'Fanny Must Have a Horse'

I'd like to put in a good word for Edmund before we go onto the next chapter--especially since I have been saying he is unlikable, and too since I still wonder if Austen did not mean to lead us to like Edmund more than we do. I guess I might call this _The Problem of Edmund_ II.

On the argument that Austen meant us to like Edmund, is she not hard at work in these early chapters to make us like him? The first phrase Austen uses of him is that he has "all the gentleness of an excellent nature." What does she not say? She does not say he has a superior intelligence. Edmund is a little dim, and he's particularly obtuse about the finer points of other people's feelings. I wonder if we should not look at him as another Lady Russell type. Sometimes I think we just as much or may even more than other eras continually discuss characters (and people) in terms of their gender. Is not Lady Russell also not not quite as smart or perceptive or have the sensitive fineness of the heroine of the book she inhabits (Anne Elliot)? And similarly Anne Elliot makes more accurate judgements than anyone else in Persuasion; when Fanny grows up, except in the case of Edmund (where she is just head over heels) her judgements are usually unerringly accurate (if sometimes, as in Portsmouth uncharitable).

In the second chapter he is the first and only person to understand that Fanny is "clever," has "a quick apprehension as well as good sense," "a fondness for reading." He is the only one to go to the trouble of making her comfortable, of looking at her. Unlike a number of the inhabitants of Mansfield Park (it is implied) "He had never knowingly given her pain, but he now felt that she rewquired more positive kindness" and he works at it. The major purpose of the incident in Chapter 3 where Fanny is threatened with having to go live with Aunt Norris is to show us Edmund misses the finer points--after all it comes to nothing, and most of it is devoted to the scene between Edmund and Fanny. It is inserted so we can see Edmund make his mistake but he means to help Fanny. Yes and again after the Crawfords arrive, Edmund forgets Fanny. But these are not the faults of a hard-heart or mean spirit or even of selfishness for himself. It was after all Edmund who got Fanny the horse in the first place.

I think the passages where Edmund keeps repeating "Fanny must have a horse" and again when he confronts his aunts after he has left her to their merciless mercy for a week are those in which Austen best succeeds in presenting her character in a sympathetic light. He acts in the face of opposition by everyone, and persists. I also find in the phrase "he could not bear she should be without" more than a direct hint that he loves Fanny deeply. He feels for her as if she were him; if she's lacking, he's hurt.

Now I wonder if the intense identification with Fanny that Austen is successful at creating--at least with some of us, and perhaps the strong reaction against her comes from the same intense tenderness shown towards this most unmodern ideal--is what makes us uncomfortable around Edmund. That is not so much that he doesn't see that she has a fire, but that we feel her lack of it.

The question is not answered, whether Austen meant to criticize the class system through Edmund's unquestioning adherence to his family and acceptance of the isolation and miseries of Fanny or thought that Edmund's behavior was perfectly natural, that is accepted it herself. Here I do recall the the moment Sir Thomas knows she has none, he orders it; maybe Edmund didn't dare? I must admit Edmund's not doing something about that cold attic makes for the idea that Austen criticizes the class system through Edmund--though again it may be only her way of further blackening Aunt Norris who is the one responsible for the lack of a fire. The ugly instigator here is Aunt Norris who is curiously jealous of Fanny (maybe somewhere in that dense mean brain she sees that she too is in the inferior position, she too suffered to join in) and we shouldn't forget that.

Ellen Moody

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Page Last Update 10 January 2003