I have so much to say about this book by Jane Austen that I don’t even know where to begin.
The ladies over at Bonnets at Dawn decided to do a readalong of this book back in June, and being a member of Team Austen who hadn’t reread this particular novel since college, of course I was eager to participate. I think there may have been a collective groan from the members of the Bonnets at Dawn Facebook group when it was announced that we would be reading and discussing this book because for many people, it’s their least favorite Jane Austen, but I’ve always enjoyed this one. I was all, “What do you have against my girl Fanny?”
If you’re unfamiliar with the plot of this one, Fanny Price is the oldest daughter of a large family in Portsmouth and her parents are having a hard time paying for all their children, so her mother appeals to her sister, who married much better than she did and is living comfortably in the country as Lady Bertram. She also apparently did a better job of practicing safe sex or just stopped having sex with her husband at some point because she only has four children: two boys and two girls. So Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram decide they have plenty of room at their home of Mansfield Park for a fourth child, who’s about the same age as their own children. Although it’s actually Mrs. Norris who manages to decide these things for them. Mrs. Norris is Lady Bertram’s other sister, who married “a man of the cloth” who ended up living at the parsonage of Mansfield Park with his brother-in-law as his patron. Mrs. Norris is the one who convinces Sir Thomas to take Fanny in, while deceptively implying that she’ll help care for the child (of which she has absolutely no intention).
So Fanny goes to live at Mansfield Park where she knows absolutely no one, and while no one intentionally neglects her, they don’t think much about her either, so she’s pretty much left to fend for herself. There’s a cute scene shortly after she arrives in which Edmund, the younger son, finds her crying, asks what’s wrong, and when he finds out she just wants some writing supplies so she can write to her brother, he promptly procures them for her and thereby earns her undying love and devotion.
Fast forward several years and Fanny and her cousins are teenagers and young adults and Fanny is hopelessly in love with Edmund, but he’s as oblivious to her feelings as all teenage boys. Mr. Norris has died and the living of the parsonage is overtaken by a Mr. and Mrs. Grant, and after a while, Mrs. Grant’s brother and sister, Henry and Mary Crawford, come to stay with her for a while, and that’s where all the trouble begins.
Henry is a hopeless flirt who carries on dalliances with both Maria and Julia (Fanny’s two female cousins), even though Maria is engaged to someone else. Mary and Edmund quickly develop a romance, which breaks Fanny’s heart, not only because she’s in love with Edmund, but because she sees Mary for what she really is: a gold digger. Edmund is blinded by her beauty and charms and insists that all her bad habits are the fault of bad friends. To add injury to heartbreak, Fanny has been friend zoned so hard that she has to listen to Edmund go on and on about Mary Crawford’s perceived good qualities.
After Henry disappears on business for a while, Maria marries her betrothed, despite having feelings for Henry, and off she goes to live with him, and her sister comes with for company and to put her out in society. Meanwhile Fanny and Mary become friends, although Mary seems rather more taken with Fanny than Fanny does with Mary, and I think the implication here is that it’s because Fanny is “the good one,” while Mary’s morals are more “flexible” and Fanny knows it. To be fair, I also think it’s hard for Fanny to befriend the girlfriend of the guy she’s in love with.
When Henry returns to Mansfield Park, he is determined to flirt with Fanny and win her over, although he has absolutely no intention of any serious relationship, and I cannot forgive him for deliberately toying with the emotions of every young woman he encounters. I think it serves him right that, not only is Fanny already in love with someone else, but she sees right through him because she saw his flirtations with both her cousins carried on simultaneously. But all that happened when her uncle, Sir Thomas, was not at home, so all he sees is the “proper” face that Henry Crawford puts forward, especially once he realizes he’s in love with Fanny and he determines to win her over for good.
When Henry proposes and Fanny refuses, Sir Thomas is baffled because marrying Henry Crawford would be a huge step up for Fanny, but she doesn’t care about money and she can’t explain to her uncle how she knows about Henry Crawford’s womanizing ways without implicating his two daughters, so she just tells him she can’t marry Henry Crawford.
As a woman myself, I am constantly infuriated by all the ways women’s straightforward answers aren’t taken seriously, and it’s something Jane Austen addresses quite a bit in her work, most famously in the way Mr. Collins refuses to accept Lizzy Bennett’s multiple refusals of his marriage proposal. But this also pops up in Emma and again in Mansfield Park when Henry Crawford convinces himself that Fanny really does love him, despite the fact that she has given him no indication whatsoever that she’s interested. It’s all chalked up to her “modesty” and it makes me want to scream.
In the meantime, Sir Thomas decides it might be good for Fanny to spend some time away from the luxuries of Mansfield Park, so he arranges for her to visit her family in Portsmouth, a prospect which delights her much more in theory than in practice. The house is cramped, the one servant is bad at her job, neither of her parents appears to care at all that she’s returned home, her mother does nothing but complain about her own problems, and the whole family is ill bred and ill mannered, until Fanny finds she can’t wait to return to Mansfield Park.
While she’s in Portsmouth, Henry Crawford visits and Mary writes her letters to keep her updated, but shortly after one of Henry’s visits, there’s a scandal: he has run off with Fanny’s cousin, Maria, and Julia has eloped with a Mr. York, so Edmund is sent to take Fanny straight back to Mansfield Park. Fanny is happy to be going back to Mansfield Park, but not happy about the circumstances.
Before picking up Fanny, Edmund had stopped to see Mary Crawford, who was super defensive of her brother and put all the blame on Maria, which of course didn’t sit well with Edmund. The good news is that Edmund’s predisposition to favor Mary Crawford is erased and he’s able to see her as she really is. Given enough time, this frees him up to see Fanny as the faultless, deserving person she is, to fall in love with and marry her so they can live happily ever after at the parsonage of Mansfield Park (since his older brother inherits the estate and he has to make his own living via the church).
I mentioned at the top of this post that a lot of people don’t like this book, and a large part of the reason for that is a lot of people don’t like Fanny because they perceive her as being weak. These days, we want all our heroines to be strong and stand up for themselves, or at least to be witty, but Fanny isn’t any of those things. She’s unexceptional in every way, and a bit of a goody two shoes, which does get annoying, but here’s the thing: she’s living in someone else’s house.
You could make the argument that almost every woman in Regency England was living in someone else’s house, but in Fanny’s case, it’s particularly true because, although she is related by marriage to the owner of Mansfield Park (she’s not related to him by blood), she is not his child and he is under no obligation to take her in in the first place, much less to keep her in his home. In that sense, her “meekness” is a survival skill. It’s his house, his rules, so if she wants to stay where she is, she has to make herself agreeable to him and his wife. She does this by making herself useful as a kind of servant to them by fetching things for them, making tea, conveying messages, etc.
She’s also constantly criticized by Mrs. Norris, but she never offers any objection to those criticisms, and while that’s understandably frustrating to the reader, I think it only serves to exemplify Fanny’s inner strength. Do you know how hard it is to have someone unjustly criticize you and just sit there and take it without defending yourself? It’s quite possibly the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and I can’t give Fanny enough credit for doing it over and over again.
In the Bonnets and Dawn Facebook group, there was a lot of discussion about how this book is about the difference between how things appear on the surface vs. how they really are, and I think Fanny is a perfect example of that. She appears weak and malleable, but just scratch the surface, and you’ll find an iron will.
There was also a lot of talk in the Facebook group about how Edmund is the worst, but I can’t entirely get on board with that. Yes, he’s a mansplainer, but so is Mr. Knightly, and he certainly has a strong fan base. Edmund took a lot of shit in the Facebook group for not being able to see through Mary Crawford, but who among us has not been misled by a pretty face? When we fall in love, our hormones take over and literally change our brain chemistry, and who among us hasn’t suffered from that particular affliction? I know I have, and I’m not proud of the things I said or did in that time, but it’s something we all go through. He’s also young and young people make mistakes. Give the poor guy a break.
I also have to admit that I can’t help but relate to the pain of Fanny’s unrequited love, which makes it impossible for me not to cheer for her when she finally gets her true heart’s desire. A lot of people talked about the ending of the book as being unsatisfying, but I can’t agree.
All that being said, Jane Austen literally says at the end of the book that Fanny is too good for Edmund.
What did you read this week? Any other old favorites that you approached with a new perspective?