Persuasions #2, 1980 Pages 9-11
JANE AUSTEN’S DANGEROUS CHARM: FEELING AS ONE OUGHT ABOUT FANNY PRICE
by Nina Auerbach
Though Jane Austen’s other novels are written by a maestro at pleasing, Mansfield Park is defiantly unlikable most notably in its unyieldingly charmless heroine, Fanny Price. Though critics have transfigured her into a culturally-fraught emblem, the reader cannot forget Kingsley Amis’ taunt (“Whatever Became of Jane Austen” reprinted in Jane Austen: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Ian Watt) that an evening with Fanny and her clergyman husband “would not be lightly undertaken.” We may understand our heritage through Fanny Price, but ought we to want to dine with her? After learning more about her life, living more closely in her consciousness than we have done with Jane Austen’s other heroines, we are still teased by the question: how ought we to feel about Fanny Price?
Fanny captures our imaginations in an unnerving manner congenial to Jane Austen’s own Romantic age: like Wordsworth’s leech-gatherer or Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, there is something horrible about her that deprives the imagination of its appetite for ordinary life and compels it toward the deformed, the dispossessed. She is unconvivial, a spoiler of ceremonies. In such family groups as Sir Thomas Bertram’s and her father’s houses, she exists like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as a silent censorious pall. She defines herself best in assertive negatives: “No, indeed, I cannot act.” Even when Lovers’ Vows is not in question, Fanny follows this credo and refuses to act. Instead, and consistently, she counteracts. Her timidly magisterial denial of acting includes activity and play, those impulses of comedy which bring us together in ceremonial motions where fellowship seems all.
It is precisely this opposition to the traditional patterns of romantic comedy that lends Fanny her disturbing strength. If she cannot act, locking herself in a hell of “jealousy and agitation” while everyone around her is “gay and busy”, she assumes the audience’s withering power over performance. As quietly-seeing spectator of others’ activities, Fanny’s role is as ambiguous as the reader’s own: like Fanny, we create the action by our imaginative participation in it, while we hold as well the power to obstruct it by our censure. Our discomfort at Fanny is in part our discomfort at our own voyeurism, implicating ourselves as well as Fanny in a community of compelling English monsters.
Like them, this denying girl will not, perhaps cannot, eat. Home at Portsmouth, family food induces in her only a nausea that may be the most intense in nineteenth-century fiction. Fanny’s revulsion against food, along with her psychic feasting on the activities of others, associates her with that winsome predator the vampire, an equally solitary and melancholy figure who cannot eat the common nourishment of daily life but who feasts secretly upon human vitality in the dark. The melancholy Grendel in the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf peers as jealously as Fanny through the window at a convivial banquet. Finally his rage overcomes him: he invades the lighted hall and begins to eat the eaters. Fanny’s cannibalistic invasion of the lighted, spacious estate of Mansfield is genteel and purely symbolic, but her affinities with these primitive monsters make her a more resonant figure than are her healthier analogues in Jane Austen’s fiction.
As with withering spectator of a play within a play, Fanny shows her quiet kinship to Shakespeare’s Hamlet. His stern creed – “Madam, I know not seems” – epitomizes, like hers, refusal to act. Hamlet is Shakespeare’s supreme anti-actor and counter-actor, the avid and omniscient spectator of the game who fascinates us as Fanny does because he expresses his virtue by the characteristics of conventional villainy.
Jane Austen’s contemporaries were obsessed by this troubling sort of hero: Samuel Taylor Coleridge apotheosizes Hamlet as a paragon of inactivity. Fanny Price may be one symptom of this new, Romantic fascination with Hamlet as a modern type. As Jane Austen’s Hamlet, scourge and minister of a corrupted world, the perfection of the character who won’t play, Fanny Price in her unyielding opposition, her longing for a purified and contracted world, gains coherence if not charm.
Fanny defies the conventions of a heroine’s story in that she wins power but no love. Her parents seem as repelled by her as she is by them, and the belated appreciation of the Bertrams is a wounded penance for their collapsed hopes. The love of her two suitors is similarly undermined: Henry’s reveals itself as a sadistic game, while Edmund’s is as stately, inevitable and passionless as his ordination is. Her radical homelessness makes her still more unnerving as a domestic heroine. As a woman who belongs only where she is not, Fanny is a more indigestible figure than the wistful Victorian orphans for whom embracing their kin is a secular salvation. In the tenacity with which she adheres to an identity validated by no family, home, or love, she repudiates the vulnerability of the waif to the unlovable toughness of the authentic transplant. Repelling the conventional female endowments of love and home, Fanny passes from the isolation of the outcast to that of the conqueror, aligning her rather with the Romantic hero than with the heroine of romance: her solitude is her condition, not a state from which the comedy will save her.
Like other literary monsters, Fanny is a creature without kin who longs for a mate of her own kind. The pain of her difference explains a longing that is common to much Romantic literature and that looks disturbingly like incest. The ecstatic, possessive passion Fanny divides between her brother William and her foster brother Edmund, her horror at the Crawford’s attempt to invade her emotions, seem aligned less with the Freudian family romance than with the monster’s agonized attempt to alleviate his monstrosity. The female counterpart of Mary Shelley’s monster, Fanny yearns only for a brother-mate. In her parallel movement from outcast within a charmed circle to one who is hunted by it and then conqueror of it, Jane Austen’s most Romantic, least-loved heroine finds the kin she so wretchedly seeks.
Though the word “ought” resounds in the novel, it is used anarchically, not authoritatively, for there is no objective code to endow it with validity. As a walking “Ought” in an inchoate world, Fanny herself is less a moral than a shaping principle: she is the solitary author as well as reader, for the novel’s action happens as she wills, and so her emotions become our only standard of right. For in its essence, the world of Mansfield Park is terrifyingly malleable, revealing both inner and outer nature as pitifully ineffectual in the face of that which can be made. Mary Crawford’s nature is helpless against the constructive, or the deconstructive, power of her medium – “For where, Fanny, shall we find a woman whom nature had so richly endowed? – Spoilt, spoilt!” while Susan Price will survive, not because of her natural qualities, but because she is “a girl so capable of being made, every thing good.” In so malleable and so defective a world, though she laments improvements, Fanny is the most potent of the novel’s improving characters, turning her most potent attention on the vulnerable, that which is “capable of being made”.
In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as well, family, nature, and even the Alps pall before the monster who is capable of being made. The monstrosity of Mansfield Park is one manifestation of its repelled fascination with acting, with education, and with landscape and estate improvement: the novel imagines a fluid world, one with no fixed principles, capable of awesome, endless, and dangerous manipulation. The unconvivial stiffness of its hero and heroine is their triumph: by the end, they are so successfully “made” by each other that he is her creature as completely as she has always been his. The mobility and malleability of Mansfield Park is a dark realization of an essentially Romantic vision, of which Fanny Price represents both the horror and the best hope. Only in Mansfield Park does Jane Austen force us to experience the discomfort of a Romantic universe presided over by the potent charm of a heroine who was not made to be loved.
The full text of this speech will be published in Jane Austen: New Perspectives, (Women & Literature) editor, Janet Todd, scheduled for 1982.