My new novel in my series of Modern Jane Austen Variations is called She’s The One and has its basis on the main plot of Mansfield Park. Its characters are modern versions of Jane Austen’s, and the significant events in Austen’s novel have their counterparts in my contemporary story.
Mansfield Park rarely takes top place in Favourite Jane Austen Novel polls but I believe it has a heroine in Fanny Price who is perfect for our times.
Aah, the problematic Fanny Price. True, she is no Elizabeth Bennet, and it could be this undeniable truth that has unleashed criticism of Mansfield Park’s main protagonist. According to her detractors, among other defects Fanny is monstrously complacent, a mousy, insipid little prude, a humble creep, a simpering passive-aggressive near-sociopath, self-righteous and narrow-minded. Whew! Don’t hold back, people, will you.
While working on She’s The One I became increasingly sympathetic to Fanny, and grew convinced that her so-called faults are strengths which have been and maybe still are undervalued in today’s world. Order, restraint, faithfulness, integrity may be seen as unfashionable virtues which can be quickly dismissed, particularly when they are challenged by the presence of the Crawfords — an anti-heroine and her bad-boy brother who might seem more to our taste.
Mary Crawford is a sparky, charismatic, quick-witted woman crackling with sexual energy, and her brother Henry is a good-looking flirtatious rake who knows his way around a boudoir. It is easy to be beguiled by them, and to be pleasingly shocked and amused by their near-the-bone statements and behaviour. After all, we’re not judgmental.
Miss Crawford would fit nicely on our TV screens right now. She says she will go to church if the chaplain is ‘worth looking at’ — hello, #hotpriest of Fleabag fame – and hello too to the knowing glance at camera we can imagine accompanying Mary’s first response when she hears that Edmund’s elder brother Tom has an illness that may be fatal. No sympathy, no hope that he will survive, just calculating awareness of how Edmund and she would benefit from his death. Well, we can hear Mary challenge, do you blame me?
Austen tells us enough about the Crawfords’ early lives to make us understand their characters. They were brought up by their paternal uncle and his wife in a vicious and depraved environment, and received no moral example or guidance. We can find excuses for their unprincipled behaviour.
But many readers are unwilling to extend the same understanding to Fanny. She too comes from a disadvantaged background, in her case with inadequate parents struggling to cope with too many children and too little money. At ten years old she is ‘rescued’ from home and sent to live with her wealthy relatives, who, with one exception, are scarcely more functional than her parents when it comes to nurturing and understanding.
Fanny’s cousins are spoilt and indulged while she is overlooked and ignored, and constantly reminded of her inferior social status. She is homesick and misses her brother in particular. Shy and emotionally fragile, Fanny suffers in silence and assumes that she has no right to seek attention or ask for anything.
But she is often the object of criticism rather than sympathy. We like our underdogs to be presented more attractively. Fanny has no physical presence. She is not good-looking. She is not entertaining. She could never be described with one of our favourite words for a spirited woman, ‘feisty’. And yes, her moral uprightness may be interpreted as self-righteous. You could call her a killjoy. She isn’t emotionally outgoing. She is not an easy heroine to like.
Jane Austen’s introvert in a noisy world
But has Fanny’s day finally arrived? A 21st Century audience, well informed about different types of deprivation and abuse, aware of the importance of one’s formative years, and schooled in popular psychology and psychological types, may find Fanny more sympathetic.
Her personality ticks boxes which we understand. We understand the importance of self-esteem, a quality which Fanny conspicuously lacks. We know the difficulties that face those who, like Fanny, have a low self-image and no self-confidence. And perhaps most significantly, Fanny exhibits characteristics of an introvert personality.
Introvert types, like Fanny, may be misunderstood and underestimated. Her strengths aren’t immediately obvious, and her type is easy to dismiss and hard to warm to. Shy and retiring people can be seen as difficult to deal with. Fanny is not naturally inclined to gregariousness and talkativeness. She likes sitting, reading, riding, quietness and solitude. She is sensitive and sympathetic, thoughtful and empathetic. She prefers to listen and observe rather than to be the centre of attention.
There has been a movement in recent years to heighten awareness of introverts’ strengths, and to acknowledge that our instinctive liking for noisier, more outgoing behaviour may be misplaced.
Inner strength shines through
Fanny also has qualities which come into their own in our day and age. We value resilience. We recognise the importance of integrity and truth. Fanny’s inner strength shines through her withdrawn behaviour and enables her to speak out for what is right and stick up for her principles even when her views are unpopular and unwelcome.
Look at how she stands up to her uncle and refuses to marry Henry Crawford, for which defiance she is thrown out of the house. Fanny’s principled rejection of a handsome eligible man is similar to Elizabeth Bennet’s refusal to marry Mr Collins, a suitor with none of Henry’s personable characteristics. Fanny faces down Sir Thomas Bertram, a much more intimidating figure than either of the Bennet parents, yet her courage is overlooked by those determined to see her as weak.
Fanny has been called emotionally sterile, but she actually has the capacity for deep feeling and endures great emotional suffering. She is deprived of affection not only in her family situation, but most crucially, in her romantic attachment. In Mansfield Park, she is hopelessly in love with Edmund, and has to watch as he is drawn under the spell of Mary Crawford, who is everything Fanny isn’t. Even though we know that surely, in time, Edmund will see that Mary is everything he doesn’t want and that his one true love was under his nose all along, we feel Fanny’s pain as she watches him succumb to her rival’s charms.
Fanny suffers the agonies of unrequited love, the torture of loving someone who sees you only as a friend. The boy she adores thinks of her as a good mate, always there, always in the background, never as girlfriend material. In another life, Fanny would be Taylor Swift singing You Belong With Me. Can’t you see, Edmund, she would say, that she doesn’t get you like I do? Can’t you see that I’m the one for you? Fanny would be Shirley Bassey belting out I Who Have Nothing. She would be, take your pick of many splendid female singers here, but I would go for Patti Page singing the heartbreaking You Don’t Know Me — I’m just a friend, that’s all I’ll ever be…
In She’s The One, Fanny does get another life, although not as a knock-them-dead songstress. I hope you agree it is one she deserves and which makes the heroine of Mansfield Park one we can truly root for.
She’s the One by Mary Rizza is available on Amazon as a Kindle ebook at the special new release price of $0.99 or £0.99.
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