PERSUASIONS ON-LINE V.35, NO.1 (Winter 2014)

Fanny Price and Lord Nelson: Rethinking the National Hero(ine)

Elaine Bander


Elaine Bander (email:, retired from teaching at Dawson College (Montréal), is a frequent JASNA speaker who has published numerous essays on Austen and Burney.  She was Coordinator of the 2014 AGM and is currently President of JASNA (Canada) and Regional Coordinator for the Montréal region.


Just a few days before the publication of Pride and Prejudice in January 1813, while Jane Austen was working on Mansfield Park, she wrote to Cassandra from Chawton boasting about their local Book Society:


We quite run over with Books.  She [i.e., Mrs. Austen] has got Sir John Carr’s Travels in Spain from Miss B. & I am reading a Society-Octavo, an Essay on the Military Police & Institutions of the British Empire, by Capt. Pasley of the Engineers, a book which I protested against at first, but which upon trial I find delightfully written & highly entertaining.  I am as much in love with the Author as I ever was with Clarkson or Buchanan. . . . (24 January 1813)


Austen’s claim to be “as much in love” with Pasley as she had been with Buchanan and Clarkson has suggested to numerous critics that these authors might have influenced the composition of Mansfield Park.1


Austen called Pasley the “first soldier I ever sighed for,” adding, “but he does write with extraordinary force & spirit” (24 January 1813).  Charles William Pasley’s Essay on the Military Police and Institutions of the British Empire (1810), which urges Britain to make its army as effective a military force as its navy, advocating relentless Homeland Security and proactive imperial expansion against the otherwise invincible French, is echoed on a smaller scale by Austen’s portrayal in Mansfield Park of a powerful, destructive force infiltrating domestic peace:  “nothing,” Pasley thunders in his introduction, “but the greatest unanimity and firmness on the part of the nation, nothing but the wisest measures on the part of the government, can save us, and with us the rest of the civilized world, from swelling the triumph of the haughty conqueror” (1).  In the little world of Mansfield, Sir Thomas’s own government (or that of its vice-regent, Mrs. Norris) clearly fails to provide the wisdom and firmness necessary to repel alien invaders.


The other author with whom Austen claimed to be in love, Claudius Buchanan, was a Scottish-born Anglican missionary and chaplain in India, who had published Christian Researches in Asia in 1811.  Buchanan’s outrage at official British official toleration of temple prostitution in Orissa and suttee (or “Immolation of Females” as he calls it) as well as female infanticide in Bengal (40-46) suggests that Austen might have identified Fanny Price with Buchanan’s resistance to the oppression of women in India—no suttee for Fanny!2  Austen may also have been impressed by Buchanan’s account of Lt.-Col. Alexander Walker, who succeeded in persuading local community leaders to abolish the cruel practice of female infanticide.  Buchanan contrasts Walker’s persistence favorably to the complicity of official British policy (51-53), thus offering Austen a possible model for the triumph of principle over power.


The third of these writers, Thomas Clarkson, was a dedicated activist in the movement for the abolition of the British slave trade, the great moral crusade of the day. He published his monumental history of that movement in 1808.  While necessarily an account of relentless depravity, cruelty, avarice, oppression, and moral indifference, his History of the Rise, Progress, and Accomplishment of The Abolition of the African Slave-Trade is also a deeply moving personal account of the moral courage, Christian charity, intellectual honesty, and selfless commitment of the men and women who wrote in condemnation of slavery and the slave trade, who petitioned against it, who organized law suits and committees to outlaw it, who gathered evidence to support their case, who brought repeated motions to the floor of the House of Commons, and who finally, in 1807, triumphed with a successful vote in Parliament for Abolition—repeated debates and votes in which Sir Thomas Bertram, as a baronet with a seat in the House of Commons, would certainly have participated.  Fanny’s timid question to Sir Thomas about the slave trade indicates her awareness of his personal involvement in this great national debate both as a legislator and as a (probable) slave-owner reaping the economic consequences of the legislation (Perry 100).


Following the publication in 1993 of Edward Said’s influential Culture and Imperialism, which accused Austen of approving British imperialism and, by implication, of tolerating slavery, Fanny’s dependent position at Mansfield Park has been compared, in effect, to that of a chattel slave toiling on the Mansfield plantation, with Mrs. Norris as a cruel overseer3—a view that would surely have amused Austen.4  Without accepting such a literal reading of Fanny’s dependent, subordinate position, however, one can see how Clarkson’s work illuminates Mansfield Park in other, perhaps more significant, ways.


Clarkson’s History includes a passage of a spiritual autobiography recounting how, almost against his conscious will, he became involved with groups working for Abolition; and, most pertinently, how he wrestled with his conscience, realizing that he alone was able to devote himself full time to this righteous cause; that such devotion was necessary (if not sufficient) for success; and that it would inevitably require the complete sacrifice of his personal ambition and the consequent disappointment of his family.  On one hand, he believed that never was a cause so worthy of human effort and personal sacrifice.  On the other hand, he considered that his professional prospects were “brilliant” and that, as a consequence of his abandoning such a promising career in the Church, his family “would be dissatisfied, if not unhappy” (1: 229):


I was more than two hours in solitude under this painful conflict.  At length I yielded, not because I saw any reasonable prospect of success in my new undertaking (for all cool-headed and cool-hearted men would have pronounced against it), but in obedience, I believe, to a higher Power.  And this I can say, that both on the moment of this resolution, and for some time afterwards I had more sublime and happy feelings than at any former period of my life.  (1: 229-30)5


Later Clarkson reflects upon the “important lessons” that the movement’s ultimate success offered:  “it shows us the great value of religion.  We see, when moral disorders become known, that the virtuous are they who rise up for the removal of them. Thus Providence seems to have appointed those, who devote themselves most to his service, to the honourable office of becoming so many agents, under his influence, for the correction of the evils of life” (1: 262).  In so committing himself to the eradication of “moral disorders,” Clarkson supplies an inspiring model of what the narrator of Mansfield Park ironically calls “all the heroism of principle” (307).  Surely, in a very small and very gendered way, Fanny’s close examination of her conscience in the East Room—“she had begun to feel undecided as to what she ought to do” (179)—echoes Clarkson’s struggle over committing his life to the great cause of the abolition of the slave trade.6


In that same January 1813 letter, Austen jokes with Cassandra about supporters of a rival Book Society, dismissing their pretentions:  “And what are their Biglands & their Barrows, their Macartneys & Mackenzies to Capt Pasley’s Essay on the Military police of the British Empire . . . ?” she writes, tongue clearly in cheek.7  “Barrow” and “Macartney” refer to contemporary accounts of Lord Macartney’s Embassy to China in 1793-94.  Around the time that Austen was thus dismissing “Macartney” in this letter to Cassandra, however, she was also writing him into Mansfield Park.  Fanny’s examination of her conscience in the East Room on the morning after Aunt Norris’s attack is interrupted when Edmund comes seeking her approbation of his own decision to act.  While there, he comments on the books strewn upon her table:  “‘You . . . will be taking a trip into China, I suppose.  How does Lord Macartney go on?—(opening a volume on the table and then taking up some others.)  And here are Crabbe’s Tales, and the Idler, at hand to relieve you, if you tire of your great book’” (183).8  Peter Knox-Shaw has observed that Lord Macartney’s refusal to perform the ritual prostrations required of subject nations before the Emperor of China is echoed by Fanny’s own refusal to act or to marry Henry Crawford, and is pointedly contrasted by Edmund’s sturdy spirit bending—in effect, kowtowing—to Mary Crawford’s will.9


These various allusions in the letters and the novel that Austen was writing early in 1813 suggest that she may have deliberately appropriated certain features of masculine, imperial valor, of principled resistance to evil and tyranny, of professional zeal and honor, in the construction of her heroine Fanny Price, in effect reimagining masculine heroism as embodied in a frail, sensitive, serious, un-dowered, powerless young woman.10  If so, then yet another work that Austen alludes to in her 1813 letters strongly suggests an even less probable model of masculine heroism for Austen to appropriate and re-gender.


I am referring to Robert Southey’s 1813 Life of Nelson.  Austen wrote to Cassandra early in October 1813:  “Southey’s Life of Nelson;—I am tired of Lives of Nelson, being that I never read any.  I will read this however, if Frank [their brother Francis Austen] is mentioned in it” (12 October 1813).  Frank, who had served under Nelson, was not in fact mentioned, but with two brothers in the Royal Navy, Austen would not have had to read any lives of Nelson in order to know about the life of the National Hero.  I suspect, however, that she did read Southey’s Life that autumn, because it contains some surprising parallels to Mansfield Park.  Southey frames his didactic account of the early life of Nelson as that of an unlikely, frail young lad who, against all odds, rises to heroism through sheer force of will and an unshakeable faith in an ideal of honor and service.  Fanny’s story, I believe, has a similar trajectory.


Although we have no evidence that Austen had seen Southey’s life before completing the manuscript of Mansfield Park, Jocelyn Harris has speculated about its possible influence on Austen (98), pointing out Captain Wentworth’s similarity to Southey’s Nelson (88, 95-99), and discussing Nelson’s gender-appropriate—or inappropriate—behavior (99).  John Wiltshire, moreover, in the introduction to his Cambridge edition of Mansfield Park, argues that it was indeed possible for Austen to have seen Southey’s Life before submitting the manuscript of Mansfield Park.  According to Deirdre Le Faye’s “Chronology,” Mansfield Park was accepted by Egerton around November 1813 (xxix), but Wiltshire suggests that Austen had probably retained the manuscript, continuing to work on it throughout late 1813 and early 1814.  Certainly Austen’s letters to Cassandra written early in March 1814 reveal that her brother Henry was reading Mansfield Park (in a fair copy) for the first time as they journeyed up to London together (2 March 1814; 6 March 1814), possibly, Wiltshire speculates, to deliver that fair copy to Egerton (Introduction xxix).


Vice Admiral Horatio, Lord Nelson,
by Lemuel Francis Abbott.
Courtesy of the National Maritime Museum

Even if Austen had not read Southey’s Life before she finished writing Mansfield Park, however, she would surely have been familiar with the popular understanding of Horatio Nelson’s life story.  And if, as seems likely, Austen’s remark about not reading lives of Nelson was a family joke (for how could she be “tired” of something that she had never experienced), then she might very likely have seen one of the earlier biographies:  possibly James Harrison’s 1806 The Life of the Right Honourable Horatio, Lord Viscount Nelson (in two volumes, and dedicated to the King), or T. O. Churchill’s 1808 The Life of Lord Viscount Nelson, Duke of Bronté (also dedicated to the King), or even the “official” biography, The Life of Admiral Lord Nelson, K.B., from His Lordship’s Manuscripts, written by none other than Austen’s future would-be patron, James Stanier Clarke, along with James MacArthur and others, published first in 1809 in a handsome, two-volume folio edition dedicated to the Prince of Wales, then in a slightly revised quarto edition of 1810, and subsequently republished many times.  This 1809 biography was a major source for Southey’s later work; indeed, much of Southey’s account is a close paraphrase of Clarke and MacArthur’s text.  Austen might well have been “tired of Lives of Nelson” by the time Southey’s Life was published!


The public narrative of Nelson’s life was clearly a work in progress converging upon a vision of Nelson as an ideal of both courageous patriotism and exemplary professionalism.  In his 1806 preface, Harrison laments:  “It is not without painful sensations, that the author feels compelled to notice the many dishonourable insinuations which have been promulgated by bold speculators on public credulity; some of whom, by prematurely publishing, have already sufficiently evinced their want of genuine information” (1: x), boasting that his work, “like the character of the immortal man whom it proudly aspires to commemorate, rests on no false claim” (1: xi).  Clarke and MacArthur’s “Dedication to the Prince of Wales” insists that Nelson’s life “is to be held out as an example of Heroism and professional Talent to future Generations” (1: iv), and their introduction calls Nelson an exemplary role model for young men wishing to excel at their professions:


The life of Horatio Nelson presents one of those rare examples of that early and ardent passion for true glory, which may induce men to excel in every branch of professional duty, and to preserve, through all the vicissitudes of public service, a steadfast reliance on the gratitude of their country.

The following narrative will show by what exertions the son of a private clergyman obtained the highest rewards to which human nature can aspire, the applause of his contemporaries, and the veneration of posterity.  By proving himself entirely devoid of indolence, avarice, and envy, he inspired his countrymen with such confidence in his integrity and abilities, that they almost regarded his existence as essential to their own independence, and to the liberties of the civilized world.  (Introduction 1: 1)


Churchill’s earlier biography, too, stresses the exemplary professional nature of Nelson’s heroism:


And here let it be observed, since the life of Nelson cannot fail to be considered as a pattern by every young man, whose mind is fired by the ambition of distinguishing himself in the true field of British glory, that neither courage, nor skill, nor judgment alone forms a sufficient basis for promotion.  He who would outstrip his competitors, and rise to eminence, must possess them all in the highest degree; for if either be wanting, or even defective, the others will be of no avail . . . (10)11


This invocation of heroism achieved through professionalism is echoed in Mansfield Park’s debates about the role of the clergy, and in Henry Crawford’s envy of the professional challenges and achievements of both young William Price and Edmund Bertram.12


In Mansfield Park, however, the masculine qualities essential to heroic professionalism might also be applied to Fanny, for just as Nelson “inspired his countrymen with such confidence in his integrity,” so too both Edmund and Henry Crawford express confidence in Fanny’s integrity.  Thus Edmund advises his aunt, “‘Let her choose for herself as well as the rest of us.—Her judgment may be quite as safely trusted’” (172), while Henry eulogizes her in terms that even more closely echo Clarke’s description of Nelson “when he talked of her having such a steadiness and regularity of conduct, such a high notion of honour, and such an observance of decorum as might warrant any man in the fullest dependence on her faith and integrity. . . . ‘I could so wholly and absolutely confide in her,’ said he” (341).13  To Fanny herself, Henry declares, “‘You have qualities which I had not before supposed to exist in such a degree in any human creature.  You have some touches of the angel in you, beyond what—not merely beyond what one sees, because one never sees any thing like it—but beyond what one fancies might be’” (397).  Henry, of course, fails to see that Fanny is no angel by nature:  her “steadfastness” and “honour” derive from her determined effort and discipline every bit as much as her brother’s heroism is the consequence of his Nelson-like “good principles, professional knowledge, energy, courage, and cheerfulness” (275).


Yet even if the various biographies by Harrison, Churchill, or Clarke and MacArthur had not been available to the Chawton ladies, and if Austen really had refused to read Southey’s 1813 Life, one way or another she was surely familiar with popular constructions of Nelson’s life.  Moreover, Mansfield Park was written at the end of a long world war spanning most of Austen’s lifetime.  Newly receptive as she was to some of the concerns stirring the Evangelical movement, Austen may well have been thinking about heroism and the various forms that heroism can take.  Whatever the actual degree of influence—and we will never know for sure—the parallels between Southey’s Life and Mansfield Park remain, to my mind, striking.


They also struck John Wiltshire, who in his recent book, The Hidden Jane Austen, examines the permanent physical and psychological effects on Fanny of traumatic displacement in childhood, finding parallels between young Fanny’s introduction to Mansfield and young Horatio’s introduction to naval life.14  Wiltshire claims, “Jane Austen had very probably read Robert Southey’s Life of Nelson, first published in 1813, in which Fanny’s experiences on arrival at Mansfield are anticipated” (94).  His persuasive reading strengthens my belief that Austen was consciously invoking the familiar, popular life story of Nelson in her novel about Fanny Price.


Southey begins his account by declaring his purpose, like Clarke and MacArthur’s, to be the provision of an exemplary life upon which a young seaman might model his own:


Many lives of Nelson have been written:  one is yet wanting, clear and concise enough to become a manual for the young sailor, which he may carry about with him, till he has treasured up the example in his memory and in his heart.  In attempting such a work, I shall write the eulogy of our great naval Hero; for the best eulogy of Nelson is the faithful history of his actions:  the best history, that which shall relate them most perspicuously.  (1: 1)


Southey’s overt purpose, then, is to provide a model of heroic professional behavior for young seamen to follow, and his account stresses Nelson’s lifelong physical courage and his abiding sense of honor.  Nothing, however, forbids an ardent, timid girl from taking the lessons of Nelson’s life to her own heart—a heart, moreover, like Nelson’s own, full of tender affection and romantic idealism.


Horatio Nelson, age 14, unknown artist.
Courtesy of the National Maritime Museum

The events of Nelson’s life, Southey insists—“the faithful history of his actions”—declare him a hero.  Yet Southey’s opening narrative emphasizes the unlikelihood of that heroic career—as unlikely, one could say, as Fanny Price’s heroine-ism.  Southey recounts how, in 1771, because his mother had died and his clergyman father had no fortune with which to provide for his sons, young Nelson, aged twelve, determined to go to sea with his uncle, Captain Maurice Suckling, newly appointed to the Raisonnable.  Clarke and MacArthur’s account of Nelson’s decision to go to sea is more detailed, stressing Mr. Nelson’s Price-like distress at having a very large family with a very small income, as well as his estrangement from possible family patrons:


Towards the close of the year 1770, during the Christmas holidays, when the Rev. Edmund was at Bath for his health, and the greater part of his family, then consisting of eight children, was left at the parsonage-house of Burnham Thorpe, in Norfolk; his son Horatio, who had often expressed a wish not to be a burden to his father, happened to read in the county paper the appointment of his mother’s brother, Captain Maurice Suckling, to the Raisonable of 64 guns.  Upon which he exclaimed, “Do, brother William, write to my father at Bath, and tell him I should like to go with uncle Maurice to sea.”  William, who had been the constant companion of Horatio, and was a little more than seventeen months older than his brother, wrote accordingly.  The worthy rector of Burnham, who loved all of his children, and had struggled hard in supporting so numerous an offspring, was sensible of the generous motive which had thus induced a youth of twelve years to endeavor to provide for himself.  His father’s hopes of assistance from Captain Suckling, not withstanding his visit to the parsonage on the death of Mrs. Nelson in Dec. 1767, were not over sanguine.  Various disappointments, with the difficulties of a narrow income, had chilled in the mind of Mr. Nelson all idea of patronage from his connections. . . . The daring resolution, however, of his boy Horatio gradually warmed the less sanguine mind of the father; and infirm health rendering him anxious not to lose an opportunity, which seemed to offer so desirable a provision for one of his sons, he resolved to write to Captain Suckling.  (1: 6-7)


Southey, following Clarke and MacArthur’s account, reports:  “Accordingly Capt. Suckling was written to.  ‘What,’ said he in his answer, ‘has poor Horatio done, who is so weak, that he, above all the rest, should be sent to rough it out at sea?’” (1: 5).  Although Horatio, small and weakened by ague, was the least likely of his brothers to survive the physical hardships of life as a ship’s boy, let alone the ferocious violence of naval battles, his uncle agreed to take him on board (1: 5).


Fanny, like young Horatio small and weak for her age, was also the least likely of her siblings to thrive in challenging new circumstances.  When Fanny’s aunts and uncle, proposing (like Capt. Suckling) to provide for one of the Price children, nominate Fanny, “Mrs. Price seemed rather surprised that a girl should be fixed on, when she had so many fine boys. . . . She spoke of [Fanny] farther as somewhat delicate and puny, but was sanguine in the hope of her being materially better for change of air” (12).15


At this point in the narrative, Southey, hitherto more concise than his source, writes movingly and with more circumstantial detail than Clarke and MacArthur of young Nelson’s friendless journey to, and discouraging arrival in, Portsmouth:


Early on a cold and dark spring morning Mr. Nelson’s servant arrived at this school, at North Walsham, with the expected summons for Horatio to join his ship.  The parting from his brother William, who had been for so many years his playmate and bed-fellow, was a painful effort, and was the beginning of those privations which are the sailor’s lot throughout life. . . . The Raisonnable was lying in the Medway.  He was put into the Chatham stage, and on its arrival was set down with the rest of the passengers, and left to find his way on board as he could.  After wandering about in the cold, without being able to reach the ship, an officer observed the forlorn appearance of the boy, questioned him; and, happening to be acquainted with his uncle, took him home, and gave him some refreshments.—

When he got on board, Capt. Suckling was not in the ship, nor had any person been apprized of the boy’s coming.  He paced the deck the whole remainder of the day, without being noticed by any one; and it was not until the second day that somebody, as he expressed it, “took compassion on him.”  (7-8)


Nelson was twelve when he made this difficult journey to such a cold, indifferent welcome.  Fanny is just ten when she leaves home, travelling the long distance by coach from Portsmouth to London on her own, where she is met by Nanny and conveyed to Northampton, “and at Northampton was met by Mrs. Norris” for the final carriage-ride to Mansfield, during which her aunt hectors her about her prospects and duties—hardly a less prepossessing end to “her long journey” than Nelson’s had been (13).


Southey’s description of Nelson’s arrival in Portsmouth emphasizes the lad’s lonely distress, but Clarke and MacArthur’s account of Nelson’s first days is more detailed:


The scene was new, and entirely different from any that his youthful mind had hitherto witnessed.  His health had been much impaired by an ague complaint; and the filial tenderness of his heart at first required a solace which it did not find.  For some days he regularly paced the quarter-deck, and seemed to have no friend:  but he soon discovered what cordial hospitality is often concealed under the austerity of a seaman.  (1: 8)


This image of the friendless lad pacing the quarter-deck suggests Fanny’s first days at Mansfield Park.  Fanny is made more welcome at first than Nelson had been when he boarded the Raisonnable, but she, too, is soon miserable, like Nelson, “without being noticed by any one”:  “Her feelings were very acute, and too little understood to be properly attended to.  Nobody meant to be unkind, but nobody put themselves out of their way to secure her comfort” (15), until Edmund, like the kindly officer who rescues young Nelson, finds her, like Nelson pacing the quarter-deck, “crying on the attic stairs” (16) and takes an interest in the little girl.  Fanny’s stay at Mansfield begins to improve after Edmund, recognizing that she misses her family, befriends her.


In a moving passage, Southey describes the emotional as well as physical hardships of leaving home for a young lad with an affectionate nature like Nelson’s:


The pain which is felt when we are first transported from our native soil, when the living branch is cut from the parent tree,—is one of the most poignant which we have to endure through life . There are after-griefs which wound more deeply, which leave behind them scars never to be effaced, which bruise the spirit, and sometimes break the heart : but never do we feel so keenly the want of love, the necessity of being loved, and the sense of utter desertion, as when we first leave the haven of home, and are, as it were, pushed off upon the stream of life.  Added to these feelings, the sea-boy has to endure physical hardships, and the privation of every comfort, even of sleep.  Nelson had a feeble body and an affectionate heart, and he remembered through life his first days of wretchedness in the service.  (1. 8-9)


Fanny, similarly endowed with “a feeble body and an affectionate heart,” also “remembered through life [her] first days of wretchedness,” as Austen reminds us when Fanny learns that Sir Thomas will send her to Portsmouth:  “The remembrance of all her earliest pleasures, and of what she had suffered in being torn from them, came over her with renewed strength, and it seemed as if to be at home again, would heal every pain that had since grown out of the separation” (426).16


Like Nelson, Fanny is oppressed by her new life:  “The grandeur of the house astonished, but could not console her . . . and she crept about in constant terror of something or other; often retreating to her own chamber to cry; [and] ended every day’s sorrows by sobbing herself to sleep” (16).  Moreover, Fanny, like young Horatio, has left behind a beloved brother named William just, “a year older than herself, her constant companion and friend,” whom she misses sorely (17).17  In hearing of her love for this brother, Edmund “was convinced of her having an affectionate heart, and a strong desire of doing right . . .” (18).


Southey’s Life, like Clarke and MacArthur’s, describes how, after surviving a hazardous expedition to the North Pole in 1773-74, young Nelson joined the squadron for a cruise to the East Indies, where the unhealthy climate permanently affected his health:


At this time his countenance was florid, and his appearance rather stout and athletic:  but when he had been about eighteen months in India, he felt the effects of that climate, so perilous to European constitutions.  The disease baffled all power of medicine; he was reduced almost to a skeleton; the use of his limbs was for some time entirely lost; and the only hope that remained, was from a voyage home.  (1: 23)


Fanny, as Wiltshire reminds us, also suffers life-long physical debilitation, the likely result of her childhood experience of poor air and nutrition (Hidden 96-97).  Like Nelson, moreover, she is later sent away to an unhealthy climate, leaving Mansfield as a young woman in full bloom but subsequently suffering a decline from “the effects of that climate” while in Portsmouth.


Southey, like Clarke and MacArthur before him, follows Nelson’s own account of how, broken in health and devoid of prospects, he despaired of ever achieving his goals until, inspired by a compound of personal ambition and patriotic idealism, he vowed to become a hero:


“I felt depressed,” said he, “with a feeling that I should never rise in my profession.  My mind was staggered with a view of the difficulties I had to surmount, and the little interest [i.e., influence] I possessed.  I could discover no means of reaching the object of my ambition.  After a long and gloomy reverie, on which I almost wished myself overboard, a sudden glow of patriotism was kindled within me, and presented my king and country as my patron.  “Well, then,” I exclaimed, “I will be a hero! and, confiding in providence, I will brave every danger!”  (1: 24)


Southey claims that Nelson, like Clarkson when he committed himself to the abolition movement, felt himself on that occasion to be divinely inspired:


He knew to what the previous state of dejection was to be attributed; that an enfeebled body, and a mind depressed, had cast this shade over his soul:  but he always seemed willing to believe, that the sunshine which succeeded bore with it a prophetic glory, and that the light which led him on, was “light from heaven.”  (1: 25)


In Southey’s telling of Nelson’s exemplary life, then, heroism is an existential choice, an expression of will, faith and idealism.


Clarke and MacArthur, too, in discussing Nelson’s first commission as second lieutenant of the frigate Lowestoffe in April 1777, stress “his high sense of an overruling Providence, and of the sublime principles of Christianity,” which his father had taught him and which “gave peculiar value to his friendship, his valour, and his patriotism” (1: 23).  As an example of those qualities, they cite Nelson’s remarks when, as Commander of the Albemarle in November 1782, he joined Admiral Lord Hood and the fleet “at Sandy-Hook” in New York:  when he “waited on Admiral Digby, Lord Hood was present, and saw the Captain of the Albemarle for the first time.  ‘You are come,’ said Admiral Digby, ‘on a fine station for making Prize money.’  ‘Yes, Sir,’ replied Nelson, ‘but the West Indies is the station for Honour’” (1: 52).  Clarke and MacArthur add the testimony of His Royal Highness Prince William Henry, later Duke of Clarence but then a midshipman under Admiral Digby:


Throughout the whole of the American War the height of Nelson’s ambition was to command a line of battle ship; as for prize-money, it never entered his thoughts. . . . [H]e had the honour of the King’s service, and the independence of the British Navy particularly at heart, and his mind glowed with this idea as much when he was simply Captain of the Albemarle, and had obtained none of the honours of his Country, as when he was afterwards decorated with so much well earned distinction.  (1: 53).


With the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783, Nelson’s chance for glory and fortune appeared to be over.  Southey echoes Clarke and MacArthur in citing Nelson’s proud consciousness of his own integrity:  “‘I have closed the war,’ wrote Nelson in one of his letters, ‘without a fortune; but there is not a speck on my character.  True honour, I hope, predominates in my mind far above riches’” (1: 50).  “True honour” for Nelson meant performing his duty to the King by doing whatever was required for the war effort rather than by foremost trying to enrich himself by pursuing and taking prizes.


Fanny, too, when she examines her conscience for hours at a time in the East Room, eventually absolves herself of base or selfish motives for her principled opposition to her cousins when they urge her to act a part in their play.  A creepmouse Fanny may be, completely devoid of Nelson’s trademark physical courage, but she is also rigorous in striving for self-knowledge (the only character in the novel to do so) while reflecting upon “what she ought to do. . . . Was she right in refusing what was so warmly asked, so strongly wished for?  What might be so essential to a scheme on which some of those to whom she owed the greatest complaisance, had set their hearts?  Was it not ill-nature—selfishness—and a fear of exposing herself?” (179).18  While her cousins and Miss Crawford are primarily motivated by the taking of prizes, as it were, in the marriage wars, Fanny alone seeks the way of true honour:  duty to her uncle and to her own principles.19  She is slightly compromised, of course, by her love for Edmund, but she strives to prevent that great transgression from affecting either her words or her deeds.  The following day, when her principled refusal to act leaves her feeling “sad and insignificant,” even envious of the pleasures and importance of the others, the narrator adds:  “reflection brought better feelings. . . . [S]he could never have been easy in joining a scheme which, considering only her uncle, she must condemn altogether” (187).  For Fanny, such reflection is a duty, one she alone performs, and performs alone.


Fanny’s version of Nelson’s vow—“I will be a hero!”—occurs just after Edmund advises her to wear William’s cross on the loathed Crawford necklace; with “a stab” she realizes, “He would marry Miss Crawford” (306).  Fanny then sheds “many tears” over Edmund’s love for a woman unworthy of him; “the dejection which followed,” we are told, “could only be relieved by the influence of fervent prayers for his happiness” (307).  Eventually, however, Fanny reasons herself into a more dutiful frame of mind:  “It was her intention, as she felt it to be her duty, to try to overcome all that was excessive, all that bordered on selfishness in her affection for Edmund” (307).  “To her,” she reasons, “he could be . . . nothing dearer than a friend” (307).  Fanny then resolves:  “She would endeavor to be rational, and to deserve the right of judging of Miss Crawford’s character and the privilege of true solicitude for him by a sound intellect and an honest heart” (307).  This passage is recounted using free indirect discourse, but the following sentence is surely an authorial assertion inflected with affectionate irony:  “She had all the heroism of principle, and was determined to do her duty” (307).


“Duty,” a quaint enough term today, was so common an abstract term, so common a duty, in Austen’s world, that I am probably wrong to hear in Austen’s teasing declaration a faint echo of Nelson’s signal sent from HMS Victory just before the Battle of Trafalgar:  “England expects that every man will do his duty.”  In any case, Fanny does indeed do her duty, even though her author laughs at her Harriet-Smith-like cherishing of Edmund’s unfinished note, which begins so promisingly, “‘My very dear Fanny’” (307).  The scale of her heroic endeavor may be altogether trivial compared to Nelson’s, but not her honor, nor her determination.20


During her later, greater trial, after refusing Mr. Crawford’s offer and incurring her uncle’s Lear-like accusation of “ingratitude,” Fanny suffers in isolation, for she must continue to receive Henry’s attentions, yet she can tell no one why she so distrusts his character, nor why she cannot love him—all the while watching Edmund court Mary.  Fanny again resolves:  “She must do her duty, and trust that time might make her duty easier than it now was” (382).  When her aunt Bertram advises her “‘that it is every young woman’s duty to accept such a very unexceptionable offer as this,’” Austen does not mean us to take this reading of “duty” seriously, for the narrator adds, “This was almost the only rule of conduct, the only piece of advice, which Fanny had ever received from her aunt in the course of eight years and a half.—It silenced her. She felt how unprofitable contention would be” (384).  Lady Bertram’s sense of “duty” construes courtship and marriage rather like a naval battle in which Fanny is expected to pursue fortune and riches by seizing the great prize of a wealthy suitor, whereas Fanny’s concept of “duty,” like Nelson’s, privileges honor over worldly advancement.21  Nelson performed his honor in public for all the world to see and to judge his disinterested service; Fanny exercises her honor in secret and suffers blame for it.


Fanny’s heroism of principle is just one kind of heroism explored in Mansfield Park.  Fanny herself has a romantic taste in poetry, quoting the description of gothic Melrose Abbey in Walter Scott’s 1805 poem, The Lay of the Last Minstrel, a tale of rude Border chivalry, when she is disappointed by the modern chapel at Sotherton:


“This is not my idea of chapel.  Here are no aisles, no arches, no inscriptions, no banners. No banners, cousin, to be ‘blown by the night wind of Heaven.’  No signs that a ‘Scottish monarch sleeps below.’”  (100)22


Fanny has a romantic, antiquarian taste, as her comments to Miss Crawford while they sit together in the parsonage shrubbery show:  “‘there is nobleness in the name of Edmund.  It is a name of heroism and renown—of kings, princes, and knights; and seems to breathe the spirit of chivalry and warm affection’” (246).  To Fanny, Edmund’s first name declares him a hero, but Mary Crawford would rather erase that name:  “‘I am so glad, your eldest cousin in gone,’” she tells Fanny, “‘that he [i.e., Edmund] may be Mr. Bertram again’” (246).  She would also have Edmund pursue a more “heroic” calling than the Church, preferring the army or navy:  “‘The profession,’” she claims, “‘either navy or army, is its own justification.  It has every thing in its favour; heroism, danger, bustle, fashion’” (128).23


When William arrives fresh off the Antwerp to talk about his experiences at sea, he recounts a form of heroism that even the Crawfords can recognize as they listen to him “describing . . . the imminent hazards, or terrific scenes, which such a period at sea, must supply” (274).  Sir Thomas is also impressed by William’s tales, delivered with “clear, simple, spirited details. . . . Young as he was, William had already seen a great deal . . . , and in the course of seven years had known every variety of danger, which sea and war together could offer” (275).  Only Mrs. Norris is unmoved by his “account of a shipwreck or an engagement” (275).24  Henry Crawford, always complex, hears William with an intense mix of respect and envy:  “The glory of heroism, of usefulness, of exertion, of endurance, made his own habits of selfish indulgence appear in shameful contrast; and he wished he had been a William Price, distinguishing himself and working his way to fortune and consequence with so much self-respect and happy ardour, instead of what he was!” (275-76).  Just as he will later envy Edmund’s less heroic profession, wishing to be a fashionable preacher, Henry, who possesses what Austen calls “moral taste” (274), admires and aspires to the distinctions of useful and heroic exploits, but, being Henry, he is not prepared to make the necessary sacrifices of his comfort and self-indulgence to achieve them.


Fanny is William’s sister.  His heroism is performed physically at sea.  Hers is exercised at Mansfield, in drawing-rooms and dining-rooms but pre-eminently, as Marcia McClintock Folsom shows, in the East Room where again and again she reflects upon what she ought to do, where she wrestles her anger, discontent and envy into more dutiful feelings.  Fanny, like young Horatio Nelson, is gentle and frail.  She is also extremely timid.  But she is a heroine, every bit as much as he is a hero:  a heroine of principle.




1. Moreland Perkins, for example, observes that Austen “associates this man of peace, Thomas Clarkson, with a man of war,” claiming that “Clarkson’s book would have made a terrific impact upon her imagination.”  Perkins adds, “[W]hereas Thomas Clarkson’s book inspired her empathic imagination, Charles Pasley’s invigorated her imperialistic sympathies.”  Ruth Perry applauds Austen for her interest in these very different writers:  “Her comparison of Pasley’s book on armies and empire to Clarkson’s History of Abolition (1808) and Buchanan’s Researches in Asia (1811) shows a sensitivity to the politics of internationalism that is before her time” (104-05).  William Galperin also believes that these writers influenced Austen (165).


2. Galperin, however, argues that while Buchanan’s “chivalric horror at the sacrifice of women and children” in India might appear to be “worthier of her affection” than the “ruthlessly pragmatic” and imperial Pasley (165), in fact, Buchanan’s Christian imperialism “is in many ways the ideological complement to Pasley’s unadorned materialism” (166).


3. According to one critic, “Power relations within the community of Mansfield Park reenact and refashion plantocratic paradigms. . . . The cruel officiousness of protagonist Fanny Price’s aunt, Mrs. Norris, who is effectively Sir Thomas’s overseer and lives in the suggestively named white house ‘across the park’ from the Great House, underlines his plantocratic style of administration” (Ferguson 70).  Perry gives an eloquent account of such arguments while refuting Edward Said’s thesis that Austen uncritically accepted British imperialism and slavery (100), citing Frank Gibbon (300) and Moira Ferguson (“Mansfield Park”), who both identify Aunt Norris with the morally repulsive Captain Norris described in Clarkson’s History:  “Knowing Clarkson’s history of the slave captain Norris gives a sinister edge to Mrs. Norris’ [sic] unreflecting selfishness” (Perry 99).  Susan Allen Ford, like Perry, believes “that Austen creates in both Fanny and in her readers an awareness of the intricate ironies of the British imperial project.”


4. Austen’s text implies that the Bertrams, aside from Aunt Norris, feel a careless but familial affection for Fanny:  her “servitude” is more that of a younger, undervalued daughter in a patriarchal gentry family than that of an unpaid servant, and her feelings of oppression are more a consequence of her timid, sensitive, diffident nature (or perhaps the result of her strongly patriarchal birth family and uncouth father) than they are marks of exploitation, as her sister Susan’s more confident tenure at Mansfield is surely meant to indicate.  Furthermore, when Fanny retreats in distress to the East Room, she is surrounded by gifts (however casually bestowed) as well as her plants and books purchased with funds provided by Sir Thomas; there too she recalls her consoling memories of respectful or affectionate treatment:  “her Aunt Bertram had spoken for her, or Miss Lee had been encouraging, or . . . Edmund had been her champion” (178).  Fanny may be the least and the last, but she is not a slave. She is not even an unpaid servant.  She is, like Anne Elliot, a neglected daughter of the house.


5. “One can believe that Austen could have reacted to this passage . . . rather as she would make Henry Crawford, in one of his moods, react to the stories of young William Price . . . ,” Perkins suggests, imaging Austen “finding in herself a similar response while reading of Thomas Clarkson, just out of Oxford, entering his different kind of field ‘of heroism, of usefulness, of exertion, of endurance.’”


6. Knox-Shaw suggests that Clarkson’s Portraiture of Quakerism (1807), which describes characteristics “that bear an uncanny resemblance to Fanny’s,” also likely influenced Austen (Enlightenment 178).


7. John Bigland, a school teacher, wrote a series of very successful formulaic schoolroom books.  In 1814 he published The History of England, from the Earliest Period, to the Close of the Year 1812, but he also wrote works of similar design and title on French history, natural history, ancient history, and modern history—no doubt all of them with wars or pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all.  “Mackenzie” might refer to Sir George Steuart Mackenzie (1780-1848), author of Travels in Iceland (1811), or to Alexander Mackenzie, whose Voyages from Montreal through the Continent of North American to the Frozen and Pacific Oceans in 1789 and 1793 were published in two volumes in 1801.


8. As Susan Allen Ford recounts, critical consensus identifies Macartney’s own Journal of the Embassy to China, occupying part of volume two of John Barrow’s two-volume work, Some Account of the Public Life and a Selection from the Unpublished Writings, of the Earl of Macartney as Fanny’s “great book,” but Ford argues that the ambiguity of Edmund’s remark may be Austen’s deliberate strategy.


9. Knox-Shaw also finds suggestive parallels between dependent Fanny, subject to the pleasure or displeasure of Sir Thomas, and Macartney’s entourage, at the mercy of their Chinese hosts for food and other necessities bestowed or withheld to encourage their capitulation.  Indeed, as Ford observes, for many critics “Macartney’s embassy becomes a sign of Fanny’s necessary resistance to power.”


10. Marcia McClintock Folsom, however, argues that Fanny’s heroism partly employs the strategies of the powerless who resist the powerful—“dissimulation, false compliance, or feigned ignorance” (84)—but is primarily located “in her inner struggles: in her conscience, in her effort to figure out what to do, in her very consciousness” (85).  I agree with Folsom, but I am also arguing that Fanny embodies re-gendered versions of more traditional masculine heroic virtues.


11. Neither Churchill’s Life nor Harrison’s contain the youthful character-revealing anecdotes found in Clarke and MacArthur, and repeated in Southey.  In this passage, Churchill significantly avoids romanticizing “honour” as a prerequisite for professional advancement.


12. Other 1814 novels similarly explored issues of professionalism versus patronage, notably Maria Edgeworth’s Patronage and Frances Burney’s The Wanderer (Bander).


13. John Wiltshire points out that Henry’s praise of Fanny’s integrity consists of “words that have a largely secular ring, for behind them is the experienced man of the world’s inveterate cynicism about women” (Hidden 82).  This essay was first submitted before Wiltshire’s fine book was published in June 2014, but I have attempted to show where my arguments converge with his more extended study.


14. Much of what I have to say here about Fanny’s first days at Mansfield Park is developed in greater depth in Wiltshire’s chapter 5, “The Story of Fanny Price” (Hidden).


15. Wiltshire suggests that Mrs. Norris chooses the eldest girl rather than one of those fine boys for sinister psychological reasons (Hidden 73).


16. I thank John Wiltshire for pointing out the significance of this passage describing Fanny’s unhealed wound, and the similarity of her lifelong remembrance of the pain of separation to Nelson’s own lifelong remembrance of “his first days of wretchedness.” See Wiltshire’s chapter 5 for a more detailed reading of Austen’s portrayal of childhood trauma.


17. Wiltshire, too, observes, “Left to wander the great house, as Nelson was left to wander his ship, Fanny ‘finds something to fear in every person or place.’”  He adds, “the underplayed pathos of Austen’s prose as she summarises Fanny’s first days at Mansfield are as telling as Southey’s autobiographically charged metaphors,” and like Nelson, her most acute sorrow is “the loss of her own brother William, who himself is soon to leave home and, at the age of 12, like Horatio Nelson, join the navy” (Hidden 95).


18. See Wiltshire’s chapter 4, “The Religion of Aunt Norris,” which demonstrates how “The Enlightenment stress on self-knowledge as a goal, and the Protestant requirement of self-examination, converge and pervade Mansfield Park more than any other of Jane Austen’s novels” (80).


19. Maria Edgeworth’s 1814 novel Patronage, which has many intriguing similarities to Mansfield Park, contrasts the careers of two sets of cousins, with the professional careers of the young men paralleled by the marital careers of their sisters; eventually the corrupt family’s self-interest proves self-defeating, while the honorable family’s integrity is rewarded.


20. Alasdair MacIntyre attributes Fanny’s heroism of principle to her possession of Aristotelian virtues:  “Fanny is charmless; she has only the virtues, the genuine virtues, to protect her, and when she disobeys her guardian, Sir Thomas Bertram, and refuses marriage to Henry Crawford it can only be because of what constancy requires” (242).  I thank Sarah Emsley for pointing out this reference.


21. See Folsom on the views of Mary Crawford, Sir Thomas, and Lady Bertram that it is Fanny’s “duty” to accept an offer like Henry’s:  “This reiterated opinion suggests that the very society in which Fanny exists assumes that it is not even conceivable for a woman to refuse a wealthy man if he is otherwise eligible, no matter what she feels” (91).


22. See Sarah Emsley on Fanny’s “idea of a chapel.”


23. Nelson’s clergyman father’s name was Edmund.


24. Perhaps Jane West had Mrs. Norris and Lady Bertram in mind when she observed, “The adventures of travellers and sailors are often so extraordinary, and the vicissitudes and dangers to which they are exposed are so interesting, that I cannot help recommending this description of reading, to rouse the attention and correct the errors of those pitiable people, who are victims of imaginary distresses” (2 :440).



Works Cited


Austen, Jane.  Jane Austen’s Letters.  Ed. Deirdre Le Faye.  3rd ed.  Oxford: OUP, 1995.

_____.  Mansfield Park.  Ed. John Wiltshire.  The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Jane Austen.  Cambridge: CUP, 2005.

Bander, Elaine.  “Mansfield Park and the 1814 Novels: Waverley, The Wanderer, Patronage.”  Persuasions 28 (2006): 115-25.

Churchill, T. O.  The Life of Lord Viscount Nelson, Duke of Bronté, &c.  London, 1808.

Clarke, James Stanier, and James MacArthur.  The Life of Admiral Lord Nelson, K.B., from His Lordship’s Manuscripts.  2 vols.  London, 1809.

Clarkson, Thomas.  The History of the Rise, Progress, and Accomplishment of the Abolition of the African Slave-Trade by the British Parliament.  2 vols.  London, 1808.

Emsley, Sarah.  “‘My idea of a chapel’ in Jane Austen’s World.”  Persuasions 24 (2002): 133-42.

Ferguson, Moira.  Colonialism and Gender Relations from Mary Wollstonecraft to Jamaica Kincaid: East Caribbean Connection.  New York: Columbia UP, 1993.

_____.  “Mansfield Park: Slavery, Colonialism and Gender.”  The Oxford Literary Review 13 (1991): 118-39.

Folsom, Marcia McClintock.  “Power in Mansfield Park: Austen’s Study of Domination and Resistance.”  Persuasions 34 (2012): 83-98.

Ford, Susan Allen.  “Fanny’s ‘great book’: Macartney’s Embassy to China and Mansfield Park.”  Persuasions On-Line 28.2 (Spr. 2008).

Galperin, William.  The Historical Austen.  Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2003.

Gibbon, Frank.  “The Antiguan Connection.”  The Cambridge Quarterly 11.2 (1982): 298-305.

Harris, Jocelyn.  A Revolution Almost Beyond Expression: Jane Austen’s Persuasion.  Newark: U of Delaware P, 2007.

Harrison, James.  The Life of the Right Honourable Horatio, Lord Viscount Nelson.  2 vols.  London, 1806.

Knox-Shaw, Peter.  “Fanny Price Refuses to Kowtow.”  Review of English Studies 47.186 (1996): 212-17.

_____.  Jane Austen and the Enlightenment.  Cambridge: CUP, 2004.

Le Faye, Deirdre.  “Chronology.”  Mansfield Park.  Ed. John Wiltshire.  Cambridge: CUP, 2005.  xvi-xxiv.

MacIntyre, Alasdair.  After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory.  3rd ed.  Notre Dame: U of Notre Dame P, 2007.

Pasley, Charles William.  Essay on the Military Police and Institutions of the British Empire.  London, 1810.

Perkins, Moreland.  Mansfield Park and Austen’s Reading on Slavery and Imperial Warfare.”  Persuasions On-Line 26.1 (2005).

Perry, Ruth.  “Austen and Empire: A Thinking Woman’s Guide to British Imperialism.”  Persuasions 16 (1994): 95-106.

Southey, Robert.  The Life of Nelson.  1813.  2nd ed.  2 vols.  London, 1814.

Wiltshire, John.  The Hidden Jane Austen.  Cambridge: CUP, 2014.

_____.  Introduction.  Mansfield Park.  Ed. John Wiltshire.  Cambridge: CUP, 2005.  xxv-lxxxiv.

West, Jane.  Letters to a Young Lady; in which the Duties and Character of Women are Considered, Chiefly with a Reference to Prevailing Opinions.  4th ed.  3 vols.  London, 1811.


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