How I Came to See Fanny Price’s Light

By John Gould

Presented at the Massachusetts Region of

The Jane Austen Society of North America

March 14, 2010



The first time I read Mansfield Park I remember nothing but disappointment.  I know I’m not unique in this reaction; lots of people can’t stand its heroine, Fanny Price.  I remember a web discussion group on Jane Austen that specifically forbad any posts about Fanny, because of “Flame Wars” resulting from comments like, “How can anyone stand that insipid twit, anyhow?”

And it’s Fanny that’s the problem.  Ann Hacker wrote on a website called “”:

The major problem for most of the novel's detractors is the lead character, Fanny Price. She is shy, timid, lacking in self-confidence, physically weak, and seemingly—to some, annoyingly—always right. Austen's own mother called her "insipid", and many have used the word "priggish." (


So even Mrs. Austen didn’t like her!  Maybe I shouldn’t be too hard on myself.  Anyway, I knew instantly what was wrong with Fanny, and all of you know it, too.  Fanny’s biggest problem is that she isn’t Elizabeth Bennet. 

I’ve spoken before of how I first read came to read Austen; it was Pride and Prejudice, and I was a senior in high school.  I found the book funny and uplifting, and I was drawn to the heroine much more quickly than that stuffy Darcy was. I won’t repeat here the paean to Elizabeth I sang in my earlier talk, but we all know how cool she is.  She is clever, witty, spirited, really good looking (ah, those fine eyes!), observant, and principled, and right away I started dreaming that someday I’d find a girl just like her. 

In college I read a great deal of literature; fully three-quarters of my courses were British, American, and world literature – thirty semesters worth.  In an 18th-century novel course, right at the end, we read P&P (again for me) and then Emma.  I don’t want to break Marcia Folsom’s spirit, or those of any of the rest of you, but I was underwhelmed by Emma, and once again, it was of course Elizabeth’s fault.  I’m afraid in those days my reaction to literature tended to be emotional rather than cerebral, and I thought Mr. Knightly needed to give her a spanking.

As time went on, I read other Austen novels, and reread them as well.  I enjoyed them thoroughly, and taught myself to stop looking at Elinor Dashwood, Anne Elliot, Catherine Morland and even Emma through the prism of Elizabeth.  The last one I read was Mansfield Park, last because I had heard that the heroine was something of a disappointment.  Fanny was more, in fact; she was a shock.  Not only was she nothing, NOTHING, like Elizabeth Bennet, but also the book contained the closest character to Elizabeth that Austen ever created:  Mary Crawford!  The villainess!

Let’s begin by considering all of Austen’s heroines, the full spectrum, in order to set Fanny clearly among them.  Six novels, six heroines.  Interestingly enough, there are two distinct categories, divided evenly among the sextet.  All of them have admirable qualities, or we wouldn’t like them, but three of them have distinct weaknesses.

Catherine Moreland, Emma Woodhouse, and, yes, Elizabeth Bennet are flawed – not in character, for heaven’s sake, but in judgment.  Catherine is naēve, infected by the gothic novels of Horace Walpole and Mrs. Radcliffe, and her lack of experience leads her into deep trouble once she arrives among the Tilneys.  She is unable to judge clearly their motives, to say nothing those of the Thorpes’.  As for Elizabeth, her judgment is too quick; it is arrived at before she has full possession of all the facts necessary to form it.  She is, as the title makes clear, easily prejudiced.  And Emma?  She has the most dangerous flaw of all:  arrogance, and the power to enforce it.  She uses her judgments to direct the lives of others, something neither of the other two do, and she very nearly destroys the future happiness of Harriet Smith as she busies herself with that young lady’s affairs.

Fortunately all three of these young women are provided with young (well, in one case, middle-aged) men that can guide them to judge properly.  Henry Tilney sets Catherine straight, and Mr. Darcy writes Elizabeth a letter.  Mr. Knightly most especially steps up to the plate in most disinterested fashion, rapping Emma’s knuckles firmly when she steps out of line.  And finally all three understand.

The other three heroines are created from their opening introductions with well-formed faculties of judgment.  Their problems are that they are surrounded by other characters of imperfect sensibilities, and they lack the power to oppose them.  Anne Elliott finds herself in the midst of a dreadful family and advised by an older woman that does not have the insight that she does; Lady Russell doesn’t spot all the remarkable qualities of Fredrick Wentworth, and just as Emma does to Harriet, she almost ruins Anne’s future happiness forever.  For a long time Anne wavers beneath her influence, but finally finds her way into Wentworth’s arms. 

Elinor Dashwood also knows exactly where her heart lies, and where her sister’s does not.  She can recognize Willoughby as a snake in the grass long before Marianne gets that message.  Elinor is the victim of her brother, her sister-in-law, and indeed the rest of her family, finally breaking down to her sister, revealing the pain she has been suffering silently during all of Marianne’s histrionics.  And at the end she receives her reward in the form of the rather wimpy (to speak frankly) Edward Ferrars.

Eventually I will sing the praises of the sixth heroine, Fanny, the third and greatest of the right-thinking heroines.  But now, let’s consider the Elizabeth Bennet look-alike, Mary Crawford.

Remember the characteristics I listed for Elizabeth? There were six:  clever, witty, spirited, really good looking, observant, and principled.  Mary has four of them in spades.  She is, we hear over and over, Really Good Looking.  She even has fine eyes!  Clever? She becomes an accomplished rider in a week.  She learns lines of the play almost as quickly as her brother.  Her wit sparkles:  “Oh, do not attack me with your watch.  A watch is always too fast or too slow.   I cannot be dictated to by a watch.” Indeed, sometimes she sparkles a little over-bright:  “Certainly my home at my uncle’s brought me acquainted with a circle of admirals.  Of Rears and Vices, I saw enough.  Now do not be suspecting me of a pun, I entreat.” Of course, not a hint of a pun.

She demonstrates her spirit often enough, even calls attention to it.  As noted, sometimes her wit gets her in trouble, as when she is making fun of the clergy in the Rushworth’s chapel, only to discover that Edmund – for whom she has set her cap – will soon be taking orders: 

Miss Crawford, rallying her spirits and recovering her complexion, replied only, “If I had known this before, I would have spoken of the cloth with more respect,’ and turned the subject.


And in another scene, when she becomes nervous about Edmund’s repudiation of plans to improve his parsonage at Thornton Lacey, she finishes a game of Speculation (a game where players buy cards from others):

[She] made a hasty finish of her dealings with William Price, and securing his knave at an exorbitant rate, exclaimed, “There, I will stake my last like a woman of spirit.  No cold prudence for me.  I am not born to sit still and do nothing.  If I lose the game, it shall not be from not striving for it.”


We all know that Mary Crawford fails utterly in the last two adjectives, i.e. observant and principled; and we also all know who succeeds in them.  I want to return to these, when I get to Fanny herself.  But I want to go to a different place for a bit.  My failure to recognize the admirable nature of Fanny Price is inexcusable, not so much because I was blinded by Elizabeth Bennet, or the Elizabeth Might-have-been Mary Crawford, but because I forgot the training I mentioned earlier, from all those literature courses in college.

Fanny Price is not an isolated literary phenomenon.  In fact, she is one of a lustrous sisterhood (with perhaps a brother tossed in) that originated with the very beginnings of the British novel.  In1748, Samuel Richardson published his second novel, the eight-volume, thousand-page Clarissa: The History of a Young Lady.  I read an abridged (though still very long) edition.  Clarissa Harlowe is a naēf, a beautiful and moral young woman pursued by a rake named Lovelace, who tricks her into running away with him and who ultimately destroys her.  Richardson earlier (1740) wrote Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded, in which Pamela Andrews, also virtuous and beautiful, is pursued by the libidinous Lord B.  Pamela manages to hold out against him and, as the title suggests, receives a happy ending for herself.  Quite clearly, Fanny’s ancestral roots lie in Samuel Richardson’s imagination, and Henry Crawford grows straight out of Lovelace/Lord B.

The second antecedent in Fanny’s family tree comes hard on the heels of Richardson, and here we find her literary brothers. Henry Fielding wrote Shamela, a parody of Pamela in 1841, and the next year published another, Joseph Andrews, the story of Pamela’s brother, who is pursued by Lady Booby.  (So that’s what Lord B.’s real name is!)  Fielding’s greatest book was Tom Jones, A Foundling, which indeed has elements of the Fanny/Crawford story in it, although it goes far beyond the Richardson concept.  Still both Joseph Andrews and Tom Jones fit right into the naēf-pursued-by-an-unprincipled-roué(ette).

There is a final branch to Fanny’s literary tree, and it remains an interesting question whether Austen ever read it.  In 1782, when she was 7, the French writer Pierre Choderlos de Laclos wrote an extraordinary novel titled Les Liaisons dangereuses.  Here, a nobleman, Vicomte de Valmont, joins with a noblewoman, the jaded Marquise de Merteuil, to seduce a young virtuous girl named Cécile de Volanges.  He does so, after many machinations, and the result is tragic for everyone.

There’s a real question of how Jane Austen could have heard about Laclos’s work. F. W. Bradbrook in Oxford Journals, Feb. 1954, p. 75, suggests that Eliza de Feuillide, Jane’s most exotic cousin, who was married to a French nobleman during the 1780’s, might have introduced her to it.  Bradbrook notes, “Lady Susan and Mary Crawford have the same polish, cynicism, and ruthlessness as la Marquise de Merteuil in Laclos’ novel, while Henry Crawford possesses a combination of intelligence and heartlessness similar to Valmont.

Without question Richardson, Fielding, and Laclos created masterpieces; and although all three may seem a bit risqué as sources for a country parson’s daughter, even one as clever, witty, spirited, observant, and principled as Jane, somehow their influence is present in Mansfield Park, most especially that of Laclos, who includes a Mary Crawford figure in the Marquise de Merteuil, I should have recognized at once where Mary came from, and it certainly wasn’t from Elizabeth Bennet.

[Let me digress a tiny bit.  One of my favorite women in fiction appeared in 1881, a direct descendant of the Clarissa/Fanny line:  Isobel Archer, Henry James’s heroine of Portrait of a Lady.  Isabel also meets another nasty couple, reminiscent of the Crawfords, very much like Valmont and Merteuil:  Gilbert Osmond, a vicious aesthete; and Madame Merle, a vicious conniver.  Isabel fares much worse than Fanny does, but she accepts her fate with admirable resolution.    I don’t want to go any further here than to make clear that Fanny is an admirable sister in a proud literary heritage.  How could I have missed her!]

Once I was able to put Elizabeth Bennet and Mary Crawford aside, I could see Fanny for what she is.  Like Clarissa, Joseph Andrews, Cécile, and Isabel, she is put under tremendous pressure by unscrupulous cads who possess great power over her.  For Fanny, it’s not just the Crawfords, either; all the Bertrams – Julia, Maria, Tom, Lady Bertram (in her whiny passive way), Sir Thomas, and even Edmund, to say nothing of the frightful Mrs. Norris – push her around like broomed dirt.  There’s no hope from the Price quarter; even William effectually uses her for his advancement.  She is absolutely alone.

So now I return to the six adjectives I ascribed to Elizabeth Bennet: clever, witty, spirited, really good looking, observant, and principled.  The first two are not immediately apparent.  “Clever”?  Well, for Fanny to have survived at Mansfield Park from the age of nine, among the indifference of three of her cousins and the active malevolence of her aunt Norris, suggests that she must have picked up some skills rapidly.  She certainly understands the implications of actions and remarks a lot more quickly than the others do.  One of my favorite moments with Fanny comes when Sir Thomas insists that she take the coach to the Grants’ dinner party, after Mrs. Norris has expressly told her that she should walk.  Sir Thomas says, “Will twenty minutes after four suit you?”

“Yes, sir,” was Fanny’s humble answer, given with the feelings almost of a criminal towards Mrs. Norris; and not bearing to remain with her in what might seem a state of triumph, she followed him out of the room, having stayed behind him only long enough to hear these words spoken in angry agitation – “Quite unnecessary!  A great deal too kind! – (192)


“Witty” may not at all seem to suit Fanny, yet once in a while she does reveal a sense of irony.  As the young Bertrams, et al., debate which play should be performed, “Fanny looked on and listened, not unamused to observe the selfishness which, more or less disguised, seemed to govern them all…”

But “spirited”?  Watch her refuse to act in the play.  Or hear her stand up to Sir Thomas when he tries to tell her to accept Henry Crawford.  It’s not spirit in the sense of Julia fighting for the part of Agatha (she loses, but she shows lots of ire before she does), but it’s that spirit of quiet indomitability.  Fanny simply won’t budge.

 “Observant”? This adjective has described her all along.  Her powers of observation allow her to survive, and to prevail. She sees through the meretricious, the perverse, the deceitful.  When Edmund writes to her of his continued attraction to Mary Crawford, Fanny unbends, at least to herself:

He [Edmund] is blinded, and nothing will open his eyes – nothing can, after having had truths before him so long in vain… “So very fond of me!” ‘tis nonsense all.  She [Mary] loves nobody but herself and her brother….


Of course she is absolutely spot on. 

And as for “principled,” she is peerless among Austen’s heroines.  Unlike Catherine, Elizabeth, and Emma, she never needs correction.  Like Anne and Elinor, Fanny remains faithful to the social contract, to that which she understands is right and proper; but among them Fanny suffers most for holding to her principles – and she resists most strongly all pressure to abandon them.  Considered in this light, she is quite awesome.

Oops.  I nearly forgot the last adjective: “really good looking.” It seems hopeless for a while, but before the novel is half done, Fanny is looking better and better.  When she is ready for the ball, Sir Thomas “saw with pleasure the general elegance of her appearance, and her being in remarkable good looks.” Consider this: Henry Crawford wouldn’t be sniffing around her if she weren’t reasonably attractive.  Finally Edmund wakes up, and with him, so do I:  “what was there now to add, but that he should learn to prefer soft light eyes to sparkling dark ones?” (409) Ah, we all have to let go of the eyes of Elizabeth Bennet!  Even Edmund!  Even I!