A recent poll carried out by a user on Goodreads asked participants to vote on ‘which Jane Austen heroine do you like least’. The poll garnered 1118 votes in total (at the current time), and the people were decisive in stating which Austen heroine deserved most of their dislike, or perhaps rather the least of their liking. The rather unfortunate winner, coming in at 27.3% with 305 of the votes, is none other than the Mansfield resident Ms. Fanny Price. She was followed by Emma at 243 votes and, perhaps quite surprising to many of us, Elizabeth Bennet at 201 votes for least likeable.
You may perhaps think that this is merely one poll; nothing worth writing home to Mansfield about and nothing Ms. Price ought to cry herself asleep over. Unfortunately, however, this seems to be a general consensus; Fanny Price is not widely loved by the readers of Jane Austen. Fanny has been called uptight, morally-righteous, dull, gut-less and uninteresting. Moreover, Mansfield Park has been named as the most unpopular of Austen’s works. I have heard people compare the character to that of another Mansfield character, namely Mary Crawford, and stating that they far prefer the latter of the two.
Fortunately, there are those out there coming to Fanny’s and Mansfield’s defence, citing various reasons for why much of the criticism is unfair, and this is the choir to which I mean to add my voice. Now, I must admit that Mansfield Park is not my favourite of Austen’s novels, nor ever was. However, I do not know that it is my least favourite either. When I first read it as a young teen, I inevitably compared it to the books by Austen I had already read; Pride and Prejudice, Emma and Sense and Sensibility. Fanny is arguably a far less proactive heroine than the heroines of these books, and the unhappy childhood she endured made for a heart-heavying read. She has any times been compared to the more vivacious, sparkling heroines such as Elizabeth Bennet and Marianne Dashwood. However, I believe that expecting Fanny to be likewise lively and unreserved is not only unfair, but it is a disservice done to her character, which overlooks her own kind of individuality and inner strength.
Firstly, there is her childhood. Fanny was barely ten years old when she was taken from her family to live at the Mansfield estate with people she had never met before in her young life. From then on, she is given poor treatment, ranging from coldness and indifference to patronization and criticism, by almost every person in the house except Edmund. She is constantly reminded of her social-inferiority by her spiteful Aunt Norris, and she is always kept at arms-length by the family, never receiving the same affection and attention as the other children of the house. We also have to remember that when the majority of the novel takes place Fanny is still only in her teens. Though the same can be said for Elizabeth Bennet and Elinor Dashwood, with the start in life that Fanny had, who can wonder at her timidity and social-anxiety?
Second, there is her love of theatre. Much has been made of Edmund and Fanny judging the others for putting on a play in the absence of the master of the house. This has often been cited as the reason for people calling Fanny moralizing and square (others have even attributed an aversion of theatre to Jane Austen herself, which cannot be further from the truth, but that is a topic for another day.) However, Fanny clearly enjoys the theatrics and was looking forward to getting to see the play. Her real concerns about the plays seems to be due to her concerns for her two cousins Maria and Julia, both of whom are infatuated with Henry Crawford, and both of whom Fanny regards as in danger of heart-ache and humiliation through acting in the play with the flirtatious and unscrupulous Henry Crawford.
This leads us on to my third point; her refusal of Henry Crawford. For a woman of Fanny’s social-standing in the Georgian era to refuse financial stability out of principle is, I would argue, undeniably admirable. She resists the pressures of the seniors of her family, even sir Thomas, who she has always been very afraid of, and she remains steadfast in her position even when she is banished from Mansfield. Her skills of perception are clear from her intuitive and complex understanding of Henry’s character. This, I believe, most shows her strength of character and principle.
Lastly, there is her love of Edmund (we will overlook their near-relation, as arguably most Georgians would.) When reading Mansfield Park as an adult, I am pained by empathy for Fanny as she watches the one she loved becoming infatuated with another woman. Her private torment while observing the two, Mary Crawford and Edmund, gradually falling in love, is heart-breaking. Fanny’s own plagued heart aches throughout the pages, until it eventually reaches its happy conclusion after much pain and confusion, and I believe that a happy ending in love is no less than she deserves. From a poor, passed-over, frightened child to a young woman who, in spite of her fear, refuses to be cowed into marrying someone she does not love, merely for financial gain. This, I think, makes her very worthy of winning the love of the hero in the end as well as the love of the reader.
Get your very own Mansfield Park Luxury Hardback.
Anna-Christina Rod Østergaard is a 26-year-old university student, currently reading for a master’s degree in English and Philosophy at Aalborg University in Denmark. She reads every Austen novel at least once a year and rarely reads a book that is less than a century old. She is a lover of history, literature, folklore, fairy-tales and, of course, Jane Austen. If you, like Anna-Christina would like to make a contribution to the Jane Austen blog, read our instructions on how to Submit a Blog.
I have to make a comment as Mansfield Park is the novel that introduced me to the brilliance of Jane Austen long before Colin Firth emerged in his wet white shirt. I love Fanny for her strength of character and faithfulness to what she believed to be right. Her behaviour is a sign of her gratitude to her Aunt and Uncle Bertram and I admire her that she did not express any resentment toward her Aunt Norris’s insensitive treatment. I love her uncle’s statement to Aunt Norris that her lack of attention to Fanny actually was a good thing as it didn’t help his own daughters. I have to say in all honesty I am not a big fan of Elizabeth Bennet and love Fanny much more. Yes Edmund was beguiled by Mary Crawford but at least he saw that Fanny was by far superior in the end. I can forgive him as he was so kind to Fanny when she first arrived at Mansfield as a child. She only loved him and could never marry anyone else. Bravo Jane for your wonderful insight into human character and for giving us such a variety to enjoy.
Funnily enough, Fanny has always been my favorite followed by Anne Elliot then it’s probably a tie between Elizabeth Bennet and Elinor Dashwood. I like Emma the least. I found Fanny’s moral fortitude to be endearing.
When this Fanny versus Mary question came up in my reading group, all elderly, mostly women, I paraphrased the question of who would you prefer as a dinner companion, to who would you prefer as a daughter-n-law? That made a difference! No one wanted Mary Crawford; they knew she wouldn’t be faithful.
She was so damn meek and mild she drove me potty
There’s no question that Fanny, as a person, is virtuous. Nobody can question her virtue, her backbone, her behavior. But Fanny is not a person, she’s a fictional character, and that obligates her to be interesting or entertaining, and I find Fanny as interesting as cold mashed potatoes.
Rather than comparing perfect Fanny with the incomparably quick-witted Lizzie or flawed but entertaining Emma, let’s compare her with an Austen character she’s most like, Elinor Dashwood. Elinor is long-suffering; without her, Elinor’s mother and Marianne would be poor, living beyond their means; in a less deftly-written novel, they’d be practically ready to sell Margaret into servitude to meet their expenses. Elinor’s gentle wisdom goes far in keeping her mother’s emotion-based-behavior, if not Marianne’s, in check. Without Elinor’s kindness, wisdom, and gentle charm, people would be at each other’s throats, emotionally overwrought, and broke.
Elinor deserves her happy ending because she’s done so much good for her family and her friends. (I still think she’d be a better match for Colonel Brandon, but what can you do?) Fanny’s not a bad person, but she’s boring, and her happy ending is ending up with the least desirable, least deserving, most boring of Austen’s so-called heroes, and ending so bland that I’d rather have cold mashed potatoes.
Had there never been a Fanny Price, I suspect some people would look down their noses at Elinor; but we have Fanny, who is a limp dishrag of a character because she’s neither compelling nor interesting, she’s not funny, and she doesn’t seem to see what’s funny in others’ folly. Being morally upright alone, with no other characteristics, is fine for a tertiary character, but a heroine must have verve.
Both Elinor and Fanny are shocked by people’s bad behavior and seek to turn them toward better, but where Elinor is a benignly stalwart grown woman, Fanny is an implacable child, one with good moral underpinnings but little real joy. She might have gotten along with Mary Bennet more than any other Austen character, but at least one can laugh at, if not with, Mary. (That said, if Mary Bennet read any Jane Austen novels, there’s no doubt she’d prefer Fanny (and Anne, and Elinor) to Elizabeth, Emma, and Catherine).
Fanny provides no charm, no amusement, no appeal…and this Austen reader finds this far more grievous a sin than an unchaperoned date or letters to a gentleman to whom one is not engaged. I can forgive Lizzie’s quick and false assumptions, Emma’s lack of self-awareness, Catherine’s childlike inability to discern fantasy from reality, or even (oy, vey) Marianne’s overwrought emotions. But I cannot abide a character who never makes me laugh, or with whom I could never share a laugh. Too much moral virtue, and too little of anything else, is a poor recipe for a protagonist. Pass the hot sauce or take away the mashed potatoes.
I remember navigating a fledgling World Wide Web in the mid-nineties just in time for the opening salvo in what came to be known as the Fanny Wars. Although Fanny isn’t as outwardly engaging as the Elizabeths and Emmas, I think both of those heroines would appreciate Fanny’s character, discretion, and discerning judgement. My dissatisfaction is that Edmund doesn’t deserve her.
The thing about Fanny that is most impressive is her adamant refusal to do things she perceives as “Wrong”. She is very much on the “straight and narrow path” and no one is going to pressure her to do otherwise. This is admirable consistency for a person who is basically shy and timid — it seems that insignificant little Fanny has a backbone of steel — beneath her unassuming exterior there is more strength than one would expect.
Fanny Price is an observer of the people around her, intuitively knows goodness in them when she sees it and is the only character in the story who recognizes the Crawfords for the delightfully charming but shallow predators that they are. I think Fanny’s innate goodness is probably why people dislike her. Lizzie Bennett IS a tough act to follow. I read somewhere that Jane Austen alternated virtues in her heroines (starting with Elinor and Marianne) and its probably not by chance that Fanny lacks the charm and quick wit of Lizzie Bennett, her predecessor, and is careful before making judgements. Lizzie, on the other hand, was quicker to judge and very sure of her own opinions. Unlike Lizzie, Fanny was not given the line, “before today I never knew myself.” and will not have to regret anything she’s ever done. I love Fanny for her goodness in the face of adversity. It’s easy to be kind and thoughtful when things are going your way, but Fanny remains true to what’s right and just even when the deck is stacked against her. Bravo!
Fanny the least loved Jane Austen character? Say it isn’t so. For me each character is looked at in her own merits. Fanny was the lesser cousin taken in by the suggestion of self righteous Aunt Norris. She meant it to be sort of a kindness but she wasn’t kind to Fanny herself. She would not put herself out to even think of Fanny in any other way than the way she did, lesser than. But at that time, status and class were the judge of all and Fanny learned her place and role in the family very early. And as the novel progressed and ended, we see that the whole family sees she was right all along and know her true worth. She won the fair Edward and took her place in society. A vicar’s wife was not a lofty place but it was an honorable one. And I love Fanny for uprightness and moral character. These qualities are not in too many women today.