Twenty-third in a series of posts celebrating 200 years of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. For more details, open Your Invitation to Mansfield Park.
Today is the first official day of the JASNA AGM in Montreal, where seven hundred of us are gathering to discuss and celebrate Mansfield Park. This weekend I get to have the pleasure of introducing Natasha Duquette and her work on Austen on two occasions. Tomorrow I’m introducing the AGM breakout session she and her husband Frederick Duquette are presenting on “Fanny Price Amidst the Philosophers,” and right now I get to introduce her guest post on Fanny’s “fervent prayers.”
Natasha and I attended the University of Alberta as undergraduates at the same time, but somehow we didn’t meet until several years later (at a conference in London, Ontario, even though – as we recently figured out – we took the same Chaucer class together at the U of A). It’s been a delight to reconnect with her and to discuss Mansfield Park.
Natasha is Associate Dean at Tyndale University College in Toronto, Ontario, where she also teaches in the Philosophy and English departments. Her research on Jane Austen has appeared in Jane Austen Sings the Blues (University of Alberta Press, 2009), Persuasions On-Line, and English Studies in Canada, and she co-edited – with Elisabeth Lenckos, whose guest post on Mansfield Park will appear in this series in December – Jane Austen and the Arts: Elegance, Propriety, and Harmony (Lehigh University Press, 2013). Natasha’s monograph Veiled Intent: Dissenting Women’s Theological Aesthetics is forthcoming with Pickwick.
He would marry Miss Crawford. It was a stab, in spite of every longstanding expectation; and she was obliged to repeat again and again that she was one of his dearest, before the words gave her any sensation. Could she believe Miss Crawford to deserve him, it would be – Oh, how different it would be – how far more tolerable! But he was deceived in her: he gave her merits which she had not; her faults were what they had ever been, but he saw them no longer. Till she had shed many tears over this deception, Fanny could not subdue her agitation; and the dejection which followed could only be relieved by fervent prayers for his happiness.
– From Mansfield Park, Chapter 27 (Peterborough, ON: Broadview, 2003)
Fanny Price is the only heroine who Jane Austen depicts in an act of private prayer. This small window into Fanny’s spiritual life is in accord with Austen’s general depiction of her as a contemplative. In her excellent study Jane Austen’s Philosophy of the Virtues (Palgrave, 2005), Sarah Emsley presents Fanny as a deep thinker engaged in “philosophical contemplation” (108), and I have argued Fanny’s observation of the starry sky over dark woods is a moment of contemplative sublimity (“Sublime Repose”: The Spiritual Aesthetics of Landscape in Austen” in Jane Austen Sings the Blues, 2009).
Like contemplative women through history – such as scientist and theologian Hildegaard of Bingen and phenomenologist Edith Stein – Fanny Price blends intellectual, philosophical, and spiritual contemplation in her figurative convent cell, the East Room of Mansfield Park. But unlike the idealized sisters of Williams Wordsworth’s sonnet “Nuns Fret Not,” the very human Fanny does balk at the limitations of a solitary, celibate future.
Edmund Bertram’s apparent choice of Mary Crawford frustrates Fanny, and in response, she redirects her passion in spontaneous, almost Psalmic, cries of the heart. Like the biblical psalmist, Fanny wonders at the “prosperity of the wicked” (Psalm 73.3, KJV), and her fervent prayers are anguished and ardent petitions. Within the narrative framework of Mansfield Park, Fanny cannot initially accept the reality of Edmund’s attraction to Mary, despite the evidence she sees.
However, when Edmund tells Fanny that she and Mary are his “dearest objects,” Fanny quickly jumps to the conclusion that Edmund will wed Mary. Edmund’s statement breaks through any remaining layers of denial in her consciousness, and Fanny experiences harsh reality physically – “it was a stab.” Austen avoids simile and uses a powerful direct metaphor. It is not as if Fanny has been stabbed. She was stabbed. She feels it acutely. Stages of grief appear in rapid succession: shocked numbness marked by absence of “any sensation,” outrage emphasized with an exclamation mark, bafflement, weeping, and finally “dejection.” Paradoxically, this final stage functions as a turning point for Fanny, a pivot upwards towards faith and hope for “happiness” (Edmund’s, at least, if not her own). Fanny’s Psalmic descent will turn out to be a felix culpa or “happy fall.” It is a journey into the darkest aspects of her self – envy, judgment, rage, & doubt – with a redemptive twist at the end.
Upon re-visiting Mansfield Park for a second or third time, the reader may bring dramatic irony to Fanny’s impassioned prayers. They have a comic aspect in their very fervency. Fanny is far from perfect herself and very much a character in process of dynamic development. Her interpretation of Edmund’s statement as definitely indicating “he would marry Miss Crawford” is lacking in epistemological humility. Fanny is not omniscient, nor is the narrator, and her fatalistic, certain prediction of Edmund’s matrimonial future appears in a moment of free indirect discourse. Thankfully, the narrator is unreliable and fallible, the future is still open, and Fanny’s prayers will be answered in ways beyond anything she could ask or imagine.
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