Maybe the key to the curious power of MP is that it is a realistic Cinderella story. In lieu of two mean sisters we have two unreasonable aunts; in lieu of a ball, Fanny does not get to join in "the festivities of the season." Everyone's Prince Charming is Henry Crawford, but Fanny's secret Prince is Edmund who is no-one's prince but her own except after a while Mary Crawford's and then only on sufferance (if he does not take orders which is precisely what he wants and means to do). We are led to identify with the child who must live in the attic, who is delicate in health, who is afraid to cross thresholds (as I admit I still am, even at age 50), and who is given as a rival one of the spoiled darlings of her world, a woman with 2000l, lovely, witty, hard, careless, one who very like Lady Bertram knows that if she simply asserts she is selfish and holds to it she can get away with it. The cards are stacked against our Cinderella so to speak.
Yet it is not overdone. There is really a sense in which the Cinderella quality of Persuasion is overdone, especially in the portraits of Elizabeth Elliot and Sir Walter. MP is much more subtle; the people who are the ogres or villains are people we meet everyday and we see how they see themselves--pleasantly, as people with if not good motives, with natural enough ones. So we enter into it wholly.
I agree that there are characters beyond Edmund and Fanny who if we think about it a bit don't make us ill on our Cinderella's account, are even more or less likable. Mrs Grant is one--but she is seen from the outside--as is Dr Grant. William Price is another, maybe Susan. But this is only after we think about it. As we read we are drawn into an emotional vortex of alienation which is all the stronger for its quiet calm surface.
Take for example in this week's chapters the incident where Fanny and Edmund discuss whether Fanny will be happy with Aunt Norris. I said maybe we don't like Edmund because he doesn't defend Fanny enough and surely he ought to see how she feels. But ought he? Does anyone really enter into someone else's case. His advice to her as a child to be as "merry as possible" is actually good if she could follow it. It reminds me of how Jane Eyre tells us that later on when she grew up she realized that had she been more cheerful, more assertive, happier, and therefore prettier Mrs Reed and her children would have liked her better, not picked on her so. Yet it is obtuse in the common way. I have had people say to me, why don't you do such-and-such, or you ought to, to which I say, yes I ought not to be 5 feet two. It's such a miserable height. But I am.
When Edmund tries to tell Fanny she will really profit by living with her Aunt Norris, the narrator (or Austen as narrator--I don't believe in any vanished author) gives Edmund's reasonings much force and validity. Fanny will naturally become all and all to her aunt. Well as I say it I don't believe it, but Edmund really does, for for a start he thinks Mrs Norris has really asked for Fanny to come and live with her. The narrator tells us much later in the novel that Mrs Norris had a genuine ill-will towards Fanny precisely because she has always mistreated her, but we don't know this as yet, and while we read Edmund's words Fanny is silent. This is important. We listen our of Fanny's appalled consciousness but the words are not overdone at all; they make sense. So as Edmund talks we forget for a moment or don't respond immediately in any visceral way to Fanny's own frightened and therefore silent dread--although her dread of Aunt Norris is fully justified by the continual harping, scolding, berating, and physical punishment to which Mrs Norris is willing to subject her. It's only later as we think about it that we realize Fanny's intense danger--or what Fanny thought was danger. It never comes clear. After all people get used to things. People get used to terrible things and just carry on. It's that sense of life that is gotten at here. Austen leaves it slightly ambiguous whether Fanny's dread is right, for Edmund sees the situation as many people like him would and were Mrs Norris other than she is and therefore had taken Fanny, it might not have been so bad--except of course she doesn't take her so the ordeal is not tried.
And amidst it all comes this terrible statement: "'I can never be important to anyone'" (Chapman I:3, 26). It's all the more heart-breaking because our Cinderella is placed in this calm realm of hearts filled with the iron of normally selfish mammals.
Everyone in the book is so real. Mrs Norris is a woman we meet everyday; she sees the world from her own point of view. That she is unqualifiedly selfish is to her perfectly natural. Isn't everyone? She expects others to act the same. And she sees her own behavior in the pleasantest light. As the narrator says of her charity towards Mrs Price with Sir Thomas's money, "perhaps she might so little know herself, as to walk home to the parsonage after this conversation, in the happy belief of being the most liberal-minded sister and aunt in the world" (Chapman I;1, 9).
Austen's portrait of Tom Bertram is equally brilliant in its capturing of an everyday type; but the humor is not really merry or what I'll call happy funny because his animal coldness and carelessness is not a caricature. Who does not believe his momentary discomfort when Sir Thomas tells him he has ruined Edmund's prospects to be reasoned away over a hope of Dr Grant not overstaying his time in this life: "But 'no, he was a short-neck'd, apoplectic sort of a fellow, and, plied well with good things, would soon pop off'" (Chapman I:3, 24). The touch of the piles of netted boxes is perfect.
It is true that we should not make the mistake of blackening any of the characters. Insofar as we do this we lose what is the riveting greatness of the book: they are again and again wolves, foxes, crocodiles, dumb stones, to one another or Fanny, and yet they are as human as we, with warm passions, kindnesses, well-meant notions, and guilt and shame too. This is why it is a sombre book. And yet it's so easy to hate some of them, especially Mrs Norris.
The problem people have with this book is they are led to take sides, and then frustrated out of it. This is one uncomfortable book. I submit our author certainly means us to take sides--Fanny's, Cinderella's (who would root for the mean stepsisters)--justice, knowledge of what real kindness is, depth of feeling, and so on, and yet after all what is happening to her that is so bad. Fanny's state of mind when she is left home and cannot go to the ball is one of relief (reminds me of Anne Elliot grateful to be left behind):
"[Fanny] talked to her, listened to her, read to her; and the tranquillity of such evenings, her perfect security in such a tete-a-tete from any sound of unkindness, was unspeakably welcome to a mind which had seldom known a pause in its alarms or embarrassments" (Chapman I:4, 34).I do agree that Lady Bertram is not as bad as she seems--as she is nowhere as dumb as people seem to suppose--she caught the book's prize and leads a very comfortable existence. This of course is not to say that she is anything but determinedly, unashamedly selfish, never bothering to think or remember anything at all (a kind of parody of Fanny who remembers so much). But she asks Sir Thomas if the ten pounds she gives William Price is enough. She's not sure she ought not to give more. Mrs Norris is horrified at so much. Still while Lady Bertram says, "I have always found you a very good girl," she can also say to Fanny's question "am I never to live her again," "Never, my dear," it has the terror of a remorseless wall (Chapman I:3, 25) from which there is no appeal. A firing squad would be easier to take (speaking imaginatively).
I wonder if the book isn't at once too hard and too tactful for many readers. They want the anguish of a Jane Eyre locked in the red room, Mr Murdstone threatening David with fearful menacing words about whips and horses. Instead all is the quiet round of every day--and Fanny Price knows the intense relief of sitting next to her aunt, listening, reading, talking, helping and being sure there is not going to come out from nowhere the unexpected barb which she can't protest against. I always think of committee meetings and Fanny being the lowest member at the table who can't talk back. I think I could have born Bronte's red room better than those scenes just about to come where Fanny has a headache and has to listen to others talking right in front of her and by implication accusing one another of neglect, being the helpless center of such a discussion because in the Bronte world I could have thrown books and lamps back and released the pain. Also there would have been someone to hate. No we cannot hate Lady Bertram. Would that we could. We cannot because we meet her everywhere.