After much time spent puzzling over the question of what to make of Fanny, I find myself still grappling with it. As I think about the text more and more, in fact, I feel more strongly that I’m still just grappling here instead of really figuring anything out. These reflections are, then, like my earlier ones uncertain and tentative. I may even be less certain about what I’m saying now than about what I put forth previously. But, with that in mind, here goes:
As we try to make sense of this novel, it seems as if we must begin by trying to make sense of Fanny, though I honestly see little hope of success. Aside from, of course, the narrator’s, Fanny’s emerges as the primary perspective from which we see things in the novel, a situation that is furthered by her remaining distant from everyone but Edmund. Edmund and Fanny’s bond develops because of their shared morality, as we see when the rest of the young people want to perform the play Lovers’ Vows and both Edmund and Fanny object. Never allowing her text to sacrifice complexity, Austen suggests a difference in morality between these two characters, however, by letting even Edmund end up being drawn into the play, although it’s important that he agrees to participate as a favor to Mary Crawford. I suppose it’s true that, therefore, from one angle, we might look at Edmund’s behavior as a sign of moral strength in that he is relinquishing his desire not to be involved because his resistance has done nothing to stop the play’s performance and he wants to prevent the greater immorality of Mary’s being forced to act out scenes with strong romantic overtones opposite an outsider from the community. And on Fanny’s part, with her forceful insistence that she “cannot act” and the virtual terror that seems to accompany this assertion, one can see why some readers would contend that, in this case and in other notable major episodes, what some would categorize as actions motivated by Fanny’s morality are more accurately classified as reflections of her extreme insecurity.
There’s no doubt that Fanny is insecure as a result of her harsh treatment. As we see when she reflects on her place in the Bertram home during her visit to her birth home in Portsmouth, she enjoys far more material comfort there but receives little love or encouragement in either location. Among the Portsmouth clan, it’s clear that her mother has other favorite children, a fact perhaps reflected in Fanny’s having been chosen in the first place as the child to surrender to the Bertrams’ care. In the Bertram home, she endures the constant criticisms of her Aunt Norris, (a great vehicle for Austen’s sense of humor but a character about as charming as a rabid dog with red ants building villages in its ears) who goes so far as to blame Fanny for Maria’s fleeing her marriage and running off with Henry Crawford. Her preposterous reasoning is that, had Fanny accepted Henry’s repeated marriage proposals, he would not have sought Maria’s attentions in the first place.
Fanny sleeps in the attic and is often treated little better than a servant; for various happenings, Lady Bertram and her Aunt Norris depend on her companionship or assistance while the other young people are allowed to pursue freedom or enjoyment. (These ladies simply “cannot do without” Fanny time and time again, and in a good 50 percent of these cases, I can see no earthly reason why not). Although Austen portrays Fanny’s treatment as unjust, one inescapable question is whether the author sees the adversity she endures as one source of Fanny’s character strength. Or is said character strength something Fanny possesses by nature–something that enables her to respond politely and calmly to the harsh treatment she endures?
The latter proposition is clearly at least partly true, as Fanny’s grace in difficult situations throughout the novel illustrates. But what of the former? It seems as if the overall pattern of the novel does support this assertion, judging even by the subtle differences among the Bertram children, for whom being the object of overindulgent treatment encourages weak character. We see, for example, that the oldest son and daughter, Tom and Maria, are clearly held in higher regard than their younger siblings, a pattern that depicts a mindset that was common among this era’s aristocracy. And what happens? Edmund, of course, not only behaves better on the whole than Tom, but actively seeks, in becoming a clergyman, the influence of even greater discipline and regulation than he’s already experienced according to his household position. Tom, the favored elder brother, meanwhile, accumulates substantial gambling debt and consoles himself with the fact that many of his friends are deeper in debt than he is. Throughout the text, Tom’s carefree attitude about money seems linked to the quiet assumption that, although Edmund could have chosen a far more profitable career than he does, he would have had to choose some career and earn a living eventually. Tom, meanwhile, it seems to be assumed, can repay whatever his debts may amount to and even begin building his future through inherited money and property. Nowhere in the novel, even as the issue of Edmund’s decision to become a clergyman draws discussion, do we find any indication that Tom is–or should be–planning a career. Ultimately, Tom’s illness makes most explicit Austen’s implication that discipline and adversity build moral character, as it offers Tom both of these things, which he has never experienced because of his privileged position. Austen states that, as a result of Tom’s illness, “he had suffered and he had learnt to think, two advantages that he had never known before.”
Similarly, although the contrast between Maria’s character and Julia’s is nowhere near as stark as that between Tom’s and Edmund’s, Maria, elder and favored child, ultimately does her impulsive running off with a man while married to another man; Julia is single when she elopes with Mr. Yates. Its implied that, when things calm down, Julia’s marriage may evolve into a union that the family can accept; not so with Maria’s. Julia’s behavior is treated as something that she ought not have done; Maria’s is an act of calling shame upon the entire household. Again, as with the Bertram boys, the elder child, Maria, who is favored, emerges with weaker moral character than does the younger, slightly less spoiled Julia. The one form of discipline and duty forced on Maria, Austen makes clear, is one that fosters rebellion rather than moral strength–the obligation to enter a marriage that will secure a respectable social position and financial privilege, which Maria acts in accordance with when she initially marries a man, who, it is said, would be thought “a rather stupid fellow” were it not for his wealth.
It could hardly be clearer, then, that adversity builds moral character but that familial pampering, here and in what I know of Austen otherwise, seems the greatest force opposing moral devekopment. But the character-shaping discipline that Edmund and Tom receive from sources outside the family keep the author from appearing to be an absolute enemy of the upper classes or seeming to portray the aristocracy’s lot in life as an absolute condemnation to moral lassitude. In fact, Austen complicates the question of nurture’s influence on adult character by making the influences of childhood and young adulthood extend far beyond one’s parenting and social position. Still, Fanny, who unquestionably endures the greatest abuses, stands as the moral force that provides constancy to the Bertram household throughout the text while whims, guests, projects, and parental absences create a generally comfortable but a slightly unstable home environment for the Bertram children (which, nevertheless, we must regard as a model of routine and comfort next to the Portsmouth home to which Fanny is sent back to for a visit, seemingly as punishment for her repeated refusals of Henry Crawford’s proposals). We do not have then, one of those common texts in which the wealthy are displayed as corrupt and the poor as noble. Austen is too astute an artist to create such a tiresome, pedantic tale.
Despite the fact that we’d assume Fanny to be the happiest character in the novel’s “happy ending,” this is not one of the many “fairy tale” novels popular among certain classes of readers in Austen’s day in which lowborn children rise to great wealth and status and wellborn ones, portrayed as simplistically greedy and morally reckless, are somehow torn from their elevated position, often as a direct result of these very attributes. First off, we have the question of the Crawfords, who do not seem to belong simply to a particular class. Mary and Henry Crawford technically belong to the ranks of orphans, having been raised by their aunt and uncle after losing their parents. Orphans in general, in nineteenth century novels, however, tend to be doomed to poverty and certainly left out of the elevated social circles populated by the children of prestigious families. These two, however, seem to enjoy a favorable social standing and, at least in Henry’s case, the promise of a large inheritance, as we are reminded by the other characters each time Fanny refuses one of his proposals. At the same time, however, we might expect the Crawfords to exhibit moral strength because of the suffering it’s implied that they experience in their home, with their aunt and uncle using them as pawns in their quarrels and, Austen also implies, making them feel unworthy and lucky to possess the privileges they do. Rather than develop in accordance with hardships thrust upon them at home, the Crawfords seem to avoid these influences by distancing themselves from the household they are reared in as much as possible. They spend considerable amounts of time with the Bertrams, Henry travels on extended trips, and Mary seeks a familial bond of surrogate sisterhood with Fanny.
Money, then, does not guarantee a wholly privileged upbringing, and individual choice plays a significant role in how individuals respond to their lot in life, with other influences and factors also intervening. And were an aristocratic position a possible destiny for the virtuous orphan schooled in decorum, such as Fanny, it would not then be, as Austen illustrates by Fanny’s refusal to marry Henry, the absolute fate that the heroine desires or even the fate that being reared among the upper classes makes most appropriate for the heroine. With Edmund having chosen, in the clergy, a career that will offer him a relatively comfortable living but is clearly socially and economically less rewarding than many of the other options he could have pursued, Fanny still wishes to be his wife. Her upbringing and character seem particularly well-suited for her fate in marrying a clergyman. Her strong morality, of course, is advantageous. Meanwhile, her experience of two separate households will prove useful in her interactions with a diverse community, her habit of looking always to the needs of others and serving them would be considered a virtue for a clergyman’s wife in this culture, and her expectation of a slightly lower level of privilege than that afforded to the other Bertram children well suits the social rank that she and Edmund will occupy–by Edmund’s choice.
Many popular writers of this era simplistically presented two routes from a low birth into a higher social class, often pursued together by the same virtuous female character. These were the following: 1. reception into an aristocratic household upon the heroine’s finding herself orphaned or otherwise homeless and 2. marriage to a wealthy man. Austen alters these formulas and their outcomes a bit in Fanny’s case and suggests that the upper classes do not conspire ceaselessly to keep the lower classes in their place, as many authors of her day would have it, She shows us that the Bertrams take Fanny in not because she is thrown into a homelessness that leaves them no choice but rather to foster a better upbringing for the Price family children. By the time they fill Fanny’s former role as household helper with her sister Susan, the Bertrams are shown as needing this outsider child almost, perhaps, as much as she needs them. Austen also starts a trend here that will become more important in Persuasion–the possibility of a child of lower-class birth advancing himself to a higher standing, which, in both novels, is offered by the military, as Fanny’s brother, William Price, rises to the rank of lieutenant. But she refrains from making his elevation simple evidence of some cliched belief that those who work hard, whatever their origins, may succeed in that she makes Henry Crawford’s intervention a significant factor in William’s promotion.
A good thing, in this example, arises from something troubling–Henry’s relentless pursuit of Fanny, but there is no portrayal of Fanny’s still refusing Henry after he has assisted her brother as a show of ingratitude, although that’s exactly how the Bertrams see her refusals throughout Henry’s pursuit. Nor does William’s promotion wholly seem a redress of misfortune in his upbringing. On the one hand, William, indeed, grows up in significant misfortune. This is the case, of course, because he spends his youth in the chaotic and impoverished Price household. In her portrayal of this family, however, Austen presents William as one of Mrs. Price’s favorites. This minor character’s lot in life, then, joins the complex situations and fates Austen affords to the novel’s other characters. In so doing, she portrays a culture in which tiny hints of social transformation and individual explorations of choice are becoming more common and more influential, but not overwhelmingly so. The upper classes still enjoy great power and exhibit widespread corruption.
Recognizing this novel’s complexity does not mean denying its powerful indictment of the privileged classes of Austen’s day. Fanny seems, in part, to function as an outsider who makes this indictment readily apparent to the reading audience through her moral constancy and insight. As an outsider to the privileged classes, Fanny sees what they cannot. Each time she is scolded for rejecting Henry Crawford, she withdraws from the family circle to review her reasons for doing so. Although these are numerous, her insight into Henry’s problematic moral character is a significant one. And it is not simply her own feelings for Edmund that motivate her opposition to his pursuit of Mary Crawford. In Fanny’s eyes, Edmund is the “dupe of Miss Crawford” as he fails to see her shallow character until the end of the novel. These insights are depicted as ones that she cannot share with the Bertrams, not even with her friend Edmund: they are foreign to the upper classes, as is the heroine’s moral insight in general and , on the whole, the heroine herself Nevertheless, through Fanny’s fate and her relationships with some of the other characters, Austen suggests a certain amount of fluidity and individual choice gaining power in the society of her time.