When held up to the inflexible measuring stick of British upper class society, Fanny Price is found wanting in all estimations of wealth, power, name, and prestige. Branded a poor cousin in every aspect, Mansfield Park’s unexpected heroine seems destined to be perpetually the “lowest and the last” (178), of little consequence to the elite, who are bent on recognizing only external merit. Juxtaposed with the worldly and charismatic Miss Crawford, Fanny falls short of the expectations of readers as well, who anticipate another bold Elizabeth Bennett but find only the silent conscientiousness of a timid Fanny Price. Though readers and critics alike may see a more viable candidate in Mary Crawford, whose lively manner and sharp wit project to the level of Austen’s other confident and poised heroines, Austen embarks upon a new path in Mansfield Park. Striking an unlikely relationship between Fanny Price and Mary Crawford, Austen quietly reveals the largely corrupting influence of sophisticated society by demonstrating its lack of influence in the heart of the former and its decidedly damaging hold upon the character of the latter.
In the beginning of the novel, a ten-year old Fanny Price finds herself in sudden foreign grandeur, abruptly plucked as she is from the bustling Portsmouth of merchants and seafarers and made to live with her wealthy relations. Though the swift alteration from disorderly poverty to respectable gentility proves an amendment to Fanny’s position—after all, comments Mrs. Norris, “a niece of [Sir Thomas’s] . . . would not grow up in this neighborhood without many advantages” (4)—the pastoral landscape of Mansfield Park also boasts of a carefully constructed social hierarchy under its tranquil scenery. Blood-ties, wealth, and physical attractiveness constitute an individual’s worth in this rigid societal structure, and Fanny, having neither striking beauty nor deep pockets, possesses no natural advantages which may promote her position in society or even allow her to wholly assimilate into the leisurely life of Mansfield Park. Rather, the obstacle of class—the vast rift between the Bertrams’ prosperity and the Prices’ penury—creates a noticeable and, as Sir Thomas later acknowledges, “misplaced distinction” (252) between Fanny and her cousins. The recognized discrepancies and unconcealed discrimination—in knowledge of French and music, in the Miss Bertrams’ going-outs and Miss Price’s staying indoors, in the Miss Bertrams’ roomy quarters and Fanny’s small, fireless attic room—are all designed to educate and prepare the poor cousin for “that mediocrity of condition which seemed to be [her] lot” (252).
The distinctions are not only imposed upon Fanny by others, but subtly enforced by Fanny’s own decisions. Unwilling to yield to the alluring taboo of acting, Fanny refuses a role in the morally questionable play Lover’s Vows, distancing herself still further from the culture which charitably took her in:
She alone was sad and insignificant; she had no share in anything; she might go or stay, she might be in the midst of their noise, or retreat from it to the solitude of the East room, without being seen or missed. (129)
Believing that she “can never be important to anyone,” Fanny does not expect to be elevated to a position of consequence and honor (20)—she believes herself to be as the “rough hedgerow” of the field: “never thought of as anything, or capable of becoming anything” (167). The poor cousin imagines herself to be insignificant in a world enamored by material possessions and connections. As such, she never dreams of the purely mercenary courtships her cousins readily engage in, judging herself incapable of attaining prominence and distinction. The deeply rooted prejudice of lowly birth and poverty that has grown alongside Fanny during all her years in the genteel countryside makes it impossible for her to act so freely as the others around her, to partake in their joys and irrationalities, and be captivated as others are with London life.
Curiously, Fanny’s visit to her family in Portsmouth reveals a different side to her character, suggesting that though Fanny may have escaped the corrupting influence of cultured society, she has nevertheless been molded by the gentility of Mansfield Park. Arriving at Portsmouth on the swift wings of “hope and apprehension” (305), Fanny soon discovers—much to her disappointment—that the family with whom she believed she could “feel herself the equal” (299) was only a figment of her imagination. In fact, the very home, the “scenes of her infancy” (299) which Fanny had so longed to visit become to her “the very reverse of what she could have wished” (316). What with the coarseness, “noise, disorder, and impropriety” (316), the Prices cannot command Fanny’s respect or affection; throughout her stay, she pines to return to the “propriety, regularity [and] harmony” (318) of the Bertram household. The jarring dissimilarity between the two societies of Portsmouth and Mansfield finally leads Fanny to exclaim “Portsmouth was Portsmouth; Mansfield was home” (351)—although her character may have evaded the disagreeable artificiality of aristocratic mores, Fanny’s nature has been quietly fashioned by Mansfield Park’s easy elegance, “cheerful orderliness,” and, above all, its “peace and tranquility” (318).
Furthermore, Fanny’s evident dismay over Henry Crawford’s unanticipated visit to Portsmouth points to another subtle influence of high society upon her character, namely the importance stressed over outward appearance. Though Fanny may scold herself for the apparent weakness of her reaction, she bears a private “shame for the home in which [Henry finds] her” (325), and only ceases to inwardly fret when all the family are dressed in their Sunday best, “now seen to advantage” (331). Moreover, Fanny is horrified when faced with the prospect of Henry’s “taking his mutton” with the Prices, imagining his revulsion at her family’s many “deficiencies” (331). Quietly appalled by her family’s failings, Fanny realizes that “[Henry] must soon [inevitably] give her up” (327) and cease to ask for her hand in marriage. The very thought leaves Fanny secretly ashamed:
There is scarcely a young lady in the united kingdoms who would not rather put up with the misfortune of being sought by a clever, agreeable man, than have him driven away by the vulgarity of her nearest relations. (327)
In her mind, the “cure” is worse than the “complaint” of being persistently wooed (327), showing that in this taste for outward appearances she had unwittingly assumed the attitudes of high society. Indeed, when Henry takes his leave of Portsmouth, Fanny “[can] not help being low,” for she associates more with his culture and refinement—reminiscent of the beloved Mansfield Park she left behind—than with the company of her own family among whom she feels “starved, both mind and body” (336).
Though these adopted views tie Fanny to the aristocratic circle which took her in, the aforementioned distinctions between Fanny and her cousins ultimately cut her off from wholly assimilating into polite society. For while Fanny is a fixture at Mansfield Park, gleaning from its mannerisms the refinement and ‘good breeding’ of a lady, she stops short of integrating the culture entirely into her character. Receiving neither the worldly education where “active principle had been wanting” nor enjoying the “excessive indulgence and flattery of [Aunt Norris]” (377) Fanny diverges from the superficiality of society’s assumed mores, developing instead the “sterling good of principle and temper” (385) that is untainted by egocentric ambition. As Edmund remarks to Sir Thomas, “You will find Fanny everything you could wish”: a strong sense of right and a steady character unpolluted by the worldly standards of sophisticated society. Fanny’s same unwavering nature, “as firm as a rock” in principle (284), finally leads her to refuse Henry’s hand in marriage despite the promise of great wealth and distinction, on account of his lack of principle—a decision unheard of in the fashionable world (254).
Fanny’s awareness of this deep dissimilarity between herself and her cousins, her own moral steadfastness and the latters’ self-absorbed, restless natures, does not imbue her own character with a self-righteous, hypocritical quality: though she confesses herself to be “graver than most people”—a difference her cousin Edmund believes to be because of a “more wise and discreet” nature (158)—Fanny’s own acknowledgement of her significantly lower societal position and utter dependence upon the Bertrams gives her a humbled and grateful heart, a heart “which [knows] no guile” (371).
So while Fanny’s cousins Maria and Julia are inevitably drawn to the appealing, gaudy excesses of high London society, Fanny cannot see the fascination in such seemingly trivial pursuits, gratified rather to revel in the “lovely scenes of home” (364). Society may hold in great estimation wealth and connections, parties and city-life, but Fanny is more content to admire the distant, innumerable stars (92), deriving her chiefest enjoyments from “inanimate nature” (65) and silent reflection.
Unlike Fanny, who lives in the circle of the upper class but is not entirely of that circle, Mary Crawford boasts of a nature indelibly formed by the expectations of high society—“her attention [is] all for men and women, her talents for the light and lively” (65). Raised “in a school of luxury and epicurism” (372), Mary looks to others’ approval and is readily influenced by the mores of London society, so that though “hers is not a cruel nature . . . the evil lies yet deeper in her total ignorance . . . [and] in a perversion of mind” (331).
Having participated in the extravagances of London society with wholehearted enthusiasm all her life, Mary does not even see the impropriety of her loose morals, which mirror those of the company around her. A regular chameleon, she assimilates with apparent ease to any social circle in which she may find herself, as ready to charm as to ridicule. In the Rushworth family chapel at Sotherton, Mary speaks flippantly about the church to Edmund, that is, until she learns of her companion’s upcoming ordination: “If I had known this before, I would have spoken of the cloth with more respect” (72). Her principles emulate the present society in which she finds herself, however virtuous or corrupt that society may be, so that the relatively quieter disposition Mary temporarily attains at Mansfield Park—a reflection of that countryside tranquility—grates unnaturally with the “high spirits” she displays under “the influence of the fashionable world” (342-343).
Mary, however, finds a marked change from her lavish London lifestyle in Mansfield Park, where she slowly and unwillingly acquires a “better taste” for “domestic happiness” (383). Coming to Mansfield with the intentions of wooing Tom Bertram, heir of the estate, she begins to fall for the younger Edmund. Unlike Fanny, who approaches material culture with a wary heart, recognizing that happiness cannot be bought with money, Mary sincerely believes that “a large income is the best recipe for happiness [she] ever heard of” (171). It is unsurprising, therefore, that Mary, whose motives for marriage were influenced foremost by “selfishness and worldly wisdom,” should be angry with Edmund’s decision to become a parson—a seemingly demeaning position in the eyes of fashionable society (376). In her eyes, a “clergyman is nothing” (74). Though she may love Edmund, she repeatedly and hotly spurns his choice of occupation, despite the pain such ungrounded reprimands elicit:
Be honest and poor, by all means—but I shall not envy you; I do not much think I shall even respect you . . . I must look down upon anything contented with obscurity when it might rise to distinction. (172)
The friendship which springs between Mary and Fanny, then, is quite unanticipated. Considering Fanny’s decided inclination for obscurity and Mary’s fondness of others’ attention, no two characters could be more dissimilar: “In some points of interest they were exactly opposed to each other” (231). Yet, it is in the littlest correspondences between Mary and Fanny that the reader becomes acquainted with the true nature of Mary Crawford’s character, and how that character was irrevocably shaped and spoiled by the materialistic culture of polite society.
Upon Fanny’s arrival at Portsmouth, which she deems an “exile from [the] good society” of Mansfield Park and all its “happy ways,” Fanny engages in a sporadic correspondence with Mary, eager to retain that fading link to her home in the countryside (318-319). While such letters do connect Fanny to the seemingly distant Mansfield Park, they also offer a glimpse into the nature of the correspondent, Mary. From the letters Fanny learns of the superficiality of Mary’s attachment to Edmund, and is “ashamed” of a woman who “could speak of [Edmund], and speak only of his appearance!” (339). At Mansfield Park, Mary Crawford may seem to have a strong character, yet in London, “surrounding by those we [give] all the support of their own bad sense,” Mary proves to have a “weak side of her character” which is only the shadowy reflection of the corrupt and vain society she readily embraces (343). As Fanny bitterly muses, “they have all perhaps, been corrupting one another”—the immorality of one building upon the ethical depravity of the other.
Moreover, when Tom, Edmund’s older brother and heir to Mansfield Park, falls dangerously ill, all Mary can write about are her own schemes to marry Edmund provided that Tom has died. Blinded by her own “cold-hearted ambition” (355) which had so long been molded by the equally hardhearted avaricious pursuits of those around her, Mary herself strips the metaphorical blindfold of love from Edmund’s eyes, and he finally realizes that the woman he had esteemed, the “creature capable of everything noble” (343) had long ago succumbed to the damaging influence of high society’s artificiality.
As Fanny declares to Henry on the steps of her family’s residence in Portsmouth, “We have all a better guide in ourselves, if we would attend to it” (335). It is a small piece of advice which Fanny herself utilizes in the course of her stay at Mansfield Park, and which Mary Crawford consistently ignores. For while Fanny holds firm in her convictions, Mary merely grasps at shallow societal mores for guidance. And so, Fanny’s virtue and steadfastness, untarnished by corrupt society, become her reward in her marriage to Edmund, while Mary, who has “enough of vanity, ambition, love, and disappointment” (383), becomes an illustration of the harmful influences of mainstream culture.