In a world filled with the deafening clamor for justice and, purportedly, for righteousness, how do we distinguish between true virtue and its appearance? After all, everybody claims to be one of the good guys. As ever in matters of virtue, Jane Austen’s nearly inexhaustible riches may provide us some clarity in the matter, and in this case from the meekest of her heroines.
Fanny Price made me gnash my teeth the first time I read Mansfield Park. The repeated cheek-turning was such a drag. I wanted a heroine who would defend herself and not take any guff, but Fanny appears to have an endless capacity for tolerating injustice. “She lacks,” I declared to anyone who would listen, “thymos.” Upon reflection, however, I came to understand that Fanny might lack the Greek sense of spiritedness, but that, from a Christian perspective, she bears evidence of the Spirit’s work.
Lionel Trilling argues in his eponymous 1954 essay on Mansfield Park that Fanny is a “Christian heroine…There is scarcely one of our modern pieties that [Mansfield Park] does not offend.” Why is she such an offense to us? “We think that virtue is not interesting,” Trilling says, “even that it is not really virtue, unless it manifests itself as a product of ‘grace’ operating through a strong inclination to sin… the paradox of the felix culpa and ‘fortunate fall’ appeals to us for other than theological reasons and serves to validate all sins and all falls, which we take to be signs of life.”
What we don’t realize, of course, is that “grace operating through a strong inclination to sin” often looks like a lifetime of patient habit. This is exactly what forms Fanny’s character. It’s not particularly exciting to contemplate, but for the vast majority of us, the only way out is through the discomfort of fireless rooms, mortifying, thankless service, and what Austen terms the “habits of ready submission” to unchosen obligations that so horrifies the modern soul.
Two fruits of Fanny’s long mortification have special bearing here: first, the cultivation of her will in service of the good, and second, the cultivation of what Austen calls in other novels “penetration”: her insight into others’ character. In Austen’s novels, characters with penetration can see below the surface of good manners to the reality of the character or situation beneath. Moreover, virtue and penetration are linked: seeing that we do not wish to see requires an act of the will, and a will strengthened by regular exercise is best able to assist the clear comprehension of character and action. We see this when we look at the failings of Fanny’s two romantic interests: her cousin, Edmund Bertram, and the handsome, clever, wicked Henry Crawford.
How does the “terrified little stranger,” as Trilling calls her, grow into a woman of such iron will that, despite her apparent physical frailty and meekness, she has the power to adhere to her convictions in the face of terrible condemnation and misunderstanding from everyone about her? When her uncle, Sir Thomas Bertram, to whom she owes home, education, and social standing, accuses her of ingratitude and stubbornness by refusing to marry a man she knows to be wicked; when her cousin, Edmund, whom she adores as her protector and the chief author of any kindness and comfort in her life, refuses to support her in her resistance to marrying a man she does not love, how does she manage to “support herself,” to use Austen’s words for bearing up under difficult circumstances?
It is not in spite of her meekness and “habit of ready submission” that she is able to stand up to Sir Thomas and even her beloved cousin Edmund in the matter of making an imprudent marriage; it is exactly because she has exercised such self-command as to practice putting others before herself, cultivating gratitude in the midst of contempt, and submitting to the judgment of those she recognizes as holding positions of authority that she is able to submit to the authority of her own properly formed conscience.
“We rejoice in our sufferings,” St. Paul tells us, “knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” Fanny’s life at Mansfield Park displays the dynamic of scripture.
She suffers— separation at a tender age from her parents and siblings, casual contempt and scorn from her girl cousins, intentional humiliations and privations at the hands of her Aunt Norris, years of painful timidity and shyness with none but Edmund to attend to her tender feelings— and in the face of suffering, she chooses not resentment, rebellion, anger, or despair, but humility, submission, gratitude, and love. She continues in affection for her distant siblings, she humbly endures her girl cousins with never a harsh word in reply, she accepts without protest every restriction of pleasure and comfort commanded by her Aunt Norris, listens carefully to every word of Edmund’s well-meant advice on how to feel more at home and fit in with the family at Mansfield Park, and holds Sir Thomas in such respectful awe that she can barely stand to have him look at her.
Edmund Bertram has formed a good character and even possesses a decent moral sensibility— in the tradition of second born sons of English nobility, he pursues ordination as an Anglican clergyman, not merely to secure a living but out of a real sense of religious calling— but he lacks penetration, or at least the will to practice it. We see this played out repeatedly in his involvement with Mary Crawford, Henry’s lively and beautiful sister, whose charms are so compelling that Edmund chooses to interpret her unpromising behavior and bad opinions with a benevolence that goes beyond charity. Fanny recognizes this but doubts her own perceptions— she knows that she is jealous of Mary, and she loves Edmund so much that she desires to think the best of him, and so hopes she herself is mistaken. But this is where the two— a will strong to choose the good and accurate powers of penetration— are connected: seeing the flaws even of those for whom we have affection requires a willingness to do so. And it is Fanny who has cultivated the the strength of character necessary to comprehend people as they are, rather than as she wishes them to be.
Fanny’s powers of penetration are superior to Edmund’s, but if her judgment is off at any point, it’s her belief that Mary’s (and Henry’s) character is irredeemably bad:
“[Fanny] may be forgiven by older sages for looking on the chance of Miss Crawford’s future improvement as nearly desperate…” our narrator tells us. “Experience might have hoped more for any young people so circumstanced, and impartiality would not have denied to Miss Crawford’s nature that participation of the general nature of women which would lead her to adopt the opinions of the man she loved and respected as her own.”
We see here that Fanny herself, due to youth and inexperience, does not initially comprehend the power of habit to cultivate virtue in the service of love, even though that is just what has gone into the forming of her own excellent character and sensitive conscience. Just having passionate romantic feelings for someone does not immediately alter a badly formed character or impart good judgment; in the latter case the danger is rather the reverse. But an attachment that leads to a lifelong commitment and willing submission to limits may indeed open the possibility of improvement.
That is the great tragedy of Henry Crawford, who has sharp powers of penetration but lacks the long habit of virtue that could have preserved him from yielding to the temptation that destroyed his hopes of Fanny forever. He has the good judgment and perception to see Fanny’s virtues:
“Henry Crawford had too much sense not to feel the worth of good principles in a wife, though he was too little accustomed to serious reflection to know them by their proper name; but when he talked of her having such a steadiness and regularity of conduct, such a high notion of honour, and such an observance of decorum as might warrant any man in the fullest dependence on her faith and integrity, he expressed what was inspired by the knowledge of her being well principled and religious.”
What begins as a deliberate plan of fundamentally cruel intent— to make Fanny fall in love with him simply because he is bored and he wishes to overcome her disapproval— is overturned when he begins to comprehend Fanny’s essential virtuousness. It turns out that true goodness is intensely attractive. But his instinctive assessment of her goodness shows here that mere perspicacity is insufficient. It’s one thing to comprehend the good, another to exercise the action of the will required to acquire it through self-denial and humility.
When, in what will turn out to be Henry’s last conversation with Fanny, he asks for her advice on a matter involving a tenant on his estate, it’s not only an occasion for him to flatter her by the asking:
“‘When you give me your opinion, I always know what is right. Your judgment is my rule of right.’
“’Oh, no! do not say so. We have all a better guide in ourselves, if we would attend to it, than any other person can be.’”
Henry is offering deference to her judgment as a way of wooing her, but not only as a way of wooing her. He understands at this point that her character is exceptional and her judgment very strong. He is beginning, by virtue of his affection for Fanny, to desire to know and do the right thing. We are explicitly told in the final chapter that if he had listened to Fanny and obeyed his conscience, he would have avoided the disastrous reunion with Maria:
“Henry Crawford, ruined by early independence…indulged in the freaks of a cold-blooded vanity a little too long… Had he done as he intended, and as he knew he ought…he might have been deciding his own happy destiny.”
Independence, with no authority to submit to other than his own vanity, leads to his ruin; despite his real and growing attachment to Fanny, his habit of self-indulgence rules him at the end. Though he is so close to becoming what he ought to be, he does not do as he knows he ought, and the evil he would not, that he does.
After Henry seduces Maria away from her husband, Mary Crawford displays her fundamental lack of moral sensibility in a way not even Edmund can deny, as he relates brokenly to Fanny:
“I imagined I saw a mixture of many feelings: a great, though short struggle; half a wish of yielding to truths, half a sense of shame, but habit, habit carried it. She would have laughed if she could. It was a sort of laugh, as she answered, ‘A pretty good lecture, upon my word. Was it part of your last sermon?’”
At last, the goodness of Fanny’s judgment and her powers of penetration are confirmed, both to Sir Thomas and to Edmund. They must endure their own run of suffering in order finally to see the truth. The apocalyptic movement of the novel reveals Fanny, the meek recipient of their benevolence and advice, as one whose own goodness of will and hard won wisdom has the power to secure not only her own happiness but theirs. Out of gratitude and humility she has endured suffering, and that has empowered her to see people as they are, and to resist the worst insults to her character for the sake of obeying her conscience.
Reading the arc of Fanny’s life at Mansfield Park, anyone with a heart not made of stone feels for her at first, as one would for any lonely, vulnerable, and frightened child. But the longsuffering and mortification, the silent submission to insult and humiliation, the perpetual shrinking back wear thin for those of us who want to see her fight and stand up for herself like a good modern woman. But perhaps we can grow to love Fanny as we begin to comprehend the humble, patient roots of her ultimate vindication. And who knows but what such an attachment may lead us to commit to cultivating some willing submission, and better penetration, of our own.