One engaging feature of Austen’s novels is her technique of aligning character traits with their natural (as in nature) affinities or aversions. Elizabeth Bennet’s appreciation for talent and virtue over money and rank is reflected in her reaction to the grounds of Pemberley, i.e., that their “…natural beauty had been so little counteracted by an awkward taste”; Marianne Dashwood’s propensity for dwelling upon loss is reflected in her musings upon Norland’s dead leaves. Mrs. Elton’s affectation is comically rendered in the running monologue that expresses her eroding zeal for strawberry picking. There is an allusion to Catherine Morland’s maturing in an exchange between her and Tilney; when she says that she has learned to love a hyacinth – the flower symbolizing the juvenile attributes of playfulness and sport – he asks whether she might then learn to love a rose – the flower symbolic of romantic love. The selfishness of Sir Walter Elliot and his eldest daughter corresponds to their reluctance to allow a tenant to enjoy the use of their gardens. Sir Walter is “…not fond of the idea of my shrubberies being always approachable [by a tenant]”, and Anne has been dispatched to instruct the gardener in “…which of Elizabeth’s plants are for Lady Russell” – presumably to preserve them from Kellynch’s new occupants.
In Mansfield Park, when Fanny Price and Mary Crawford stroll the parsonage grounds, their conversation expresses Fanny’s appreciation of nature and Mary’s indifference to it, but the particular object of Fanny’s admiration are the evergreens. “The evergreen! How beautiful, how welcome, how wonderful the evergreen!” Even while Mansfield Park is symbolically channeled through Fanny – her musing on how the same soil can nurture such variety of plants represents the disparate characters who occupy or pass through the Bertram estate – it is the unchanging evergreen, the manifestation of permanence, fidelity, immutability and self-renewal that embodies the character of Fanny Price.
Yet, every so often, Austen readers will encounter an article or a speaker whose topic is something on the order of “In Defense of Fanny Price”; “defense” implying that Fanny Price is deficient when compared to Austen’s other heroines, and therefore requires vindication. Even C. S. Lewis, in “A Note on Jane Austen” maintained that Fanny had “…nothing but rectitude of mind; neither passion, nor physical courage, nor wit, nor resource.” True, she is not as witty as Elizabeth Bennet, nor as passionate as Marianne Dashwood, and her resources are not tested in the manner that Catherine Morland’s are; moreover, Fanny is not as beautiful as Jane Bennet, nor as accomplished as Jane Fairfax; she does not even provide the comic intervals that the reader enjoys by way of Mrs. Bennet or Mrs. Elton.
Fanny Price is the only Austen heroine who is defined by intrinsic virtue and moral integrity, rather than her failures of character and objectivity. Elizabeth Bennet is susceptible to prejudice, Marianne Dashwood is emotionally indulgent, Emma is self-important and manipulative, Catherine Morland’s limited intellect is warped by popular novels and self-serving acquaintances, Anne Elliot abdicates her natural good judgment in favor of well-meaning (and not-so-well-meaning) relations and friends. As their tales advance, the mechanics of plot are linked to the flawed heroine’s self-realization and eventual contrition. “These recollections will not do at all,” concludes Elizabeth Bennet. “I assure you that I have long been most heartily ashamed [of her language].” Marianne states that, “Whenever I look towards the past I saw some duty neglected or some failing indulged.” Emma comes to hope that “…every future winter of her life…would yet find her more rational, more acquainted with herself, and leave her less to regret when it were gone.” When Catherine understands how far her imagination has offended Henry Tilney, it “…opened her eyes to the extravagance of her late fancies”. Even while the long-suffering Anne justifies her deference to Lady Russell, she concedes that “…for myself, I certainly never should in any circumstance of tolerable similarity, give such advice.”
In contrast, Fanny is always correct. Her affection is never misplaced, her character assessments are borne out in a plot that, rather than exposing her errors of judgment, reveals where the judgment of the others has gone awry.
Fanny experiences unhappiness, but no moral regret, unless you count those “…feelings so near akin to envy as to make her hate herself for having them.” Her uncomplaining submission to the indolence of Lady Bertram and the tyranny of Mrs. Norris may aggravate the reader; her steadiness, when compared to the spirited repartee of Elizabeth Bennet or the resolute folly of Emma or Catherine, may appear static and colorless. If Fanny does not possess the buoyancy and wit of Austen’s other heroines, she does have – without the accompanying advantages of wealth, status, accomplishment or even physical stamina – a moral intuition that is as intriguing (considering the households in which she was raised) as cleverness and charm.
Fanny may not, as Lewis observes, have “physical courage” (though I think the same may be said for most of Austen’s heroines), but she does have to draw upon emotional reserves in a way that other heroines (with the possible exception of Elinor Dashwood) do not; Elizabeth, Anne, Catherine, Emma may face an obstacle to romance, but the obstacle does not materialize in the form of a competitor. Darcy is not attached to Anne deBourgh, nor would Knightley ever marry Harriet Smith; Wentworth dallies with Louisa and Henrietta without being serious about either, and Tilney is not in love with anyone else. Even Willoughby’s choice is a matter of fortune rather than affection. But Fanny does have a rival for Edmund’s affection in the beautiful and accomplished Mary Crawford. Unlike Darcy, Tilney, Knightley, or even Edward Ferrars or Willoughby, Edmund Bertram is the one Austen hero who falls in love with someone other than the heroine. Unlike Fanny’s response to Henry Crawford, Edmund rationalizes Mary’s impropriety, and continues to hope that she will overlook the fact that he is a second son and a clergyman, until her sentiments prove to be so corrupt that Edmund cannot continue to justify them. Fanny, on the other hand, is able to witness Henry’s newly-expressed gentleness and consideration, without weakening, and views it as sign that he may just enough of a changed character that he will “not much longer persevere in a suit so distressing to her”. She can appreciate the improvement in his conduct, but her opinion of him as a potential husband is not swayed.
Perhaps in an era where undeserving “celebrities” reap undeserved attention there are those who consider “rectitude of mind” to be “nothing”. But Austen readers should know better.