Mary C.M. Phillips writes about works by her favourite authors, Jane Austen and Edith Wharton, at Caffeine Epiphanies, and she recently co-hosted a discussion of Wharton’s life and works – including my own favourite, The Custom of the Country – at the Malverne Public Library in Malverne, New York. Her short stories and essays have appeared in numerous anthologies, such as Chicken Soup for the Soul, A Cup of Comfort, and Bad Austen: The Worst Stories Jane Never Wrote. Follow her on Twitter @MarycmPhil. I met Mary at the 2012 JASNA AGM in New York and have enjoyed many conversations with her about both Austen and Wharton since then. I’m very happy to introduce her guest post on Mary Crawford’s famous question about Fanny Price, “Pray, is she out, or is she not?”
“I begin now to understand you all, except Miss Price,” said Miss Crawford, as she was walking with the Mr. Bertrams. “Pray, is she out, or is she not? – I am puzzled. – She dined at the Parsonage, with the rest of you, which seemed like being out; and yet she says so little, that I can hardly suppose she is.”
Edmund, to whom this was chiefly addressed, replied, “I believe I know what you mean – but I will not undertake to answer the question. My cousin is grown up. She has the age and sense of a woman, but the outs and not outs are beyond me.”
“And yet, in general, nothing can be more easily ascertained. The distinction is so broad. Manners as well as appearance are, generally speaking, so totally different. Till now, I could not have supposed it possible to be mistaken as to a girl’s being out or not. A girl not out has always the same sort of dress; a close bonnet, for instance, looks very demure, and never says a word. You may smile – but it is so I assure you – and except that it is sometimes carried a little too far, it is all very proper. Girls should be quiet and modest. The most objectionable part is, that the alteration of manners on being introduced into company is frequently too sudden. They sometimes pass in such very little time from reserve to quite the opposite – to confidence! That is the faulty part of the present system. One does not like to see a girl of eighteen or nineteen so immediately up to every thing – and perhaps when one has seen her hardly able to speak the year before. Mr. Bertram, I dare say you have sometimes met with such changes.”
– From Mansfield Park, Chapter 5 (London: Penguin, 1985)
Lying all around our path;
Let us keep the wheat and roses,
Casting out the thorns and chaff;
Let us find our sweetest comfort
In the blessings of today,
With a patient hand removing
All the briers from the way.
Then scatter seeds of kindness,
Then scatter seeds of kindness,
For our reaping by and by.
– May Riley Smith
Random acts of kindness may often come from the most unlikely of characters. An ambitious social climber might have a better eye for injustice than even the most sincere clergyman. To some, Mary Crawford, the charming antagonist of Mansfield Park, is considered shallow, immoral and unprincipled. But not to me. In my opinion, Mary Crawford is the radiant beacon that the Bertram family so desperately needs, shining a light on the character of Fanny Price.
“Pray, is she out, or is she not?” asks Mary in Chapter 5. “I am puzzled. She dined at the Parsonage, with the rest of you, which seemed like being out; and yet she says so little, that I can hardly suppose she is.”
Oh those heavenly words! I vividly remember my reaction to Mary’s words when I first read Mansfield Park. “Finally,” I rejoiced. “Someone has at long last taken notice of our poor Fanny. Someone has cast a warm light onto our pathetic heroine who continues to endure in an environment of insensitive frost.” Because, truth-be-told, that entire lot of Bertrams have blinded themselves to their own acts of injustice (and one has to wonder if Sir Thomas’s mysterious Antigua connection has somehow infected the entire family psyche).
Mary’s curious (and innocent) question plants a seed that will one day bear much fruit. Random acts of kindness are rooted in love and love is not meant to wither but to grow and spread and multiply. Mary’s act is one of compassion, like Miss Temple in Charlotte Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre, giving the poor orphan Jane Eyre a meal after a long trip. Miss Temple, unlike others, distinctly recognizes Jane’s suffering and takes immediate action. Just as Jesus cleanses the blind beggar’s eyes (Mark 10:46-52), Mary’s Crawford’s words have a profound cleansing effect on Edmund’s eyes. Until this moment, Edmund has not been able to see clearly. He has seen Fanny as a child. He has seen her as a quasi-family member. He has not, however, seen Fanny as a woman.
Mary’s question, “Pray, is she out, or is she not?”, results in Edmund’s acknowledgment that Fanny must be treated differently. As an adult. With compassion and kindness. Soon after this revelation, Edmund announces that Fanny must also be included in the visit to Sotherton – even if it means he will have to stay behind.
He then helps to arrange Fanny’s coming-out ball – a ball her dearly-loved brother attends, and at which this heroic brother puts all the other men in attendance to shame. This shame, I believe, is what leads Henry Crawford to feel his first pang of inferiority – a feeling that only Fanny’s respect and adoration would be able to cure.
From Mary’s one small seed of kindness (even if planted unintentionally), she awakens an entire family (excluding Mrs. Norris, of course, who is pure evil) and allows Fanny Price to grow into the woman she was always meant to be.
To read more about all the posts in this series, visit An Invitation to Mansfield Park.