Jennie Duke and I share a fascination with the way Jane Austen introduces Fanny Price as a child in the second chapter of Mansfield Park. We get a glimpse of Catherine Morland’s infancy and girlhood (though by the second paragraph of Northanger Abbey she’s fifteen), and we get to hear about the many reading lists Emma Woodhouse draws up for herself as a teenager, but we don’t get to read longer scenes from their childhoods or those of Austen’s other heroines. (What do you think Lady Susan would have been like at the age of ten – has anyone written that prequel yet?)
Jennie and I are also both interested in the so-called “Jane-a-Day” five-year journal (“With 365 Witticisms by Jane Austen”), which provides a few blank lines for each day of the year so that if you write something every day, you’ll be able to look back and compare what you were doing every year on May 23rd, say, over the past five years. Jennie is doing a much better job than I am of keeping up this “delightful habit of journaling” (Northanger Abbey, Chapter 3) and she tells me she often records quotations relevant to what’s happening in her life. My own approach is more haphazard, and while I’ve sometimes made entries for a few weeks at a time over the last couple of years since my dear friend Lisa Doucet gave me this lovely journal, I’m sorry to report that I haven’t yet recorded anything for May 23rd.
Today, however, I can record that Jennie has written about Fanny Price’s childhood for “An Invitation to Mansfield Park,” so that I can look back on this day in the next few years as we celebrate 200 years of Emma, Persuasion, and Northanger Abbey. Jennie writes about Pride and Prejudice at The Bennet Sisters (for love) and is editor of Property Observer (for work and love). She’s based in Melbourne, Australia, and I’m happy to introduce her post on Fanny Price at age ten.
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.
– From Mansfield Park, Chapter 2 (London: Vintage, 2008)
I can’t help but feel that this description of Fanny Price is very insulting – with “nothing to disgust,” “no glow,” the description is largely about what she is not. To be deficient in either “striking beauty” or captivating appearance clearly points out what other people value and suggests that she falls below some socially valued benchmark. For a heroine at the age of ten, this is some fairly hefty judgment indeed.
It’s a fascinating description because of everything it lacks, particularly when you compare it with the treatment of Austen’s other heroines. Emma Woodhouse, “handsome, clever and rich,” is clearly defined, with strong words. On the other hand, Fanny Price has no glow of complexion and is exceedingly timid and shy, and she shrinks from notice, but is able to be steadfast and strict about her ethics and beliefs in a way few other heroines are.
Austen’s decision to focus on Fanny at such a young age, ten years old, at a point when she has had little opportunity to learn or grow, is a bold one that she does not force upon her other heroines. Emma is brought to our notice during her twenties, fully formed and strong – although we later learn that she has been given responsibility from age twelve as mistress of the house. We also learn of Emma that “At ten years old she had the misfortune of being able to answer questions which puzzled her sister at seventeen.”
Other Austen heroines are usually described in relation to others and their family situations, and introduced with far less fanfare. Sarah has written about the way Austen introduces Elizabeth and other Pride and Prejudice characters, and she shows how slowly some of the information is revealed in that novel.
Which brings me back to Emma and Fanny, as they are described using the same technique, but to vastly different effect. Emma and Fanny are stark opposites in character, and yet Fanny, much like Emma, is largely alone. While Emma’s solitude is based on her higher position in life and independence from her father in his home, Fanny’s solitude is due to her entirely opposite situation and reliance on a household she has no place in.
In the end, we are left wondering why she wasn’t described as Catherine Morland is, in Northanger Abbey: “No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine.” Jane Austen often suggests we shouldn’t judge anything at its first appearance. Where Emma appears confident and vibrant, we see her needing to take the longest journey of all the heroines, and where Fanny appears to be the most wilting and unattractive of all, she takes a shorter journey. She’s much stronger than Emma, even though that certainly isn’t apparent at first.