“You must hear this story,” a friend told me. “As a devoted Janeite, you will love it!” Apparently, renowned philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre was attending a panel on Jane Austen’s novels at the Notre Dame Fall Conference. MacIntyre asked a quaking undergraduate panelist, “Who is the best of all Austen’s heroines?” The panelist shuffled her papers nervously and, in her hesitation, MacIntyre stood and bellowed “Fanny Price!” The shocked panelist fell to the floor in a faint worthy of Marianne Dashwood.
I realized halfway through the story that I had been there! In fact, I was a participant in the panel described. But the story had taken on a life of its own, which is why I did not immediately recognize the tale. The real events involved a fellow undergraduate panelist feeling lightheaded while giving her paper on Jane Austen’s view of proper pride with MacIntyre and the Center’s founding director, Dr. David Solomon, in the audience. After she put her feet up for a few minutes, MacIntyre inquired whether she was quite ready to continue with her paper. Jokes were made about calling for smelling salts and how very Austenesque it was to have a nearly fainting panelist. But the facts do not hold a candle to the mythical retelling.
Fiction often communicates truth better than mere fact and this little Notre Dame legend certainly corroborates this reality. MacIntyre does seem to think Fanny Price is the finest Austen heroine of them all. This fact might shock modern readers, who often misunderstand her, into a bona fide fainting fit.
Mansfield Park’s Fanny Price is often brushed aside as Austen’s stick-in-the-mud, boring heroine. And indeed, sparkling and witty Elizabeth Bennet she is not. Fanny is the shy and dutiful relative accepted into the household of her uncle Sir Thomas Bertram at age 10 due to her immediate family’s impoverished state. Her timid nature leaves her vulnerable to the abuse of one aunt and the neglect of her other relatives in her new life at Sir Thomas’s luxurious estate Mansfield Park. Although she does not have the expensive education of her sophisticated cousins she exhibits a depth of moral character that none of them seem to possess. As the plot unfolds her principles are challenged with threats of estrangement and even poverty when she refuses to marry Henry Crawford, a wealthy man she knows to be morally bankrupt. Crawford is engaging and charming while, in the words of MacIntyre, “Fanny is charmless; she has only the virtues, the genuine virtues, to protect her”(After Virtue, 242).
The confusion of modern readers about Fanny Price is consistent with the modern dismissal of the idea of virtue as Jane Austen communicates it. In his highly influential work After Virtue, MacIntyre briefly examines Austen’s moral philosophy in his consideration of the Western tradition of virtue and claims that “Jane Austen is in a crucial way . . . the last great representative of the classical tradition of the virtues” (After Virtue, 243). She is noteworthy because she unites the Christian and Aristotelian moral traditions masterfully. The virtuous man or woman in Austen’s novels has the moral clarity to act rightly because he or she has developed fine moral character through the habits of virtue.
Austen’s view of virtue is teleological rather than utilitarian. It is not that being virtuous will provide her characters with wealth, power, or success. In fact, for Fanny Price, constancy in virtue threatens to deprive her of these external goods. However, for Austen, acting virtuously is ordered toward the telos (goal) of the genuinely human person. Her novels also highlight genuine virtue as being born from internal goodness and she contrasts this with the mere appearance of goodness demonstrated by adherence to the conventions of polite society or charm that can add a deceptive veneer over vice. Modern misinterpretations of her characters and themes are often the result of an inability to comprehend Austen’s Aristotelian moral philosophy.
After Virtue examines how much contemporary society holds on to vestiges of language based upon virtue, but without understanding the meaning behind the terms. We cannot communicate with each other on the subject because the foundational ideas behind our vocabulary have been lost. However, examining Jane Austen’s characters and our reactions to them shines a light on our confusion about virtue and can help us understand morality despite our failing modern moral conceptual framework.
It is not just that modern readers adamantly disagree with Austen’s depiction of virtue, but the idea that virtue can be objective seems completely foreign. A quick examination of film portrayals of Fanny Price illustrates this deep-seated failure of understanding. Every adaptation gets Fanny quite wrong. In a 1999 film directed by Patricia Rozema, Fanny’s character is unrecognizably altered into a conflation with Jane Austen herself—even though Austen would likely have seen Fanny’s character as far superior to her own, even an indictment of her own faults. This Fanny is free-spirited and defiant in order to make her more palatable to the modern viewer.
A 2007 adaptation starring Billie Piper also falls short. She is presented in this film as awkward and rigid in comparison to her elegant relations, because Fanny is not charming like Elizabeth Bennet or Emma Woodhouse. This view of Fanny fails in the same way her aristocratic cousins, Julia and Maria Bertram, are unable to see her value, calling her “ignorant” and “stupid.” But while Julia and Maria may be able to name the major rivers of Russia, their moral education is superficial and deficient. They are only capable of mimicking virtue in following the polite manners expected of aristocratic women, but lacking the genuine internal virtue that Austen and the Christian tradition laud. Julia and Maria neither recognize nor are capable of understanding Fanny’s virtue and neither are modern readers who see her as dull and unattractive.
This failure to understand virtue is most evident in the novel itself during a conversations between future clergyman Edmund Bertram, Fanny’s genuinely virtuous cousin, and his love interest and neighbor, the charming Mary Crawford. While they use the same terms to describe matters of virtue, they often talk past each other. In conversations about religious practice, Edmund is speaking about true piety while Mary can only view religion in light of hypocrisy and the desire for power and control. The idea that Edmund might desire to be ordained an Anglican priest in order to serve a community and lead them to God is incomprehensible to Mary who sees liturgical practice as mere spectacle and Holy Orders as an easy meal ticket. They may each speak of religious devotion, but they mean entirely different things. Since Mary is not personally devout, she uses her schema for understanding piety merely to re-inforce her preferences.
Edmund and Mary’s vocabulary is similar, therefore convention fools Edmund into thinking they are in sync for most of the novel. However, the scales eventually fall from his eyes and he finally sees Mary’s inability to understand genuine virtue. She cannot see beyond adherence to the manners of polite society in order to thrive socially and economically. For her, morality is entirely utilitarian, based on external appearances, and employed to self-justify her own preferences. Edmund, on the other hand, understands virtue to be deeply connected to the Christian faith—an internal ordering toward the end of man—happiness in living how God designed man to live in preparation for heaven. When Mary and Edmund discuss the public scandal of her brother and Edmund’s married sister’s adultery, her only wish is that they had the decency to keep their affair inconspicuous as to avoid detection. She has no sorrow over their betrayal and the damage of sin to their souls. It is only the consequences to their families and the appearance of their actions to society at large that matter to her. When Edmund realizes this, he becomes aware that they have been speaking on different planes and cannot communicate even the most basic ideas about how to live a good life. Mary’s poor moral education has skewed her judgement while Edmund’s preparation for Holy Orders has deepened his understanding of an objective morality.
This question that Edmund and Mary’s interactions bring to light of whether virtue is internal goodness ordered toward an objective reality or merely good manners that result in maintaining one’s place in society is deeply examined in Mansfield Park. We see the charming Mary and her brother Henry exhibit the trait of agreeableness—they can make themselves likable to those they desire to please in order to reach their own goals. This is not the same as the virtue of amiability that Fanny exhibits and which MacIntyre defines as “a genuine loving regard for other people as such, and not only the impression of such a regard embodied in manners” (After Virtue, 241). Fanny consistently acts with concern for the needs and desires of others. She spends her time tending to her indolent and often couch-ridden Aunt Bertram primarily out of her love for her relative, not as part of a masterplan to gain favor. The Crawfords are quite different and use agreeableness as a tool to stroke their own vanity and achieve their social goals even if such behavior harms others. Henry is aware that the oldest Bertram daughter who is engaged to another man is falling in love with him and continues seeking her favor for his own benefit despite the ruin his behavior will cause. According to MacIntyre, Jane Austen, informed by the Christian tradition, sees the Aristotelian virtue of agreeableness as an external reflection of the more important virtue of amiability, which is both internal and ordered toward the good of others, rather than for the honor of the person practicing it. Austen deepens this examination of internal versus external virtue by considering how external appearances can serve as counterfeits to mislead.
Many of the events of the plot of Mansfield Park revolve around the rehearsal of a play. We see this theatrical theme reflected by many of the characters “acting a part” with the aim of manipulating others. Fanny alone remains constant in all things. MacIntyre sees this constancy as highly important to Jane Austen, “It is a virtue the possession of which is a prerequisite for the possession of other virtues” (After Virtue, 183). He goes on to say that “Without constancy all other virtues to some degree lose their point” (After Virtue, 242). But for Austen, this constancy is a crowning virtue because it requires clarity of moral judgement ordered toward objective virtue. Other characters might act consistently in accordance with their own desires and preferences. They might be as we say, “true to themselves,” but this can result in them being consistently vicious or misguided rather than constant in real virtue.
Fanny, with her unbending constancy, is contrasted with clearly rakish characters like Henry Crawford whose loyalty flits from one idea to another (and one woman to another). The disasters caused by Henry’s inconstancy are obvious in the plot, but even more insights can be gained from examining Fanny’s constancy in light of her cousin Edmund. When Edmund’s older brother Tom and his friend Yates take up the idea of rehearsing and performing a play at Mansfield Park, Edmund is initially vocally opposed, and for good reason. Edmund and Fanny are convinced this pastime would be objectionable to Edmund’s father, Sir Thomas, and might put the Bertram sisters in improper situations. However, as Edmund’s love interest Mary Crawford and the rest of the family, except for Fanny, support the endeavor, his commitment to his principles wane. He begins to justify a change of attitude and eventually agrees to not only cease opposing the play, but even participate in a role himself. The play is not only objected to by his father Sir Thomas but also presents opportunities for the engaged Maria Bertram to begin an affair with Henry Crawford that will eventually destroy her marriage. Without the degree of constancy that Fanny exhibits, Edmund’s initial (and correct) opposition to the play is meaningless. It does no good to have principles some of the time.
Fanny’s constancy in the face of opposition from those she deeply loves requires great courage. Considering Fanny’s timidity, opposing her uncle, cousins, and suitor (and putting herself at risk of financial ruin) by refusing a match with a man she cannot respect is even more impressive. Understanding her courage in light of her personality should make her more admirable to the reader, but to a modern audience Mary Crawford’s entertaining veneer is much more compelling than Fanny’s quiet constancy. Fanny understands and exhibits virtue, so being “true to herself” results in virtuous behavior because she has clear moral judgement. Mary Crawford prides herself on acting in ways that match her preferences and desires rather than ordering those desires toward an objective good. After knowingly acting just as she pleased despite negative consequences to Fanny, Mary claims, “Selfishness must always be forgiven you know, for there is no hope of a cure.” I can only imagine that Jane Austen turns in her grave whenever Mary Crawford is praised by modern critics as being the “real” heroine of the novel.
Jane Austen’s novels are an opportunity to have the moral education that Fanny’s cousins Julia and Maria were denied. She illuminates matters of virtue so masterfully that a careful modern reader’s understanding of virtue can be reoriented toward the Christian moral tradition under her guidance. Austen’s characters and settings are highly specific: the gentry of a small country village and the aristocrats residing in a particular grand house or estate. MacIntyre claims that “The restricted households of Highbury and Mansfield Park have to serve as surrogates for the Greek city-state and the medieval kingdom” (After Virtue, 240). Because the scope of her novels is often contained within a single estate in the English countryside, her work is dismissed as being silly or irrelevant—merely the world of corsets and embroidery.
The fate of Athens is not at stake. The armies of France are not in peril. It is easy to see the high stakes of the war room, but not the drawing room. And indeed, the telos of Austen’s protagonists is “a life within both a particular kind of marriage and a particular kind of household . . .” (After Virtue, 239). Yet, within this narrow scope Austen is able to describe human character with extreme precision and nuance. The stakes may not be the destiny of kings and nations, but for the vast majority of us. The question of virtue involves these seemingly small stakes and quotidian decisions. Having the moral clarity to determine what is right and the constancy to act rightly each day, year after year is what truly comprises virtuous living.
Entering Austen’s moral imagination involves a walk through the Christian and Aristotelian schema of virtue. The moral journeys her characters travel can help us develop self-knowledge of our own vices and need for repentance. We may initially misunderstand or dismiss her depiction of virtue, but that is exactly why we desperately need her work. So keep your moral imagination fine-tuned with an annual reading of Austen. Earnestly bellow “Fanny Price!” whenever possible, but be warned, fainting fits are a possible side effect.
Editorial Statement: During the month of June Church Life Journal will train its focus on defining the Catholic imagination by discussing how and why classics of art, literature, music, encounters with other traditions, and the liturgy transform us in a myriad of ways into more faithful members of the Mystical Body.
Featured Image: Author Unknown, Portrait of Jane Austen, c. 1873; Source: Wikimedia, PD-Old-100.