Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

The underrated heroine…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Fanny Price, daughter of a woman who married beneath her and a feckless drunken father, is one of many siblings, all living in relative poverty in Portsmouth. When Mrs Price appeals to her sisters for assistance, they hatch the plan of taking Fanny into their own care, thus relieving Mrs Price of the need to provide for her. Fanny is promptly transplanted from all she has ever known to the, to her, huge house of Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram, to be brought up alongside their daughters, although always as the poor relation. Here Fanny will grow up, treated kindly to a degree, but expected always to defer to her cousins and to be grateful to her uncle and aunts. Sir Thomas also has two sons, already almost grown up when Fanny joins the family, and the younger of these, Edmund, will become her protector and friend. And Fanny’s lonely little heart will respond to his true kindness…

(What follows is mildly spoilery, but I think we all know how every Austen novel ends…)

Fanny is a shy and self-effacing soul, and her modesty, lack of ready wit and frequent moralising mean that she’s often treated as the least of Austen’s heroines. I’ve always had a soft spot for her, though, and for the novel as a whole, which may not have the sparkling charm of Pride and Prejudice or Northanger Abbey but in some ways gives a broader view of the society within which Austin lived and wrote.

There’s no doubt that Fanny’s quietness and strong moral values do make her harder to warm to as quickly as a Lizzie Bennet or even an Anne Elliot. But she’s deceptively strong-willed and even defiant of the passive role demanded of all women to some degree, but especially of the poor relation, dependent on charity. As a contrast to Anne Elliot, famously persuaded by her relatives to refuse the man she loved, Fanny is clear in her own mind that love is the only foundation for a marriage, and refuses to be forced into a match her relatives think is not just suitable, but wildly above what she could have reasonably hoped for.

Of course, she takes it for granted, being a sensible little thing, that one should only fall in love with a respectable and wealthy young man – she has the example of her mother’s downfall to remind her of the perils of marrying an unsuitable man. And she’s also protected from the dangers of falling for the first man to admire her because she has already given her heart to Edmund. Nonetheless, she has to be admired for standing firm and demanding her right to make her own decisions.

It’s not only on the marital question that she shows that firmness of character, or stubbornness, if one wants to be less kind about it. All through her story she refuses to compromise her own moral judgements by acceding to the wishes of the more assertive characters by whom she’s surrounded, on small issues as well as large. It’s understandable that the people around her find her annoying sometimes, and I’m sure I would too if she were a friend or relative of mine, but as a character it makes her considerably more interesting than some of the more pathetic women in 19th century literature.

Book 90 of 90
Finished!

Intriguingly she doesn’t just live by a pre-determined set of morals handed to her by her society – she thinks deeply about right and wrong, and comes to her own conclusions. Commentary on the book suggests Austen was using this to show the rise of Evangelical Christianity at the time – it’s not something I know much about, but I find it a convincing argument. To me, the more important aspect is that, while she outwardly defers to Edmund’s more educated and experienced outlook on questions of religion and morality, in fact it is she who influences and strengthens his views. He comes to recognise her moral strength in time, but Fanny is far too clever to ever let him suspect that she is deliberately setting out to mould him into her ideal of manhood. Perhaps Fanny doesn’t even realise herself that that’s what she’s doing, but there’s no doubt in my mind who will make all the important decisions for them both throughout their lives, once she finishes training him!

The outside world plays a role in the book too, though mostly off stage. Sir Thomas’ long absence in his plantation means that much has been written regarding whether the book can be interpreted as supporting or opposing slavery. In my opinion it does neither – it merely recognises that at that time many families in Britain owed their wealth to slavery, a simple truth. What we do see though is the role of men as landowners and householders, the suitable career options for the non-aristocratic wealthy, and the changing views on the Church as a sinecure for younger sons. We are also reminded of the restricted circumstances of this class of women, though interestingly all of the younger women in the book rebel against these in one way or another. Most of these rebellions end in social disaster for the women involved, but the book gives little sense of moral disapproval of their attempts to break free. Austen seems to disapprove of the silly ways they go about it rather than of the idea of rebellion itself. She uses Fanny to show how quiet, determined rebellion can be more successful than flamboyant gestures, and she largely reserves her disapproval for the men.

Jane Austen

As always, there’s far too much in any of these major classics to discuss in a reasonable length blog post, so I’ll finish with one last thing that I particularly enjoy about this book – that Austen takes us out of wealthy society to visit Fanny’s parents’ home in Portsmouth, showing us this naval town during the Napoleonic era, and allowing Fanny to recognise the comforts that wealth provides. Again I’d love to claim that Austen was making some point other than that money is a Good Thing, but I fear she isn’t. She does make it clear that wealth doesn’t guarantee health or happiness, but she doesn’t mawkishly pretend that poverty, even the relative poverty of Fanny’s family, is in any way romantic or better.

One of my favourite Austens (but then I say that about them all), and one that is often overlooked or underrated. She may not have as much fun as Lizzie, and Edmund is not a hero I’d particularly want to marry myself, but Fanny knows what she wants and has the strength of mind and character to get it, and she deserves to be admired for that!

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54 thoughts on “Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

    • It was lovely to get back to Austen after a few years away from her, so I highly recommend a re-read! I’m now trying to work our how to fit Sense and Sensibility in again. 😀

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  1. I love this one as well; Fanny is as you say stronger than she comes across and something that stands out more given her circumstances. I had this on my reread list last year but then couldn’t manage–must do it soon. I love the scene where Lady Bertram confers the ultimate honour on Fanny–one of Pug’s pups🐶🐶

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    • Haha, yes, the sign of ultimate approval! Yes, it’s easy for an Emma to be determined and headstrong in her social position, but Fanny is much braver to stick up for herself, given how easily she could be cast off from the family. In fact, I had forgotten that Sir Thomas sort of threatens her with that when she refuses to marry her unsuitable suitor. I hope you manage to fit in a re-read soon!

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  2. And you haven’t even mentioned the glamorous couple who very nearly disrupt things – who seem so much more interesting than Fanny and Edmund. A very clever book and underrated, as you say.

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    • Ha, I know – I’ve given up trying to write full reviews of these major classics – too much in them! I do like the baddies in this one more than usual – they’re given much more motivation and are really both just weak rather than deliberately bad. (And secretly, I do think Fanny’s life might have been more fun if she’d married Henry… 😉 )

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  3. I’ve read that Austen actually intended readers to love Fanny, but that most people found her very priggish. It always amuses me that people hold Jane Austen’s books up as an example of conservatism and morality, and forget that she was writing *before* the Victorians. All sorts goes on in her books – Maria Bertram leaves her hubby and runs off with another bloke, Lydia Bennet very obviously sleeps with Mr Wickham before they’re married, and Mr Willoughby fathers an illegitimate child.

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    • You’re right – nearly every one of her books has a scandal in it somewhere, and the women especially are much more complex than most of the true Victorian women. Fanny is a great character, but I expect I’d have found her too preachy in real life. Lizzie would be much more fun to have as a friend!

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  4. This has always been a favourite of mine so I’m glad to see it getting some love. I read all the Austens when I was around 12 or 13, as so many of us did, but this was the only one I liked at the time (with maybe an honorable mention for Persuasion). I was so shy and awkward that Elizabeth Bennet and Emma Woodhouse seemed completely intimidating and totally unrelatable! Reserved, timid Fanny won my heart immediately instead. I always thought she was in many respects the “strongest” of Austen’s heroines, because she had so much to overcome in terms of her own anxiety and social stigma etc, yet wouldn’t be bullied into going against her conscience or making an unwise marriage – even though her rich relations have so much power over her. Not that Edmund is necessarily a *good* choice, but I think he’s likely to be a more stable husband than Henry Crawford, at least!

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    • I think I only read P&P and Sense and Sensibility when I was around that age, and the rest maybe when I was about twenty or so. Lizzie will always be my favourite, but I like all her heroines for different reasons, except Emma whom I don’t enjoy as much as the others. Fanny is the most deceptive, I think – she ought to be as pathetic as one of Dickens’ trembling nonentities but she’s not at all! Her eventual fate isn’t a fairytale ending because she’s worked so hard for it, but not in a manipulative way. She just knows what she wants and keeps on being herself until she gets it. Personally I’d much rather have married Henry but each to her own… 😉

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  5. I’m also very fond of Fanny. I can see a reread of all of Austen’s books coming up soon for me. Perhaps I’ll even get to like Emma, the only heroine who really got under my skin. And well done on completing the list! 👏👏

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    • Thank you, though of course now I have another list of 80 to read! 😉 I realised I haven’t put any Austen on my new list and I’m now trying to work out how to fit her in – I can’t go for five years without an Austen fix! I feel an urgent need to re-read Sense and Sensibility… 😀

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    • Thank you! I’m now in the mood to re-read the others again, starting with Sense and Sensibility, I think. I think that’s probably the true definition of a classic – a book you never want to stop re-reading! 😀

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  6. I do love the way Austen created strong female characters. There are lots of ways to show that strength, and I think it’s to Austen’s credit that Fanny has a credible, perhaps quieter strength. And, as you say, there’s nothing like Austen’s way of turning a mirror on the world in which she lived!

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    • Her female characters are so good – each of her heroines is different from the others and while there’s always a happy ending, they all get there by the exercise of their own strengths within the restrictions placed on them. Fanny is the most deceptive of them, I think – she seems so meek and pliable, but isn’t!

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  7. Yay! I’m so glad to see this review. I feel the same way about Fanny and certainly about Edmund, who is my least favorite of the Austen heroes. But I have heard others complain about this book though I loved it.

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    • Ha, I must admit I’ve always felt Fanny would have had far more fun and excitement in her life if she’d married Henry – Edmund would bore me to death in an evening! But each to her own, and Fanny knew her own mind… 😉

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  8. I think this is one I either read so long ago that I don’t recall the details, or have on my bookshelves and have never read it. Chalk it up to all of the brain cells I’ve lost throughout the years. But now you make me want to find it in my stacks.

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    • Ha, I constantly find that I haven’t read classics I was sure I’d read years ago – I suspect our brains get confused by all the adaptations of them! Definitely worth hunting through your stacks for this one – Austen is always enjoyable!

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  9. Such an interesting review FF and I agree entirely! I also really liked the way the novel goes to Portsmouth, I thought we got to see behind the scenes of all those gallant red coats. And feckless is a great word!

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    • Thank you! Yes, I loved the Portsmouth section – very different from any of her other locations, and I thought she depicted it very well. And I liked seeing Fanny begin to recognise all the advantages she’d got so used to!

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      • And Fanny’s realisation is all the more poignant because she is so quiet and earnest, brilliant. And I didn’t say Congratulations on your ‘finished!’ hooray!!!

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        • Haha, thank you! Now I just have the 80 books on my second list to worry about… 😉 Yes, Fanny would never be a gold-digger but it was interesting to see her realise that wealth had become important to her.

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  10. I haven’t read this one, so I’m glad for your review, FF. Your enjoyment of the book comes through quite clearly! And now your Classics Club Challenge is finished — woo hoo for you!!

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    • Haha, yes, but now my second Classics Club Challenge awaits! Never mind, only 80 books… 😉 This one was a lovely re-read – I’d saved it specially as a reward to myself for finishing. 😀

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    • I agree – I thought it showed much more of the world and of different levels of society than her other books, especially the Portsmouth section. Definitely an underrated one!

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  11. Congratulations on finishing your first list!! Now you can concentrate on list two!

    Sorry… I’m not tempted by this. 😉 Maybe Northanger Abbey will win me over.

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    • Haha, yes, a woman’s work is never done! 😉 Northanger Abbey is delightful – probably the most straightforwardly entertaining of them all, I think. And the heroine in it is very easy to like. 😀

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    • Thank you! Haha, of course now I’m doing my second list – but only 80 books this time! 😀 Yes, I thought it sounded feasible but didn’t feel qualified to judge if that was really what Austen was doing. Sometimes I think academics see things that may not exist… 😉

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    • Ah, now I want to know what your first favourite is! Mine’s probably Pride and Prejudice just for the sheer enjoyability, but I think several of the others really say more about her society.

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    • Thank you! It had been a long time since I last read it too, and there was lots in it I’d forgotten. Well worth a re-read if you can find time! Ha, thanks – now all I have to worry about is the 80 books on my second list… 😉

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  12. Glad to see such a positive review of this one, I’ve always liked it a lot and had it up near the top of my Austen list. I love Fanny and her quiet morals and the way she, as you say, thinks about things properly.

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    • I’m glad to hear that Fanny has so many supporters! It is a quieter more thoughtful book than the more sparkly ones like Pride and Prejudice, but it’s just as good in a different way.

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  13. I’ve never read this one, and I don’t necessarily lean towards loving Austen in general, but I didn’t mind reading her books when they were assigned to me in school (which is probably the last time I read one!). So you have read 90 of your 90 books – what does this mean? What comes next?

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    • I know people from all around the world love Austen but I always think of her as a particularly English writer, so I can quite see how you would enjoy them without particularly loving them. Haha, well, now onto the second list, but this time I’m only going for 80 books! 😉

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  14. I’ve always been fond of this one, and Fanny, myself. It’s been a long time since I read it though, and I know I missed a lot at the time. But that’s what’s great about the classics; there’s always something to reward your return. I really enjoyed your review–I had no idea that there was any thought that Austen might have been referencing the rise of Evangelical Christianity, so that’s something interesting to think about.

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    • Yes, every time I read a classic I realise that I’ve forgotten as much as I’ve remembered! That really is what makes them fun and makes it possible to read them again and again throughout a lifetime. I only came across the question of the Evangelical Christianity aspect when I started looking for background information. I kind of got what they meant although my knowledge of the Evangelical Christian movement is very basic. I’m sure that it would be even more interesting to someone with some knowledge of the early days of that movement.

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  15. I have to admit this is my least favourite of Austen’s novels, although I think they are all great in their on way, so my least favourite Austen is still leagues above many other authors’ novels. However it is not Fanny’s fault but Edmund’s for this – I don’t think he really deserves her and I feel a little sorry for Henry: he saw Fanny’s worth while Edmund is blindly following Mary round like a love sick puppy! 😅

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    • I agree that Edmund is the least inspiring Austen hero, but for some reason Fanny loved him so I’m happy she got what she wanted! And yes, I always wonder how Henry would have turned out if Fanny had accepted him when he first proposed. Would that have made him more likely to stay faithful or would he still have flirted with Maria?

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