Friday, December 16, 2016

Jane Austen's Fanny Price: A Taoist Sage at Mansfield Park

Jane Austen
Mansfield Park

Jane Austen was born on December 16, 1775 and died on July 18, 1817. 

Fanny Price, of Mansfield Park, (MP)  is probably the most maligned of Austen's heroines.  Just why is not clear to me, but I suspect it's a classic example of imposing 21st century standards on 19th century characters and a misreading of Austen in general.  Too many readers fall in love with Liz  Bennet's lively, outgoing, and cheeky behavior and therefore insist that all of Austen's heroines be the same.  In fact, three of Austen's heroines do fit this category:  Liz, of course,  Emma (Emma), and to a considerable extent Catherine (Northanger Abbey) , the youngest of  the heroines.

But, Austen also has three quiet, more reserved heroines:  Elinor (Sense and Sensibility), Anne (Persuasion), and Fanny (MP).  What I find interesting, is that, though the heroine is the quiet reserved type, there is another woman who exemplifies the more outgoing lively woman, the "Liz" type if I may so call her.  Paired off with Elinor is her sister Marianne, who exemplifies the romantic enthusiastic outgoing follower of sensibility; with Anne is again her sister Elizabeth (interesting choice for her name) who is certainly more outgoing and demonstrative than Anne; and with Fanny, of course, is Mary Crawford, whom some readers want to be the heroine of MP in spite of her selfish, egotistic, insensitive, amoral, and manipulative behavior.

Mary Crawford is Austen's point that being bright, lively, and vivacious does not necessarily make one a good person (notice how many male villains in Austen are the same type),  for those are external attributes.  Liz is a good person because of what's inside her, not because of  how she appears to others.   The same is true of Fanny, for it is what is inside her that makes her a good person. What makes Mary a bad person is what's inside of her and those who admire her  are those who see the surface only.  Telling this sort of critic that you can't tell a book by its cover is a waste of time, for they are enthralled, fooled, duped by external glamour and never get beyond that.

Many commentators have insisted that Fanny shouldn't be the heroine, nor does she deserve to be happily married at the end.  She has done nothing to deserve her fate.  Mary should be the real heroine and gain Edmund as her reward.  Of course, these are the same people who deride Edmund as being dull, uninteresting, and priggish.  I can only wonder how they could see Edmund and Mary together.   I wonder how long Mary would be a faithful wife to Edmund, a country minister, and also how long her brother Henry, who is the male version of a lively, outgoing, charming suitor,  would remain satisfied with the dull, priggish Fanny, as they see her.

One theme in MP that has surprised me is the number of characters in the story who have improved, inexplicably over the length of the novel.  In Austen's novels, it's usually the heroine and the hero who have learned something about themselves and have managed to more or less overcome their failings (Emma, I must admit, is a question mark here), but in this novel, a number of other characters, especially in the Bertram family, have developed, more or less, a sense of responsibility and concern for others, which was lacking in the beginning.

It is this that started me thinking.  I could find no particular or obvious reason for these changes in the characters.  No one lectures them and seldom are they called upon to recognize their shortcomings.  The changes seem to happen in a vacuum--mysteriously.

It was about this time, the third or fourth reading of MP,  that, from the depths of my sub- or unconscious that there is something Taoist about Fannie's behavior.  I wondered how a Taoist might view this novel.  I am not an expert in Taoism, but I have read a little ("a little learning is a dangerous thing"), just enough to get me in trouble here.  So, I dug out my copy of Laotse's (aka Lao Tzu) Tao Te Ching and found some intriguing characteristics of the Taoist Sage.

I am not saying that Jane Austen deliberately created Fanny as a Taoist Sage or even that she was aware of Taoism.  This is simply a view of MP as it might be seen by a Taoist. 


Just what is a Taoist sage and how does one recognize one?

Chapter 2
The Sage:one who manages affairs without action, preaches without words, acts, but does not appropriate claim or ownership, and accomplishes but claims no credit.

This clearly could be Fanny as many of her detractors point out that she is far too quiescent for their tastes.

Chapter 9
The Sage retires when the work is done:

Fanny seldom if ever claims credit for what she accomplishes.  She does what she is expected to do and says little about it.

chapter 17
But of the best sages,  when their task is accomplished and their work is done,
the people will all remark, "We have done it ourselves."

Fanny seldom gets credit for what she does, even though near the end of the novel, Lady Bertram declares she can't get along without Fanny.  This is the reason  Susan will move to Mansfield Park to take Fanny's place. 

Chapter 22
The Sage does not:reveal himself, justify himself, boast of himself, or act proudly.

He acts in accordance with the situation and does not force himself or his ideas on others.  He acts as an example for others, so his influence is subtle and non-assertive.

This is  true of Fanny.  She listens and observes and only expresses an opinion when asked.  And, few ask her besides Edmund.

All of the above observations come from the  Wisdom of LaoTse, translated and edited by Lin Yutang, 


I mentioned above that many of the characters had undergone significant changes by the end of the novel.  Here is a brief description of the major characters at the beginning of the novel and the changes they undergo to reach the place where they are at the end.     .

The Prices  (Fanny's family)

Fanny's brother in the navy who gets necessary sponsorship for promotion  from Sir Thomas.  Sir Thomas would never have met William if if weren't for Fannie and the impression she made on Sir Thomas.

her marriage, far above her class status to Edmund

Fanny's sister, ends up replacing Fanny at Mansfield Park. 

THE BERTRAMS  (at Mansfield Park)

Sir Thomas
In the beginning of the novel, he is an absent father and head of the household, and this is true whether he is off in the West Indies or at home.  He does not  take his proper place as father and lord of the manor.  He also knows that his wife is unable or unwilling to play her part, so he allows Aunt Norris to become a dictator and rule his household.  Later, though, he suddenly realizes the problems that his family is having are at least partially due to his abdication of responsibility, and he now begins to assert himself as head of household.

Lady Bertram
She seems totally detached from the family.  Her main concerns seem to be herself and her dog.  Again, near the end, when Tom becomes deathly ill, she rouses herself and spends most of her time at his bedside nursing him.  This is a considerable change from her earlier behavior when the reader isn't sure whether she really is aware of anyone, aside from her pet dog,  around her.

The eldest son plays to perfection the role of The Wastrel.  He shows no interest in his studies at college, and demonstrates little concern nor for his duties and responsibilities as heir to Mansfield Park.  It's party time is his philosophy.   Shortly after his illness, he also changes his behavior and settles down at the university and begins to show an interest in his role as heir to Mansfield Park.  There is also a hint of marriage, which is a major concern of every well-established family--the heir must marry and produce an heir of his own.

While he is  a serious and dedicated student, determined to be a good minister to his parish when he takes over, he also is infatuated by Mary Crawford, who would make a most inappropriate wife for the clergyman he wants to be.  Again, at the end, he recognizes the folly of his infatuation and gradually comes to realize that Fanny is the woman most suited for him and his role in life.

The oldest daughter, selfish and self-absorbed, thinks only of herself.  She makes a bad choice in her marriage, selecting a suitor who could never be a suitable partner but has a large house and a considerable fortune.  For her follies she ends up in exile, supported by Sir Thomas, but banned, at least for now, from Mansfield Park.

She is strongly influenced by her older sister.   Austen seems to suggest she would be a different person if she had a different older sister to model.

Aunt Norris
Sister to Lady Bertram and Mrs. Price (Fanny's mother)
She is the real power in the house.  Unfortunately she is also evil, greedy, and malicious.  She is the one who most deliberately torments Fanny, reminding regularly of her low position at Mansfield Park, barely one step above the servants.    At the end, she realizes that Sir Thomas has recognized his error and has finally become the head of household he should have been long ago, and she elects to go into voluntary exile with Maria. 

Mary and Henry Crawford
brother and sister, relatives to the minister at MP.  They are bright, outgoing, attractive, as well as shallow,  selfish, and self-absorbed.  They are classic examples of the cliche that one can't tell a book by its cover.  They are very popular at first, but by the end, they have revealed themselves take themselves off to London, perhaps to wonder for the rest of their lives just what they had missed out on.

Mansfield Park is the longest and most complex novel that Austen wrote.  It is. in my estimation, the most misunderstood and misread novel as well.  Austen's basic tenet, in all her works, is that one must look beneath the surface to determine the true nature of the other, and that true nature may be in opposition to what appears on the surface.  I believe that too many readers have taken the surface appearances of many of the characters and stopped there, and therefore missing their true nature.

In any case, read and enjoy.  I rank it a close second to Persuasion.


  1. stunningly good post; i think you've opened a new chapter in Austen critical analysis here... everything you say makes excellent sense and i'm really going to have to start reading JA with your explication in mind... tx so much...

    1. Mudpuddle,

      Thanks for your kind words. I hope you come back and comment on your thoughts after having read Mansfield Park. Her novels, to me anyway, embody a different spirit each time, so one perspective does not fit all.

  2. I have not yet read Mansfield Park but I think that I will do so soon.

    I love the concept of connecting Taoist ideas to Austen. I think that part of meaningful thinking involves finding such connections.

    1. Brian Joseph,

      Fanny Price is a difficult heroine for many readers, especially for those who try to force her into contemporary ways of behaving in the US. Looking at her in a different way suggests that her actions are just as influential as more assertive techniques, but hers are more effective in her situation.

      A non-assertive perspective, such as put forth by Taoism, provides a clearer view of her, or so it seems to me.

  3. Great post. All true. Quiet, hidden Fanny is a great agent of change.

    1. Amateur Reader (Tom),

      And it took me at least four readings to realize that. In her other works, several characters, usually the heroine or hero, do undergo change, while few others do. Usually over time one gets to know them better--the dangers of first impressions.

      MP, though, was unique in the number of changes undergone by a wide variety of characters, and that made me think. I was also rereading the Tao Te Ching at the same time and the points about how the sages work unobtrusively suddenly jumped out at me.

  4. Fascinating! I love this kind of analysis. You take a new lens and reexamine everything. Well done! You should publish your work! Austen journal readers would rejoice!

    1. R.T.,

      Yes, it does present Fanny Price in a different way. I suspect that now that I have thought this out somewhat and focused on it to the extent of writing it out, I shall reread MP in a different way the next time. (If that makes any sense.)

  5. Postscript: Have you read Nabokov's analysis of _Mansfield Park_? It is included among a collection of critical analyses in a book which I have misplaced; however, I remember being impressed with Nabokov's "lens." I make no promises -- which are foolish given my Swiss-cheese memory and the feckless fog within which I live each day -- but I am going to grab my Kindle copy of _Mansfield Park_ and compare your explication to the "lens" through which I read Austen's novel.

    1. 2nd Postscript: Aren't there similarities between Taoism and Christianity? Perhaps Austen's Christianity is involved. Wasn't she the daughter of a vicar?

    2. R. T.,

      No, I haven't read Nabokov's review of MP. I shall look around for it.

      I would definitely like to read what your thoughts were after reading MP.

    3. R.T.,

      Some similarities- yes, but only the general sense that there are similarities among all of the great religions, but I don't really see Taoism as a religion in the accepted sense, but more of an ethical/philosophical sense--early Toaism that is. After the appearance of Buddhism in China, some Taoists created a religion in response--gods, temples, rituals, etc.

      Austen was the daughter of a vicar or minister. I don't understand the distinction. Austen's Christianity is really buried deeply in her stories. Some clergy have been offended by the clergy in her stories for they are treated as human beings with human virtues and vices (follies?) rather than as representatives of the divine.

    4. Fred, as for Austen's life as the daughter of a vicar, I guess my New Critic teachers from the 60s would have a fit that I even gave that a passing glance (i.e., it is, I guess, irrelevant). I read an essay long ago (but I do not remember where or when), and the author focused on Christian themes in _Pride and Prejudice_. When I read _Mansfield Park_, which I promise to do in the coming weeks, I will keep my mind open to (1) your analysis, (2) possibilities of Christian themes, and (3) whatever else I can glean from the text in spite of my befogged and meandering Swiss-cheese mind.

    5. R.Tl,

      When I was in grad school, in the 80s, I encountered a teacher who said that many of his instructors had been of the New Critic persuasion. He said he was gradually escaping from their clutches. He said that they did have some valid points, but that they, like all adherents to a LitCrit cult, went overboard and tried to fit the tale to the theory, rather than the theory to the tale.

      I am looking forward to your comments.


    7. Di,

      Thanks for the link. An interesting critique of Nabokov's commentary. I agree with your criticism of him, but as I've mentioned elsewhere, I'm not a member of his fan club, by any means.

    8. Delightful to see a discussion of this relatively little-read Austen novel, which I should read again before long.

    9. Wurmbrand,

      MP is probably her most controversial novel for it features her most controversial heroine--Fanny Price. Many moons ago I was in an Austen online discussion group and we would regularly get involved in "Fanny Wars," which would actually get rather nasty.

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

    10. Regarding Nabokov, I have 1 foot in his fan club. Or put it this way, I've been heavily influenced by Nabokov the critic. Nabokov the novelist, I love the novels I've read, and finished, but it sounds wrong to declare oneself to be a Nabokov fan without having read Pale Fire and finished Ada, so...
      And yeah, Fanny wars often get rather nasty.
      What do you think of the theory, put somewhere I don't remember, that people either like Fanny Price or Charlotte Lucas, that if you like one you must condemn/dislike the other?

    11. Di,

      I can see why some might hold that way, but I don't. I don't think Lizzie, after some time had passed and having visited Charlotte and Collins, disliked her either. She may have been saddened at first, but she realized Charlotte's position in the real world of the early 19th century.

      What's strange is that I don't hear any condemnation of Darcy's cousin, Fitzwilliam,or something like that, who also was on a search for a spouse with money.

  6. You may like this:

    1. Di,

      Thanks. I'll take a look at it.

    2. Di,

      She's got it right! Or, at least that's the way I see Mansfield Park.

      "Mansfield Park is about superficiality versus substance. It’s about charm versus goodness. It’s about mere conventional propriety versus true virtue and it’s hard for an entertainment-obsessed culture that glorifies appearances and laughs at the idea of character to understand. All of the characters struggle and are tried and tested…but some fight the good fight and others reveal that they never had virtue to begin with."

      Thanks. I'm going to borrow this for a post of my own.