Friday, 22 November 2013

Jane Austen's politics, introversion and Fanny Price

Manfield Park has traditionally been seen as very fuddy-duddy and insular, and as being in the Tory tradition, Jane Austen's family being Tory. The fact the patriarch of the story, Sir Thomas Bertram, is a country gentleman, would reinforce the stereotype of country gentry as Tory (City peers and merchants were Whigs). The fact Lady Bertram and even Sir Thomas do not go out much (they are not strictly "society people," though of good position) gives the idea of quietness and insularity, a family wrapped in their own little world. The thing is Austen the narrator seems to agree with the Bertram way of life in general (not in everything though) and so does the heroine Fanny Price, seeming to confirm that the Tory life is the way to happiness and order. 

The more experienced, exposed and supposedly broad-minded characters, the Crawfords and Maria Bertram, are shown to be worldly, shallow and unprincipled and hankering after distractions in the City instead of a quiet country life - a stereotypically more Whiggish temperament. (Today we might even say the same of Liberals and Conservatives). The fact that Mr Rushworth, a stupid man who is in love with Maria, "improves" his house with modern decorations which Fanny and Edmund disapprove of as being unsentimental to the old furnishings, would further indicate that old-fashioned sentiment is the Austen-approved trait, and garrulous modernity anti-Austen. Rushworth believes in "progress," though in a shallow way - the Whigs, too, believed in progress, though in a more political way. We can, however, see Austen's point: Liberals tend to be more progressive and interesting, but scornful of many good old-fashioned things; Conservatives tend to be insular and backward, but more sentimental of old-fashioned things. The thing is we can't have the best of both worlds most of the time - certain traits tend to go with the other. It is interesting to note that her more insular Toryish characters are introverted and the "liberal" Whiggish characters (those who like the city. When I say liberal I mean they like to go out and experience new things) are extroverted. And in Austen's novels, introversion is considered preferable to extroversion.

Modern readers dislike Fanny Price because she is judgemental and insular - she is not merry like Mary Crawford, and her dislike of going out too much and distractions is not a popular trait. She thinks the Crawfords and Maria are too keen on noisy activities and instant gratification. The fact her respected uncle, Sir Thomas, owns a slave plantation in Jamaica also counts against him. That this sympathetic character has this flaw in his ethics points to Austen's superiority in creating complex characters - the honest, old-fashioned patriarch who is good-hearted, and yet guilty of elitism and racism. By the early 19th century slavery was a dirty word in England.

Fanny is serious, intense and highly introverted, and prefers the old days before the Crawfords came and changed the quietness. Most people would think the exchange below shows how dull a person Fanny is. Note she prefers serious talk with her quiet uncle to watching the lively entertaining conversations of the Crawfords and Bertrams.

“Do you think so?” said Fanny: “in my opinion, my uncle would not like any addition. I think he values the very quietness you speak of, and that the repose of his own family circle is all he wants. And it does not appear to me that we are more serious than we used to be—I mean before my uncle went abroad. As well as I can recollect, it was always much the same. There was never much laughing in his presence; or, if there is any difference, it is not more, I think, than such an absence has a tendency to produce at first. There must be a sort of shyness; but I cannot recollect that our evenings formerly were ever merry, except when my uncle was in town. No young people’s are, I suppose, when those they look up to are at home”.
“I believe you are right, Fanny,” was his reply, after a short consideration. “I believe our evenings are rather returned to what they were, than assuming a new character. The novelty was in their being lively. Yet, how strong the impression that only a few weeks will give! I have been feeling as if we had never lived so before.” 
“I suppose I am graver than other people,” said Fanny. “The evenings do not appear long to me. I love to hear my uncle talk of the West Indies. I could listen to him for an hour together. It entertains me more than many other things have done; but then I am unlike other people, I dare say.” 
“Why should you dare say that?” (smiling). “Do you want to be told that you are only unlike other people in being more wise and discreet? But when did you, or anybody, ever get a compliment from me, Fanny? Go to my father if you want to be complimented. He will satisfy you. Ask your uncle what he thinks, and you will hear compliments enough: and though they may be chiefly on your person, you must put up with it, and trust to his seeing as much beauty of mind in time.” 
Such language was so new to Fanny that it quite embarrassed her.“Your uncle thinks you very pretty, dear Fanny— and that is the long and the short of the matter. Anybody but myself would have made something more of it, and anybody but you would resent that you had not been thought very pretty before; but the truth is, that your uncle never did admire you till now—and now he does. Your complexion is so improved!—and you have gained so much countenance!—and your figure—nay, Fanny, do not turn away about it—it is but an uncle. If you cannot bear an uncle’s admiration, what is to become of you? You must really begin to harden yourself to the idea of being worth looking at. You must try not to mind growing up into a pretty woman.” 
“Oh! don’t talk so, don’t talk so,” cried Fanny, distressed by more feelings than he was aware of; but seeing that she was distressed, he had done with the subject, and only added more seriously — 
“Your uncle is disposed to be pleased with you in every respect; and I only wish you would talk to him more. You are one of those who are too silent in the evening circle.”

The question is, how insular is Fanny Price? She is most likely a Tory like her respected aunt and uncle, and her embrace of old architecture and old country ways (modest, decorous and against modernisation) is associated with Toryism (in Jane Austen's view). She is prudish and judgemental; she thinks acting is immoral. Was Austen trying to make her heroine unsympathetic as possible?

The answer is no. Jane Austen does try to make Fanny sympathetic despite her intolerance and illiberality. Although she is Tory-minded, she is a more liberal one, which differentiates her from Sir Thomas. Take this scene between Fanny and Edmund.

“But I do talk to him more than I used. I am sure I do. Did not you hear me ask him about the slave- trade last night?”
“I did — and was in hopes the question would be followed up by others. It would have pleased your uncle to be inquired of farther.”
“And I longed to do it — but there was such a dead silence! And while my cousins were sitting by without speaking a word, or seeming at all interested in the subject, I did not like — I thought it would appear as if I wanted to set myself off at their expense, by showing a curiosity and pleasure in his information which he must wish his own daughters to feel.”
Fanny evidently opposes the slave-trade, associated with the Tories. Though passive, she has some strength of mind to go against her uncle's use of slave labour in his plantation. She is passive, because her social status is lower, she is introverted and people find her boring to be with. But deep within she thinks and challenges certain norms. When a subject stirs her attention, she thinks and feels deeply, and becomes more vocal unlike her usual self. People often accuse Fanny of being holier-than-thou, but the truth is she is deeply interested in the human condition. She may not like people in general but she is sympathetic to the slaves, unlike the so-called liberal Crawfords and younger Bertrams who have no interest in the subject. They may be Whiggish, but they are ultimately hypocrites with no feeling in broader concerns. Though supposedly insular (because she is old-fashioned and introverted) Fanny shows herself to be more liberal-minded than the rest of them. And I think this more than compensates for her judgementalism. She is also acutely sensitive to Sir Thomas' feelings about what he must think of his daughters.

Fanny Price illustrates the paradox in introverts. Susan Cain has written of highly sensitive people (a large proportion of whom are introverted). While seemingly dull and passive, she has a richer inner imagination. Whereas the Crawfords and younger Bertrams who are lively and interesting on the outside have no profound thoughts the way she does, and are ultimately shallow.