I have come to admire, a great deal, the heroine of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. Under unbelievable social and family pressure, the modest and overlooked Fanny Price sticks to her moral principles as she resists a marriage proposal from an eligible bachelor, the wealthy and dashing Henry Crawford. I have learned only recently that Fanny is not only principled. She may also be a moral crusader in the best progressive sense of the word.
I owe this perspective to my colleague Gail Savage in our history department, who associates Fanny with William Wilberforce’s reform movement within the Anglican Church. Wilberforce is most famous for agitating against, and finally ending, British slavery, but that’s not all he did. He also worked to improve the lives of chimney sweeps (see my blog on them here) and female textile workers, argued for prison reform and moderating the death penalty, and believed that education was a way of fighting poverty. Also he worried that the Church of England was characterized by tepid religiosity.
Gail told my class (we had her as a visitor) that there were two liberal movements underway in the early decades of the 19th century. In addition to Wilberforce’s church reform movement, there was a sexual liberation movement associated with the decadent Prince Regent. The two were at odds. Henry Crawford is associated with the second.
Although always reserved (understandably so since she has been pushed to the margins her entire life), Fanny shows herself passionate on certain social justice issues. She queries Sir Thomas about slavery (we don’t what specifically she asks him but he would have had slaves on his Caribbean plantation), is moved when Henry talks about protecting tenants on his land, and is enthusiastic about Edmund’s plans to live amongst his parishioners. More on this last point in a moment.
My thinking of Fanny as a liberal reformer represents a 180-degree turnabout. Decades ago, as my mother recently reminded me, I thought of Fanny as a “damp Kleenex.” I thought she needed more spark and was disappointed that her relationship with Henry did not work out. Of course, Fanny can’t marry Crawford once he has a fling with the married Maria Bertram Rushworth, but I blamed Austen for that plot twist. I thought that, after having made Henry’s male energy attractive, she became afraid of what she had created and therefore “killed off” Henry and arranged for Fanny to marry the safer man, the soon-to-be-ordained Edmund Bertram.
Looking back, I’m not sure why I preferred Henry to Edmund as a partner for Fanny. I myself was (and am) much more like Edmund. It may have been connected with my dislike (at that time) of religion and my anxieties over not being manly enough.
My problems with Jane Austen were a version of the charge that D. H. Lawrence levels against Charlotte Bronte and Jane Eyre: Lawrence, whose own masculinity is always in crisis, accuses Bronte of having created the Byronic Rochester and then emasculating him so that her heroine can control him. She’s attracted to male energy, he says, but in the end shies away from it. Lawrence didn’t write specifically about Manfield Park but I have no doubt that he would have said similar things. He does describe Austen as “an old maid” and writes that she is “English in the bad, mean snobbish sense of the word, just as Fielding is English in the good generous sense.“
Okay, so I was thinking along Lawrence’s line when I was in my twenties and thirties. Now, however, I see Fanny as someone who is so deeply principled that she represents a new possibility for England. Being a rector’s wife and working with the needy of the parish will be far more exciting than reforming a rake like Henry. And if we think otherwise, if we want her to marry someone with Darcy’s money (in Pride and Prejudice) and Willoughby’s ease of manner (in Sense and Sensibility)—well then, that just means that we, just like all those pressuring Fanny, have got our priorities wrong.
Here’s the life that Edmund plans to lead, which fires up Fanny but bores the wealthy, beautiful and superficial Mary Crawford (who nevertheless has the taste to love Edmund). It is described by Sir Thomas, who shares his son’s ideals:
A parish has wants and claims which can be known only by a clergyman constantly resident, and which no proxy can be capable of satisfying to the same extent. Edmund might, in the common phrase, do the duty of Thornton, that is, he might read prayers and preach, without giving up Mansfield Park; he might ride over, every Sunday, to a house nominally inhabited and go through divine service; he might be the clergyman of Thornton Lacy every seventh day, for three or four hours, if that would content him. But it will not. He knows that human nature needs more lessons than a weekly sermon can convey, and that if he does not live among his parishioners and prove himself by constant attention their well-wisher and friend, he does very little either for their good or his own.
If Edmund’s decision to live in his parish seems self-evident to us now, it is because the new vision of a preacher’s life has prevailed. Mansfield Park may suffer a bit because we read it after a century of sometimes heavy-handed and humorless Victorian moralism. Edmund may strike us as a bit stodgy and Fanny a bit prudish, especially in her reservations about home theatricals. In fact, for all we know Edmund and Fanny might have been in favor of one of Wilberforce’s reforms—no card playing on Sunday—that would later be roundly attacked by liberals like Charles Dickens, who thought that the poor needed some fun at least one day a week. At a time when the land-owning classes all but ignored the needs of those further down, Edmund and Fanny represent an advance.
One doesn’t entirely need to know this history when one reads Mansfield Park. If one reads it closely, one can detect the narcissism of the Crawfords and the commitment to service of Fanny and Edmund. My students, interestingly enough, picked up on these traits much better than I did at their age. Practically all of them saw through Mary and Henry (“He’s not going to change,” both Victoria and Anita adamantly declared—and were proved right by his subsequent behavior). They were all rooting for a Fanny-Edmund marriage.
In fact, for all the talk (in some quarters) about the self-centeredness of today’s young people, I can report that these first-year students have their values very much in the right place. Their interpretation of Mansfield Park is proof.