Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

A History of the Fanny Wars

Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

A History of the Fanny Wars

Article excerpt

THERE ARE TWO VERY DIFFERENT SORTS OF HISTORY. One is full of the '"quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all"' (NA 108)--or, to put this in terms of literary criticism pertaining to Mansfield Park, the history of the Fanny wars can be the history of notable scholars marching onto the battlefield of discourse. In this view, D. W. Harding, Lionel Trilling, and Marilyn Butler fight over Fanny and her novel. Then there is the other kind of history, one following the movements of less-exalted troops and their lesser leaders, and it is difficult to find order amid the melee. As historians of the second type, we have combed books (paper and digital), newspapers (old and new), and the Internet for non-academic and journalistic commentary on Fanny Price in an attempt to chronicle a popular-reception history of Mansfield Park's heroine--the mixed reactions of the novel's first readers, the glowing admiration of Victorians, her decline at the end of the nineteenth century, and the resurgence of appreciation for her in recent times.

Let us, however, start this history with a glance at some popes and kings. In the middle of the twentieth century, although literary critics acknowledged the great artistry of the novel, they most definitely did not care for Fanny Price. In a famous 1940 essay for Scrutiny, D. W. Harding found that the novel and its heroine displayed a "distinct tendency to priggishness" ("Regulated Hatred" 351). In later years, he even declared that "Fanny is a dreary, debilitated, priggish, goody-goody" and "a central failure in a potentially very fine novel" ("MansfieldPark" 122). Harding was mystified that Austen would create someone like Fanny Price and position her as an ideal; after all, she had written that "pictures of perfection as you know make me sick & wicked" (23-25 March 1817). C. S. Lewis, writing in 1954, was a bit kinder, but not by much. While refusing to agree with Harding that Fanny was a "prig," he conceded that she was not a "successful" heroine and that she failed through "insipidity" (366). And he recognized the problem created by such a protagonist: "One of the most dangerous of literary ventures is the little, shy, unimportant heroine whom none of the other characters value. The danger is that your readers may agree with the other characters" (366).

In the same year, Lionel Trilling opined, "Nobody, I believe, has ever found it possible to like the heroine of Mansfield Park" (496), expecting no contradiction. Three years later, Kingsley Amis published a provoking essay in The Spectator, bringing the academic debate into the mainstream. In "What Became of Jane Austen?" Amis argued that the heroine of Mansfield Park "is a monster of complacency and pride who, under a cloak of cringing self-abasement, dominates and gives meaning to the novel. What became of that Jane Austen (if she ever existed) who set out bravely to correct conventional notions of the desirable and virtuous? From being their critic (if she ever was) she became their slave. That is another way of saying that her judgment and her moral sense were corrupted. Mansfield Park is the witness of that corruption" (27-28).

What was Austen trying to show us in Fanny Price? The answers from academics are contradictory. Fanny has been identified as a folkloric figure (Cinderella, Snow White, a foundling) but also as a literary type (the Christian martyr, the conduct-book exemplar, the sentimental heroine). Others read her through a political or sociological lens: an upholder of conservative values or a subverter of them, a transported commodity like one of Sir Thomas's slaves, or a domestic version of the colonial imperialist or improver. All these interpretations open up the text in interesting ways, but a majority of critics tend to agree on one thing--that Fanny is a failure, a disappointment as a character, "a poor sort of heroine" (9), as Tony Tanner writes, even if she inhabits what he regards as "one of the most profound novels of the nineteenth century" (8). …

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