It is a truth universally acknowledged certain characters with the universe that is the fiction of Jane Austen are more popular than others. Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy will always be the alpha female and alpha male of the Jane Austen Universe. That means with every world that contains the alpha male and alpha female, there inevitably be those characters who are least liked and always a subject for vigorous debate.
Two of these characters are Fanny Price, of Mansfield Park and Edward Ferrars, Of Sense And Sensibility. Both, I believe are under appreciated. If I may, I would like to explain why each of these characters deserve more respect than they get.
The first paragraph of Mansfield Park introduces the reader to the Miss Wards. The eldest, Miss Maria Ward, married Sir Thomas Betram and upon marriage, became a baronet’s wife. The second Miss Ward, married Rev. Mr. Morris, a friend of her brother-in-law. The youngest Miss Ward, Miss Frances broke from her family and married a Lieutenant from the Marines. This man was everything her brother in law was not; he was without education, wealth or connections. From this union, our heroine, Fanny Price is born. At the age of ten, she is taken from her family to Mansfield Park, where her wealthy Aunt and Uncle live.
Fanny grows up with her Bertram cousins. She is not a servant, but she is also not a daughter of the house. The treatment she receives, especially from her Aunt Norris is more akin to an unpaid servant than a member of the family. The novels begins to take off when Mr. Norris dies and the living associated with the parish within the park goes to Dr. Grant, until Edmund came come of age and take orders. Arriving with Dr. Grant is his wife and her younger siblings, Henry and Mary Crawford.
The complaints about Fanny are that she is weak, physically and emotionally, in addition to always being right. Some might say she is priggish.
But I argue that despite these drawbacks, she has qualities that I believe are overlooked: a backbone and a sense of self that guides her even when she is told that she is wrong.
“You are mistaken, Sir,”—cried Fanny, forced by the anxiety of the moment even to tell her uncle that he was wrong—”You are quite mistaken. How could Mr. Crawford say such a thing? I gave him no encouragement yesterday—On the contrary, I told him—I cannot recollect my exact words—but I am sure I told him that I would not listen to him, that it was very unpleasant to me in every respect, and that I begged him never to talk to me in that manner again.—I am sure I said as much as that and more; and I should have said still more,—if I had been quite certain of his meaning any thing seriously, but I did not like to be—I could not bear to be—imputing more than might be intended. I thought it might all pass for nothing with him.”
She could say no more; her breath was almost gone.
“Am I to understand,” said Sir Thomas, after a few moments silence, “that you mean to refuse Mr. Crawford?”
“Refuse Mr. Crawford! Upon what plea? For what reason?”
“I—I cannot like him, Sir, well enough to marry him.”
“This is very strange!” said Sir Thomas, in a voice of calm displeasure. “There is something in this which my comprehension does not reach. Here is a young man wishing to pay his addresses to you, with every thing to recommend him; not merely situation in life, fortune, and character, but with more than common agreeableness, with address and conversation pleasing to every body. And he is not an acquaintance of to-day, you have now known him some time. His sister, moreover, is your intimate friend, and he has been doing that for your brother, which I should suppose would have been almost sufficient recommendation to you, had there been no other. It is very uncertain when my interest might have got William on. He has done it already.”
“Yes,” said Fanny, in a faint voice, and looking down with fresh shame; and she did feel almost ashamed of herself, after such a picture as her uncle had drawn, for not liking Mr. Crawford.
“You must have been aware,” continued Sir Thomas, presently, “you must have been some time aware of a particularity in Mr. Crawford’s manners to you. This cannot have taken you by surprise. You must have observed his attentions; and though you always received them very properly, (I have no accusation to make on that head,) I never perceived them to be unpleasant to you. I am half inclined to think, Fanny, that you do not quite know your own feelings.”
“Oh! yes, Sir, indeed I do. His attentions were always—what I did not like.”
Fanny is aware that Henry Crawford flirted with Mariah and Julia, knowing full that Mariah is engaged. She is also aware that becoming Mrs. Crawford would elevate herself and her family out of poverty.
The intuition is finally respected when Mariah, now married, runs off with Mr. Crawford, threatening to ruin the entire family.
Fanny is not perfect, but she respects and follows her own intuition.
I’m going to end my argument with the following:
“We have all a better guide in ourselves, if we attend to it, than any other person can be“.
On a similar note, Mansfield Park is the subject of this year’s JASNA AGM in Montreal, Canada. I suspect there will be many heated discussions that weekend.
Sense and Sensibility begins with the death of Henry Dashwood. The law of the land was primogeniture, meaning the eldest son inherited everything, except for what was specifically left for the younger children. Henry Dashwood married twice, producing four children. His son and heir, John was born to his late first wife and his daughter’s, Elinor, Marianne and Margaret were born to his second wife. John and his wife take over Norland Park and force his step mother and step sisters to vacate their home.
But not before the younger Mrs. Dashwood invites her brother, Edward Ferrars to visit. Edward and Elinor have an immediate connection, but it is broken when Elinor, with her mother and sisters leave Norland Park for their new home in Barton Park. Edward wears a ring with lock of hair, which he says belongs to his sister. A third of a way into to the novel, we are introduced to the Steele sisters. Miss Lucy Steele, tells Elinor in confidence that she knows of her in laws because she has been secretly engaged to Edward Ferrars, her uncle’s former student for several years. At the end of novel (spoiler alert for those who have not read it), Edward losses his fortune to his brother when his mother finds out about the secret engagement. Lucy does become Mrs. Ferrars, but she becomes Mrs. Robert Ferrars.
Edward Ferrars is not Fitzwilliam Darcy, Captain Wentworth or even his future brother in law, Colonel Brandon. But he is loyal. He is loyal to Lucy Steele, who is basically a gold digger. Unlike some of the other Austen leading men, he doesn’t need much a live on. His professional goal is to join the clergy. He doesn’t need a large estate or a house in town. He want’s a parish to run and a home. My favorite thing about Edward is that even though he is engaged to Lucy through most of the story, he is faithful to Elinor.
In short, Edward and Fanny may not be perfect, but they deserve our respect.
*Italics notes original text