novel will be organized around whether or not the Bennett sisters can acquire their men of fortune. In Sense and Sensibility, we understand that the Dashwoods being turned out of Norland Park sets into motion a series of social collisions that might result in their procurement of a fortune greater than the one they lost. In Persuasion, another issue of property sets into motion Anne Elliot’s reencountering the man she rejected some years before. The events of the novel flow from their origin (the inciting incident, usually involving property or a lost fortune or a need of a fortune) toward their conclusion (the acquiring of a fortune and/or husband).
Mansfield Park seems to start in a similar way. We get background regarding the three sisters who become Mrs. Price, Mrs. Bertram, and Mrs. Norris, and we discover that a rift has formed between them, with Mrs. Price becoming very poor and Mrs. Bertram very rich. The novel then truly begins with bringing Fanny Price to Mansfield Park to be brought up among her cousins. Yet curiously, the novel meanders about for a while. We see Fanny grow up amid the bustle of the Bertrams. We are privy to the allegiances and rivalries within the family and within the halls of Mansfield Park. We see Aunt Norris and Aunt Bertram strictly police the hierarchy among the young people—Fanny is never to consider herself an equal to her cousins, after all she sleeps in the attic—and all is well. Until the Crawfords arrive. Yet, they are mostly just integrated into the society of the Bertrams. Yes, with some ill effects—Maria being seduced by the cad Henry even as she is betrothed to Mr. Rushworth, a hot rich man with no thoughts—but for the most part, the introduction of the Crawfords mainly results in Fanny brooding a great deal. When the party decides to put on a play in Sir Thomas’s absence, Fanny and Edmund say that they shouldn’t do it but everyone is determined because, horny vibes. What results is that Julia and Maria Bertram fall irrepressibly in love with Henry Crawford, Edmund falls in love with Mary Crawford, and Fanny’s love for Edmund threatens to burn the whole of Mansfield Park to the ground. Yet, crucially, in the novel this doesn’t have the sense of an arrow pointing in a single direction. Instead, the plot seems to spread and seep across the page.
The narrative action of Mansfield Park is always thus diffused. Things don’t shoot and dart and flash. They creep and spread outward, an ever-broadening narrative boundary. Again and again, Fanny finds herself in curious situations of the heart, but instead of making a decisive action, she just thinks for a few pages, and then we have a new scene beginning. Where in a novel like Sense and Sensibility, you have Marianne Dashwood sending horny notes to Willoughby, only to result in betrayal, in Mansfield Park, the characters stew and simmer and the status quo is maintained.
Even when Henry Crawford decides to seduce Fanny, his attempts to seduce her backfire in such a way as to make him the one who falls in love, and when she rejects him, he goes and does something reckless while she is sent home to Portsmouth. But, this is all achieved with hardly a ripple in the narrative surface. Fanny pines for Edmund at Mansfield Park. And then she pines for him in Portsmouth. And then she returns to Mansfield Park, where she pines some more. Fanny never has any sense of love between them being possible, and as such, she just kind of accepts her lot in life. It is enough to be near Edmund, to see him happy, even if it ruins her own chance of happiness. Which, like, a mood, yes, but also, not the most propulsive of plots.
But I have been thinking quite a bit about Fanny Price. Why is it that people do not like her as a heroine? Someone on Twitter said that it is because Fanny is always right, and that makes her dull. This is an attractive theory, and I myself thought this for a long time. But this time, rereading the novel, I am not sure that Fanny is always right.
So the reason people say this about Fanny has a lot to do with the play that the young people decide to put on at Mansfield Park while Sir Thomas is away in Antigua (doing slavery). As I said earlier, Fanny and Edmund are spoil sports. They do not think it is appropriate for many reasons. Over the course of the rehearsals, Mary Crawford (toxic bi-icon) says some really harsh things about the clergy, and when she discovers that Edmund is to be a clergyman, she apologizes for saying it out loud, lol, but not actually for her opinions. It’s actually kind of a brilliant piece of writing, so I am going to include it here for your perusal:
[…]At length, after a short pause, Miss Crawford began with, “So you are to be a clergyman, Mr. Bertram. This is rather a surprise to me.”
“Why should it surprise you? You must suppose me designed for some profession, and might perceive that I am neither a lawyer, nor a soldier, nor a sailor.”
“Very true; but, in short, it had not occurred to me. And you know there is generally an uncle or a grandfather to leave a fortune to the second son.”
“A very praiseworthy practice,” said Edmund, “but not quite universal. I am one of the exceptions, and being one, must do something for myself.”
“But why are you to be a clergyman? I thought that was always the lot of the youngest, where there were many to chuse before him.”
“Do you think the church itself never chosen, then?”
“Never is a black word. But yes, in the never of conversation, which means not very often, I do think it. For what is to be done in the church? Men love to distinguish themselves, and in either of the other lines distinction may be gained, but not in the church. A clergyman is nothing.”
“The nothing of conversation has its gradations, I hope, as well as the never. A clergyman cannot be high in state or fashion. He must not head mobs, or set the ton in dress. But I cannot call that situation nothing which has the charge of all that is of the first importance to mankind, individually or collectively considered, temporally and eternally, which has the guardianship of religion and morals, and consequently of the manners which result from their influence. No one here can call the office nothing. If the man who holds it is so, it is by the neglect of his duty, by foregoing its just importance, and stepping out of his place to appear what he ought not to appear.”
“You assign greater consequence to the clergyman than one has been used to hear given, or than I can quite comprehend. One does not see much of this influence and importance in society, and how can it be acquired where they are so seldom seen themselves? How can two sermons a week, even supposing them worth hearing, supposing the preacher to have the sense to prefer Blair’s to his own, do all that you speak of? govern the conduct and fashion the manners of a large congregation for the rest of the week? One scarcely sees a clergyman out of his pulpit.”
“You are speaking of London, I am speaking of the nation at large.”
“The metropolis, I imagine, is a pretty fair sample of the rest.”
“Not, I should hope, of the proportion of virtue to vice throughout the kingdom. We do not look in great cities for our best morality. It is not there that respectable people of any denomination can do most good; and it certainly is not there that the influence of the clergy can be most felt. A fine preacher is followed and admired; but it is not in fine preaching only that a good clergyman will be useful in his parish and his neighbourhood, where the parish and neighbourhood are of a size capable of knowing his private character, and observing his general conduct, which in London can rarely be the case. The clergy are lost there in the crowds of their parishioners. They are known to the largest part only as preachers. And with regard to their influencing public manners, Miss Crawford must not misunderstand me, or suppose I mean to call them the arbiters of good-breeding, the regulators of refinement and courtesy, the masters of the ceremonies of life. The manners I speak of might rather be called conduct, perhaps, the result of good principles; the effect, in short, of those doctrines which it is their duty to teach and recommend; and it will, I believe, be everywhere found, that as the clergy are, or are not what they ought to be, so are the rest of the nation.”
“Certainly,” said Fanny, with gentle earnestness.
“There,” cried Miss Crawford, “you have quite convinced Miss Price already.”
“I wish I could convince Miss Crawford too.”
“I do not think you ever will,” said she, with an arch smile; “I am just as much surprised now as I was at first that you should intend to take orders. You really are fit for something better. Come, do change your mind. It is not too late. Go into the law.”
Here we see Mary and Edmund dueling over his prospects. Edmund wants to be a clergyman, and considers it a worthy vocation. Mary wants to smash and also wants a rich husband, and would like that rich husband to be Edmund, and so she needles about his choice. Mary is young, vivacious, worldly. She is attracted to Edmund, but cannot understand what would make a young man choose to hide away under the dull monotony of a clerical life. To Mary Crawford, there could be no greater evil than being married to a clergyman. Edmund also wants to smash, but would like to be a parson. Has accepted that there can be no other life for him. In this way, Mary and Edmund find themselves caught in a frustrating stalemate.
Fanny of course has other opinions. She admires Edmund and therefore admires the clergy. There’s this moment when Fanny stands up for clergy by way of Mr. Grant, Mary’s uncle:
“I do not wonder at your disapprobation, upon my word. It is a great defect of temper, made worse by a very faulty habit of self-indulgence; and to see your sister suffering from it must be exceedingly painful to such feelings as yours. Fanny, it goes against us. We cannot attempt to defend Dr. Grant.”
“No,” replied Fanny, “but we need not give up his profession for all that; because, whatever profession Dr. Grant had chosen, he would have taken a—not a good temper into it; and as he must, either in the navy or army, have had a great many more people under his command than he has now, I think more would have been made unhappy by him as a sailor or soldier than as a clergyman. Besides, I cannot but suppose that whatever there may be to wish otherwise in Dr. Grant would have been in a greater danger of becoming worse in a more active and worldly profession, where he would have had less time and obligation—where he might have escaped that knowledge of himself, the frequency, at least, of that knowledge which it is impossible he should escape as he is now. A man—a sensible man like Dr. Grant, cannot be in the habit of teaching others their duty every week, cannot go to church twice every Sunday, and preach such very good sermons in so good a manner as he does, without being the better for it himself. It must make him think; and I have no doubt that he oftener endeavours to restrain himself than he would if he had been anything but a clergyman.”
“We cannot prove to the contrary, to be sure; but I wish you a better fate, Miss Price, than to be the wife of a man whose amiableness depends upon his own sermons; for though he may preach himself into a good-humour every Sunday, it will be bad enough to have him quarrelling about green geese from Monday morning till Saturday night.”
Of course, she is talking about Edmund when she’s talking about Dr. Grant. Both Fanny and Mary are talking about Edmund here. Now, I think people read this as Fanny being right. But I read it as Fanny’s naivety. She certainly has a strong sense of morality, but in the way that only very young and naïve people can have a strong sense of morality. To me, it’s important that when Fanny is spouting off about the clergy, she is doing so in front of Mary Crawford to defend Edmund.
She pipes up not because she is right, but because the man she loves has been insulted. She is not aware of this. She thinks that love and conviction are the same thing. Her admiration of the clergy and the moral life are inseparable from her admiration of Edmund. An admiration that has in its root that first kindness he showed her when she was first brought to Mansfield Park. Everyone was cruel and dismissive to her. But Edmund was kind. Thoughtful. So what does Fanny do but mold herself to be the kind of woman that Edmund considers the very best—moral, upright, ethical, etc.
But when Edmund finally decides that he will act in the play after all, Fanny’s astonishment is that Edmund has seemingly changed his mind not merely about acting but about the kind of woman he considers to be worthy:
He went; but there was no reading, no China, no composure for Fanny. He had told her the most extraordinary, the most inconceivable, the most unwelcome news; and she could think of nothing else. To be acting! After all his objections—objections so just and so public! After all that she had heard him say, and seen him look, and known him to be feeling. Could it be possible? Edmund so inconsistent! Was he not deceiving himself? Was he not wrong? Alas! it was all Miss Crawford’s doing. She had seen her influence in every speech, and was miserable. The doubts and alarms as to her own conduct, which had previously distressed her, and which had all slept while she listened to him, were become of little consequence now. This deeper anxiety swallowed them up. Things should take their course; she cared not how it ended. Her cousins might attack, but could hardly tease her. She was beyond their reach; and if at last obliged to yield—no matter—it was all misery now.
Fanny can’t conceive that Edmund, steadfast and constant as he is, dedicated to the moral life, her beacon, has changed his mind. And not just about anything, but about what makes a woman worthy. Her heartbreak and bewilderment in that moment have everything to do with the fact that she’s built her whole moral apparatus on what she imagines Edmund to think of as moral and right.
And that, friends, is a naïve person’s conception of the moral life. But she is not aware of it at the start of the novel, and perhaps only at the very end of the novel does she begin to realize how foolish she has been all this time. She approaches something like moral clarity and wisdom after she’s glimpsed that even Edmund is merely mortal.
So, no, I don’t think that Fanny is always right. I think that Austen wants us to understand that Fanny is naïve and her morality, admirable yes, is really the morality of the naïve and the young. Fanny’s moral sense is really her greatest flaw. It’s what makes her likeable, but only if you are able to read the very fine irony Austen is deploying there. Otherwise, she’s just kind of annoying spoil sport. Which, to be clear, she is! I mean, very annoying!
I think the other thing that makes Fanny Price kind of a hard sell is that she is unremarkable. Like, she is not very pretty (until Austen needs an excuse for Henry Crawford to want to pursue her), she is not very smart, she is not rich, she is not good at anything but being an attendant to her aunts. This is by her own design. She has always been a guest at Mansfield Park, and so she’s tried to make her existence as unobtrusive as possible. She’s effaced herself. The result is that the novel is dedicated to a character who by design and necessity is unable to exert pressure or force on those around her. How do you get a novel going if the whole point of the character is that she is simply there to be “right.” Where other Austen heroines like Emma or Elinor or Marianne or Anne or Lizzie or Jane or even Mary Musgrove can be grating or irritating, they also possess some quality that makes them admirable or interesting. They have something about them that makes you pay attention to them. And if not, they have money.
Fanny Price has no money. She has no advantages. She has nothing. She kind of lurks in the background, occasionally coming up with a great line or two. I think readers dislike Fanny because she is too normal. She is at once normal and naïve—she has a right to be, she is young, after all—and that is a tough sell. That she also gets in the way of the fun of the other characters whom we like better (justice for toxic girls Mary and Maria) also does her no favors. But Fanny’s tendency to obstruct and her own inability to understand the subtle ambiguities of her actions are the real source of power of the novel.
It's a classic Austen misdirection. You think that the point is the play and the consequences and fall out from the play. But really, the point is that the play is when Fanny starts to realize that Edmund is merely another man. In some sense, it is also the end of childhood and innocence. It is one thing to get some of your friends together and put on a play and pretend to recite love speeches to each other when you are children. The stakes are quite different when you are adults. When Sir Thomas arrives and breaks up the fun, that is the moment when all of the characters truly set aside their childhoods and accept that they are adults. That is the point of the play. The end of childhood. And also, the beginning in earnest of Fanny’s real love trouble.
In that way, the real theme of Mansfield Park emerges into view. It is not a novel about will Fanny find a great love or a husband or get enough money to support her huge family. Will the Crawfords ever…do whatever it is that they do. No, the real theme of the novel is the loss of innocence and the maturation of a moral life. Fanny comes to accept that life is full of ambiguities, as are people, and that this is no great flaw. It is simply human.
Another element to the novel, of course, has to do with slavery and abolition. The Bertrams get their money from ongoing concerns in Antigua, where they have plantations. As such, their wealth has a kind of moral taint to it. What we then see is indolence (Lady Bertram), dissipation (Tom Bertram), sexual indiscretions (Maria Bertram), and disobedience (Julia Bertram). Edmund himself is tempted by worldliness in the form of Mary Crawford and the Bertram sisters by Henry Crawford. The Bertrams fail these tests, and one is invited to imagine that their moral fall comes as a result of their entanglement with the slave trade, which is broached just the one time by Fanny Price at dinner following Sir Thomas’s return. Also, I guess, the novel invites us to view the bourgeois comfort as an evil, morally corrosive state that eventually leads to the family unwinding and Tom almost dying.
But it does frustrate and baffle that the novel kind of stops there. After all, Fanny herself is in a kind of bondage and subject position to her wealthy relatives. So we understand that when Fanny asks Sir Thomas about the slave trade, it’s a kind of twinning of the two themes in the novel. Bringing them into relation, so that by portraying the viciousness of the Bertrams toward Fanny, we have in some way, a working metaphor for the evils of slavery. But, like, I don’t know. That’s kind of weak, no? As Saidiya Hartman says in her essay “Innocent Amusements:”
Put differently, the effort to counteract the commonplace callousness to black suffering requires that the white body be positioned in the place of the black body in order to make this suffering visible and intelligible. Yet if this violence can become palpable and indignation can be fully aroused only through the masochistic fantasy, then it becomes clear that empathy is double-edged, for in making the other's suffering one's own, this suffering is occluded by the other's obliteration.
This is ultimately why I am always suspicious of white recourse to analogy to address the evils of the institution of slavery. Because part of that evil is very much the erecting of the institution itself. By which I mean, the legal and social codes deployed to preserve and perpetuate the bondage of other human beings. Any society capable of such an institution is kind of barbarous, no? Like, the legal entrenchment of the dehumanization of other humans is kind of evil beyond compare, no? And so, I don’t know that the this sly elision between Fanny’s subject position and the subject position of the people enslaved on Sir Thomas’s sugar plantation is sufficient. And perhaps the elision constitutes a moral failing in itself. But I am not a scholar. I just have a newsletter.
Anyway, I am enjoying Mansfield Park this time around. There are parts of the novel that feel so adult and grown-up. So true and moving. Fanny remains a tough heroine for me. I just have a hard time with her, but the novel itself is much better than I remember in many ways but also worse in others and the same in more still. Though I do think it deserves more credit than it is traditionally given. Personally, I think it’s one of the stronger Austen novels on the whole, despite its scalar quality.
This is so great, thanks for writing it! I feel a lot of affection for Fanny, perhaps because I too am boring and unfun! But in particular, I admire her strength of will in saying no to Henry Crawford, and then to Sir Thomas who also wants her to marry Henry Crawford. I think this episode has powerful things to say about consent, and her rejection of this marriage proposal is an interesting refraction of Elizabeth rejecting Mr. Collins. But it too is a kind of inaction—a saying no. She is a very inactive character, in the narrative and also physically (she’s always getting tired from going outside in the sun!) And I think this makes her harder to like (perhaps for ableist reasons though?)
Thank you for this fantastic essay. I've got this theory that Fanny is (maddeningly) pious in part to allow her latitude to (gasp!) turn down a wealthy suitor. Harder for (then contemporary) readers to hate/judge her for it, perhaps? Intrigued by the way you frame her piety as a function of her love for Edmund. Also, just really into this: "I don’t know that the this sly elision between Fanny’s subject position and the subject position of the people enslaved on Sir Thomas’s sugar plantation is sufficient. And perhaps the elision constitutes a moral failing in itself."