Saturday, 3 August 2013

Fanny Price and Dorothy Wordsworth

I’ve been meaning to explore the nature of Fanny Price’s intelligence and cultivation. In Mansfield Park, Fanny is less accomplished than her cousins and Miss Crawford; she plays no music, and doesn’t seem to be fluent in French. But she is well-read on philosophy, due to Edmund’s discriminating taste, and is acquainted with the old English classics as well as modern poetry by Cowper and Walter Scott. (Modern by their standards; both poets are from the Romantic era).
So despite being less quick and accomplished, what makes Fanny Price more intelligent in a sense, and therefore superior to the Misses Bertram?  
To use an analogy, I will put forth Dorothy Wordsworth as an example. In Thomas de Quincey’s Reminiscences of the Lake Poets, he writes:
"Her manner was warm and even ardent; her sensibility seemed constitutionally deep; and some subtle fire of impassioned intellect apparently burned within her, which, being alternately pushed forward into a conspicuous expression by the irrepressible instincts of her temperament, and then immediately checked, in obedience to the decorum of her sex and age, and her maidenly condition, gave to her whole demeanour, an to her conversation, an air of embarrassment, and even of self-conflict, that was almost distressing to witness …whereas the intellect of Wordsworth was, by its original tendency, too stern, too austere, too much enamoured of an ascetic harsh sublimity, she it was … that first couched his eye to the sense of beauty, humanised him by the gentler charities, and engrafted with her delicate female touch, those graces upon the ruder growths of his nature which have since clothed the forest of his genius … She did not cultivate the graces which preside over the person and its carriage. But on the other hand she was a person of very remarkable endowments intellectually; and in addition to the other great services which she rendered to her brother … the exceeding sympathy, always ready and always profound, by which she made all that one could tell her … reverberate … to one’s own feelings, by the manifest impression it made upon hers … Her knowledge of literature of irregular, and thoroughly unsystematic, She was content to be ignorant of many things; but what she knew and had really mastered lay where it could not be disturbed - in the temple of her own most fervid heart."
Dorothy Wordsworth in old age

Like Miss Wordsworth, Fanny is ignorant of many talents and accomplishments, but she is full of feeling for nature and virtue and the past. She is horrified that Mr Rushworth is pulling down the old architecture of his house in favour of new renovations. She quotes Cowper and Scott, and she feels Shakespeare most profoundly. Her religion is not accomplishment but feeling. Mrs Wordsworth was less exposed to high society and the world, but fit in better than Dorothy, because of her temperament, calm in contrast to Dorothy’s fire. Susan Price, more active and likeable and confident, fits in easily though she is less accomplished and intelligent than Fanny, who has seen some high life unlike Susan. 
Now to go deeper. Coleridge married Sarah Fricker, an accomplished young woman who was the daughter of a well-to-do merchant who became bankrupt. She went to a good school and dressed well. She read Mary Wollstonecraft and professed liberal principles, which may be why Coleridge married her. Mrs Coleridge taught her daughter and nieces French and Italian and mathematics, and she was good at these. Her daughter was a prodigy under her tutelage. And yet Coleridge found his wife deficient in intelligence. He wrote to her saying she was less intelligent and accomplished than him. This is true (Coleridge was a genius) but it does not explain why he so admired the intellect of Dorothy Wordsworth, who was certainly less accomplished in languages and mathematics than Mrs Coleridge, and was less sophisticated than the city-born Mrs Coleridge.
Sarah Fricker, wife of Samuel Taylor Coleridge

The trouble was, Mrs Coleridge did not care for, or understand, Coleridge’s poetry, whereas Dorothy contributed to her brother’s and Coleridge’s poetry by her descriptions of natural scenes. She was a good critic and highly sensitive and emotional, unlike good practical Mrs Coleridge. Mrs Coleridge was accomplished but not sensitive and soulful; Miss Wordsworth was less accomplished but felt and understood poetry - a sort of natural intelligence based on feeling rather than reasoned thought - the pinnacle of Romanticism. (In reality Mrs Coleridge was generous, fun, warm-hearted and well-loved; Miss Wordsworth was liked by her brother’s friends but could be selfish and unsympathetic of others’ troubles. But that is another story.)
Mrs Coleridge’s intelligence is external and perceptible; Dorothy’s more internal and requires an intelligent person to discern her qualities. Just as Fanny Price’s values are less perceptible than the accomplishments of Miss Crawford and her cousins. Fanny’s learning actually means something to her, whereas the rest see it as accomplishments you should have to shine in the world, to look genteel and fetch a rich husband.


  1. When are you going to write a book, Caroline? I'd just been reading a little about the Wordsworths and thinki g Dorothy was more interesting than Wm. The comparison with Fanny is SO intriguing. Once again, makes one think CB would have appreciated JA more if she'd read MP. I'll try to revisit this and post more comments when I'm not on my phone. Thanks for putting this up!

  2. Wonderful post, as always. Your knowledge on poets and opinions on lit are always inspiring.

    p.s. Happy Birthday Caroline! :)