Monday, April 06, 2009

The Trouble with Fanny

::Acquired Taste doesn't spend all its time reading genre fiction. Sometimes we turn our attention to The Canon as well, and over the past couple of weeks I've been re-reading Mansfield Park. I read Austen primarily for her voice: cool precision occasionally counterpointed by a thrust so deft the reader doesn't see it coming, or realise at first how deeply it has struck home. This is a pleasure which never cloys.

I've read and loved all the Austen novels many times; Mansfield Park is not my favourite (Pride and Prejudice most perfectly unites all Austen's virtues) but it is by some distance the most interesting of the six. That's because the book just shouldn't work. The heroine, Fanny Price, is timid and introverted to the point of psychosis; her amour, Edmund, is priggish and humourless. And having strung us along for 600 pages, Austen doesn't even show us their final understanding. Instead the last chapter is told--told, not shown--at such an astonishing height of authorial omniscience as to make the gods themselves seem fallible bunglers.

And yet, for most readers, including this one, it works. Maybe only just, but Austen manages to pull off a novel in which the two leading characters are not immediately sympathetic and the ending is chucked in almost as an aside.

There is no disguising that Fanny is a trial to the reader, especially the modern sensibility which expects its heroines to be feisty and spirited. Fanny is neither, although she has an inner strength which makes her interesting to the attentive reader (and indeed this process of being persuaded of her merits against our wills is exactly the one experienced by her suitor Henry Crawford). Both she and Edmund have highly developed moral sensibilities (a kinder obverse of "priggishness") and Edmund, particularly, has to fight the temptation to compromise. The modern reader may struggle to see why Edmund prizes being a country clergyman above the charms of the witty, lively and beautiful Mary, but in a 19th century context it's more easily understandable. Because Austen isn't writing a historical novel, she can assume a shared culture with her readers which simply isn't the case today: a modern writer telling the same story would need to dramatise the appeal of the church to the morally-minded, rather than taking it as read.

Even those who find Fanny and Edmund rather dull--indeed, especially those--will warm to the liveliness of Mary and Henry, all the more stimulating because they are not moral exemplars. Mary is catty and unguarded; Henry enjoys nothing more than breaking young ladies' hearts. The depth and richness of the supporting cast--not just the Crawfords, but the hateful Aunt Norris, even the indolent Lady Bertram--go some way towards offsetting the reader's frustration with Fanny's perpetual snivelling.

It would be hard for a writer to get away with the final chapter today. At long last everything has come to a head, and the reader hunkers down for a final scene like the one between Elizabeth and Mr Darcy, where errors are confessed and feelings declared. Instead Austen plays a point-of-view tour-de-force of the sort our resident POV expert David Isaak could only marvel at:

Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can, impatient to restore everybody, not greatly in fault themselves, to tolerable comfort, and to have done with all the rest.

The rest of the novel is played out in this astoundingly distant third-person. We aren't going to get Edmund declaring his feelings for Fanny after all. What we get is a wonderfully wry paragraph that is almost post-modern in the way it steps outside the novel to remind us of the conventions of the genre:

I purposely abstain from dates on this occasion, that every one may be at liberty to fix their own, aware that the cure of unconquerable passions, and the transfer of unchanging attachments, must vary much as to time in different people. I only entreat everybody to believe that exactly at the time when it was quite natural that it should be so, and not a week earlier, Edmund did cease to care about Miss Crawford, and became as anxious to marry Fanny as Fanny herself could desire.

I don't know about you, but I'd rather have that than listen to Fanny grizzle her way through Edmund's proposal (the reader will realise by now that Fanny will not face the moment with sangfroid). Austen's voice is the dominant element of the novel, and at the end she turns the camera on herself, to tell the reader what happened to everybody, and what to think about it. A writer needs to have the most compelling voice, not to mention considerable chutzpah, to pull this off. Could you do it today? Maybe you could make it work, but only if you could get it through your agent and editor.

Mansfield Park is a difficult novel. More than any of Austen's other works, it reflects a cultural sensibility now long vanished, and the reader has to work uncommonly hard to mesh their own preconceptions with the author's world. Luckily we are in the hands of a master guide, who may be moral but is never moralistic. Her wry humour remains, even at a distance of two hundred years. Settle back and enjoy the ride.
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David Isaak said...

Dare I confess that I've never read "Mansfield Park" or "Lady Susan"?

I agree that P&P is the Austen touchstone...but I have a deep admiration for all those same qualities in "Emma," too.

Frances Garrood said...

I confess to being very fond of Mansfield Park, but, on the most recent reading (a few months ago) I think that Sense and Sensibility has to be one of the silliest novels of all time (and Jane Austen is my favourite novelist). I'd love to know if anyone else feels the same? Or is it heresy?

Tim Stretton said...

David, it looks like I've just set you some homework... given your pathological interest in narrative voice and point of view, this is one book you must read.

"Pride & Prejudice" & "Emma" are the two Austen novels I like best. "Emma" is just about perfect.

Frances, I don't think S&S is as silly as Northanger Abbey (although of course the latter has the merit of being deliberately so...). S&S is interesting because it has all the instuments in the orchestra as the greater novels, but the whole isn't quite in tune.

I do hate that feeling of going back and finding a book isn't quite what I'd remembered - or maybe you always felt that way about it?

Frances Garrood said...

I think I always felt that way about it, and rather hoped that things had changed, but sadly they haven't. For me, the characters in S&S are two dimensional, especially the men. There are no Lizzies or Harriets or Mr. Knightlys. But one's tastes do change, don't they. Once, my all-time favourite novel was The Forsyte Saga. I absolutely loved it; couldn't put it down until I'd finished all of the two (fat) volumes. I tried it again recently on holiday, and couldn't get past the first couple of chapters. As for Northanger Abbey, not sure I agree, because Catherine (as opposed to the whole of NA) is meant to be a silly girl. I'm not sure Marianne and Eleanor are. But you're right - NA is down there at the bottom (for me) just above S&S. I agree that Emma and P&P are the best.