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 liveat 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 most 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 is 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, and 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.
Anna-Christina Rod Østergaard is 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