In Austen fan circles, one is often made to feel a little guilty for not liking Fanny. The very point of Mansfield Park, after all, is to stress the importance of character by pitting a heroine who has it--and almost no other virtue--against a romantic rival who possesses everything but. To dislike Fanny, we're told, is to put a higher premium on the surface of things--on stylishness, cleverness, wittiness--than on what lies beneath it. Fanny's victory over Mary Crawford, with whom she competes for the heart of her cousin Edmund Bertram, is the victory of substance over style.
On the other side of the debate, we have those who, like Alison, here writing in response to the ITV adaptation, feel that
The Crawfords are more fun than anyone else, and while they are cruel and destructive, they are redeemable, and it is part of the tension of the story that Edmund and Fanny could redeem them, but choose not to. It's very problematic to the reader. You do find the two goodies to be priggish. You do want to say to them - get together with the baddies, you'll give them a bit of depth, and they'll give you a bit of fun for the first time in your dull self-sacrificing lives.I have problems with both approaches, but most particularly with the latter. The Crawfords--Mary and her brother Henry, who flirts shamelessly with Edmund's sisters, one of whom is engaged, and then turns his attentions to Fanny--are redeemable, of course--what would be the point of the novel if they were mustache-twirling villains (and I disagree with Alison's assertion that they are cruel--destructive, to be certain, and quite thoughtless, but one never sees them take real pleasure in the pain of others, or pursue that pain as an end in its own right)? And how much lesser would the glory of Fanny's victory over Mary be if Mary did not have good qualities as well as bad? The problem is that they do not wish to be redeemed. Mary in particular is almost beyond hope--unlike Henry, who realizes that to win Fanny's heart he will have to change and make sacrifices, Mary expects those changes and sacrifices to come from Edmund, whose career as a clergyman and life in a modest country parish she finds completely unacceptable.
Throughout the novel, Mary shows herself to be shallow and mercenary, her moral compass warped out of true, and even her deepening feelings for Edmund do not change her fundamental character. She begins to wonder whether she might not be able to tolerate a life of relative poverty for Edmund's sake, but she never learns to appreciate the value of that life for its own sake. Just about the only thing Mary does to recommend herself to the reader is strike up a friendship with Fanny (although Austen goes to some lengths to point out that she does so out of boredom, and only after the Bertram sisters leave the neighborhood), to whom she is very kind, but in her last letter to Fanny, Mary callously expresses hope for the death of Edmund's older brother, then grievously ill, as a baronetcy and a fortune might go some way towards making marriage to a clergyman tolerable. There can be no doubt--this is a completely shallow, completely hollow person.
Henry is a more problematic character. As previously noted, he changes--or at least tries to--to please Fanny, and I've more than once come across the opinion that, in having him run off with Edmund's by-then-married sister Maria just as Fanny starts to soften towards him, Austen is performing something along the lines of character assassination, getting rid of a what is by that point a worthy suitor because she wants Fanny and Edmund together at the end of the book. It's a persuasive argument, but for me it falls flat because the novel makes it quite obvious that Henry only ever tries to change to please Fanny. He never learns to love goodness for itself, although it's possible that, at the time of his slip with Maria, he was on the path to doing so. And a slip, albeit a disastrous one, is precisely how Austen describes the rekindling of the affair:
Had he done as he intended, and as he knew he ought, by going down to Everingham after his return from Portsmouth, he might have been deciding his own happy destiny. But he was pressed to stay for Mrs. Fraser's party; his staying was made of flattering consequence, and he was to meet Mrs. Rushworth there. Curiosity and vanity were both too strong for a mind unused to make any sacrifice to right; he resolved to defer his Norfolk journey, resolved that writing should answer the purpose of it, or that its purpose was unimportant--and stayed. He saw Mrs. Rushworth, was received by her with a coldness which ought to have been repulsive, and have established apparent indifference between them forever; but he was mortified, he could not bear to be thrown off by the woman whose smiles had been so wholly at his command; he must exert himself to subdue so proud a display of resentment; it was anger on Fanny's account; he must get the better of it, and make Mrs. Rushworth Maria Bertram again in her treatment of himself.As we know that Henry's infatuation with Fanny is directly attributable to the fact that she didn't swoon at his advances, it doesn't strain credibility to imagine him, halfway between roguishness and respectability as he is at that point in the novel, falling victim to the same impulse where Maria is involved. Taken on its own, it is a trivial setback, but its consequences destroy his chances for redemption.
Most importantly, Austen doesn't really go in for redemption by proxy. A young person's character and ideas can be shaped by the guiding hand of a parent or a mentor, although one more often encounters examples of the opposite, of parents spoiling and ruining their children, in her novels, and Mansfield Park in particular is littered with victims of such bad education--the Crawfords, all of the Bertram siblings but Edmund, even Fanny's sister Susan is nearly overcome by her parents' coarseness and inattention--but once they reach adulthood, her characters are expected to better themselves. "We all have a better guide in ourselves, if we would attend to it, than any other person can be," is Fanny's response when Henry calls her his moral guide. All of the redeemed characters in Austen's novels--Elizabeth Bennet, Mr. Darcy, Marianne Dashwood, Emma Woodhouse--achieve redemption on their own, and they seek it because they want to be good people and have had it pointed out to them that, in a certain respect, they fall short of that goal, not as a way of securing a lover. The notion that one might fix or elevate one's spouse is rarely given any credence in Austen's novels--one more frequently encounters examples of good people dragged down into ridiculousness or intellectual stagnation through the poor choice of a mate, and I can only imagine that this is what would have happened to Edmund if he'd persisted in his pursuit of Mary.
All of which is not to say that the anti-Fanny viewpoint is completely without merit. Fanny may possess an adamantium core of moral conviction, but it is surrounded by nothingness. Relentlessly beaten down by her more-or-less well-meaning aunt and uncle Bertram, who never fail to remind her of the debt of gratitude she owes them for taking her in, and who stop short of making her feel like a member of their family, and even further down by her inexpressibly evil aunt Norris, Fanny is almost bereft of personality. She is a keen observer of humanity--which is part of her protection against the Crawfords' charm, as she sees them as they are instead of as they pretend to be and as others wish to see them--but that keenness is only achieved through complete self-abnegation, a total absence of any opinions, interests, or desires of her own, of any identity not inextricably bound with the people around her. It is only through paying so little attention to herself--and thus ensuring that there is very little to pay attention to--that Fanny can manage to pay so much attention to others, and the end result is that, instead of opposing style and substance, the juxtaposition of Fanny and Mary ends up being a competition between two different kinds of substanceless-ness. While I would certainly agree that, when choosing a lifelong mate, one would be better off with Fanny's strength than Mary's capacity to amuse, it is hard to imagine how one could love a person who loves herself as little as Fanny Price does.
Even worse, in her dealings with the Crawfords, Fanny's deference and meekness soon become indistinguishable from hypocrisy. She allows Mary to make a friend of her even though she despises the other woman. She allows Henry to pursue her even though she despises him and is in love with another man. When Edmund and Sir Thomas mistake Fanny's unwillingness to accept Henry's proposal for a virginal panic which might be worn away at with time and kindness, we're expected to pity her, but the entire ordeal might have been over with in an instant if Fanny had only spoken out, and the longer she refrains from doing so the more she appears to be standing in silent, priggish judgement of those around her. One is reminded of Jane Eyre, another morally staunch, downtrodden young woman, but with a willingness to speak out when asked for her honest opinion. As the novel progresses, Fanny's lack of a similar courage begins to seem less and less like a pitiable character trait, and more like a moral failing.
As one of the commenters on Alison's post points out, the problem of representing Fanny in adaptations of Mansfield Park is usually dealt with by "turning her into someone else." The ITV version (with a script by Maggie Wadey) gives us a Fanny who is something of a tomboy, a girl amidst elegant females, either incapable of or unwilling to play the game of courtship, to flirt and bat her eyelashes and gently seduce. There is an argument to be made for reading Mansfield Park as a novel about Fanny's coming of age--coming to womanhood. Very soon after the novel's beginning, there is a lengthy discussion about whether or not Fanny is 'out'--a woman, and eligible for courtship and marriage--with the ultimate conclusion being that she isn't. After Maria marries and takes Julia with her on her honeymoon, Fanny becomes Mansfield Park's only young lady. She begins going out into company, starts wearing jewelry, has a ball thrown in her honor (essentially a coming-out), and eventually receives the attentions of a man. In Wadey's version, the experience of being courted by Henry prepares Fanny for Edmund's attentions, to which she responds with a gentle, teasing coquetry--a happy medium between her previous girlishness and Maria, Julia and Mary's artifice. As Edmund's falling in love with Fanny is, in the novel, done away with in a single line, this is one of the few places in which Wadey's version is superior to Austen's--she manages to persuade us, as Austen doesn't, that Edmund's choice of Fanny is more than a convenient one, that he longs for her as completely as she does for him, which goes some way toward justifying the anachronistic waltz at the end of the movie (am I the only one who had flashbacks to the Torchwood episode "Captain Jack Harkness" at that point?).
Patricia Rozema's 1999 adaptation went even farther than Wadey's in transforming Fanny's personality. Rozema's scoops Austen's Fanny out of the story entirely and substitutes her with Austen herself. Rozema's Fanny is an aspiring author, and examples of her fiction are in fact taken from Austen's juvenilia. Her letters to Susan are meant to recall Austen's close relationship and correspondence with her own sister Cassandra. The result is an enjoyable, well-made period romantic comedy with little but basic plot and character names in common with the novel. The only thing actually wrong with it, however, is its unspoken but ever-present underlying assumption, that this is the life Jane Austen ought to have lived--that a person who wrote so well about romance should have lived a romantic life herself--which rather trivializes both the author and her novels. Of course, nowadays Rozema's liberties with Austen seem almost quaint. There is a level of meta-fictionality--along the lines of the Stratford-upon-Avon souvenir mug placed prominently in the foreground of one of the opening shots of Shakespeare in Love--that cushions her Mansfield Park, and prevents us from taking her version of Austen's life as gospel truth. In spite of their softly-whispered acknowledgment that their film takes great liberties with the facts, the producers of the upcoming Becoming Jane seem interested in eliciting the opposite response.
There is a 1983 BBC version of Mansfield Park of which I've seen only a few scenes--it seemed faithful enough, and had horrible, horrible production values. Apart from these three adaptations, I'm not aware of any other attempts to solve the problem of Fanny Price. Wadey's version, in spite of the missing Portsmouth section, is more faithful to the novel. Rozema's is more enjoyable. Neither one of them captures the essence of the novel, which, upon a rereading, turns out to be sharper and great deal more cynical than I had remembered. None of the characters--not even Fanny and Edmund--escape the narrator's barbed tongue, and even the readers receive a lashing or two for their romantic expectations ("exactly at the time when it was quite natural that it should be so, and not a week earlier, Edmund did cease to care about Miss Crawford, and became as anxious to marry Fanny, as Fanny herself could desire," is her only concession to readers eager for a romantic climax between Edmund and Fanny). I can't escape the impression that Mansfield Park was written with tongue firmly in cheek, that Austen was very much aware of how ridiculously saintly she was making her main character, and almost daring the readers to put up with her. Or perhaps I'm reading too much into the matter. What is certain, however, is that neither Rozema nor Wadey, nor, I suspect, any writer on the face of the earth but Jane Austen herself, could ever do justice to that being of pure, unadulterated evil that is Mrs. Norris.