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|Jane Austen, Fanny Price, and Mansfield Park
Written by KatharineW
(10/22/2010 12:36 p.m.)
In Amy Bloom’s introduction to my Modern Library Classics edition of “Persuasion” (no, I am not wandering into “Austenuations” territory) David Nokes’s Jane Austen: A Life is cited multiple times to support Ms. Bloom’s premise that Austen and Anne Elliot are one.
You don’t need a biography to prove that a little of an author lives in each of her characters. However, as I was reading the cited excerpts from this Austen biography, I was struck by the number of events in Jane’s life which were included in Fanny’s.
Both women knew what it was to live under straitened circumstances. Both women had either been a witness to someone being given (in this case it was Jane at the age of eight) or the subject of being given to another family (Fanny). Jane’s brother who later became an adopted member of the Knights was given by his family to these wealthy but childless cousins. It is my understanding that he saw little of his birth family after this. Prior to this, another (developmentally disabled) brother was given to distant caregivers and no more home came he.
Jane Austen’s mother, like Frances Ward, married “down market.” Jane Austen’s father was not a drunken half-pay marine, however. He was a clergyman, but as the family’s resources dwindled after the death of the “Handsome Proctor,” Jane’s mother became a valetudinarian and took to her sofa and/or bed where she suffered conspicuously from ailments that were largely of her own imagining. Hmmm, Frances Price meet Maria Bertram née Ward.
Jane Austen’s father encouraged her to write and offered as much spiritual support as possible. It is my belief that he appears (in a more glorious form) in “Mansfield Park” as Edmund Bertram, a quiet handsome man who genuinely looks forward to a life of serving as a country parson. Who can say, perhaps in the future that we are not permitted to see, Fanny and Edmund have a daughter with a gift for writing.
As I re-read “Mansfield Park” I could not get sweet baby Jane out of my mind. What did she really feel while acting as the observer and journalist of her family? Did her exceptional talents for self-expression and her clear view of human nature make her feel as Fanny Price must have felt on her return to purgatorial Portsmouth after heavenly Mansfield Park?
Does Jane Austen’s less than reverent depiction of motherhood find its origins in her own mother who gave away two of her children? Is rollicking, devil-may-care Tom Bertram portrayed as Jane Austen imagined her absent, now-to-the-manor-born brother to be? Tom certainly did not seem too overwrought at the idea of his own expenses curtailing his brother’s portion. (To the best of my knowledge Edward Austen who later took the name Edward Knight did not seem to help his birth family in any significant fashion.)
In “Mansfield Park” we have a very wide range of womanhood: the indolent and all-but-comatose Lady Bertram, obnoxiously and obtrusively busy-at-nothing-of-any-real-importance Mrs. Norris, the shallow Bertram daughters, worldly, witty, sophisticated Mary Crawford, her sweet oblivious to all evil sister, poor overwhelmed Frances Price, sensible Susan, and then there is faithful and faith-filled Fanny.
Is Jane Austen really Fanny Price? I think so. But I also think that she is the Dashwood sisters, Elizabeth Bennet, Emma, and Anne Elliot. To a degree she is also Willoughby, Henry Crawford, and her other heroes, heroines, vixens, and villains. But is Jane Austen really Fanny? Yes, I believe she is. This deep and often dark novel seems to have been inspired by many of the events that Jane Austen experienced in her own life.
While reading “Mansfield Park,” I was struck by how closely the omniscient narrator is to her heroine. Fanny’s meekness is anything but an outward manifestation of weakness. Jane Austen despite increasing poverty and ill-health wrote a series of novels that are among the masterworks of English literature.
In her own way, Fanny stands up for what she believes to be right. She reminds me of the shy wild violet that somehow pushes much heavier snow out of its path so that we may see the lovely flower despite the fact that Spring is still weeks away.
Coldness cannot stop her. Fanny survives and eventually sees Mrs. Norris pushed out of her way. Indifference cannot thwart her. Fanny has her own agenda. If she cannot achieve all of her goals, she achieves a sufficient number to make a difference in the lives of those around her and for herself. Deliberate malfeasance does not stop her. Our beautiful shy violet may shrink away from the Crawfords but they are not able to destroy her or get her to abandon the persons and tenets she holds dear. Considering the nearly lethal charm of this brother-sister force of nature, Fanny’s survival is no small feat.
Jane Austen was not rich. She did not benefit from the wealth of her mother’s family. Jane Austen was not always in the best of health. Jane Austen’s travels were tightly circumscribed––there were no jaunts to the continent for her. Yet, somehow, like a violet her quiet presence moved outward from her series of ever-smaller homes into the surrounding countryside until the power of her imagination and the technical brilliance of her writing captured the fervent attention and admiration of all the world.
To paraphrase one of the many screen plays inspired by her creativity: To the majestic Milton, and the demi-god Shakespeare, I would add Victorious Jane Austen who was so very much a real woman and whose humanity has given us a heroine in Fanny Price that we all can aspire to be. For me, Mansfield Park is real. Fanny Price is real. And I have benefitted tremendously from frequently visiting the former and sharing the quiet, titanic triumph of the latter.
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