Sunday, December 19, 2010

Fanny Price and the Contemplative Life

Chapter 5: Fanny Price and the Contemplative Life

Fanny Price, the heroine of Jane Austen's Mansfield Park, is probably the least liked, and the least understood of all of Jane Austen's heroines. Fanny is more like Elinor Dashwood or Anne Elliot in that she is already virtuous, but she must learn to trust her judgment. Emsley writes, "In this chapter...I argue that she is interesting because her liveliness is in the life of the mind. She is thoughtful, contemplative, and actively engaged in thinking through the situations she confronts in the course of the novel. She is neither dull nor passive. She is temperate, she engages in serious philosophical contemplation, and she may be Jane Austen's strongest heroine."

In the beginning of Mansfield Park we get a glimpse of Fanny as a young girl. Her Aunt Norris sees her education as deficient because she had not learned to recite the facts that Maria and Julia have learned. Jane Austen, however, tell us that it is Maria and Julia who are, "entirely deficient in the less common acquirements of self-knowledge, generosity, and humility." This criticism is also applicable to Mary Crawford. Emsley points out that "self-knowledge is a virtue for all Austen heroines." We are reminded of Elizabeth Bennet- "Till this moment I never knew myself."

Critics of Fanny are on both extremes. Some say she is too submissive, that she gives in too easily. Others say that she is too priggish and hard-headed. She does give into her Mansfield family, making sacrifices for them daily, but in matters of import she does not just roll over. Because she is so obliging, Henry, once he has decided to marry her, counts on her "graces of manner and goodness of heart." Mary tells her brother, "You will have a sweet little wife; all gratitude and devotion." When she does reject Crawford on the basis of his past behavior, everyone is shocked. In making this decision, she is sacrificing the good opinion of those she loves (not to mention sacrificing worldly goods). She exhibits the virtue of fortitude when, like Elizabeth Bennet, she refuses the marriage proposal because she does not believe it to be right. Emsley says, "She may have been docile in the past, easily serving others and never asserting herself, but to speak out, to resist, and to hold fast to her decision is not proof of morally prim and proper behavior, but of strong, independent judgment coming from someone long used to submission."

Fanny is aware of the workings of her mind and heart in a way that few others are. Even Edmund does not realize this to be the case. When Fanny tells him, "I am afraid we think too differently, for me to find any relief in talking of what I feel," he responds, "Do you suppose we think differently? I have no idea of it." Edmund is used to Fanny and he always agreeing as they had used to, but his blindness to Mary Crawford's failings makes this impossible. Later he will realize that Fanny's opinion was the right one, and that he was not in love with Mary but "the creature of my own imagination."

When Crawford flatteringly tells Fanny "Your judgment is my rule of right," she exclaims, "Oh, no!- do not say so. We have all a better guide in ourselves, if we would attend to it, than any other person can be." Emsley suggests that, " Of all of Jane Austen's heroines, she is the one who reaches philosophical wisdom."

Edmund (and others) think perhaps that Fanny has refused Crawford because she "could tolerate nothing that she was not used to...habit has the most power...and novelty the least." But this is shown in several instances to not always be case. One example of her finding pleasure in something new is the trip to Southerton which she enjoys very much. Jane Austen shows Fanny as one who is not stagnate, but growing. Fanny's plants and books, both representing growth and development, are mentioned several times throughout the novel. Fanny values the seasons, the changes outdoors, "the growth of the laurels and evergreens."

Fanny is used to knowing her own heart, unlike Crawford who is not "in the habit of examining his own motives and of reflecting to what the indulgence of his idle vanity was tending." Emsley states, "The distinction between good and bad habits depends on one's definition of comfort...The definition of comfort is important because peace is moral comfort, whereas ease is only the avoidance of irritation."

Fanny does not, suggests Emsley, only consider what is best for herself, but what is best universally. "Part of Fanny's wisdom involves not just the strength of her own mind and the rightness of her own judgment but also the ways in which she thinks in the context of tradition and authority...Fanny Price is Jane Austen's contemplative heroine. She is virtuous and wise, and she knows how to be temperate."

Jane Austen tells us of Edmund and Fanny at the end of Mansfield Park, "With so much true merit and true love, and no want of fortune or friends, the happiness, of the married cousins must appear as secure as earthly happiness can be.- Equally formed for domestic life, and attached to country pleasures, their home was the home of affection and comfort..."

These thoughts are taken from the fifth chapter (entitled, Fanny Price and the Contemplative Life) of Sarah Baxter Emsley's book, Jane Austen's Philosophy of the Virtues. Next up, Chapter 6: Learning the Art of Charity in Emma


Lydia said...

This makes me like Fanny all the more. :) Sad to say I still have not read Mansfield Park. But I'm liking this heroine. What you said about her, "strong, independent judgment coming from someone long used to submission;" as well as "Fanny is used to knowing her own heart" puts me in mind of something Nancy W. says, "The more submissive we are as wives and women, the more authority we have." She goes on to give examples such as: Over our own souls, children; husbands asking our advice. It's potent! and keeps us from trouble because we are doing what God wants us to do. Seems like submission leads to more freedom too because only when we are obedient to God can we feel our burdens slipping away, those things that weigh down our minds, and act more freely and lovingly, knowing that we are taken care of and can rest in Him. Only when we are in subjection can we feel free.

Lydia said...

PS. I have read Mansfield Park :)

The Rush Blog said...

I STILL dislike Fanny Price. Her quiet personality doesn't bother me one bit. What I cannot stand about her is her hypocrisy. She and Edmund Bertram are two of the biggest hypocrites I have ever come across in English literature.

I cannot stand people or fictional characters who make a habit of passing judgments on others, while remaining blind to their own faults. It's annoying.

Esther said...

Would you care to articulate?

Caroline Helstone said...

I think the reason most people hate her is 1) she's not fun or charismatic, therefore we are shallow.2) These haters know that deep inside they share the same shallow characteristics as the "villains" of the novel, and feel ashamed that Fanny is better than them.