Recently I finished reading Mansfield Park. The writing that follows is nothing if not an attempt to ease the pain of separation that inevitably follows having read a really, really, good story.
It was slow going at first as I sludged through the first chapters, not sure where the story was going and daunted by the number of pages ahead of me. There are no hooks at the beginning of this novel, nothing to lure the reader in, and the pace of the story continues in much the same way for the duration of the novel with a few hills and valleys interspersed throughout. Fanny Price, the heroine, is not much of a heroine, or so it would seem. At first introduction she is a poor, 9 year old girl who is entirely dependent on the favors and benevolence of her wealthy Uncle and her two Aunts. She holds no power, and is constantly pushed down. She is more than a servant, but less than a daughter. She lives in a world that will not have her in and will not have her out.
One may be tempted to get the idea that this must then be a rags to riches story, or at least one chronicling the journey of a brave and plucky girl who overcomes a neglectful upbringing. It is neither of those things. The role of our heroine isn’t entirely clear for a good portion, if not the entirety of the book, and I confess that for most of it I wondered what Austen was trying to say, exactly. Fortunately, one does not have to wait quite as long to enjoy reading this novel. There is a rhythmic moving to this story. You don’t know exactly where you’re going, but if you wait, you know you’ll arrive somewhere delightful.
In this novel one doesn’t get flashy entertainment or even much of a love story. What romantic love there is to be had is generally either seen as foolishness (and is thus resisted by someone) or comes to nothing in the end, or both. Fanny is reserved outwardly, but has a character of steel. Nothing can penetrate Fanny’s resolve to act rightly, not even the temptation of a happily ever after ending. She guards her thoughts and feelings in every respect, but especially when someone might suffer from her revealing them. She does not flatter, but when necessary, speaks her convictions. She sacrifices herself and her comforts at every turn, and even continues to think graciously and lovingly towards those who are most deserving of distain. Fanny Price feels misery, loneliness, and neglect, but nevertheless strives in every moment to be gracious, useful, and a comfort to others. Peace to Fanny does not mean material comforts, but it means the knowledge of having acted rightly. It means order, harmony, and usefulness, if only in the smallest measure.
I relate deeply to Fanny Price, which means I see through her more clearly my faults. One of my greatest battles is to not grow dismayed or overcome when things don’t go as I hoped or people don’t act as I desire. My role as a mother puts me in constant danger of growing angry, discontent, and impatient. What Fanny shows me is that while I cannot control other people and my circumstances, I have immense power over my mind and spirit. I have the ability to choose gracious words, when harsh ones seem appropriate. I can choose right action, when anything but seems more fun. Though I may not be able to entirely change a situation, I can contribute something towards making it more of what it should be. Small acts of service, of charity, and words of care and encouragement are not insignificant. They are the roots of harmony, bringing inner peace amidst outer turmoil.
The most convicting display to me of the alternative was found in Fanny’s own mother. Austen writes of Mrs. Price,
“These shared her heart: her time was given chiefly to her house and her servants. Her days were spent in a kind of slow bustle; all was busy without getting on, always behindhand and lamenting it, without altering her ways; wishing to be an economist, without contrivance or regularity; dissatisfied with her servants, without skill to make them better, and whether helping, or reprimanding, or indulging them, without any power of engaging their respect.
Of her two sisters, Mrs. Price very much more resembled Lady Bertram than Mrs. Norris. She was a manager by necessity, without any of Mrs. Norris’s inclination for it, or any of her activity. Her disposition was naturally easy and indolent, like Lady Bertram’s; and a situation of similar affluence and do-nothingness would have been much more suited to her capacity than the exertions and self-denials of the one which her imprudent marriage had placed her in. She might have made just as good a woman of consequence as Lady Bertram, but Mrs. Norris would have been a more respectable mother of nine children on a small income.
Much of all this Fanny could not but be sensible of. She might scruple to make use of the words, but she must and did feel that her mother was a partial, ill-judging parent, a dawdle, a slattern, who neither taught nor restrained her children, whose house was the scene of mismanagement and discomfort from beginning to end, and who had no talent, no conversation, no affection towards herself; no curiosity to know her better, no desire of her friendship, and no inclination for her company that could lessen her sense of such feelings.” Mansfield Park, ch XXXIX
What an alarming description. In it I hear a warning of what I could be, of what I sometimes am, “… always behindhand and lamenting it, without altering her ways; wishing to be an economist, without contrivance or regularity.”
In contrast, Fanny Price is our example of virtue (Haley does a great job unpacking this point). Her life is not easy; she has many wants, unfulfilled desires, and suffers constant neglect. She is thought of last, but is the first to think of others. She has no reason to believe that her presence is needed or wanted, and yet she acts with consistent good will and benevolence with what little power of influence she is given. The company she must keep is far inferior to what she deserves, and yet she loves selflessly and seeks in what ways she can not to fix those around her, but to increase their comfort and add to their peace.
In many ways, this novel is a vivid tapestry of character studies, showing the gilded faults, vices, and weaknesses of its figures. While all seem to be on the verge of some grave mistake or another, Fanny Price is our constant; on her character we can depend, and that is what makes her our heroine. She is a vibrant example of Christian womanhood, and the power of virtuous action and a steady character in the midst of ungratefulness, discontentment, evil, and strife. In her we have a picture of what good a solitary faithful, selfless soul can accomplish, and the internal rewards of unwavering character.
If you haven’t read Mansfield Park, don’t delay. It’s one I’ll be turning to again.
Photo c/o of Citrus Holly