Once Upon a Time, Ros Clarke wrote a book about a Sheikh who fell in love with a woman. Nothing new, right? Think again! It turns out that the woman was a tycoon. Need I say more?
Fanny Price: Physically Weak, Mentally Strong by Ros Clarke
Strong heroines are popular right now. Readers, mostly, like women who'll fight their corner, make their choices, and determine their own destiny. Which is great, but in my reading experience, all too many of those kickass heroines turn out to have an inner core of marshmallow. Faced with the right guy, they go weak at the knees and weak in the head.
So today I want to talk about one of the strongest heroines I've read. She's a weak and feeble woman who has the moral strength of Attila the Hun. Fanny Price, heroine of Austen's masterpiece, Mansfield Park¸ is about as disempowered as they come. She's physically weak, with a tendency to ill health and needing careful exercise. She's financially dependent on the goodwill of her relations. As a consequence of her mother's marriage, she has a lower class than everyone else at Mansfield Park. She's not quite a servant, but almost. And, of course, she's a woman.
|This cover is from a retelling of Mansfield Park aimed at children.|
But I think the cover art captures exactly the common perception of Fanny.
Fanny's character might also be construed as a weakness. She's not confident in social situations. She's quiet and timid, and rarely speaks up. As Austen says, she is "extremely timid and shy, shrinking from notice." It's hard to know how much this is conditioning and how much is her natural personality. Either way, it makes her even more likely to be ignored, used and abused.
So why do I say she is kickass?
She has one great strength which makes her stronger than everyone else in the book: her moral strength.
Readers who do not share Fanny's morality have found her prissy. Kingsley Amis famously called her 'morally detestable'. But I think that, even if you disagree with the moral decisions she makes, it is possible to admire her strength in holding to them.
Austen shows us Fanny's moral courage most clearly in her response to Henry Crawford's proposal. Crawford is everything Fanny is not: he is physically strong, he is male, he has a certain degree of financial independence and expectations of more. Socially, he is charming and confident. As to class, well, he claims more than he has, but he is certainly welcomed in respectable social circles. But when he proposes to Fanny, she refuses him.
That in itself is remarkable, that she should refuse someone who has so many advantages that she does not. Her position at Mansfield is miserable. Marrying Crawford would give her a home of her own, where she would not be subject to the beck and call of her aunts or her cousins. She would, of course, be subject to the whim of her husband. But Crawford is professing to love her and promising to care for her and cherish her. Surely such a marriage would be beneficial to Fanny?
It would, and she acknowledges as much. But she distrusts Crawford and thus she knows she cannot marry him. (As an aside, I think that's pretty good advice for anyone considering getting married, and hardly evidence that Fanny is unreasonably prudish.) There are two things here worth noting: first that Fanny is her own moral compass. She trusts herself to know what is right and to listen to her own conscience. She is not persuaded or swayed by the arguments of others. And second, that knowing what is right, she does it.
Austen ups the stakes for Fanny by letting Crawford make his proposal and her refusal public knowledge. Fanny is thus subjected to the urgings of all the people who have greatest influence in her life, and even the advice of the only person she trusts to have her best interests at heart. Everyone thinks she should marry Crawford, but she continues to hold fast in her refusal. There's some courage for you. The family who have housed her, fed her, educated her and provided for her for over ten years are all united in their support of Crawford's proposal. The people who love her, as well as the people who don't, all think this is a wonderful opportunity for her. But Fanny insists that it is her decision to make and she cannot accept him.
Her will is tested yet again when she is sent to visit her own family. Crawford visits her there, sees the squalor of her family and though he does not repeat his proposal, it is clear that he offers her a way out. Fanny, though she has come to like him a little better by this stage, because he has been kind to her in a difficult situation, is fundamentally unchanged. Even when her heart is broken to learn that the man she does love is all but engaged to Crawford's sister, it never occurs to her to turn to Crawford. Her rejection isn't based on the hope of something better, but on her judgement of his character and their unsuitability.*
Their conversation when he leaves Portsmouth illustrates her moral strength – and his moral weakness:
"Shall I go? Do you advise it?”So Fanny chooses a bleak life of servitude at Mansfield, or poverty in Portsmouth, over marriage to a weak and untrustworthy man. She knows the life she is choosing and she knows it will be hard. You may think she is foolish. You may think that it would be better to be wealthy and unhappily married than poor and unhappily unmarried. But you can't tell me she is weak for making that choice.
“I advise! You know very well what is right.”
“Yes. When you give me your opinion, I always know what is right. Your judgment is my rule of right.”
“Oh, no! do not say so. We have all a better guide in ourselves, if we would attend to it, than any other person can be. Good–bye; I wish you a pleasant journey to–morrow.”
Of course, it ends happily because this is a morality tale. Fanny gets her happy ending with the man she's loved all along. And it's true, not everything that conspires to that end is accomplished by Fanny. But if she had not been so strong, so fixed, so resolute in holding to her own choice, there would have been no happy ending for anyone, and certainly not for her.
You don't have to like Fanny. She's not funny or clever. She's not beautiful or talented. To be honest, she probably wouldn't be the person I choose as my best friend. But I hope you can admire her. Because Fanny Price ought not to have any agency. She is weak, poor, female, quiet, and dependent. And despite all those disadvantages, and knowing what the consequences will be, she does not let anyone else choose her life for her. She kicks ass.
The outwardly-weak, internally-kickass heroine is a tough one to pull off and I think there are some readers who are never going to enjoy stories about these kind of heroines, which is fine. But if, like me, you're a sucker for a heroine who is unexpectedly strong despite everything, here are some others you might love:
- Maddy Timms, from Flowers from the Storm by Laura Kinsale
- Anne Elliott, from Persuasion by Jane Austen
- Jenny Chawleigh, from A Civil Contract by Georgette Heyer
- Cassandra Baker, from The Shy Bride by Lucy Monroe
I'd love to hear what you think about Fanny and I'd really love more suggestions of other heroines in this mould.
*If you've seen the 1999 film of Mansfield Park, you'll know it deviates from the book in several ways, not least its treatment of this proposal. By making Fanny accept Crawford and then change her mind later, it alters her character completely.
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