Jane Austen and Fanny Price as Fringe People

I have still something else I would like to offer up for discussion on this list. In reading Chapters 1-2 and the coming of the child with no money, no status, who is to owe all to Bertrams and yet be kept apart from them, in an attic near the maids (so she will physically from the moment she gets up to the moment she goes to sleep know her place is tenuous, lower, somewhere between "the real family" and the servants), we should remember that Austen herself was not the child of grand people.

The recent biography of Austen by Valerie Grosvenor Myer turned out to be very thin, with little new to say, but it did bring out again and again this aspect of not only Austen but her family. William Price's troubles and profession directly mirror Austen's two sailor brothers. The clergyman profession (which is soon to be so scorned as inadequate in any higher social group by Mary Crawford) was that of Austen's father and two brothers. Two of her brothers were able to go to Oxford because they were founders kin. The move to Bath was as difficult for the Austens as any one of us today might experience in going to buy a new house and finding what we can afford is sadly inadequate to some basic wants. A son was given up by the Austen in order to secure the inheritance that did eventually make some of the family comfortable, and enabled Jane Austen herself to produce her six books in the quiet and solitude of Chawton Cottage--no grand place that either.

The Austens were very much fringe types, and when Austen forces us to listen to a speech like that of Sir Thomas on his expectations of what a Fanny Price will probably be (Mansfield ParkChapman I:1, 10), and our gorge rises it is because Austen's gorge rises. Sir Thomas is assuming anyone not as high and mighty as the county family in the great house will naturally (it is to be expected) be "vulgar," grossly ignorant, with "mean opinions," and possibly even of a "really bad disposition." Fanny Price here stands in for Austen herself and people of her class as they might be viewed from the viewpoint of the genuinely landed gentry.

And again when Mrs Norris echoes his sentiments, and Lady Bertram worries over the possible harm the little girl might do to Pug (Mansfield ParkChapman I:1, 10), and Sir Thomas brings in his plans as to how he will make "distinctions" between his daughters and Fanny, and the worries over what he thinks is the problem of making Fanny remember she is not a "Miss Bertram" while not making her think "too lowly" of herself, not "too far" "depressing her spirits" (Mansfield ParkChapman, I:1,10)," Austen is the outsider herself and is using the engendered discomfort and unease this speech engenders to make us sympathize with the child and fear for the child before she even comes, but also to make us look askance at the understanding of this man under whose thumb and moral outlook Fanny will have to live.

The edge we feel, the hardness and distance of the tone is that of the author who is also someone on the fringe. Maybe not in the attic, but in an analogously stigmatized place. Those letters between the time in Bath and the Austen's landing (like cats on their feet, just) in Chawton testify to Austen's sense of how she had come down. How different is the set she moves in now. It is also noticeable (but maybe this is an effect of Cassandra's having destroyed so many of the letters--the majority it's said) that the invitation to live at Chawton came very quickly after Edward's wife's death. Had she not died.... well, would we have had these books?

So Austen identifies closely with Fanny when in these opening chapters Sir Thomas, Mrs Norris, and Lady Bertram, and then the maids, the governess and her cousins (all but Edmund) talk at her in such a way as to mortify her. I should add that Austen does not necessarily think this is a bad thing. The close of the novel tells us that while Maria's devastated future and Julia's diminished one was the result of Mrs Norris's flattery and false emphasis on materialism wholly, Fanny benefited enormously from an education in hardship, struggle, & endurance.

Ellen Moody

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Page Last Update 10 January 2003