Twenty-fourth in a series of posts celebrating 200 years of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. For more details, open Your Invitation to Mansfield Park.
Margaret Horwitz specializes in Film Studies, and has given many talks on Jane Austen’s novels and their film and television adaptations. She spoke at the JASNA AGMs in Los Angeles (2004) and Chicago (2008), and was JASNA’s Traveling Lecturer for the western part of North America in 2008-2009. She has a Ph.D. in Film Studies from UCLA and is a visiting professor of literature for New College Berkeley, an institute of the Graduate Theological Union. She’s a Life Member of JASNA and has been active in JASNA circles since the mid-1990s, first in Southern and then Northern California.
I met Margaret at the 2005 AGM in Milwaukee, where we discovered that we share an interest in the prayers Jane Austen wrote, and in questions about ethics in Austen’s novels. It was wonderful to see her in Montreal last weekend at the Mansfield Park AGM, and I’m very pleased to introduce her guest post on Fanny Price’s feelings about the two necklaces given to her by Mary Crawford and Edmund Bertram.
“Dearest Fanny!” cried Edmund, pressing her hand to his lips with almost as much warmth as if it had been Miss Crawford’s, “you are all considerate thought! But it is unnecessary here. The time will never come. No such time as you allude to will ever come. I begin to think it most improbable: the chances grow less and less; and even if it should, there will be nothing to be remembered by either you or me that we need be afraid of, for I can never be ashamed of my own scruples; and if they are removed, it must be by changes that will only raise her character the more by the recollection of the faults she once had. You are the only being upon earth to whom I should say what I have said; but you have always known my opinion of her; you can bear me witness, Fanny, that I have never been blinded. How many a time have we talked over her little errors! You need not fear me; I have almost given up every serious idea of her; but I must be a blockhead indeed, if, whatever befell me, I could think of your kindness and sympathy without the sincerest gratitude.”
He had said enough to shake the experience of eighteen. He had said enough to give Fanny some happier feelings than she had lately known, and with a brighter look, she answered, “Yes, cousin, I am convinced that you would be incapable of anything else, though perhaps some might not. I cannot be afraid of hearing anything you wish to say. Do not check yourself. Tell me whatever you like.”
They were now on the second floor, and the appearance of a housemaid prevented any farther conversation. For Fanny’s present comfort it was concluded, perhaps, at the happiest moment: had he been able to talk another five minutes, there is no saying that he might not have talked away all Miss Crawford’s faults and his own despondence. But as it was, they parted with looks on his side of grateful affection, and with some very precious sensations on hers. She had felt nothing like it for hours. Since the first joy from Mr. Crawford’s note to William had worn away, she had been in a state absolutely the reverse; there had been no comfort around, no hope within her. Now everything was smiling. William’s good fortune returned again upon her mind, and seemed of greater value than at first. The ball, too – such an evening of pleasure before her! It was now a real animation; and she began to dress for it with much of the happy flutter which belongs to a ball. All went well: she did not dislike her own looks; and when she came to the necklaces again, her good fortune seemed complete, for upon trial the one given her by Miss Crawford would by no means go through the ring of the cross. She had, to oblige Edmund, resolved to wear it; but it was too large for the purpose. His, therefore, must be worn; and having, with delightful feelings, joined the chain and the cross – those memorials of the two most beloved of her heart, those dearest tokens so formed for each other by everything real and imaginary – and put them round her neck, and seen and felt how full of William and Edmund they were, she was able, without an effort, to resolve on wearing Miss Crawford’s necklace too. She acknowledged it to be right. Miss Crawford had a claim; and when it was no longer to encroach on, to interfere with the stronger claims, the truer kindness of another, she could do her justice even with pleasure to herself. The necklace really looked very well; and Fanny left her room at last, comfortably satisfied with herself and all about her.
– From Mansfield Park, Chapter 27 (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2003)
This passage from Chapter 27 of Mansfield Park intrigues me because it illustrates the power and comfort of friendship, and includes one of the most compelling moments in the novel. The setting of the passage begins near a staircase, and recalls a scene in Chapter 2 where Edmund Bertram notices the “despondence” of his ten-year-old cousin Fanny Price, shortly after her arrival at Mansfield Park. Edmund, who is six years older than Fanny, comforts her, while sitting next to her on the attic stairs. He then helps her write a letter to her brother William, who had been her advocate at home in Portsmouth. From the first recorded conversation between Fanny and Edmund, he and William are linked in their friendship with her.
In Chapter 27, Fanny is now eighteen, and on the afternoon of the ball in her honor, a role reversal occurs in her friendship with Edmund. Though having cautioned him that she would not be an “adviser,” Fanny has agreed to be a “listener” as he struggles with uncertainty over the question of marriage to Mary Crawford. Edmund asserts, “I can never be ashamed of my own scruples,” in other words, the principles he has taught Fanny and which they now share. Edmund believes that “if they are removed” it must be by changes “in Miss Crawford’s conduct.” Yet his scruples have been to an extent diminished, since Edmund refers to Mary Crawford’s errors as “little,” though she has tried to convince him to renounce his calling as a clergyman.
Edmund acknowledges the unique place Fanny has in his life by saying, “You are the only being upon earth to whom I should say what I have said.” In spite of his many material advantages, she is the one person in whom he can confide. Fanny is then able to reply to Edmund with a “brighter look,” that she is convinced he would “be incapable of anything else” (adhering to his principles) though “some might not,” an indirect reference to Mary Crawford. This praise shows Fanny’s mettle as a friend to Edmund, since she expresses her faith in the strength of his character, though he is in love with and confused by her (unacknowledged) rival. In this way, Fanny also predicts the behavior of both Edmund and Mary Crawford.
Their conversation concludes before Edmund might “talk away all Miss Crawford’s faults” and his own “despondence,” the same word used for Fanny’s state of mind in Chapter 2. The role reversal in this passage continues because Edmund is now the recipient of Fanny’s kindness as they part ways, “with looks on his side of grateful affection,” in contrast to the pattern of his being kind and Fanny responding with gratitude. He also has affirmed her. From a place of “no comfort around” and “no hope within her,” Fanny can anticipate the ball that night as an “evening of pleasure,” instead of anxiety.
One of the most satisfying moments in the novel takes place when Fanny goes into her room to dress for the ball. Her “good fortune seemed complete,” when the ornate necklace Mary Crawford has given her cannot go through “the ring of the cross,” a gift to Fanny from William. The “plain gold chain” Edmund had just given her the prior evening “must be worn,” though he has urged her to wear the more elaborate necklace, in order to please Miss Crawford. The necklace, originally a gift to Mary from her brother, Henry Crawford, was imposed on Fanny with the injunction that she remember both of them in wearing it. In this instance, Fanny successfully navigates a series of competing claims. She is able to have her preference, “and with delightful feelings” to join “the chain and the cross, those memorials of the two most beloved of her heart, those dearest tokens.”
It makes sense that William and Edmund, Fanny’s closest friends as well as family members, honor her character and her taste, so that the chain and cross seem “formed for each other.” The chain’s simplicity is appropriate for Fanny’s integrity. The cross represents love and sacrifice in William’s purchasing a costly present, one which also recognizes Fanny as a person of faith.
Finally, unlike Mary Crawford’s necklace, Edmund’s gold chain is not given to her in the service of another relationship. He remembers what would be helpful to Fanny, something important to her comfort. Edmund has indeed shown himself to have a “truer kindness” than Mary Crawford, who has forced a gift on her. In addition to the chain and cross, Fanny makes the decision to wear Miss Crawford’s necklace, and even thinks it “really looked very well.” She leaves her room for the ball, “comfortably satisfied with herself and all about her.” Edmund’s friendship, and his response to her friendship, result in a rare moment of comfort for Fanny, who is undervalued and forgotten throughout much of the novel.
This passage reveals Edmund’s need for Fanny to listen to his conflicting feelings, as his sole confidante. Fanny is a steadfast friend in encouraging him to hold fast to his principles. Edmund’s ability to do so in the long run derives at least in part from their friendship as an important touchstone in his life. His unalloyed kindness to Fanny, in realizing her need for a chain to support William’s cross, is rewarded by these gifts complementing each other. The gift of a cross, itself a symbol of sacrificial love, also reveals William’s faithfulness in remembering Fanny as a sibling and friend during her eight years of separation from their childhood home. Though she still has much pain to endure, including Edmund’s wavering, I find this scene a high point in the novel. For once, Fanny “must” do what she most wishes, to unite these objects, “full of William and Edmund,” and by implication the two persons “dearest” to her comfort.
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