Mansfield Park: Jane Austen’s Upside-Down Town

It’s time for my second Jane Austen-related post! Because 2014 is the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mansfield Park, which I (and probably many others) consider to be Jane Austen’s “problem novel.”

I’ve been thinking about Mansfield Park quite a lot recently, in part because of another blog I follow, called sarahemsley.com.  I’m grateful to Sarah for posting thought-provoking essays in celebration of Mansfield Park this year.

Fanny Price is the Jane Austen heroine whose character and actions inspire the most debate, in my opinion. If you’ll allow me to over-simplify (and you will, because this is my blog), the debate tends to fall sharply into two camps, consisting of “Fanny’s a wimp!” versus “No, she’s not!”

I, as a quiet, soft-spoken person, fall into the latter camp. No surprise there.

I think that Jane Austen felt that she had already done the spirited, witty, extroverted heroine with Lizzy Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. I am sure that she made a deliberate decision, in Mansfield Park, to try an entirely different kind of heroine. Moreover, I think she also decided to try an inversion of the hero/heroine relationship she had created in her previous novel.

Fanny Price is unlike Lizzy Bennet in many ways, not the least of which is her “quiet, passive manner.” However, Fanny is unlike Lizzy in another, more significant way. Fanny is an observer. She can see what is happening right in front of her, and succeeds in drawing accurate and meaningful conclusions about people and relationships around her. Consider how different this is from Lizzy, who upbraids herself for being “wretchedly blind” when she realizes the value of Mr. Darcy’s affection for her. In contrast, Fanny says to her cousin Edmund, “I was quiet, but I was not blind.” At the conclusion of the novel, we see that Fanny is invariably spot on in her observations of other people. She was right to refuse a marriage proposal from the unprincipled Henry Crawford, and she was right when she saw that Mary Crawford was no matrimonial catch for her cousin Edmund.

However, there is a blind person in Mansfield Park, and that is the hero, Fanny’s cousin Edmund Bertram. He believes himself to be in love with Mary Crawford, when in reality he is infatuated with her charming manners and witty conversation. He dismisses Fanny’s observations about the Crawfords. And most of all, he is blind to the merit of his cousin, Fanny Price, who has been in love with him since childhood.

Just like Lizzy (“wretchedly blind”) and later, Emma Woodhouse (“I seem to have been doomed to blindness”), Edmund isn’t punished for his earlier failure to see and value what was right in front of his nose. He is rewarded with the love of and marriage to his cousin.

So, we see that in Mansfield Park, Jane Austen turns the hero/heroine relationship upside-down. Her heroine, Fanny, is the astute observer, just as are Mr. Darcy and Mr. Knightley; and the hero, Edmund, is the blind one. I am grateful that Jane Austen achieved something completely different in Mansfield Park, giving us a heroine who is as morally uncompromising and keenly observant as the gentlemen who wield much more power both in the novels and the society they depict.

I just don’t know why we can’t forgive Fanny for being observant and morally righteous, when we are happy to accept that in Darcy and Mr. Knightley. I don’t know why we can’t forgive Edmund for being blind to what’s happening around him, when we are happy to have Lizzy and Emma rewarded for the same fault. Maybe, 200 years later, we’re still uncomfortable with flipping gender roles in this way.

And that, my dears, shows the extraordinary power of Jane Austen.

Love you & leave you,

Hobbie DeHoy

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