In Defense of Jane Austen’s Unlikable Heroine

COMMENTARY Civil Society

In Defense of Jane Austen’s Unlikable Heroine

Mar 10th, 2022 17 min read
COMMENTARY BY
Brenda Hafera

Assistant Director and Senior Policy Analyst, Simon Center

Brenda is the assistant director and senior policy analyst for the Simon Center for American Studies at The Heritage Foundation.
Books are displayed at the home of the celebrated late British author Jane Austen on July 18, 2017 in Chawton, England. Dan Kitwood / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

Jane Austen tutors her students about character assessment: she is not a mere novelist, but an ethicist as well. 

Fanny is virtue stripped of its charms. Choosing Fanny, like owning and inculcating virtues as habits, is a conscious act of will.

On our own we must discover that while perhaps not likable—and certainly not charming—Fanny is good.

As an avid reader of Jane Austen, one question I dread being asked is, “Do you like Fanny Price?” It’s a good question, as it gauges the answerer’s understanding of Austen’s ethics. Yet it requires me to confess: I do not care for her. “But then I have always supposed it to be my own fault” and not the fault of Fanny Price.

Fanny, the heroine of Mansfield Park, is not the kind of woman many of us aspire to become or immediately admire. She is serious and seemingly deferential. A more compelling feminine archetype is the witty and spunky Elizabeth Bennet. Preferring a Lizzy over a Fanny could merely be a personal preference. But if that were the case, we would expect Austen readers also to dislike Pride and Prejudice’s Jane Bennet, who, like Fanny, is patient, meek, mild-mannered, and humble.

But Austen predisposes readers toward Jane and biases them against Fanny. She writes two similar heroines and contextualizes them differently to encourage her readers to judge individuals on the basis of character, instead of being unduly influenced by superficial attractions or the opinions of others. Fanny is less charming than Jane, yet proves more formidable, as she possesses superior judgement. Fanny maintains that habits of action are indicative of a wicked or honorable disposition and determine future behavior, while Jane wants to ignore the existence of evil in the world.

Discovering Fanny’s virtue and Jane’s flaws requires overcoming many obstacles—diversions Austen creates to cultivate a deliberative moral sense in her readers. She does not present Jane neutrally but instead frames our first impressions of her through the perception of Elizabeth, Jane’s beloved sister. This influences readers to assess Jane more favorably. The forsaken Fanny, however, has no sister through whose kind eyes we come to know her. Instead, Austen documents her unfiltered thoughts.

Fanny’s internal reflections are less conciliatory and more reactive than what she says aloud, making her seem severe. Fanny is also diminished by other characters in the novel, both because of their negative commentary toward her and because she comes off more poorly compared to them, most notably beside the talented and beautiful Mary Crawford, her rival for the affections of Edmund Bertram.

Jane Austen uses all these techniques to tutor her students about character assessment: she is not a mere novelist, but an ethicist as well. 

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In Austen’s novels we meet Aristotelean characters who arrest us with their wit and grandeur, as well as Machiavellians who ruthlessly exploit others and navigate society with dazzling ambiguity. Fanny and Jane, however, are women of gentle and unassuming virtues (often colloquially associated with Christianity): they are patient, meek, humble, and kind. Both possess considerable fortitude cultivated by trying circumstances. And were it not for Jane’s remarkable beauty, she would gracefully pass unobserved, like the less attractive Fanny. The actresses selected to portray these characters in film adaptations are usually fair, their coloring offering little contrast to capture attention. Even their appearances are light reflections of their characters.  

Fanny prefers to remain inconspicuous. Indeed, she is “almost as fearful of notice and praise as other women are of neglect.” To her, no compliment, no matter how minor, is deserved. Worse, receiving one requires her to respond, perhaps in public: a disconcerting prospect for someone so humble and reserved.

Even when solicited, Fanny’s comments remain tempered and brief. The severest (and probably longest) rebuke Fanny delivers in her eighteen years is a mere two sentences: “As far as I am concerned, sir, I would not have delayed his return for a day. My uncle disapproved it all so entirely when he did arrive, that in my opinion, everything had gone quite far enough.” Although she is confident in her defense of the moral position and authority of her uncle, this utterance is still enough to overcome her, as afterward “she trembled and blushed at her own daring.”

Fanny seems bound for the contemplative life. As a lover of classical literature, she cannot help but be stirred when the odious Henry Crawford recites a stirring speech from Henry VIII, although she was making every attempt to ignore his existence. Fanny would be content honoring a vow of silence and living a philosophical life of faith in a convent.  

She has certainly cultivated enough patience and fortitude to withstand such a life, as her treatment at Mansfield Park is almost akin to that of a servant. Although possessing a weak constitution, Fanny is expected to act as caretaker to her two able-bodied aunts, a task made more burdensome by their self-absorption. She is the object of the unrelenting censures of Mrs. Norris, who overtly favors her other nieces and hardly spares a charitable word for Fanny: “I do beseech and intreat you not to be putting yourself forward, and talking and giving your opinion as if you were one of your cousins. … Remember, wherever you are, you must be the lowest and last.”

Despite such comments, Fanny is unfailingly tolerant of her insufferable aunt, whose treatment of her makes her neither resentful nor bitter. She is sincerely grateful to have been selected from among her siblings to reside at Mansfield Park under the patronage of her aunt and uncle and so “rate[s] her own claims to comfort as low even as Mrs. Norris could.”

Jane also personifies Christian virtue: she is mild-mannered, humble, and patient. Although lauded locally for her beauty and immediately attracting the attention of the eligible and more worldly Mr. Bingley, Jane is not vain or presumptuous—“Compliments always take [her] by surprise.” She does not question Caroline Bingley’s implication that her brother is in love with Georgianna Darcy, Mr. Darcy’s younger sister, rather than herself. She accepts the assertion, believing Bingley’s pursuit was all “an error of fancy on [her] side,” despite it being protracted and earnest. Even Lizzy’s accurate assessment of Caroline’s calculating nature is not enough to persuade Jane of Caroline’s deceit. Jane is sacrificial in genuinely desiring the happiness of others and comforts herself that Bingley’s withdraw “do[es] no harm to anyone but [her]self.”

Like Fanny, Jane’s resilience and patience are character habits born of domestic circumstances. The Bennet family (excepting Elizabeth and Mr. Bennet) would be wholly unremarkable were it not for their achievement of concentrating such a considerable measure of silliness and vice under one roof. Mrs. Bennet, unrestrained by any sensitivity to garishness or ostentation, constantly devises elaborate schemes calculated to put her daughters in the way of eligible men. This would not be the chosen method of courtship for the eldest Ms. Bennet, who is subtle and elegant in her graces. Still, Jane never snaps at her mother or even gently admonishes her. Even in the future, when her kind husband is so frustrated by his in-laws’ exploitive visits that he “proceeded so far as to talk of giving them a hint to be gone,” Jane remains patient. 

Yet perhaps the most notable characteristics shared by Fanny and Jane are innocence and tenderness of heart, of which “There is no charm equal.” Jane is compassionate and optimistic, soft emotions born of her “benevolent,” “affectionate,” and “generous” heart. It is the “capabilities of her heart” that first attract Henry Crawford to Fanny, for “It would be something to be loved by such a girl, to excite the first ardours of her young, unsophisticated mind!” Jane’s and Fanny’s hearts are pure, delicately unassuming, and touchingly loyal.

Despite having similar dispositions, Fanny and Jane are perceived quite differently. Fanny is unpopular among Austen fans. Some readers blame her for Henry Crawford’s fate, speculating that she could have saved his character by accepting his proposal of marriage. Others label her prudish, selfish, judgmental, supine, distasteful, rigid, passive, and boring. It seems puzzling that Austen, a master of lively wit and irony, would favor her meek Mansfield character with the endearment of “My Fanny” at the onset of the novel. Such a sentiment is almost a betrayal to the confederates of Elizabeth Bennet and Emma Woodhouse.

Still, Austen would not be surprised by these criticisms; she is actually the author of them. Sir Thomas, Fanny’s uncle and surrogate father, for example, says to Fanny in exasperation that Henry “is a young man of sense, of character, of temper, of manners, and of fortune, exceedingly attached to you, and seeking your hand in the most handsome and disinterested way,” and “let me tell you, Fanny, that you may live eighteen years longer in the world, without being addressed by a man of half Mr. Crawford’s estate, or a tenth part of his merits.”

Though Sir Thomas’s admonishments are severe, readers are taught to sympathize with his sentiments. Imagine, the meek and plain Fanny Price refusing the rich and charming Henry Crawford! She is noticed by no one, while he, though notably not handsome, is the favorite of everyone.  

Fanny’s beloved Edmund, too, pressures her to accept Henry. But rather than appealing to her self-interest, Fanny’s cousin petitions her sacrificial nature and comes close to burdening Fanny with Henry’s salvation: “A most fortunate man he is to attach himself to such a creature—to a woman, who firm as a rock in her own principles, has a gentleness of character so well adapted to recommend them. He has chosen his partner, indeed, with rare felicity. He will make you happy, Fanny, I know he will make you happy; but you will make him everything.”

Marriage is a profound moral choice. Over the course of a lifetime, a wife will direct and alter her husband’s character in subtle and obvious ways. Fanny being steadfast in her principles could influence Henry to regard them with similar seriousness, making him a better man. 

Many readers agree with this reasoning and resent Fanny for abandoning, in their view, the wayward but charming Henry Crawford. (This, of course, overlooks what marrying him could have potentially cost her own character.) Yet it is not possible to impose such a responsibility on Fanny without acknowledging her goodness. Because her character is so formidable, even Henry’s vices could shatter against her moral strength. Those who agree with Edmund’s logic may not like Fanny, but they do ultimately respect her.

Having Mansfield characters represent such unfavorable opinions of Fanny is one of the ways Austen biases readers against her heroine. When characters voice a criticism, readers think it themselves. We can see this is deliberate on Austen’s part because her femme fatale, Mary Crawford, employs a similar technique. When speaking of her upbringing, Mary says to Fanny, “Of Rears, and Vices, I saw enough. Now, do not be suspecting me of a pun, I entreat.” Mary’s remarks invoke Fanny’s (and the reader’s) imagination, infiltrating Fanny’s innocent thoughts and encouraging them to follow Mary’s lurid ones.

This is not a trifling means of corruption, but one Austen means us to take seriously. Thinking an idea is the first step in adopting it, followed by acting on it. As an author of ethical comedies, rather than dejecting tragedies or obscene stories, Austen does not believe in unnecessarily exposing the mind to vice or hardship. Rather, she writes of aspirational excellence and delivers justice unto those who dismiss the dictates of morality. When Austen overtly exposes Mary’s insidious methods, she is warning her readers to be more aware of such dangers. She teaches her students to guard their minds.  

Unfortunately, Austen does not equally fortify Fanny’s mind; she often discloses Fanny’s inner dialogue, making Fanny even less likable. Naturally introverted, Fanny must summon up the courage to contribute to a conversation, which often means she doesn’t. If readers were left to judge her solely by her spoken comments, they would garner very little sense of her character. So Austen allows her students access to the reserved Fanny’s internal narrative.

Unsurprisingly, what Fanny thinks is less tutored and controlled than what she says aloud. For example, her chastisement of Henry is brief and mild (and even then she regrets it). But her immediate reaction is to think, with indignation, “Never happier!—never happier than when doing what you must know was not justifiable! —never happier than when behaving so dishonorably and unfeelingly!—Oh! what a corrupted mind!”

Fanny’s mind being exposed is one reason she falls short of displaying the social virtues. Social virtues require prudence. We can choose to meet an insult with a witty retort or let it pass, not giving it the “compliment of rational opposition.” Toward our friends, we assume goodwill, and we practice the art of civility with our neighbors, avoiding petty conflicts for the sake of community harmony. Fanny, however, is not able to display these prudential intricacies that distinguish impulsivity from the dictates of our deliberation. Her mind is utterly exposed.

This also makes Fanny seem overly rigid in her estimations. Some readers believe her prudish, as she disapproves of harmless diversions and charming individuals, including the seductive Henry Crawford. Fanny immediately and accurately assesses him as Machiavellian, while others (including many readers) are drawn in. But Fanny is correct in her estimations, as Colleen Sheehan, the director for graduate studies at Arizona State University’s School of Civic and Economic Thought (and who was this author’s teacher on Austen), persuasively demonstrates in her fine essay “To Govern the Winds, Dangerous Acquaintances at Mansfield Park.” Fanny’s judgments being severe does not mean they are wrong.

To be fair, many of us also would not wish to be measured by our petty passions and responses. We sometimes feel guilt for them even as they flit across our consciousness. None of us owns and authors each individual idea, as thoughts can be induced in our imagination by others (as exemplified by Mary Crawford). We do not commit a transgression by having a spontaneous and passing internal response, but by adopting and nurturing it, maintaining its existence in our minds. Readers should not expect of Fanny perfect purity of conscience. She upholds the considerable, but not unobtainable, standards of Christianity.   

Fanny’s extreme passivity and humility do have drawbacks however. When her beloved Edmund comes to her for advice about participating in a private play (something that would have been scandalous during this period), Fanny is cowed and unable to voice her opinion. Her counsel perhaps would have guided Edmund, as he says, “If you are against me, I ought to distrust myself.” This is not to give Fanny moral responsibility for his choice. Edmund most certainly enters the conversation hoping to justify his decision and eagerly seizes on her silence as support. Still, Fanny’s principles might have greater influence if she were able to overcome her own reticence and voice them.

Making Fanny difficult to like is a deliberate decision by Austen, a means to tutor her readers about courage and virtue. Fanny exemplifies the moral fortitude of Christian courage rather than a spiritedness aimed at glory as pursued by a hero like Achilles. She is steadfast in her principles, despite others implying her views are antiquated.

Appreciating Fanny requires this same courage. She is unpopular among Austen readers and the characters of Mansfield Park, and her admirers too must be confident in the righteousness of Christian virtue amid the pressures of public opinion. Fanny is to be loved for her innate goodness, rather than the ancillary pleasures of her company (which are meager). As Professor Sheehan reveals, Fanny is virtue stripped of its charms. Choosing Fanny, like owning and inculcating virtues as habits, is a conscious act of will.

As Austen exposes the flaws of Fanny, she veils those of Jane to tutor her readers about the lingering influence of “first impressions” (the original title of Pride and Prejudice) and the compatibility of Aristotelean and Christian virtue. Jane is elegant, beautiful, and lighthearted, predisposed to be delighted by everyone. Her charms capture other characters in the novel and subsequently Austen’s readers. We can imagine Jane’s smile as effervescent and cheerful. It would be much more inviting than the perpetually serious Fanny’s visage. The latter’s grace and superiority are grounded in her good nature, not her looks; her beauty must be learned, rather than sensed. Sir Thomas and Edmund, for example, recognize Fanny’s elegance over the course of the novel, discovering it in conjunction with her character.

Compared to Fanny, Jane is a minor character, so our assessment of her is proportionally limited by her appearance in the novel. But rather than Austen laying open Jane’s mind to allow readers access to her character, she funnels and frames our knowledge through Elizabeth, Jane’s beloved sister. We see Jane through Elizabeth’s fine eyes and, “All the world [is] good and agreeable in [her] eyes.”

At the outset of the novel, Austen disposes readers to view Jane’s gentleness as Lizzy does: with benevolent indulgence. First impressions are powerful; they are what prejudice Elizabeth and Darcy against each other. Lizzy’s opening assessment of Jane, like that of Darcy, becomes our own. Toward Jane it is one of astonishing admiration, as Lizzy remarks that “affectation of candour is common enough;—one meets it everywhere. But to be candid without ostentation or design—to take the good of every body’s character and make it still better, and say nothing of the bad—belongs to you alone.” Jane assumes all are honorable, a predilection Lizzy casts as a virtue. It is a quality Jane possesses that others do not because they lack her inherent goodness. Many readers instinctively follow and accept Elizabeth’s judgment, which is often very sensible.

There could not be a more powerful filter for Jane’s character. Elizabeth Bennet is beloved. And many want to like others whom their own loved ones adore, to give them the benefit of the doubt. Since Elizabeth loves Jane, readers will tend to believe she is worthy of that love. Jane also adores Lizzy, and her good taste and loyalty further incline us toward her. For example, when Jane learns of Mr. Darcy’s affections for Elizabeth, her reaction is most charming. Her “astonishment [is] soon lessened by the strong sisterly partiality which made any admiration of Elizabeth appear perfectly natural; and all surprise was shortly lost in other feelings.” Jane’s and Elizabeth’s affection for one another is genuine and beautiful. They are each other’s strongholds in a household filled with follies, and Lizzy becomes an architect of support for Jane’s reputation.

In contrast, Fanny is diminished by her foil, Mary Crawford. Fortune has given Mary everything: she is beautiful, elegant, clever, and graceful. “For where, Fanny, shall we find a woman whom nature had so richly endowed?” Nature has not been so generous toward Fanny, who is plagued with headaches and easily exhausted. Next to the spirited Miss Crawford, Fanny seems dull, severe, and tedious. Her delicate features fade in the presence of Mary’s catching looks. For who could compete with “a young woman, pretty, lively, with a harp as elegant as herself; and both placed near a window, cut down to the ground, and opening on a little lawn, surrounded by shrubs in the rich foliage of summer?” Such is “enough to catch any man’s heart.”

While Jane and Lizzy complement one another, Austen’s readers must choose between Fanny and Mary. Lizzy’s Aristotelean and Jane’s Christian virtues, though not identical, are compatible. Lizzy more overtly displays Aristotelean traits, such as wit and friendliness, but such characteristics are not opposed to Christian ideals; they are simply not demanded for salvation.

Austen demonstrating virtue ethics through Lizzy in Pride and Prejudice is a choice of emphasis for that particular novel, rather than an indication that Aristotelean virtue is counter to Christian virtue. She makes Lizzy and Jane the closest of relations as well as each other’s chosen allies against earthly challenges. Fanny and Mary, however, are rivals in love, as well as intellectual adversaries. Mary personifies the seductive and ambiguous arguments and charms of Machiavelli, who identified Christianity as an obstacle, while Fanny is Christianity’s representative, unmoving and unapologetic in her morality. To the Machiavellian, Fanny’s nature, as well as nature itself, must be conquered. The reader’s having to choose between Mary and Fanny erodes Fanny’s popularity, while Jane’s likability is only bolstered by her sister’s affection.

While Austen makes the beautiful and charming Jane beloved by all, especially Lizzy, she leaves her Fanny to be diminished and demeaned by other characters. Fanny has no opportunity to demonstrate her physical or social graces, as she is often fatigued and cannot, with her mind exposed, build an opaque, prudential barrier between her thoughts and actions. Yet despite all the hurdles to her likability, Fanny demonstrates judgment superior to her companion in Christian virtue, Jane.

Jane makes objectivity impossible by her insistent desire to view “all the world [as] good and agreeable.” Take, for example, Jane’s estimation of George Wickham. He ranks among Austen’s most callous villains, seducing Georgiana Darcy, then Lydia Bennet. Many readers have little sympathy for Lydia; she is ridiculous and hedonistic. But in targeting the innocent fifteen-year-old daughter of his godfather and patron for her inheritance, Wickham proves himself mercenary, unfeeling, and dismissive of the reciprocal duties of gratitude.

Jane not only fails to observe these deficiencies, she actively refuses to accept their existence and recognize their effects. She does not appear to view character as a result of accumulated choices or predictive of future behavior. As Lizzy questions, “Of whom does Jane ever think ill? And who is there, whatever might be their former conduct, that she would believe capable of such an attempt, till it were proved against them?”

Lizzy’s account of Jane’s judgment (or lack of judgment) proves correct. When they are notified of Lydia and Wickham’s marriage, Jane believes the explanation is that Wickham is not so depraved, so “undeserving” as they suspected. Gentlemanly instincts must have persuaded him to marry Lydia. In actuality, it was the lure of bribery and the threat of force that did so. If another Bennet sister had nurtured such an impossible hope after knowing of Wickham’s past dalliances, readers would find her naiveté incredible. Yet Elizabeth has already rendered Jane’s outlook endearing in the minds of readers, transforming Jane’s overly generous assessments into evidence of her pure heart.

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Austen has favored Jane with the “privilege of universal good will,” creating her as a creature in need of protection rather than a guardian of enduring morality. Others, like Mr. Darcy and Fanny, assume the responsibility of being uncompromising in upholding the demands of justice. Jane is incapable of such rigidity, as toleration and justification are the primary instincts of her conscience. She does not confront the deficiencies of others but shields her own optimistic outlook.

For example, when she first learns of Wickham’s past, she alternates between laments of “poor Mr. Darcy” and “poor Mr. Wickham,” struggling to find some way of absolving them both, though their accounts are contradictory. She would rather attribute wickedness to some unidentifiable misunderstanding than affirm its presence in the souls of men. Doing so would be “a stroke … for poor Jane! who would willingly have gone through the world without believing that so much wickedness existed in the whole race of mankind.” In such judgments, Jane falls short of Christian teaching and ideals.

This shortcoming of Jane’s is not shared by Fanny, who harbors no illusions about men’s capabilities. She objects to Henry Crawford’s “principles”—to his fundamental character—after observing his conduct. Only after Henry refines his manners and assumes the guise of virtue (or perhaps even feels the draw of virtue himself) does Fanny admit he has become “more gentle, and regardful of others.” Still, she is cautious and does not immediately dismiss his past decisions. His character alterations could expose themselves as mere affectations. Or their permanence may be no match for his vicious habits of action, especially when coupled with a weak will. Fanny weighs such considerations, while Jane expects honor in everyone, “whatever might be their former conduct.” Between these two Christian heroines, it is Fanny who demonstrates superior judgment. Jane is endearing while Fanny is respectable.

Austen loves her readers, her students. For the sake of our education, she is willing to sacrifice and expose Fanny to our censure and that of other characters. On our own we must discover that while perhaps not likable—and certainly not charming—Fanny is good. She exhibits level judgement and is a principled anchor for those around her. While the beautiful, charming, and carefree Jane seems more privileged by Austen, she is also more in need of protection. Austen filters her through Elizabeth and does not expect of her moral rigidity. Yet in the end, in exchange for the trials of her author, the patient Fanny is fittingly rewarded with joy “which no description can reach.”

This piece originally appeared in Modern Age

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