When did shy Fanny Price first spring to life in Jane Austen’s mind? This unlikely heroine has captured imaginations for the two hundred years since Austen first crafted her story and fortunes within the pages of the novel Mansfield Park.
In An Invitation to Mansfield Park, and the post by guest blogger Jennie Duke, mention was made of the unflattering description of Fanny Price, and how we first meet her as a child of ten.
Clearly with this introduction, Jane Austen was setting the scene for a powerful novel of character, with a frail but indomitable heroine at its core:
‘Fanny Price was at this time just ten years old, and though there might not be much in her first appearance to captivate, there was, at least, nothing to disgust her relations. She was small of her age, with no glow of complexion, nor any other striking beauty; exceedingly timid and shy, and shrinking from notice; but her air, though awkward, was not vulgar, her voice was sweet, and when she spoke her countenance was pretty.’
An unprepossessing beginning, we could say. Yet, the most compelling evidence we have that Fanny Price is about to become more than the sum of her parts is given us in Jane Austen’s own expressed feelings about Fanny Price. From the available material on the subject it is apparent that Jane was very emotionally invested in this character of Fanny—a la Pygmalion–she was a child of her own creating.
How could Jane Austen be so attached to a character who lacks the wit, sparkle and brilliance that she herself loved to be in company with?
As an example of this, in a letter to her sister Cassandra, she writes:
‘The orange wine will want our care soon. But in the meantime, for elegance and ease and luxury, the Hattons and Milles’ dine here to-day, and I shall eat ice and drink French wine, and be above vulgar economy. Luckily the pleasures of friendship, of unreserved conversation, of similarity of taste and opinions, will make good amends for orange wine.’
As though phrased by Mary Crawford, herself. Where would Fanny Price have fit in at such a table ‘of unreserved conversation’, of ‘elegance and ease’? What part of Jane’s heart did Fanny Price occupy?
Permit me to hypothesize.
It is of interest to note the timing of the writing of Fanny’s story in Mansfield Park. Jane had just moved from Southampton—a busy seaside town with close ties to Portsmouth. Portsmouth, as we know, figures large within the story of Mansfield Park, and is one of the few geographical locations Austen actually used by name.
The pungent scenes, sounds and aromas of these bustling ports would have lingered in Jane’s mind, perhaps to be re-played often in the quiet days to come at Chawton. Perhaps some of those arresting visuals that would become lasting memories could have come from long walks with her sister, brother, or other companions.
One can imagine the smell of fish being cleaned, old nets or rigging being repaired and lying strewn about along a crowded quay….the cacophony of rough voices from a fishing and naval industry mingling with the incessant shriek of gulls.
In this atmosphere Jane and her companions would have passed many cottage doorways, opened out onto the grime of the street. At the entrance to one of these homes, stands a young girl of about ten—lingering on the doorstep, half in, half out, half in shadow, half in full sun. She gazes upon the elegant passers-by with shy curiosity.
Perhaps there, in that doorway, is where Jane Austen first saw ‘Fanny’. Likely Jane saw many such young girls, but this one was different.
She is grave in expression, a bit careworn… It is true there is no ‘glow about her’, no carefree easy spirit reflected from her steady gaze… the younger children, being more boisterous, are pushing past her, fighting amongst each other over trifles. They provide stark contrast to the quietly attentive child.
She is curious about the pretty ladies; she offers a hesitant smile, perhaps a word or two is spoken:
‘her voice was sweet, and when she spoke her countenance was pretty…’
Jane smiles, too, and the little face came alive. A connection, deep and lasting was made, look for look with Jane, reserved but somehow knowing….something flashed between them…both the possessors of a quick mind and a tender heart, they instantly, strangely, knew each other.
For a moment Jane saw, what but for the slightest change in circumstance, could have been her.
A plaintive voice comes from within the shabby house, a tired mother appears with a baby on her hip, and the girl quickly withdraws to the darkness inside.
Jane walked on. She couldn’t stop thinking about the little girl in the cottage doorway. That steady, serious regard in a face so young…What strange threads of fate are woven and intertwined for us before we are even born….An improvident marriage, a careless parent, a lack of resolve, the choices we make in our companions….the same winds of chance that might guide a ship into safe harbor will even so ruin another against rocky shoals.
‘..[the] poor mother….’ Jane was already writing in her mind… ‘It often grieved her to the heart to think of the contrast between them; to think that where nature had made so little difference, circumstances should have made so much, and that her mother, as handsome as Lady Bertram, and some years her junior, should have an appearance so much more worn and faded, so comfortless, so slatternly, so shabby….’
What circumstances will befall the ten year old girl with the shy smile? The same as her ‘poor mother’? How will her gracious demeanor fare amidst the constance friction of chaos in her surroundings? What opportunities could come her way, to save her from obscurity and drudgery?
‘The living in incessant noise was, to a frame and temper delicate and nervous… an evil which no superadded elegance or harmony could have entirely atoned for. It was the greatest misery of all….’
Jane walked on…she knew something of that misery…her thoughts running ahead as page after page wrote itself in her mind….
Her companions exchanged knowing and amused glances at each other. They recognized this absent-mindedness of their dear friend and sister….her mind always occupied…
Was there anything that could be done for this girl…? she mused. What sort of life would she give her, if she could? What sort of life would she, Jane, want, if she could have it?
‘At Mansfield, no sounds of contention, no raised voice, no abrupt bursts, no tread of violence, was ever heard; all proceeded in a regular course of cheerful orderliness; everybody had their due importance; everybody’s feelings were consulted. If tenderness could be ever supposed wanting, good sense and good breeding supplied its place; and as to the little irritations sometimes introduced…, they were short, they were trifling, they were as a drop of water to the ocean…’
Jane walked on, staring sightlessly at the ocean. And as to happiness? she thought…what will give happiness to ‘such a heart’?
She already knew.
‘….the….happiness which no description can reach. Let no one presume to give the feelings of a young woman on receiving the assurance of that affection of which she has scarcely allowed herself to entertain a hope.’
Perhaps at that moment, Fanny Price was born, and Jane Austen vowed, that no matter how many difficulties would have to be overcome, how unlikely the outcome might appear, she would wield the power of her pen in a way she could not do in real life. She would bestow unspeakable happiness on so tender and devoted a heart.
Jane walked on.