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Mansfield Park and the Theological Mind of Jane Austen

Written by Ann Burns

January 3, 2023

When the Villains are Beautiful

Virtue cannot be genuinely gained if it’s only around when convenient. Or as Alasdair MacIntyre states: “Without constancy, all other virtues to some degree lose their point” (After Virtue, 242).

I am revisiting the pages of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. For if there is one woman who can instruct in the ways of constancy and courage, it is undoubtedly Fanny Price.

“What?!”

“C.S. Lewis called her a failure!”

“Lionel Trilling ripped her to shreds!”

“She’s a total bore!”

True, Fanny Price, the heroine of Austen’s most controversial novel, is not well-loved. But it is why she is so “unlovable” that makes her so fascinating.

She indeed lacks the sparkle and wit of Lizzie Bennet and Emma Wodehouse; even starry-eyed Catherine Moreland has more charm to recommend herself, but it is Fanny’s lack of charisma that Austen wishes us to note. And, one should note that Fanny and Anne Eliot, Austen’s two most serious and arguably “dull” heroines, are the only leading ladies she writes about without irony. While all of Austen’s other fiery heroines play the fool at various times, Fanny never does.

Austen holds Fanny in esteem because of her constancy — she is genuinely virtuous. And as such, she is the moral anchor in her story. Her goodness allows us to see the folly of those around her and fully comprehend the novel. If we fail to understand Fanny, we will inevitably miss the Theological depth of the story.

The story revolves around the Bertrams and their cousin, Fanny Price (a sort of Cinderella figure). The Bertrams are well educated, and while they are not outright cruel to Fanny, they don’t get along with her and her overwhelming simplicity, save for Edmund, the second son, who is destined for the clergy.

Enter brother and sister, Henry and Mary Crawford, worldly, coquettish, and glittering creatures who captivate the Bertrams. Henry and Mary, opposites of Edmund and Fanny, are fascinated by these two. And rightfully so, Austen knows that despite all the glittering charms of the world, goodness’s depth and untainted purity always compel.

Rakish and irresistible, Henry is determined to make Fanny fall in love with him. Ironically, in doing so, Henry falls for Fanny. Fanny, nevertheless, is unmoved by his seeming transformation. What she recognizes in him is his lack of constancy. She knows that while he goes through the motions and declarations of love, there is no real ambition or moral conviction. Henry Crawford is drawn to goodness and even wants to attain it, hold it, and possess it, but he cannot until he allows it to take root in his heart.

Yes, while many girls have swooned over Henry’s declarations of love for Fanny (who doesn’t love a reformed bad boy?)Austen cautions us: he is not truly reformed because his regard for virtue is superficial. It hasn’t taken root in his heart. He is not converted, even though he can recognize goodness. And so he plays at the “reformed” rake, and sadly, he even believes his sham, but when Fanny rejects him, Henry immediately falls back into his womanizer ways and is caught in an affair with a married woman.

While goodness is attractive, the constant, daily battle to do good is too much, and instead of remaining steadfast, he returns to easy conquests.

A noteworthy part of the novel’s conflict revolves around putting on a play for entertainment. Fanny is against the play, recognizing the subject as inappropriate for their party. While Edmund also sees the problems, he later justifies going along with it to please Mary Crawford. Edmund, a good man, reveals his lack of constancy and moral courage as he justifies what he knows to be imprudent. He is so taken in by Mary’s charms that he believes her character must match. A sadly backward way of understanding human nature.

Fanny refuses to participate in the play and states she cannot act. A declaration that bothers many critics since this assertion seems prudish and ridiculous. But Austen is anything but a prude and uses the play to symbolize the heart of the novel: Fanny can’t act because Fanny cannot lie. Unlike Henry and Mary, Fanny does not play parts. She doesn’t try on different roles. She is good, the moral heart of the novel, and therefore she possesses a discerning clarity the other characters do not. It is only in understanding Fanny we understand the novel.

So, is it shocking modernity cares so little for Fanny Price?

In a society that dismisses objective virtue, Fanny is (at best) confusing, dull, and needs a makeover (which each film adaptation attempts to do).

Austen, who often writes affirming manners, traditions, and social graces, reveals that these things alone are not enough. These attributes — good manners and the like — must stem from virtue; if not, all we will have is the imitation of goodness and not the reality of it.

If we live for the fashions of the times, they will conquer us.

Mary and Henry, resplendent and captivating, never attain true happiness.

This is why the brilliant thinker, Alasdair MacIntyre, considers Fanny Price the greatest and most noble of all Austen heroines. He points out that Fanny has “a genuine loving regard for other people as such, and not only the impression of such a regard embodied in manners” (After Virtue, 241). Fanny aches for the good. In doing so, she risks everything. That is how brilliant Austen is; she doesn’t suggest that virtue will make you popular or successful. Austen admits that it might cost you everything.

While the Crawfords live by modernity’s ideal of being true to themselves, they live a life that is often vicious, misguided, and self-indulgent. They become enslaved by their passions. Fanny lives freely by living not how she wishes but as she ought. She triumphs repeatedly, and in her constancy, she is always courageous enough to stand up for what is true and good.

Fanny Price is a remarkable heroine because she loves humanity and wishes for the good of everyone. She is honest in her pursuit of virtue because she loves goodness, not merely the affectation of it. She reminds us that in our pursuit of the good, we must first be converted interiorly and daily. Otherwise, in our quest to do good, we might forget to do good.

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