I have always been touched by Fanny's reaching out to Susan during her time at Portsmouth. Just yesterday I read for the first time the famous (or maybe infamous) article by Eva Sedgwick, "Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl." While I disagree with most of her assertions, and most of all with her "methodology," I do like her distaste for reading Austen as if we were perpetually being taught things. She makes fun of what she describes as typical Austen criticism from the left or right as follows:
"Austen criticism is notable mostly not just for its timidity and banality but for its unreasing exaction of the spectacle of a Girl BeingTaught a Lesson...Thus Tony Tanner, the ultimate normal and normalizing reader of Austen, structures sentence after sentence: "Emma.... has to be tutored... into correct vision and responsible speech. Anne Elliot has to move, painfully, from an excessive prudence.' Some Jane Austen heroines _have to learn_ their true 'duties.' They all have to find their proper homes' (Tanner, JA_ p 33). Catherine 'quite literally is in danger of perverting reality, and one of the things she has to learn is to break out of quotations' (Tanner, JAM, p 45); she _has to be disabused_ of her naive and foolish 'Gothic' expectations (Tanner, JA, p 48). Elziabeth and Darcy 'Have to learn to see that their novel is more properly called'... (Tanner, JA p 105). A lot of Jane Austen criticism sounds hilariously like the leering school-prspectuses or governess-manifestoes brandished like so many birch rods..." (Sedgwick, "JA & Masturbating Girl," Critical Inquiry, 17 , 833).
I know I often fall into this kind of talk: so-and-so learns this lesson or that, and Sedgwick is right to say it's inane and has little to do with why we feel pleasure when we read Austen.
Thus today I would like to say I don't give a damn whether Fanny is more or less active at Portsmouth; don't care whether we can say she takes more things on herself there than she did in Mansfield Park--I rather think she does, but only because for the first time in her life she is given an opportunity to act for herself for the good of others; she has power at Portsmouth because her mother creates a vaccuum of do-nothingness into which she Fanny may step. Aunt Norris, let us give her this, left little for others to do. What I simply enjoy is her stretching out to someone like herself--Susan--who is like her in need of some companionship and respectful attention. I find congenial her way of solving the quarrel between the spoilt favored child, Betsy, and Susan, the child who has become overemotional over a small thing because she is not loved, or cared about, or even appreciated for the efforts she makes by those she is surrounded by in the least bit. Fanny simply buys another knife. I have done this in quarrels between my daughters--simply gone out and bought another object that has become the pretext for a quarrel about far deeper things that are finally often impossible to resolve.
The story of the circulating library also brings home to us how the vulnerable and powerless, the fringe person in the later 18th century and throughout the 19th could get her hands on a good book. You needed but a few shillings--of course many did not have that to spare, but Fanny is lucky enough to be attached to those who do. And I rejoice with Fanny to see her overcoming her paralysis at first, to see her find those places or channels in her society which will give her pleasure and which are available to her, and to see her take advantage of them for herself and her new friend, Susan.
I also think Austen as narrator means us to take pleasure in Fanny, to feel happy for her in this carving out of a space for herself and Susan in their minds and in the even tinier room than Fanny had in Mansfield Park. I believe Austen herself made do in this way. Austen herself read enormous numbers of books, and they were available to her through the circulating library. I always find myself wondering when I read this section when Austen herself took her first trip to the library, became a subscriber; there is a little piece in one of her letters where she frets over the fact that the circulating library in the town she and her family have stopped at have so little to offer. Why? Because her male servant has read the first volume of Robinson Crusoe already, and will be bored.
Here is the passage which I do not enjoy because I am having a lesson or want to imitate Fanny or take her for a model. I agree with Sedgwick that is not what I read any novel for. I read Austen's because I find them congenial to my heart and ways of thinking:
The intimacy thus begun between them was a material advantage to each. By sitting together upstairs, they avoided a great deal of the disturbance of the house; Fanny had peace, and Susan learned to think it no misfortune to be quietly employed. They sat without a fire; but that was a privation familiar even to Fanny, and she suffered the less because reminded by it of the East room. It was the only point of resemblance. In space, light, furniture, and prospect, there was nothing alike in the two apartments; and she often heaved a sigh at the remembrance of all her books and boxes, and various comforts there. By degrees the girls came to spend the chief of the morning upstairs, at first only in working and talking, but after a few days, the remembrance of the said books grew so potent and stimulative that Fanny found it impossible not to try for books again. There were none in her father's house; but wealth is luxurious and daring, and some of hers found its way to a circulating library. She became a subscriber; amazed at being anything in propria persona, amazed at her own doings in every way, to be a renter, a chuser of books! And to be having any one's improvement in view in her choice! But so it was. Susan had read nothing, and Fanny longed to give her a share in her own first pleasures, and inspire a taste for the biography and poetry which she delighted in herself" (Penguin Ch 40, p 390).
And what is most congenial here? While Fanny worked hard at Mansfield Park, it was always work which was forced upon her, and when the effort was made, she was either not thanked or asked to do more or denigrated by Mrs Norris for not doing more or mocked (as in Fanny cannot do two things at once--Mrs Norris says this during the sequence when the play is being rehearsed and Fanny is in fact doing 10 things at once, at least). When she takes it upon herself to get Sam's things ready, she has chosen to do this; when she finds it important to her to make friends with Susan, she has gotten outside of herself to see the world from Susan's eyes--something Edmund never shows any ability to do.
And then when she realized that Susan is just not going to value books in the way she, Fanny, does, it doesn't matter. I was going to say Fanny learns the truth that a love of books and reading is a habit which must be formed early or not at all. But Sedgwick has stopped me, so I will say rather Fanny observes this truth, and we are left to understand that memories must be tied up, woven into our beings from life and into books for us really to love them. Fanny's deepest happiness has been in books, and it is too late for Susan to be formed in this way.
Little truths of all sorts come home to the Fanny as she makes a place for herself in the house at Portsmouth. I find her to have enormous strength in this section, the strength Elinor Dashwood exhibits, the strength to be, to carry on as yourself firmly. Not a small thing. But I agree there's no lesson here. I won't after reading this section behave like Fanny. I simply like her--and the author who wrote this way.
Here was that elasticity of mind, that disposition to be comforted, that power of turning readily from evil to good, and of finding employment which carried her out of herself, which was from Nature herself. It was the choicest gift of Heaven...---Jane Austen, _Persuasion_.
To this Brooke Church Kolosna replied:
That was a wonderful post about Fanny. As I read the passage you quoted, I was struck by the language that Austen uses, and the transition of mood that this language conveys as the passage continues. I'll snip some ....
"The intimacy... a material advantage ... Fanny had peace...
They sat without a fire; but that was a privation familiar even to Fanny, and she suffered the less because reminded by it of the East room.... she often heaved a sigh at the remembrance of all her books and boxes, and various comforts there.
By degrees the girls came to spend the chief of the morning upstairs, at first only in working and talking, but after a few days, the remembrance of the said books grew so potent and stimulative...wealth is luxurious and daring, and some of hers found its way to a circulating library. She became a subscriber; amazed at being anything in propria persona, amazed at her own doings in every way, to be a renter, a chuser of books! ...Fanny longed to give [Susan] a share in her own first pleasures, and inspire a taste for the biography and poetry which she delighted in herself"
In one passage, Austen gives us three distinct insights into Fanny's moods. At the beginning of the passage, Austen uses language to create a sense of peace and respite. She quickly moves to a somber mood, though, in comparing the comfort of MP with the privations of her family's house. Then, the mood shifts again, and Austen uses language that introduces an air of real excitement and pleasure, as Fanny begins to make use of her little bit of "luxurious and daring" wealth to increase her own comfort, and introduce a real pleasure to her sister.
I can't describe my impressions of this passage as well as I would like.
In the above passages Austen's language leads us into a kind of dance, where we join with the characters in MP in all their human complexity...