possibly the only time Lydia Bennet could be described as a literary critic is when Mr. Collins declines to read a novel to the Bennets and instead selects Dr. James Fordyce’s Sermons to Young Women. Before her cousin has, “with very monotonous solemnity, read three pages,” Lydia bursts forth with the day’s news from Meryton (PP 76-77). Although Jane and Elizabeth rebuke Lydia for the interruption, at least it ends the reading.
In early 2013, I received what some might consider a dubious honor: I was encouraged to review the Chawton House Press republication of the Sermons for JASNA News. I was aided in this task by Susan Allen Ford’s excellent introduction to the reprint, which gives a brief biography of Fordyce and places the Sermons in historical and literary context. But even so, my first reaction to the text itself was to doze off.
Nevertheless, I found once I made myself stay awake that the Sermons provide ample food for thought. First, I tried to imagine myself as Elizabeth Bennet hearing them. For one thing, she might have disdained Fordyce for constantly flattering his readers in such terms as “my fair friends” and “my honoured hearers,” and characterizing their ideal state as soft, docile, and timid. I also think she would have lost patience with his warnings against “Wit,” particularly that “men of the best sense have been usually averse to the thought of marrying a witty female” (Fordyce 1:192). But, most of all, I think she would have resented the double binds Fordyce urges on his readers: for example, “I could heartily wish to see the female world more accomplished than it is; but I do not wish it to abound with metaphysicians, historians . . . or Learned Ladies of any kind” (1:202). Elizabeth’s approach to this dilemma, of course, is to mock the whole idea of “‘accomplished women’” (PP 43).
The Sermons are also held up for implicit ridicule in Pride and Prejudice when speeches echoing them are assigned to Mr. Collins and Mary, two ponderous figures of fun. Mr. Collins’s protest that he “never read novels” (PP 76) mirrors Fordyce’s own aversion to most novels, which I discuss later; his rebuke to Lydia and her sisters that “‘there can be nothing so advantageous to them as instruction’” (PP 77) reflects Fordyce’s own “solicitude ‘for your good to edification’” (2:302); and his “frequent attempt[s] at a compliment” (PP 98) to Elizabeth and his other “fair cousins” are remarkably like Fordyce’s own overheated rhetoric to his readers.
Moreover, if Pride and Prejudice were all we had to go on, we might perceive Mary Bennet as Austen’s leading depiction of Fordyce’s model young lady. The lecture on pride versus vanity that Mary plunks into the discussion of the Meryton assembly (PP 21) can be read as a gloss on Fordyce’s remark that “pride and vanity are different things” (2:26), and her comment on Lydia’s elopement that “‘loss of virtue in a female is irretrievable’” (PP 319) reflects several statements by Fordyce on this subject—for instance, “Remember how tender a thing a woman’s reputation is; how hard to preserve, and when lost how impossible to recover” (1:44). And not only the narrator’s presentation of such remarks, but the reactions of other characters, leave little room for doubt about whether these platitudes should be taken seriously.
Nevertheless, about halfway through the Sermons, I began to suspect that Jane Austen might actually have created a straightforward, un-ironic version of Fordyce’s ideal in one of her major works: I began wondering whether Fanny Price, the “creepmouse” (171) heroine of Mansfield Park, might actually be a depiction of this model young woman. But is it even remotely possible that Austen, after her open dig and implicit criticisms of Fordyce in Pride and Prejudice, deliberately aimed for the other extreme in Mansfield Park? And if so, why on earth might she have done this?
Fanny as Fordyce’s ideal woman?
A brief description of the Sermons themselves may be a helpful beginning. Ford (introduction to Fordyce, xiii-xiv) outlines them neatly: “There are fourteen sermons in all, covering the importance of the female sex, modesty of apparel, female reserve, female virtue (five sermons, during which he defines the accomplished woman), female piety (three sermons), good works, and female meekness (two sermons).” Most of them take as their Biblical text part or all of St. Paul’s first epistle to St. Timothy, Chapter 2, verses 8-10: “I will—that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety, not with broidered hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array; but (which becomes women professing godliness) with good works.”
I do not discuss all these characteristics of the ideal woman, or do so in the order in which either Fordyce or St. Paul presents them. Because the startling resemblance between Fordyce’s recommended “intellectual accomplishments” and Fanny’s actual ones was what first put this idea into my head, I begin with those. I then move on to “domestic and elegant accomplishments”; modesty of apparel; piety; “reserve,” by which Fordyce means what Mr. Collins would call “bashful modesty” (PP 123); meekness, along with the softness and delicacy Fordyce always praises in women; and—a topic that Fordyce does not discuss separately, but that emerges from considering several key passages—inner moral standards and adherence to principle.
Fordyce spends all of Sermon VII and part of Sermon IV outlining intellectual accomplishments he considers appropriate for women. First, he sets forth the accomplishments he does not recommend:
Nature appears to have formed the faculties of your sex for the most part with less vigour than those of ours; observing the same distinction here, as in the more delicate frame of your bodies. . . . [Y]ou yourselves, I think, will allow that war, commerce, politics, exercises of strength and dexterity, abstract philosophy, and all the abstruser sciences, are most properly the province of men. (1:271-72)
Although today we might feel inclined to respond to Fordyce’s view of women’s limited brainpower by casting aspersions on his, Fanny Price certainly does not even attempt to study most areas he includes within “the province of men.”
Fordyce then makes his first recommendations for female study: “History, in which I include Biography and Memoirs” (1:274); and “books of Voyages and Travels. . . . Here too, we would recommend Geography, as closely connected with [these]” (1:275-76). Fanny is described twice as a reader of history: There’s “the daily portion of History” she reads for Miss Lee and discusses with Edmund (25), and her reading and discussion of Goldsmith’s History of England with Susan in Portsmouth (485). As for voyages, travel, and geography, Edmund finds a “‘great book’” containing the Earl of Macartney’s Journal of an Embassy to the Emperor of China on Fanny’s table during their conference in the East room (183, 687n). Her interest in travel and geography is also reflected in her genuine fascination with Sir Thomas’s accounts of the West Indies, extending as far as asking a question about the slave trade (230-31)—which would not have occurred to her without some reading on the topic.1
But my real “aha!” moment occurred when I encountered Fordyce’s next recommendation:
These several studies, to which may be added the principal facts, or great outlines of Astronomy, are beautiful; and they are improving. . . . They remind us that we are citizens of the universe; they show us how small the part that we fill in the immense orb of being. Amidst the amplitude of such contemplations, superfluous trifles shrink away. . . . (1:276)
Who can forget Fanny’s impassioned effort to get Edmund out onto the lawn for star-gazing?
“Here’s harmony! . . . Here’s repose! . . . When I look out on such a night as this, I feel as if there could be neither wickedness nor sorrow in the world; and there certainly would be less of both if the sublimity of Nature were more attended to, and people were carried more out of themselves by contemplating such a scene.” (132)
Fanny’s astronomical learning may be a little “self-consciously worn,” as Kathryn Sutherland observes in the Penguin edition of Mansfield Park (492n), and her earnestness is enhanced by her wish to get Edmund away from Mary Crawford. But her words are similar to Fordyce’s—and are not mocked by either her hearer or her narrator, as such a speech by Mary Bennet might have been.
When Fordyce comes to “works of imagination,” his advice gets more complicated. On the one hand,
we must not forget to recommend Fables, Visions, Allegories, and such like compositions, where Fancy sports under the controul of Reason; Dramatic Writings also, where truth of character and purity of thought are preserved; (of these last how inconsiderable the number!); [and] Poetry of all kinds, where a strict regard is paid to decorum. . . . (1:278)
On the other hand, Fordyce refers back to his Sermon IV discussion of female virtue to warn “against that fatal poison to virtue, which is conveyed by Profligate and by Improper Books” (1:144). Although he makes an exception for the novels of Samuel Richardson, because of Richardson’s “uncommon attention to [women’s] best interests” (1:147), he is as hard on most other novels as Mr. Collins could wish: “We consider the general run of Novels as utterly unfit for you. . . . They paint scenes of pleasure and passion altogether improper for you to behold, even with the mind’s eye” (1:149). Fordyce compares novels unfavorably with “the Old Romance,” in which “The men were sincere, magnanimous, and noble; the women were patterns of chastity, dignity, and affection” (1:150). The works of “the common herd of Play-writers” are condemned along with those of most novelists, particularly when “holy wedlock [is] converted into a sponge, to wipe out at a single stroke every stain of guilt and dishonour, which it was possible for the hero of the piece to contract” (1:155-56).
How do Fanny’s reading and interpretation of imaginative works measure up to these strictures? She alludes to at least one “fable” when she paraphrases a line from Dr. Johnson’s The History of Rasselas: “though Mansfield Park might have some pains, Portsmouth could have no pleasures” (454, Wiltshire 724n). She certainly enjoys reading (and hearing Henry Crawford read) Shakespeare’s Henry VIII (389-90), so she doesn’t disapprove of all “dramatic writings”; her objection to Lovers’ Vows is that it does not meet the “purity of thought” criterion:
Agatha and Amelia appeared to her in their different ways so totally improper for home representation—the situation of one [Agatha as unwed mother], and the language of the other [Amelia’s pertness in general and with Anhalt in particular], so unfit to be expressed by any woman of modesty, that she could hardly suppose her cousins could be aware of what they were engaging in. (161)
By contrast, not only is Mary Crawford as willing as the Bertram sisters to turn a blind eye to these shortcomings, but she goes so far as to suggest that “holy wedlock” be “converted into a sponge” after Henry and Maria’s elopement, in precisely the manner Fordyce deplores!
As for poetry, Fanny is almost a walking anthology: She alludes to William Cowper twice (“‘Ye fallen avenues, once more I mourn your fate unmerited,’” from The Task [66; Wiltshire 654-55n], and “‘With what intense desire [s]he wants [her] home,’” from Tirocinium [499; Wiltshire 730-31n]) and Sir Walter Scott once (in the Sotherton chapel, “A Scottish monarch sleeps below” is paraphrased from The Lay of the Last Minstrel [100; Wiltshire 662-63n]). Edmund also finds George Crabbe’s Tales in Verse on the East room table (183; Wiltshire 687n). Moreover, only in Edmund’s gentle reality check on the “Scottish monarch” fantasy do we hear even mild criticism of Fanny’s reliance on poems; certainly the narrator lets it pass.
But novels? No novel is reported on Fanny’s book table, nor does she ever allude to any, even Richardson’s works. In fact, I believe the only character who does allude to a novel is Maria, in her “‘I cannot get out, as the starling said’” remark over the ha-ha at Sotherton (116). This is paraphrased from Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy—which was regarded by the Evangelicals in Austen’s time as “a ‘corrupt’ work” (Wiltshire 670n). By contrast, Fanny shows familiarity with “Old Romance[s]” not only in her quest for “‘aisles, . . . arches, . . . inscriptions, . . . banners’” in the Sotherton chapel (100) but in her praise of Edmund’s name to Mary: “‘It is a name of . . . kings, princes, and knights; and seems to breathe the spirit of chivalry and warm affections’” (246).
As alternatives to novels, Fordyce recommends “those admirable . . . short but spirited essays to convey the rules of domestic wisdom and daily conduct,” such as The Spectator (1:279-80)—and another book on Fanny’s table is a volume of Dr. Johnson’s The Idler (183; Wiltshire 687n). In addition, Fordyce observes that
the most obvious branches both of Natural and Moral Philosophy should engage some portion of your time. . . . Does Creation, through her infinitely extended, and infinitely diversified scenery, display innumerable wonders? . . . For of Natural Philosophy I consider Natural History as a part. (1:284-85)
Fanny never alludes to any specific works of natural history, but her “rhapsodizing” on the evergreen during the walk with Mary in Mrs. Grant’s shrubbery (243-44) certainly reflects both local botanical knowledge and background reading (“‘In some countries we know the tree that sheds its leaf is the variety’”)—and her soliloquies on both the evergreen and the nature of memory could be described as “natural philosophy.” Moreover, once again, the narrator never hints that Fanny may be getting a bit geeky here, although Fanny does seem aware of it herself this time. Instead, Mary gets a rap on the knuckles: “Miss Crawford, untouched and inattentive, had nothing to say” in reply to Fanny’s observations on memory, and she responds “carelessly” and egocentrically to Fanny’s further comments.
Finally, note the contrast between Fanny’s adherence to what we might call the “Virtuous Young Woman 101” reading program, and Maria and Julia’s anxious parade of schoolroom accomplishments before Mrs. Norris (20-21)—followed by their failure to pursue any intellectual interests as young adults. Perhaps if they had done so, they might have become “not only less dependant [sic] on external amusements and empty gratifications, but more superior to everything corrupting and dangerous” (Fordyce 1:269).
Domestic and elegant accomplishments
Fordyce discusses “domestic and elegant accomplishments” primarily in Sermon VI, for which the second text (in addition to the usual passage from 1 Timothy) is Proverbs 31, verses 10 and 31: “Who can find a virtuous woman? For her price is far above rubies.—Give her of the fruit of her hands, and let her works praise her in the gates.” He spends much of Sermon VI on a verse-by-verse discussion of this entire chapter, but I note only the emphasis on the “price” of the virtuous woman (ahem!) and on the traditional women’s roles of housekeeping and needlework. Although Fanny is given almost no opportunities for independent housekeeping, she excels at both the practical needlework of the Proverbs 31 virtuous woman and the fancywork classified by Fordyce as one of the elegant accomplishments (1:249-53). Mary admires the neatness of her drawing-room needlework (173), and of course Fanny spends even more time doing Lady Bertram’s fancywork than her own. As for truly useful sewing, one of Fanny’s contributions to improving the Portsmouth situation is that “by working [for her brother Sam] early and late, . . . [she] did so much, that the boy was shipped off at last, with more than half his linen ready” (452).
The other elegant accomplishments Fordyce mentions, besides fancy needlework, are dancing, cards, drawing, and music. Fordyce “can see no reason for declamation against the moderate and discreet use of Dancing” (1:235), as long as “Aukwardness [sic], rusticity, ungraceful gestures” (236) are avoided—and certainly by the time of the Mansfield Park ball, Fanny has “no awkwardnesses that were not as good as graces” (321). Fordyce adds sternly, however, that he “cannot much approve of a young lady’s dancing often in public assemblies” (1:237). Fanny not only never attends a public assembly, but finds the business of being “introduced . . . and forced to be spoken to” (318) even at the private Mansfield ball so stressful that she’d be unlikely to enjoy a public one if she went!
Card playing receives sterner criticism from Fordyce (1:238-49), for reasons ranging from the inducement to gambling, to the temptation to be out “very often in general companies, . . . where the heart cannot be unfolded; . . . where the smile of complaisance is frequently put on to deceive, and even the warmest professions of regard are sometimes made the ‘cloak of maliciousness!’” (1:246-47). Certainly this description doesn’t apply to Fanny’s games of cribbage with Lady Bertram, but it does sum up some aspects of the Speculation game at the Grants’—and Fanny doesn’t engage voluntarily in either.
The remaining elegant accomplishments, drawing and music, receive only tepid and qualified recommendations. Fordyce mentions drawing only briefly, and with the proviso that it “should always claim your regard, when you have leisure and capacity” (1:256; emphasis added). And he gives music an even stronger caveat: Having evidently listened to the efforts of too many girls “murdering every lesson put into [their] hands” (1:258), he states that too often women study music “at a vast expence of time and application” that is justifiable only “by the irresistable impulse of genius” (1:257). Although Fanny’s refusal as a child to learn either music or drawing (21) suggests dullness or lack of spunk to the Bertram girls and many modern readers, perhaps she simply does not feel herself to have the “genius” or “capacity” for either, and thus is on firm ground in Fordyce’s view.
Modesty of apparel
For Fordyce’s extended remarks on elaborate apparel and its costs in time and money, I refer you to Sermon II. It’s enough to say here that Fordyce commends “Elegant Simplicity” (1:59). Of course, Fanny lacks the resources to go too far in the direction Fordyce criticizes—but on the two occasions on which Edmund mentions her taste in dress and ornament, he notes that “Elegant Simplicity” reigns: “‘A woman can never be too fine while she is all in white’” (259); and, in regard to the chain for William’s cross, “‘I endeavoured to consult the simplicity of your taste’” (303).
Unsurprisingly, Fordyce emphasizes in the first of his three sermons on piety (IX-XI) that the other characteristics he praises “can only be obtained by something more and better than them all, I mean, True Religion” (2:78). I concentrate here on Sermon XI, which addresses the practice of piety. Fordyce devotes the most attention to prayer—when, where, how, and for how long one should pray. But he also covers religious reading; church attendance and other Sabbath observances; and religious conversation.
In Austen’s novels generally, it can be difficult to catch characters in the act of practicing their religion—which has led some present-day readers to assume (wrongly, as Laura Mooneyham White has pointed out) that religion is not very important in her work. And we do not find a Bible on Fanny’s book table or see her engaged in some other pious practices. Still, she is the most overtly religious of all Austen’s heroines.
In two key exchanges with Edmund and Mary, Fanny defends aspects of religious practice recommended by Fordyce. First, once she has gotten over her disappointment in the Sotherton chapel, she comments on Mrs. Rushworth’s statement that “‘the late Mr. Rushworth left . . . off’” the chapel’s use for daily morning and evening prayer: “‘It is a pity . . . that the custom should have been discontinued. . . . A whole family assembling regularly for the purpose of prayer, is fine!’” (101). Mary greets this remark with mild ridicule—and one sentence in Fordyce could be interpreted as support for her assertion that “‘Every body likes to . . . choose their own time and manner of devotion’” (101): “In [choosing types of prayer], different minds require a diversity, or a different education occasions it” (2:142). But in his very next paragraph, Fordyce says: “Beside the regular, invariable, and solemn performance of your morning and evening devotions [emphasis added], it would be well if . . . you took repeated opportunities of . . . shutting your door, and praying to your Father who sees in secret” (2:142). Not only does Fordyce probably envision more rigorous self-examination for these private prayers than Mary does, but he takes regular morning and evening prayers as a given.
Second, when Mary is criticizing Dr. Grant for his “‘disappointment about a green goose’” (130), Fanny defends him in a much longer speech than she usually makes:
“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 . . . 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 any thing but a clergyman.” (130-31)
Compare this with Fordyce’s statement that “the habit of seriousness and devotion in church, will produce very desirable effects on your temper and conduct out of it. By beginning the week well, you will retain through the remainder a certain impression of goodness, that will follow you every where” (2:164). So both Fanny and Fordyce place more confidence in the benefits of active Sunday church participation than Mary does.
Finally, one striking instance of overt piety on Fanny’s part should be mentioned. After Edmund reveals that Mary is one of “‘the two dearest objects I have on earth,’” with the implication that he “would marry Miss Crawford” (306), Fanny relieves her distress through “fervent prayers for his happiness” (307). Although several heroines engage in serious reflection at key moments, and Marianne Dashwood speaks of making “‘atonement to my God’” (SS 391) after her self-destructive illness, this is the only time in the novels when a heroine is explicitly described as praying (White 59). Moreover, Fanny prays in order to overcome her romantic feelings for Edmund, which she views as “excessive” and “border[ing] on selfishness,” and to “deserve the right of judging . . . Miss Crawford’s character and the privilege of true solicitude for him by a sound intellect and an honest heart” (307). A present-day reader might see this motivation as emotional masochism, but it does correspond to one of Fordyce’s recommendations for private prayer: “[W]hen you address the seat of mercy, you ought to speak what you feel most strongly at that particular season . . . [and] to insist on those things of a spiritual nature” (2:151).
Throughout the Sermons, Fordyce praises shy, retiring manners like Fanny’s. For example, “There is nothing so engaging as bashful beauty. . . .The retiring graces have always been the most attractive” (1:96). And “Female modesty is often silent; female decorum is never bold” (2:173).
The “bashful beauty” is often praised not merely over the witty woman but over the woman who “has contracted a certain briskness of air and levity of deportment, which . . . [is] distinguished from the brazen front and bold attack of the prostitute, [but] does yet . . . approach too near them. . . . Such an air and deportment, I well know, are by many esteemed marks of spirit. . . . But . . . I had a thousand times rather a young lady carry her bashfulness too far, than pique herself on the freedom of her manners” (1:103-04). This sentiment gives us some further idea of what Fordyce would have thought of Mary Crawford—especially the “‘Rears, and Vices’” joke (71) and her parting come-on to Edmund (“‘a saucy playful smile, seeming to invite, in order to subdue me’” ).
And as a sidelight on bashfulness, Fordyce frequently recommends retiring habits in general, and residence in the country rather than London in particular. He notes, “In the country ([as opposed to] the neighbourhood of London) the contagion of vice and folly . . . is not so epidemical. . . . [W]omen of worth and sense are to be found everywhere, but most frequently in the calm of retreat, and amidst the coolness of recollection” (1:vi-vii). Certainly Fanny’s inclination is to seek “the calm of retreat” as often as she can—and she comes “to think the influence of London very much at war with all respectable attachments” (501).
If Fordyce’s commendation of bashful manners sounds strange to us, his endorsement of softness, delicacy, and meekness in women sounds stranger still. Women are often highly praised for softness, both physical and emotional. For example,
With the character of a Christian Woman nothing . . . can better correspond than a propensity to melt into affectionate sorrow. Never . . . do your eyes shine with a more delightful effulgence, than when suffused with all the trembling softness of grief for virtue in distress, or of solicitude for friendship in danger. (1:185)
Fanny often feels more “affectionate sorrow” for her relations than they deserve. And as noted about her prayer for Edmund’s happiness, she does feel a genuine “solicitude for friendship in danger”—although the substrate for this anxiety is the romantic jealousy she tries so hard to overcome.
Regarding physical delicacy in women, Fordyce says:
Let it be likewise observed, that in your sex manly exercises are never graceful . . . and that men of sensibility desire in every woman soft features, and a flowing voice, a form not robust, and a demeanour delicate and gentle. (2:224-25)
Contrast this description with that of a woman who “throws off all the lovely softness of her nature, and emulates the daring intrepid temper of a man—how terrible!” (1:104-05). In contrast to the properly delicate Fanny, Elizabeth Bennet’s walking three miles by herself through the mud, or Mary Crawford’s riding Edmund’s mare fearlessly on her first attempt, would both earn Fordyce’s censure.
In discussing female meekness in Sermon XIII, Fordyce sounds uncomfortably like Aunt Norris’s instructions to Fanny before her first dinner out (“‘I do beseech and intreat you not to be putting yourself forward’” [257-58]):
If to your natural softness you join that christian meekness, which I now preach; both together will not fail. . . . You will not be in danger of putting yourselves forward in company, of contradicting bluntly, of asserting positively, of debating obstinately, of affecting a superiority to any present, of engrossing the discourse. . . . (2:249)
It’s only partial consolation that Mrs. Norris gets her comeuppance a few pages later: “How shall we express our horror at those female furies that . . . can abandon themselves to ‘all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamour, and evil speaking, and all malice!” (2:253-54). Although she manages to keep these characteristics more or less under wraps (except in her treatment of Fanny) for much of the novel, by the end it’s clear that Aunt Norris is “every where tormenting” (539).
Inner moral standards/adherence to principle
Yet, despite all I’ve said so far, Fordyce’s feminine ideal is no pushover. From Sermon II onward, she’s urged to “carry about with her a kind of living standard, which she will be enabled to apply to particular occasions, with a degree of discretion that no rules of ours can teach” (1:52-53). Compare this advice with Fanny’s parting comment to Henry in Portsmouth: “We have all a better guide in ourselves, if we would attend to it, than any other person can be” (478).
Fanny’s “living standard” comes to the fore when Henry proposes to her and Sir Thomas urges his suit. Fordyce emphasizes that meekness and submission to one’s elders do not require marrying without affection or against one’s will:
There your submission must stop. No rules of duty can oblige you to involve yourselves in misery and temptation, by entering into engagements to love and to honour, where your hearts withhold their consent.—Barbarous wretches, and base, to offer thus to dispose of your children, as you would of your cattle, to the highest bidder. (2:189)
Although describing Sir Thomas as a “barbarous wretch” may seem strong, it’s clear that motives of money and alliance have already clouded his thinking in allowing Maria to marry Mr. Rushworth: He was “happy to secure a marriage which would bring him such an addition of respectability and influence, and very happy to think any thing of his daughter’s disposition that was most favourable for the purpose” (235). In his wish to marry Fanny to Henry, we can see similar processes at work: “‘[L]et me tell you, Fanny, that you may live eighteen years longer in the world, without being addressed by a man of half Mr. Crawford’s estate” (368).
Moreover, Fanny’s refusal of Henry is on firm moral ground as far as Fordyce is concerned:
Is it not your business to enquire into the character of the man that professes an attachment? . . . Is there no essential difference between a man of decency and honour . . . and a man who is . . . suspected . . . to be the smiling foe of female virtue? . . . If not resolved to be blind, you may surely discover whether such a person proceeds by little and little, to take off the visor, and appear what he is, by loose sentiments, indecent advances, and ambiguous style. (1:131-32)
Fanny, through witnessing Henry and Maria’s passionate flirtation—at first around the ha-ha at Sotherton, and then during the theatricals—is in the best position of anyone at Mansfield to know about Henry’s “loose sentiments” and “ambiguous style.” Fordyce says, “A cultivated mind and delicate spirit, together with strict principles of conduct, will teach you to make the necessary distinctions amongst those you converse with” (2:237)—and although it takes time for her to develop confidence in her own judgment, Fanny is the most astute character at making these “distinctions.”
So, as she refuses Henry, confronts Sir Thomas’s disapproval, and endures her banishment to Portsmouth, Fanny finds herself in something like this dilemma:
To say the truth, there may be situations, wherein [principle] appears to be left the sole guide, so impossible is it for [prudence] to find a way through the labyrinth. In this case you can have but one reasonable care; which is, to do what conscience charges as your duty. . . . At the same time too you will have the consolation to hope, that sooner or later [God] “will bring forth your righteousness as the light, and your judgment as the noon-day.” Seldom or never . . . does a persevering virtue fail of breaking out with fresh beauty . . . even as the vernal sun . . . shines forth at last with a kind of victorious splendor, that dispels the remaining damps of winter . . . (2:71-74)
Fanny’s final triumph is much more mixed and muted than Fordyce’s typically overwrought language would suggest, given the catastrophes that have preceded it—and, in fact, have made it possible. But there’s an echo of this imagery in Fanny’s return to Mansfield: “It was . . . full three months, since her quitting it; and the change was from winter to summer. Her eye fell every where on lawns and plantations of the freshest green” (517).
Having now described the likeness between Fanny Price and Fordyce’s ideal woman to my own satisfaction, I must emphasize that a strong correlation is all I can demonstrate. We have no way of knowing whether Jane Austen had Fordyce in mind at all when she was writing Mansfield Park, let alone the specific resemblances I’ve pointed out; correlation is not causation. She may have had some other conduct book in mind—or simply an aggregation of “Fordycean ideas” from conduct books in general.2 Or, as Amy Pawl (291) has pointed out in a 2004 paper on Fanny’s “sentimental genealogy,” Austen could just as easily have been aiming to depict Fanny as a typical heroine of a sentimental novel, like Frances Burney’s Evelina.
But let us assume that Austen’s conscious or unconscious intention was to make Fanny, in Margaret Kirkham’s words, a “conduct-book heroine” (qtd. in Pawl 288). If so, why? I briefly propose a few possibilities.
Jane Austen, the experimenter
First, it appears from the Letters and from family tradition that Austen was averse to the idea of repeating herself. In a letter of 29 January 1813, after reveling in Pride and Prejudice’s success, she wrote to Cassandra: “Now I will try to write of something else;—it shall be a complete change of subject—Ordination.” Whether this meant that Mansfield Park’s topic was to be ordination is debatable (see, e.g., Le Faye n7.), but the determination to make a change is not. In regard to Emma, she stated that “I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like” (J. E. Austen-Leigh 157). And she wrote niece Fanny Knight in regard to Persuasion, “You may perhaps like the Heroine, as she is almost too good for me” (23 March 1817). So she was not afraid of experimenting or of challenging readers’ expectations—particularly the expectation that every heroine of hers should be another Elizabeth Bennet.
Jane Austen, the shy woman
Second, although many of us tend to think of Our Author as Elizabeth Bennet come to life, she also seems to have had some retiring and bashful traits like Fanny Price’s, particularly in company. For instance, a Sunday visit from a Southampton child named Kitty Foote brought out some remarks about her own childhood shyness in contrast to Kitty’s lack of it (8 February 1807). And a secondhand description of Austen in later life as “the most perpendicular, precise, taciturn piece of ‘single blessedness’ that ever existed” (qtd. in Austen-Leigh and Austen-Leigh 198) suggests that she may not have been comfortable in company as an adult either—perhaps with good reason! So it’s possible that she may have wanted to set herself the challenge of depicting a shy heroine—and, for good measure, to give her a degree of “bashful modesty” worthy of Fordyce’s ideal.
Jane Austen, the “preacher’s kid”
Third, as Cornel West reminds us, Jane Austen was a “PK,” a “preacher’s kid”: “I know a lot of secular critics don’t like to deal with that, but [her] Anglicanism is real” (113). In fact, she was far more deeply steeped in the orthodox Anglican faith of her time than many modern readers realize—as Laura Mooneyham White makes clear in her book on this topic. Obviously, Austen’s faith and its influence on her work constitute a much larger issue than I can discuss here. But I believe that keeping her faith in mind enables us to make better sense of several observations in the Letters, as well as Mansfield Park.
Austen’s Christian reaction to the adulterous elopement of her acquaintance Mrs. Powlett (20 June 1808) is the most directly relevant passage in the Letters to Mansfield Park: “This is a sad story about Mrs. Powlett. I should not have suspected her of such a thing.—She staid the Sacrament I remember, the last time that you & I did.” In Austen’s time, “staying the Sacrament”—that is, remaining in church after morning prayers to take Holy Communion, on the few Sundays when Communion was offered—indicated greater religious devotion then than now. Therefore, the idea that someone had “staid the Sacrament” shortly before breaking one of the Ten Commandments would have struck her as sacrilegious—and her response was probably a basis for Fanny’s shock when Fanny learns of Henry and Maria’s elopement.
Six years later, Austen wrote this advice to Fanny Knight about a suitor with Evangelical tendencies:
I am by no means convinced that we ought not all to be Evangelicals, & am at least persuaded that they who are so from Reason & Feeling, must be happiest & safest. . . . & don’t be frightened by the idea of his acting more strictly up to the precepts of the New Testament than others. (18 November 1814)
Austen’s attitude toward the Evangelicals was always ambivalent, as several other remarks in the Letters indicate (e.g., “I do not like the Evangelicals” [24 January 1809]). But all the same, it’s possible that in Fanny Price, she may have decided to create a heroine who “act[s] more strictly up to the precepts of the New Testament than others.”
Jane Austen, a witty woman uneasy about wit
Finally, some of Jane Austen’s letters and the three prayers attributed to her indicate that she felt some personal uneasiness about “Wit” in general, and her own in particular, because of its capacity for wounding other people. Granted, she was capable in her letters of making observations that were in even worse taste and more potentially damaging than the “Rears, and Vices” joke! But in the same letter to Fanny Knight just quoted, she wrote: “Do not be frightened from the connection by your Brothers having most wit. Wisdom is better than Wit, & in the long run will certainly have the laugh on her side.” She also made occasional apologies for observations that struck her, once she reread them, as too harsh: In a letter to Francis Austen at sea, after describing an acquaintance as “the sort of woman who gives me the idea of being determined never to be well,” she added, “This is an illnatured sentiment to send all over the Baltic!” (25 September 1813).
The authorship of the three prayers that Jane Austen was long thought to have written has recently been questioned—but because they were attributed to her by at least one sibling (LM cxxv), I think they’re worth mentioning as well. Commentators from Lord David Cecil to Laura White have noted the emphasis in all three prayers on an “appeal for greater self-knowledge and greater charity” (White 72) in order to overcome “the besetting sin of the satirist” (Cecil 195). For example, Prayer 3 includes this petition: “Incline us Oh God! to think humbly of ourselves, to consider our fellow-creatures with kindness, & to judge of all they say & do with that Charity which we would desire from men ourselves” (LM 575).
So it’s possible that Austen’s ambivalence about wit may really have led her to experiment with a heroine who, like the heroine of her “Plan of a Novel,” has “not the least Wit” (LM 226). Hard to believe, I know—but possible!
I hope to have shown here that the notion of Fanny Price as Fordyce’s ideal woman is not as far-fetched as some commenters on the Montreal AGM’s Facebook page last year found it to be.3 Fanny has precisely the intellectual, domestic, and elegant accomplishments that Fordyce fully endorses; she is modestly appareled, pious, bashfully reserved, meek, soft, and delicate; and yet her inner guide—her “living standard”—enables her to withstand enormous pressure to do what she correctly considers the wrong thing when it comes to accepting a marriage proposal. Moreover, I hope I have shown that facets of Jane Austen’s own personality and religious beliefs could have led her to create such a heroine. Even the most recently discovered scrap in Austen’s handwriting may support my view (“Men may get into a habit of repeating the words of our Prayers by rote, perhaps without thoroughly understanding—certainly without thoroughly feeling their full force and meaning” [Scheussler])—whether she was merely serving as her brother James’s copyist, or, as we might hope, wrote this sentence herself!
You, my “fair hearers,” may still disagree. And even if you agree, you may question how successful or convincing Jane Austen was in creating Fanny Price. But the purpose of the essays written for the 2014 AGM is to enable us to air many different views of a work that still merits its common label of “Jane Austen’s most controversial novel”!
I thank Susan Allen Ford for her encouragement, guidance, and inspiration. I also thank Meg Levin, Celia A. Easton, and the anonymous reviewer for advice, and JASNA Rochester for the chance to present a very preliminary version of this paper.
1. It can be argued that both Fanny’s reading of the Macartney book and her question about the slave trade reflect what Fordyce would consider an unfeminine interest in commerce and politics. If so, however, I think it’s safe to say that Fanny’s habitual reserve and meekness—for instance, she does not follow up on the slave trade question because she does not wish to upstage Maria and Julia (231-32)—keep her well within the bounds of Fordyce’s ideal.
2. I am indebted to Celia A. Easton for the term “Fordycean ideas,” and to her and an anonymous reviewer (both better acquainted with other conduct books of the era than I am) for the reminder that much of Fordyce’s advice to young women was hardly unique to the Sermons. As the reviewer put it, “Fordyce was entirely representative of an entire Evangelical ideology about feminine education and behavior, which Austen knew as a duck knows water.”
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