The secret to a happy marriage
200 years after her death, Jane Austen still offers valuable insights into our tendency to prefer style over substance in relationships
With today marking the 200th anniversary of beloved British author Jane Austen’s death, her popularity shows no signs of abating. The admiration of her fans, though, is not evenly distributed. In the 1950s, the critic Lionel Trilling declared, with mild hyperbole: “Nobody, I believe, has ever found it possible to like the heroine of Mansfield Park.”
And if little Fanny Price offended the “modern pieties”, as he called them, of the’ 50s, how much more unpalatable is she today, in the age of the Strong Female Protagonist? The heroine of Austen’s third published novel, Fanny is shrinking and modest. She is afraid of everything.
She is told she is unimportant, and believes it.
She tires easily, is frail, delicate in health. She is submissive and considers everybody’s needs before her own. She is gentleness itself. Austen-as-narrator refers to Fanny’s “favourite indulgence of being suffered to sit silent and unattended to”.
“Few young ladies”, she tells us, “could be less called on to speak their opinion than Fanny.” She is told she is unimportant, and believes it. Wonder Woman, or Lena Dunham, she ain’t. The (highly enjoyable) 1999 film version of Mansfield Park gets around the problem of Fanny’s insipidity by endowing her with Lizzy Bennet’s sense of irony and Austen’s writing habit. In short, she is remade in our own image.
Yet Fanny Price is, without a doubt, Austen’s “Christian” heroine. This observation is usually made disparagingly – and Mansfield Park decried as the revenge that the writer’s conservative, conventional society forced her to take on the vivacity and joy of Pride and Prejudice. Mary Crawford, who arrives at Mansfield to (almost) supplant Fanny in the dearest wishes of her heart, is Elizabeth Bennet cast in a negative light: elegant, high-spirited, independent, witty – but unserious and wanting in principle.
Austen obviously cared deeply about the fate of Mansfield Park and its Christian heroine.
Whatever the case, Austen obviously cared deeply about the fate of Mansfield Park and its Christian heroine. She carefully collected and recorded the opinions of family, friends, and acquaintances after the novel was published in 1814 – especially their comparisons to her widely beloved Pride and Prejudice (as well as Sense and Sensibility):
“Not liked it near so well as P. & P. – Edward admired Fanny – George disliked her – George interested by nobody but Mary Crawford.”
“Mrs Augusta Bramstone – owned that she thought S & S. – and P. & P. downright nonsense, but expected to like M P. better, & having finished the 1st vol. – flattered herself she had got through the worst.”
“Mrs Carrick. – ‘All who think deeply & feel much will give the preference to Mansfield Park.’”
For readers unfamiliar with what is probably Austen’s least read novel, Mansfield Park focuses upon Fanny Price, who comes to live with her far more affluent and gentrified cousins, the Bertrams, at the age of ten. She is educated at her uncle Sir Thomas’ expense, but always made to feel the difference in her own status compared with her older cousins – Tom, Edmund (her staunchest friend in the family), Maria, and Julia. She is most particularly made to feel this by her odious, and wonderfully sketched, Aunt Norris (for whom the cat of odious Hogwarts caretaker Argus Filch is named in Harry Potter).
The action proper begins with the arrival at the local parsonage of the lively and beautiful Mary Crawford and her charming brother Henry, come to wreak romantic havoc among the Mansfield inhabitants.
I know that many people find Mansfield Park heavy in mood and moralistic in tone. Perhaps they’re right. But I find it fascinating.
We can be naively unaware of the gap between what is appealing on-screen or in a novel and what is (or ought to be) appealing in life…
The novel is especially masterful in exposing the gap between people’s real motivations and how they present themselves; between our veneer of politeness and the human heart.
Fanny is surrounded, it seems, by exceptionally selfish beings – or possibly, by people just like us – whose desires and intentions don’t usually receive the scrutiny of a moral analyst as skilful or as amusing as Austen. Fanny alone never lies to herself about her own motivations; Fanny alone notices what lies behind other people’s actions.
She listens; others confide in her; while having a humility that keeps her from being waspish or censorious. She is our eyes and ears into the workings of each character’s heart.
Mansfield Park commits the novelistic faux pas of preferring what’s good to what’s entertaining. We can be naively unaware of the gap between what is appealing on-screen or in a novel and what is (or ought to be) appealing in life – put bluntly, between the romantic hero and the guy who’d make a good husband. This novel contains some of Austen’s most cynical remarks about matrimony:
“There is not one in a hundred of either sex, who is not taken in when they marry. Look where I will, I see that it is so; and I feel that it must be so, when I consider that it is, of all transactions, the one in which people expect most from others, and are least honest themselves.”
This from the vivacious, worldly Mary Crawford; but the narrator can be equally caustic. Of the eldest Miss Bertram, Maria, before her marriage to the asinine Mr Rushworth, we are told:
“In all the important preparations of the mind she was complete; being prepared for matrimony by an hatred of home, restraint, and tranquility; by the misery of disappointed affection, and contempt of the man she was to marry. The rest might wait.”
But Mansfield Park is not cynical about marriage, really. Rather it’s cynical about our tendency to make choices for our real lives based on the surface qualities valued in fiction (or by Hollywood) – our tendency to prefer style over substance. As a novel, it is gauche enough to value what is of value in real life rather than in (certain) novels.
Qualities like patience, kindness, self-awareness, promise-keeping, self-denial, humility, do more for “domestic happiness” than dash and charm.
This crossover with real life is clear in a letter Austen wrote during the composition of Mansfield Park. Her niece Fanny Knight had expressed concerns that a suitor of hers was too serious, too “Evangelical” – and not as much fun (not as cool?) as her own brothers. Fanny’s aunt advises her:
“Do not be frightened from the connection by your Brothers having most wit. Wisdom is better than Wit, & in the long run will certainly have the laugh on her side; & don’t be frightened by the idea of his acting more strictly up to the precepts of the New Testament than others.”
The character and the fate of Fanny Price strongly suggest that qualities like patience, kindness, self-awareness, promise-keeping, self-denial, humility, do more for “domestic happiness” – by which is meant a good marriage, of course, but also our daily life and interactions with others more broadly – than dash and charm.
Might there not be a place today for the nervous, sensitive, but determinedly faithful Fanny Price?
Nice Guy Edmund (the intermittent hero of the novel) is kind, not courteous; he won’t say something he doesn’t really think in order to be amusing or gallant. He is not witty; he is sincere. Yet Mary finds herself falling in love with him, against all her worldly instincts. Similarly, her brother Henry (spoiler alert!), who mischievously sets out to make the serious, virtuous Fanny fall in love with him, to everybody’s astonishment (including his own) finds himself enamoured of her gentleness and goodness, which are in such contrast to the objects of his myriad previous flirtations.
Mansfield Park is guilt of the novelistic crime of treating serious things seriously, and rewarding those characters who do the same. Trilling continues to be right, that it offends our modern pieties in all kinds of ways. Yet in a time that claims to value and long for authenticity above everything else; in the recently-dawned age of the introvert; in an age of anxiety; might there not be a place for the nervous, sensitive, but determinedly faithful Fanny Price?
A prayer, written by Austen herself, underlines her preoccupation with our failure or success in knowing ourselves, in accurately divining our own motives and character:
“May we now, and on each return of night, consider how the past day has been spent by us, what have been our prevailing thoughts, words and actions during it, and how far we can acquit ourselves of evil. Have we thought irreverently of thee, have we disobeyed thy commandments, have we neglected any known duty, or willingly given pain to any human being? Incline us to ask our hearts these questions oh! God, and save us from deceiving ourselves by pride or vanity.”
Mansfield Park is, at the end of the day, a tad moralistic. It does not forgive; the epic redemption of a Dostoyevsky character and the higher realities of transforming grace are not attempted here. But as an anatomy of “pride and vanity”, and a call to higher self-perception, it’s a sometimes uncomfortable but always compelling read.
The meek shall inherit the earth, according to Austen’s least popular (major) novel. Given the toll taken daily, on our news screens, and in our everyday relationships, by arrogance and egoism and narcissism and contempt, that doesn’t sound like such a bad thing – even in a novel.