Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

Becoming Fanny Bertram: Adoption in Mansfield Park

Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

Becoming Fanny Bertram: Adoption in Mansfield Park

Article excerpt

PITY POOR FANNY PRICE. Cast in the unenviable role of the killjoy, she will always suffer from comparison to Elizabeth Bennet. While witty Elizabeth is one of the best-loved heroines of English fiction, prim Fanny is a character many readers find difficult to like. Their divergent temperaments are mirrored by their unequal physical capacities: Elizabeth energetically tramps the three miles from Longbourn to Netherfield, arriving with a brilliant glow on her cheeks, while Fanny is done in by the half-mile stroll through the woods at Sotherton, which leaves her benched for the rest of the afternoon. As John Wiltshire has noted, Fanny "is the only one of Jane Austen's heroines whose body is frail" (63). Tony Tanner's compelling reading of Mansfield Park, "The Quiet Thing," thus unfolds as an answer to a question the novel invites: what force lies in a heroine who lacks "vigour and vitality" (143)? He finds a persuasive answer in the value Fanny's "stillness" represents in a world threatened by the forces of unrestrained energy (156, 154). Still, there is a difference between energy that is, or comes to be, properly regulated and channeled--what we more typically find in an Austen heroine--and an absence of energy. A lack of vitality would seem to be a debilitating condition indeed for a heroine; why must Fanny be rendered so feeble?

John Wiltshire explains Fanny's frailty in somatic terms: her disempowered status and her "unspeakable" desire for Edmund (66) are "driven back into and played out in her body" (72). What I propose to consider are not the moral or psychological meanings her insubstantial body holds, but rather its narrative purpose. Why does Mansfield, Park require its heroine to be so physically weak and to exhibit a moral strictness that hovers perilously close to priggishness? (1) It is my contention that the perplexing aspects of Fanny's characterization stem from the subordination of her marriage plot to an adoption plot. As Tom Jones is the paradigmatic foundling of the British eighteenth-century novel, so Fanny Price is the paradigmatic adoptee of the British nineteenth-century novel. (2) Her weakness and meekness, so atypical of an Austen heroine, are conditions that allow Mansfield Park to negotiate the tension between the subject of adoption and the context of the estate, (3) whose ethos implies a commitment to traditional patterns of inheritance. In so doing, Mansfield Park expanded the possibilities of the adoption plot in ways that informed its further development in Victorian fiction.

It is an obvious but also an important distinction between Fanny and Austen's other heroines that she is the only one Austen depicts as a child. Fanny's childhood matters in a way the others' childhoods do not because in her case, marriage merely ratifies a process that has already happened through an alternative method of family realignment, the practice of adoption. She has always had Edmund's fraternal love, and the shift in the quality of his feelings to romantic love is a late and hastily dispatched affair in the narrative. It is her gradual enfranchisement as a daughter of the house that constitutes the central drama of the novel. Initially the figure against whom family membership is defined (Sir Thomas cautions before her arrival that she must always be made to "'remember that she is not a Miss Bertram'" [10]), she eventually replaces Maria and Julia as "the daughter that [(Sir Thomas] wanted" (472) and Edmund's "only sister'" (444)? Thus, as Rachel Bowlby puts it, Fanny's marriage to Edmund "functions almost as a confirmation of her full adoption" (172); it is the position she earns as daughter rather than as wife that secures her adult identity.

The novel's terms of closure reflect the importance of adoption to its representational strategies. A discrete hint regarding the married couple's progeny suggests a lineal expansion of family in the traditional way: Fanny and Edmund are able to move to Mansfield Parsonage "just after they had been married long enough to begin to want an increase of income" (473). …

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