Mansfield Park: the value of marginal people

The reason Jane Austen remains popular is the enormous extent to which she is misunderstood. It may be impossible to be popular for the right reasons. If you’re really a truth teller you’d better be funny because otherwise they will kill you. That’s why she’s funny. She’s funny about human nature, which doesn’t change. Any writer who presents human nature as it really is will last.

That’s a composite quote from Fran Lebowitz’s comments on Jane Austen for the Morgan Library. The image of Austen as a romance writer — or indeed anything other than a careful, observant social writer — does a lot to put people off her work. Silly adaptations don’t help. There’s even a Jane Austen day, something I despise having found out about. If someone told me as a teenager that Fanny Price was a nerd who was vindicated about everything, I would have read Austen a lot more.

Behind what Marilyn Butler called “the façade of a courtship novel” this book is a masterpiece at exposing irrationality, ignorance, bias, and endless “small acts of social cowardice or treachery” — the sort of things politics is full of, that we have to navigate in our workplaces, and which some people happily tolerate in experts. As a novel of conversations, all of which are variations on the theme of substance and illusion, or willingly ignoring what is sensible and factual for what has status or is fashionable, Mansfield Park is the novel we need today.

The worst people of covid were the Mrs Norris types, the ones who were so short sighted, so wrong, so angry, they could literally only hear themselves. It is easier and easier to expose them and mock them, just as Austen did. We see Mrs Norris in other political arguments, too. When she says she cannot house Fanny because she has to save money, and that she’s only saving money for the benefit of her niece’s inheritance, she is a NIMBY to the word.

Austen understood how people thought and it is remarkable just how recognisable her characters are. When Edmund explains that his intention to be a clergyman was biased by the fact his father could give him a living, but that this bias was blameless because he wanted to be a clergyman anyway, and Mary Crawford doesn’t understand, he could be a rationalist talking to a journalist, an economist talking to an activist.

What startled me most was the way that office dynamics were so clear and fresh in this novel of a Regency country house. Anyone who has been in a pitch meeting where everything gets discussed and nothing decided will recognise the scene where the young people decide which play to put on. Fanny’s inability to make herself heard, and when she is heard to make herself understood, despite the fact that she is self-evidently right, might smack not a few middle-managers as familiar.

Despite her reticence, Fanny Price is no push over. Quiet people are often assumed to lack assertion. In fact, they can be the least conformist: others are too busy conforming to notice what the quiet ones can see all too clearly. She’s a bookworm, especially of biographies, and she sees the fundamentals of who will have to give way to whom. It is easier to make good decisions about a hierarchy when you are not trying to subversively scramble up it. Nerds, innocents, and people who can think clearly about basic principles often find ways to prosper by ignoring status games: Fanny Price is a splendid archetype of that sort of person.

Mary Crawford praises Fanny saying: “your sweet looks and conversation were altogether in the most delicious harmony.” But these are things on the surface. Mary has no skill for intuiting deeper currents. She is trying to manipulate Fanny with vague flattery. In fact, it is naive for Mary Crawford to think Fanny is harmonious and to disregard other characters’ immoral conduct.

“It is everybody’s duty to do as well for themselves as they can,” she says. Austen is ironising the word “well” here, playing on the dual meaning of materially well and morally well. Fanny’s “harmonious” appearance means Mary thinks her malleable, easily incorporated into everyone’s plans to “do well for themselves” — in fact, Fanny is the only one who holds her nerve in the face of what she does not want and does not approve of.

There are many who dislike Fanny. I haven’t seen any adaptations, nor do I plan to — they make Fanny more acceptable, more rebellious, more feminist. Disliking Fanny, or thinking she is a failure of a character, is alien to me. Fanny is marginal. She hides. She conceals herself, physically and emotionally. She is the sort of person that the confident and accomplished find irritating. She lacks ideological stature. The suave will find her cloying. Attentive readers will often think that Fanny’s silence is far preferable to the yapping of the other characters. Apply that analogy as liberally as you like to modern life. It goes far.

“I begin now to understand you all, except Miss Price,” says Mary Crawford. Austen anticipated critics of Fanny in this remark. The book is laden with clear and obvious signals that Mary is malicious and Fanny is good. The fact that Fanny doesn’t give in and do what she is told, stays true to her own conscience, and gets what she wants in the end, makes her the only independent woman in the book — as close to independent as women at that time could be.

John Mullen called her “a heroine condemned to suffer in secret and powerlessly to watch the follies of others” — we are, in our own lives, much more likely to be Fanny Price than Lizzie Bennet. Some people think she is like Cinderella — a clear nonsense. Cinderella is good but untested. Fanny rejects the sinful temptations of Henry Crawford and the near-lawful injunctions of her uncle. What is most dislikable in Fanny — her priggishness, for want of an accurate word — the complacency or naivety some people see in her — is changed by her visit to Portsmouth.

What comes across most strongly though is that Fanny can learn about her prejudices, unlike many other characters, and that she was right all along. Heroines must be vindicated, as Fanny is. She struggles with her life both materially and morally. Her complacency is a facade — what people really object to is Fanny’s conservatism. She is not a straightforward character to transpose onto modern values, unlike Lizzie Bennet.

“A book is not supposed to be a mirror. A book is supposed to be a door.” That’s another Fran Lebowitz observations. We can see so much that is enduring about human nature in Mansfield Park, some of it startlingly “relevant” to us now. But a strong reading will explain the way that Fanny is a heroine within her own context. She was a nerd with integrity who slowly improves her physical, mental, and emotional condition, who is the constant outsider able to see the moral flaws in the world around her, and who stays true to her values without being corrupted by conventional standards.

Next time you meet someone like Fanny, pay them some attention. The most likeable people are not always the most interesting.

Mansfield Park (US link)

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