Well before our group read of Mansfield Park on Austen-L we began to experience discussions Henry Churchyard has called "The Fanny Wars." In response to one phase of these I wrote the following on the first phase of Mansfield Park, the depiction of Fanny's early childhood therein.
Carrying on my defense of Fanny, after her initial dismay, distress, and loneliness (Chs 1-2), we see her growing up, and in Austen's words, as time passes, we are told "Fanny grew more comfortable." It's indicative of the structure of the book that this slow adjustment is shown through conversations between Fanny and Edmund and by the narrator entering into Edmund's ability to see into and consider Fanny's feelings (a faculty not shared by her aunts or cousins)
I wanted to suggest two things: on the one hand, technically, Austen is personating the action through the eyes of Fanny very strongly in Chs 2-4. On the other she is building a portrait of a girl with deep feelings; Fanny, in other words, is not a stick, but very warm and affectionate. I suggest this will come into play when Mary Crawford enters the story, for one of the things missing in Mary is a really affectionate nature (which much later in the story Henry Crawford himself seems to understand, though I believe he would eventually have tired of Fanny who I have not said is a sparkling wit--but then neither is Jane Eyre--), and Fanny remains the alluring prize at the end because she refused him (but I am getting ahead of my defense phase by phase). In other words Mary is cold; her worldliness and finally her indifference and easy cruelty to Edmund stems from her inability to feel for another as if she were that individual. Fanny has this ability without trying. We see it later when she feels for Maria when, for example Henry jilts her, even though Fanny knows Maria is acting badly towards and hurting Mr Rushworth and probably deserves as good as she gives out. Austen is setting up this opposition between the two women (Fanny & Mary) by first showing us Fanny's depth of affection and natural sincerity and lack of pride & ambition.
I would suggest that William Price, Fanny's brother, is used in these 2 chapters (and throughout the book) to highlight Fanny's loving true nature. There is the scene in which Fanny says she must write William first, and here we find Edmund's finer nature shown us too, with just that touch of the comic in the last line to undercut the essentially sentimental nature of the material:
they went together into the breakfast room, where Edmund prepared her paper, and ruled her lines with all the good will that her brother coud himself have felt, and probably with somewhat more exactness.
Edmund has learned a lesson: he is "convinced of her having an affectionate heart, and a strong desire of doing right ... He had never knowingly given her pain, but he now felt that she required more positive kindness."
Mrs Norris is also used to show the utter disparity between a Fanny and the typical person who gets along quite comfortably in the world. When she is taken at her hypocritical word, it seems she and Fanny may have to set up housekeeping together, Fanny is sufficiently frightened ("She had never received kindness from her aunt Norris"), and tells Lady Bertram (in a "faltering voice") "I shall be very sorry to go away." The mean Norris says, "It can make very little difference to you, whther you are in one house or the other." A dialogue between Edmund and Fanny ensues in which he tries to "reason" her into accepting the new situation: she has comments like "I can never be important to any one." "If I could suppose my aunt really to care for me, it would be delightful to feel myself of consequence to any body!--Here, I know I am of none, and yet I love the place so well." How can anyone reading this aright resist this poignant presence?
But not to worry, for, as Austen says, "Mrs Norris had not the smallest intention of taking her [Fanny]." The section ends with Sir Thomas going off, and again we see the various relatives' responses to his trip; Lady Bertram does not "at all like to have her husband leave her," but for her convenience not for any worry or trouble over what may be his fate or experiences; his daughters feel nothing, but relief; this second phase ends with a focus on Fanny and William; again Sir Thomas is too severe in his comment that he hopes William will find Fanny improved (she takes this as a hint William will not), and Fanny cries because she cannot cry when Sir Thomas goes (she feels she ought to, and later will understand that with Edmund, Sir Thomas indeed a real friend to her) and because of what Sir Thomas has said. Here Austen's sentimentality is undercut because the focus is not on the crying but on the view taken of her crying by her girl cousins, who, "on seeing her with red eyes, set her down as a hypocrite."
In this phase we see the childhood of Edmund and Fanny, and I think their union is projected by the whole of the book as the best thing for deep real happiness for them; we also see, & this is the vein out of which I will eventually say we should see the whole book, that Austen is a sentimentalist or deeply emotional and moral and idealistic. The view first expounded by Marvin Mudrick in his Jane Austen: Irony as Defense and Discovery and then further developed by D. W. Harding in his well-known article on Jane Austen's "regulated hatred" misses an important aspect of Austen. These critics seem to see her from the outside, and buried in the view of the former especially (and John Halperin in his biography of Austen) is that a woman who choses to remain a virgin old maid must be afraid of her emotional life. Not so in Mansfield Park. There Austen gives way to strong imaginative identification with deeply emotional scenes. These early ones are austere, but they are rooted in the same trauma we find in the so-called passionate Charlotte Bronte novels. The later ones are rooted in a sophisticated understanding of sexuality. Austen is no disillusioned cynic, not hard at all, and this is the one book where she most lets go while still remaining a consummate artist.