‘…that season, which cannot, in spite of its capriciousness, be unlovely…’ Mansfield Park
In Spring it is easy to love things anew. Forgiveness comes more generously, hope ‘springs’ eternal, and happy, fresh plans come bursting up like crocus tips through frozen ground.
“To sit in the shade on a fine day, and look upon verdure, is the most perfect refreshment.” Fanny Price
In the literary world, spring is a good time to re-visit a classic novel and find ‘perfect refreshment’. In my recent and very enjoyable re-read of Mansfield Park, I found many more opportunities to relate to Fanny Price. This strangely distant, awkwardly shy little heroine of Jane Austen’s masterpiece is not so beloved as the likes of Lizzie Bennet of Pride and Prejudice. (for more on this discussion and links to the bicentenary Mansfield Park discussion visit here and there are lovely articles about Fanny Price here and here)
I find her love of nature is endearing. In the narrative, it is rare for Fanny to ‘burst out’ as it were, in several animated sentences of spoken dialogue. When she does though, it is most often a ‘paean of praise’ to the natural world. Indeed, her ardent expressions in this regard really must equal her tender passion for Edward Bertram.
In the past, when I speedily read through some of Fanny’s expressions (feeling them somewhat prosy and preferring the wit of Mary Crawford’s choice dialogue) I noted even the authoress was a bit impatient, albeit lovingly, with her heroine’s preoccupations.
‘…in the midst of some tender ejaculation of Fanny’s on the sweets of so protracted an autumn, they were forced, by the sudden swell of a cold gust shaking down the last few yellow leaves about them, to jump up and walk for warmth.’
Poor Fanny. Hardly anyone ever paid serious attention to her. She, however, was capable of seeing herself as others saw her. A rare trait, indeed, and for that alone she deserves our admiration.
In this passage of gentle self-mockery, as spoken to Mary Crawford, we get a glimpse of her own intellectual isolation:
“You will think me rhapsodising; but when I am out of doors, especially when I am sitting out of doors, I am very apt to get into this sort of wondering strain. One cannot fix one’s eyes on the commonest natural production without finding food for a rambling fancy.”
Yes, we are made aware that Fanny is aware…her thoughts and musings on nature are actually quite profound, when we really listen to what she is saying. Yet she, knowing she is alone in these intellectual pursuits (except for Edward, of course) lightly mocks her thoughts as a ‘sort of wondering strain’ and ‘a rambling fancy’.
‘Miss Crawford, untouched and inattentive, had nothing to say.’
As much as I was drawn to Mary Crawford for her magnetism and liveliness, in this particularly shallow aspect of her personality we have little to admire.
This brings to mind Rachel Carson. She is one of my favorite non-fiction writers, known and beloved for her seminal work Silent Spring. So often, in the spring, when I hear the cheerful sound of robins bustling about their domestic, even Austen-like preoccupations of nest building, mate-acquiring, and territory structuring, I think of Carson with appreciation. Perhaps she didn’t single-handedly save the bird population, but she played a critically important role.
“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature–the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.”
To these things let us never be ‘untouched and inattentive.’ There is too much at stake.
In the end we are much more responsive to Fanny’s sense of loss in her lovely, tree-lined vistas, and much happier to see her restored to those joys.
‘It was sad to Fanny to lose all the pleasures of spring. She had not known before what pleasures she had to lose in passing March and April in a town. She had not known before how much the beginnings and progress of vegetation had delighted her. What animation, both of body and mind, she had derived from watching the advance of that season which cannot, in spite of its capriciousness, be unlovely, and seeing its increasing beauties from the earliest flowers in the warmest divisions of her aunt’s garden, to the opening of leaves of her uncle’s plantations, and the glory of his woods. To be losing such pleasures was no trifle; to be losing them, because she was in the midst of closeness and noise, to have confinement, bad air, bad smells, substituted for liberty, freshness, fragrance, and verdure, was infinitely worse: but even these incitements to regret were feeble, compared with what arose from the conviction of being missed by her best friends, and the longing to be useful to those who were wanting her!’ Mansfield Park
The modern Fanny Price would no doubt still be studious, shy, and timid. But let’s not underestimate her surprising reserves of ‘inner strength’. Can we picture her today (waif-like, utterly determined, morally entrenched) being arrested for tree-sitting, or any other acts of environmentalist civil disobedience?
Perhaps not. But one thing would still be readily apparent, or, shall we say, would be a truth universally acknowledged–Fanny Price on any sort of high ground would still not be loved or admired by all.
If we compare the preoccupations of Mary Crawford with the inner world of Fanny Price–one of marriage, title, houses, ballrooms and good parties, with the latter’s dreams of saving the natural world and leaving trees to grow as naturally as possible–which of these fine ladies would be considered more relevant for the needs of today?
Is Fanny Price an ‘important’ heroine? Apparently so.
‘Ye fallen avenues; once more I mourn your fate unmerited.’ William Cowper