Fanny Price, Mind Reader

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Twenty-sixth in a series of guest posts celebrating 200 years of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. For more details, open Your Invitation to Mansfield Park.

I’m very happy to introduce Joyce Tarpley’s post on Mansfield Park. Joyce teaches composition and literature full-time at Mountain View College in Dallas, Texas. She holds a Ph.D. in literature from the University of Dallas and has published a book on Mansfield Park titled Constancy and the Ethics of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park (Catholic University of America Press, 2010). These two essays also reflect her continuing interest in themes relating to males in Austen’s novels: “Sonship, Liberty, and Promise-Keeping in Sense and Sensibility,” published in Renascence: Essays in Values and Literature 63.2 (2011), and “Playing With Genesis: Sonship, Liberty, and Primogeniture in Sense and Sensibility,” published in Persuasions 33 (2011).

Constancy and the Ethics of Mansfield Park

The fact that Jane Austen uses the word “mind” more times in Mansfield Park than in her other novels suggests a particular preoccupation with the way her characters think. (According to a search of the “Modern English Collection” on the University of Virginia Text Center website, the word “mind” appears 160 times in Mansfield Park compared to 135 in Emma, 104 in Sense and Sensibility, 69 in Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, and 64 in Pride and Prejudice.) Every Jane Austen novel features a kind of mind reading, or “people reading,” because she portrays each heroine, to different degrees, in the act of (1) discerning the “thoughts, feelings, desires, and intentions,”* of other people and (2) discovering the same things about herself. The rhetorical situation for the heroine’s mind reading in a Jane Austen novel includes a subject, a purpose, and an audience. The subject is reality, or the truth, about herself, about someone else, and about the situation in which the two interact. The purpose is to choose, rightly, how to think and act in response to this subject. The audience is the heroine herself, or her consciousness, which is where the mind reading takes place.

Some commentators have a different name for this process. James Wood, for example, uses hermeneutics to describe this skill of the Austen heroine in his article titled “The Birth of Inwardness: The Heroic Consciousness of Jane Austen.” Citing theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher, a contemporary of Austen’s who popularized hermeneutics for Bible study, Wood argues that “[s]omeone who understood other people, who attended to their secret meanings, who read people properly, might have been called hermeneutical” (The New Republic, August 17 & 24, 1998). It should come as no surprise that Fanny Price is the most hermeneutical of Austen’s heroines. She is the best mind reader because of her humility and persistence in attending to her own “thoughts, feelings, desires, and intentions” in an attempt to know herself. This self-knowledge forms the foundation upon which she draws accurate conclusions about – or readings of – the minds of others.

Fanny’s mind reading represents a synthesis. She uses her constancy, or integrity  – what might be called her Christian-ethical perspective – as a filter that allows her to make sense of the disparate and contradictory data received through her senses. Aided by an incredibly retentive and accurate memory, this continuous process of reflection allows Fanny to “read” people accurately and to choose rightly how to respond to them.

Mansfield Park

But Fanny is not the only adept mind reader in Mansfield Park. Austen gives us two more examples with the Crawford siblings, both of whom are skilled at guessing the thoughts and feelings of others. Unlike Fanny, however, they use their powers to manipulate people rather than to understand or to help them. For example, reading Rushworth’s mind during the excursion to Sotherton allows Fanny to assuage his jealousy; reading Julia’s mind during the theatricals allows her to warn Edmund about his sister – even though he does not listen. Reading Edmund’s mind about Mary distresses her, and she censures herself for the jealous feelings that cause this distress. Perhaps the best example of Fanny’s mind reading, or at least the most important one for her happiness, is exemplified in the passage wherein she tries to calculate the thoughts, feelings, and intentions of Henry and Mary Crawford regarding his sudden seeming interest in marrying her:

Fanny, meanwhile, speaking only when she could not help it, was very earnestly trying to understand what Mr. and Miss Crawford were at. There was every thing in the world against their being serious, but his words and manner. Every thing natural, probable, reasonable was against it; all their habits and ways of thinking, and all her own demerits. – How could she have excited serious attachment in a man, who had seen so many, and been admired by so many, and flirted with so many, infinitely her superiors – who seemed so little open to serious impressions, even where pains had been taken to please him – who thought so slightly, so carelessly, so unfeelingly on all such points – who was every thing to every body, and seemed to find no one essential to him? – And further, how could it be supposed that his sister, with all her high and worldly notions of matrimony, would be forwarding any thing of a serious nature in such a quarter? Nothing could be more unnatural in either. Fanny was ashamed of her own doubts. Every thing might be possible rather than a serious attachment or serious approbation of it toward her.

– From Mansfield Park, Chapter 31 (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1988)

Fanny seeks to “read” the information being presented to her, “the words and manner” of Mr. Crawford, by testing the source of that information – its reliability, its integrity, and its motive. Both Crawfords fail the reliability test based on Fanny’s memory of their past actions, including their trifling treatment of three Bertram siblings: Maria, Julia, and Edmund. Her knowledge of their character also causes her to doubt their integrity. Although she cannot fathom what their motive might be, her own humility makes it impossible for her to believe Mr. Crawford could have any serious interest in her. Such an interest is as “unnatural” to Fanny as it would have been to readers earlier in the novel. Fanny’s conclusion is categorical; despite Henry’s “words and manner” there is no doubt in her mind that neither a “serious attachment nor serious approbation of it” could be possible.

Subsequent events prove that Fanny knows Henry better than he knows himself. Despite a temporary softening toward him, brought on by living in the depressing Portsmouth home of her parents, and despite wishful thinking on the part of many readers – and even the narrator* – Fanny’s initial reading of Henry is correct. His love for her, genuine though it may be, cannot change his character. Mary herself provides the best evidence that her brother is incapable of a long-term (let alone lifetime) marital commitment: “I know that a wife you loved would be the happiest of women and that even when you ceased to love she would yet find in you the liberality and good breeding of a gentleman.” Mary knows that Henry will eventually grow bored with Fanny, cease to love her, and trifle with other women as cavalierly – albeit discreetly and politely – as he commits adultery with Maria. Fanny’s mind reading allows her to discern the “secret meanings” of the Crawfords’ words and actions, meanings of which even they themselves are not fully aware. By contrast, the Crawfords’ lack of self-knowledge leads to their failure to read accurately the mind – thoughts, feelings, desires, and intentions – of Fanny Price.

Notes:

* This phrase comes from Lisa Zunshine’s article titled “Why Jane Austen Was Different, And Why We May Need Cognitive Science to See It” (Style 41.3 [2007] 275-98), in which she explains mind reading by reference to “theory of mind,” a concept that cognitive scientists and philosophers of mind use “interchangeably” with the term.

* For discussion and analysis of the narrator’s “tacit approval” of the Fanny/Henry marriage that might have been, see “Constancy: A Reading” in Constancy and the Ethics of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, 50.

To read more about all the posts in this series, visit An Invitation to Mansfield Park. Coming soon: guest posts by Sarah Woodberry, John Baxter, and Sharon Hamilton.

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