Few readers love Fanny Price. Some hate her as deeply as Mark Twain professed to hate her creator. CS Lewis had Screwtape call her “not only a Christian, but such a Christian—a vile, sneaking, simpering, demure, monosyllabic, mouselike, watery, insignificant, virginal, bread-and-butter miss . . . A two-faced little cheat (I know the sort) who looks as if she’d faint at the sight of blood, and then dies with a smile . . . Filthy, insipid little prude!”
Perhaps it’s a commendation to get this kind of evaluation from a demon. But Screwtape is expressing a common, non-demonic view of Austen’s heroine. It’s common enough that Tara Isabella Burton feels the need to spring to her defense.
Burton’s takes this tack: The novel isn’t Fanny Price; it’s Mansfield Park. It’s not about Fanny and her timidity, but about her awkward social situation. Her appalling aunt, Mrs Norris, never misses a chance to remind Fanny’s cousins that she’s a poor, dependent relation, and dim-witted to boot. Fanny never has the free space to be an Elizabeth Bennet, much less an Emma Woodhouse.
Her betters have the social buffers to take risks and transgress taboos; even an extramarital affair earns no more than a comfortable exile on the Continent. By contrast, “Fanny has no such protection. She’s reminded at every turn that her presence in the house is contingent upon the good will of her social betters.” Throughout, Fanny’s words and actions highlight “her middle-class inability to engage in the same carefree pseudo-risks of her aristocratic peers.”
It’s the Milton technique unraveled in Stanley Fish’s classic, Surprised by Sin: Milton wants us to fall for the devil, so that Eve’s temptation becomes ours. Perhaps Austen wants to bring us up short and realize that, in despising Fanny, we are, as it were, siding with Screwtape.