2014 Jane Austen Society of North America
Topic: Silence in Mansfield Park
Consider the role of silence in Mansfield Park. Sometimes silence is chosen, sometimes it is forced, and sometimes it just happens. The number of times the narrator remarks that people say nothing is quite surprising, yet the narrator too is silent on important points. And sometimes only the narrator fills the silence on equally important points, especially about Fanny. What do we learn from the silences of Mansfield Park?
“The Luxury of Silence”: Breaking the Bewitchment of Charm in Mansfield Park
By Emma M. Brodey
In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet taunts Mr. Darcy, saying that they both “expect to say something that will amaze the whole room, and be handed down to posterity with all the éclat of a proverb” (Pride and Prejudice, 63). When reading Mansfield Park, it is difficult not to notice that Fanny Price never says anything worthy of proverbial status. Readers who expect another Lizzie Bennet may see Fanny as weak and have little affection for her. Austen wrote that her own mother “thought Fanny insipid,” and critic Lionel Trilling declared later in 1955 that “Nobody, I believe, has ever found it possible to like the heroine of Mansfield Park” (Auerbach, 445-446). This disrespect of Fanny, however, is a mistake. In Mansfield Park, Austen sets up several love triangles to manipulate. For example, her four central characters form themselves into two love triangles: Fanny loves Edmund Bertram but is courted by Henry Crawford, and Edmund must find out whether he loves Mary Crawford or Fanny Price. Through these two love triangles, Austen teaches the reader to trust actions over words and to associate silence with delicacy and sincerity, as well as to view words and wit as artificial or superficial. Austen uses this structure to force each of her main characters, Fanny and Edmund, into a choice between the obvious charms of the witty Crawfords and the deeper delicacy of silence. By the end of the book, the reader has learned with Fanny and especially Edmund to value silence over wit.
One of the primary love triangles in Mansfield Park revolves around the silent center of Mansfield Park, Fanny Price. Our interpretations of Fanny’s silences influence to a large extent our understandings of the novel. Many readers believe that Fanny’s silence is due to either oppression or weakness, both seemingly logical assertions. Fanny does have more than her share of oppression, and this could account for her shy subservience to her cousins and aunts. Her cousin Tom’s description of her as “creepmouse” (102) reinforces our thinking of her in this manner, as simply timid and fearful. It is true that Fanny walks the hallways of Mansfield Park in silence, fearfully submitting to the tyranny of her aunt Norris. This is one way of viewing Fanny’s silence, but it is not the only or the most correct interpretation. In Fanny, Austen also shows the reader an example of sincere and worthwhile silence. When Fanny experiences joy at the prospect of seeing her brother William, Austen describes her happiness then and always as “happiness . . . of a quiet, deep, heart-swelling sort; and though never a great talker, she [is] always more inclined to silence when feeling most strongly” (250). Much of Fanny’s silence is not, in fact, due to abuse and neglect but to inner peace. While Mary Crawford is busy performing and showing her wit, Fanny stargazes, content with silence. Fanny’s “quiet, deep, heart-swelling” silence is her way of responding to joy, not just fear. Fanny’s silence, then, shows her simple and delicate happiness. Fanny’s ways of interacting with others and the world at large are not charismatic, but they are sincere. She does not recommend herself to others by wit, but by well-chosen and meaningful words. When Fanny feels that she must object to things on moral grounds, such as refusing to participate in the play she finds so abhorrent or refusing Sir Thomas’s instructions to marry Mr. Crawford, she asserts herself with uncommon honesty and great passion. Though Fanny is often silent, it is not because she is timid or abused. Fanny’s deep and revealing silence shows her capacity for deep, heart-swelling inner peace, and highlights the significance and propriety of her rare assertions.
Henry Crawford’s courtship of Fanny is fueled and perhaps even inspired by his own wit, charm, and verbal skills. His agreeable wit has never failed him in securing admiration before, and it is Fanny’s “not caring about [him] which gives her such . . . charms and graces” in his eyes (158). Henry Crawford’s wit, however, is generally insincere and thoughtless of others. This is Mr. Crawford’s fatal mistake, and why instead of winning Fanny he manages to oppress her with his wit and convince her even more of his unsuitability. Mr. Crawford praises what Fanny deems unacceptable when he recalls the Mansfield play as “a pleasant dream,” and Fanny dwells in “silent indignation” on this example of his behaving “dishonourably and unfeelingly” (154-155). Not only is his statement inappropriate, but Fanny also recognizes it as largely insincere and calculated only to please. Fanny’s silence shows her delicacy and refusal to partake in or endorse in his witty indelicacy. Mr. Crawford also uses his excellent reading aloud as a way of wooing Fanny out of her indifference. Mr. Crawford’s reading is of “a variety of excellence beyond what [Fanny] ha[s] ever met with,” and it is in this reading that he comes closest to winning her over (228). While he reads, Fanny’s eyes “which ha[ve] appeared so studiously to avoid him throughout the day [are] turned and fixed on Crawford—fixed on him for minutes, fixed on him, in short, till the attraction [draws] Crawford’s upon her, and the book [is] closed, and the charm [is] broken” (229, my italics). In the midst of her otherwise total coldness, Fanny gives Mr. Crawford her notice and attention while he reads. His artful words are capable of throwing a spell, or “charm” over people, especially those awake to beauty. When Crawford reads Shakespeare, his acting is of such caliber that he can take on some of Shakespeare’s “thoughts and beauties” (229). Fanny loses her cold silence when she can almost believe that Mr. Crawford’s witty words are sincere and true. When his attention is drawn back to her however, and she sees his true self, Fanny spurns his advances and retreats into her defendable silence. Crawford cannot win Fanny Price because he is addicted to acting. In the process of attempting to seduce Fanny and others, Henry Crawford has managed to seduce himself with his own wit.
Edmund Bertram is Mr. Crawford’s rival for Fanny’s heart as well as his foil, but Edmund successfully uses silence and actions to achieve what Crawford attempts to do with words. The foremost qualities that make Edmund better than Crawford are his moral delicacy and his appreciation of silence. He and Fanny share in many comfortable silences of the deep and heart-swelling variety, and while Crawford’s courtship is focused on wit, Edmund’s unwitting courtship (pun intended) is almost completely comprised of actions. From the very beginning of Fanny’s stay at Mansfield Park, Edmund is sensitive to her needs, and shows kindness through actions rather than with words. He gives her the means to write to her brother William when she is utterly alone, and when Fanny is without exercise he is the only one to realize that “Fanny must have a horse,” and to supply her with one. The result of these kindnesses is that Fanny’s gratitude is “beyond all her words to express . . . [and] she regard[s] her cousin as an example of everything good and great, as possessing worth which no one but herself could ever appreciate” (27-28). Edmund’s silence makes his rare praise even more valuable. When at the Mansfield ball he compliments Fanny’s looks and makes her promise to keep two dances for him, “she ha[s] hardly ever been in a state so nearly approaching high spirits in her life” (187). Fanny knows that Edmund’s compliment is not only warm but sincere, and there is nothing false or indelicate about it. Fanny’s choice is simple for her. She loves Edmund because his silence has the same sincerity as hers, a sharp contrast from the bewitching eloquence of Mr. Crawford’s wit.
Edmund Bertram also has his own love triangle in Mansfield Park. He must learn to see that Fanny, and not Mary Crawford, is the match for him. Edmund, though kind and sincere, is not without his faults. While Mr. Crawford views Fanny as a personal challenge, Edmund errs on the side of taking Fanny for granted. In fact, Edmund almost fulfills his aunt’s prophesy that if they “breed [Fanny] up with [her cousins] from [childhood], and suppose her even to have the beauty of an angel, and she will never be more to either than a sister” (8). Edmund’s shortsightedness exemplifies his general tendency toward understatement and helps make his statements more sincere, even when blind. In addition, his lack of self-knowledge makes him vulnerable to the bewitchment of charm and allows the second love triangle to occur. Mary Crawford and Fanny Price both love Edmund, and he is in love with or at least enamoured of them both. Edmund’s situation as the chooser in his love triangle is more precarious than Fanny’s above, because while Fanny knows the merits of silence and distrusts wit, Edmund is open to being completely taken in by Miss Crawford’s wit and charm. Though Edmund values silence enough to be the match for Fanny, he needs to grow and undergo the bewitching effect of wit before he can ‘break its charm’ and learn enough to see Fanny as a possible bride.
Mary Crawford is to Fanny in much the same way that Henry Crawford is to Edmund: a foil whose wit and artifice points to the value of silence. Though Mary can achieve the same bewitching artistry with words as her brother, she also creates many an awkward silence. Miss Crawford seeks Edmund’s hand in marriage, and exerts the full force of her charm in a nearly-successful campaign to gain him. Unlike her brother Henry, Mary uses her wit not for acting as if she has delicacy but rather for ridiculing things, whether they deserve it or not. Her “lively mind can hardly be serious even on serious subjects,” as Edmund puts it, and this is because Miss Crawford will use anything as fuel for her wit (62). Mary’s ridicule generates awkward silences quite different from the peaceful ones. Her indelicate witticisms cause others to feel embarrassed for her or to bristle on behalf of the thing she has ridiculed. When Mary crudely criticizes her uncle, Edmund is “sorry to hear Miss Crawford, whom he [is] much disposed to admire, speak so freely of her uncle. It [does] not suit his sense of propriety, and he [is] silenced, till induced by further smiles and liveliness to put the matter by for the present” (42). Edmund’s silence speaks to his credit, since he will not join her in the indelicacy of making fun of a parental figure. It is only Mary’s “smiles and liveliness” that restore her temporarily to Edmund’s good graces. Again at Sotherton Mary ridicules customs of religion, a subject dear to Edmund’s heart, and “he [needs] a little recollection” before he can politely refute her statement (62). In the end of the book, it is also Miss Crawford’s wit that proves her downfall in her quest for Edmund’s hand. When at the serious subject of their siblings’ adulterous elopement she “give[s] way to gaiety [and] speak[s] with lightness,” “the charm is broken [and Edmund’s] eyes are opened” (309, my italics). Mary Crawford’s bewitching wit had Edmund under a “charm,” the same charm her brother put on Fanny with his reading. Ultimately, however, Mary’s wit achieves the opposite of its purpose. It breaks its own charm and opens Edmund’s eyes to her amoral indelicacy, prompting him to decent and reflective silence.
Edmund’s real love, obviously, is none other than Fanny Price. Through actions rather than words, Fanny quietly shows her love for Edmund throughout the book: he has only to recognize it and realize that he feels the same. Though Fanny loves Edmund deeply, she never confesses her love to Edmund. Even when Edmund invites Fanny to give her opinion about her rival Miss Crawford, Fanny does not voice her doubts about Mary’s suitability. She refuses to advise him at all, saying “If you only want me as a listener, cousin, I will be as useful as I can; but I am not qualified for an adviser” (184). Even though Edmund’s marrying Miss Crawford would ruin Fanny’s chances of happiness, she would rather keep her own love secret than risk Edmund’s losing a possibility of happiness as he perceives it. This silence alone proves her selfless love for Edmund. Fanny and Edmund are also able to share happy silences, something Edmund does not share with the restless Mary. At the ball, Edmund says “‘With you, Fanny, there may be peace. You will not want to be talked to. Let us have the luxury of silence.’ Fanny . . . hardly even speak[s] her agreement” (191). This mutual understanding of the propriety and peace in silence makes Fanny and Edmund the perfect couple at the end of Mansfield Park. Edmund grows to see that Fanny’s quiet sincerity is far superior to Mary’s insensitive wit, and that only Fanny makes him truly happy.
Austen’s two love triangles not only force the reader as well as her main characters to compare Fanny with Mary Crawford and Edmund with Henry Crawford, but also to make a choice between silence and delicacy on the one hand, and wit and charm on the other. First, she establishes that silence such as Fanny’s can have positive connotations, not just those of apprehension and timidity. By comparing Henry and Edmund’s ways of courting Fanny, Austen shows that silent acts of kindness are superior to artificial witticisms and bewitching reading. Austen presents Edmund as much more susceptible than Fanny to the charms of wit because he undervalues Fanny. By having Miss Crawford’s thoughtless wit betray her and letting Edmund see that Fanny’s quiet sincerity is far superior, Austen firmly establishes in the minds of her characters and her reader the value of silence over wit. Austen ultimately uses her love triangles to teach that words and wit are often artificial or superficial, while silence can show delicacy and deeper kindness. She likens wit, in the cases of both the Crawford siblings, to an evil “charm” that must be “broken” (229, 309). This message came as a surprise to Austen’s readers in the 1814, especially to those who only one year after the publication of Pride and Prejudice expected another Lizzie Bennet who “dearly love[s] a laugh” (Pride and Prejudice, 39). The anti-charm message still surprises readers 200 years later. In a world dominated by the witty and the charismatic, it is foreign to many to step back and view the situation as Austen does. Edmund’s praise of “the luxury of silence” is dear to Austen’s heart, and should be to ours as well. Surrounded as we are by the deafening and dubious charms of noise and artifice, sincere and delicate silence is indeed a great luxury.
“Let Us Have the Luxury of Silence”: Silence and Communication in Mansfield Park
By Lucille Q. Riddell
“She was always more inclined to silence” (Austen 320), Jane Austen wrote of Mansfield Park’s notoriously reticent protagonist Fanny. Austen, we assume, meant it as a compliment; but to generations of readers, Fanny’s – and Edmund’s – silences have posed too great a contrast to the witty banter that characterizes Austen’s most beloved characters. This discontent stems, however, from a lack of understanding of the unique theme of Mansfield Park as opposed to that of Austen’s earlier novels, such as Pride and Prejudice. While in Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth and Darcy forge their relationship through their common skill with words, Mansfield Park’s Fanny and Edmund are drawn together primarily by silence and by “happiness . . . of a quiet, deep, heart-swelling sort” (Austen 320). In this, Austen’s most misunderstood novel, the roles of Pride and Prejudice have effectively been reversed: silence serves as the most powerful agent of communication, while speech creates confusion and draws people apart.
In many of the novel’s best-drawn relationships, silence, rather than speech, is the characters’ preferred method of communicating their affection and regard. The most obvious of these is, of course, the romantic relationship between “exceedingly timid and shy” (Austen 11) Fanny and her cousin Edmund, self-described as “a very matter-of-fact, plain-spoken being” (Austen 83). While they converse plentifully throughout, in the course of Mansfield Park these two develop a very deep and meaningful relationship that does not need to be expressed in words: according to Austen scholar June Dwyer, “Speech is not necessary to the silent understanding that he [Edmund] and Fanny share” (176). It is a mark of this mutual penchant for silence that the pair dances at the Mansfield ball in almost complete quiet. “‘I am worn out with civility,’ said he [Edmund]. ‘I have been talking incessantly all night, and with nothing to say. But with you, Fanny, there may be peace. You will not want to be talked to. Let us have the luxury of silence’” (Austen 242). Even the pair’s final union is narrated in few words. Austen merely states, simply and beautifully, that “there was happiness . . . which no description can reach” – a fitting conclusion to a relationship characterized in the most part by a quiet but enduring love.
While Fanny’s relationship with Edmund is the most defined by silence, Henry Crawford also grows to appreciate Fanny’s reserved ways. After many unsuccessful attempts to draw Fanny out of her shell – his clumsy attempts to garner her affection during the Parsonage game of speculation (Austen 206-214) stand out as a prime example – Henry slowly gains an understanding of her wordless, but nonetheless effective, methods of communication. Later in the novel, when he bears her the news of William’s promotion, Austen writes that “Fanny could not speak, but he did not want her to speak. To see the expression of her eyes, the change of her complexion, the progress of her feelings . . . was enough” (259). While he ultimately remains an unworthy partner for Fanny, Henry demonstrates the depth of his affection for her by thus altering his ideas of traditional romantic communication.
While silence in Mansfield Park often serves to express characters’ affection for each other, it can also be used as a tool of censure. Edmund’s strategy to dissuade his family and friends from participating in the ill-fated production of “Lovers’ Vows” follows these lines: “though Julia . . . observed, in a sarcastic manner, and with a glance first at Maria, and then at Edmund, that ‘the Mansfield theatricals would enliven the whole neighborhood exceedingly,’ Edmund still held his peace, and showed his feelings only by a determined gravity.” The efficacy of this approach is proven by the relentless – and eventually successful – attempts of the actors to convert him to their side; had his silent disapproval not caused them severe qualms of conscience, it is unlikely they would have tried so determinedly to overcome it. Edmund also uses this strategy with Mary, as when she light-heartedly abuses the Admiral: “Edmund was sorry to hear Miss Crawford . . . speak so freely of her uncle. It did not suit his sense of propriety, and he was silenced” (Austen 51). While, unlike his father, he refuses to lecture those whose behavior he disapproves of, Edmund’s more effective methods of communication ultimately allow him to be more of a guiding force for virtue in the lives of his family than is the distant and critical Sir Thomas.
Fanny, while her timidity prevents her from showing her feelings as plainly as Edmund does, also uses silence to communicate her disapproval. Faced with Mary’s flippant remarks about the church, she is “too angry for speech” (Austen 77); irked by Henry’s relentless declarations of love, she merely “turn[s] . . . away, and wish[es] . . . he would not say such things” (Austen 352). At the beginning of the novel, indeed, these silent criticisms go almost wholly unnoticed or ignored, lending point to Edmund’s early comment that Fanny is “one of those who are too silent” (Austen 171). But as appreciation of Fanny’s abilities grows, her influence among family and friends also grows; and her unobtrusive method of communication helps her to exercise it without provoking any of the tangled vanities and egos that hinder more direct censure.
The effectuality of silence as a form of communication is contrasted by the unusual confusion and estrangement that results from Austen’s characters’ attempts at verbal expression. Often, this confusion results from one character’s purposeful deception of another through words. Despite her commendation of herself as “a woman of few words and professions” (Austen 6), Mrs. Norris is continually falling into this trap and impeding her own communications in the process. For example, her self-aggrandizing comments about her own generosity lead to her being expected to provide room and board for Fanny after Mr. Norris’s death (Austen 25), and her overall approbation of dishonesty – especially as regards Maria –results in her eventual exile from Mansfield. While her lies and guiles may benefit her temporarily, they ultimately result in her being disliked and rejected by nearly all of her friends and family.
But if Mrs. Norris suffers the most for her deceptive actions, it is Mary who is most adept at verbal trickery; throughout the novel, she uses this skill “as a weapon to win selfish conquests” (Dwyer 176). As Dwyer points out, her letters to Fanny – actually meant for Edmund – are a prime example of her chicanery (176); so, too, is her carefully-worded, indirect lie over the issue of the gold chain (Austen 225). Perhaps Mary’s least forgivable deception, however, is her selfish attempt to manipulate Fanny’s affection for her own ends. By pretending deep feelings for Fanny – “I feel it quite impossible to do anything but love you” (Austen 311) – in a bid for Edmund’s approval, Mary demonstrates her own shallowness and lack of consideration via the medium of words, resulting in a complete emotional estrangement from Fanny even while they remain outwardly close.
While purposeful deception adds to Mansfield Park’s sum of verbal fiascos, well-meant but misguided phrases do an even greater amount of harm. Mary realizes this keenly after she attempts to lure Edmund with her sharp tongue and ready wit, as in Chapter IX, when an impudent joke about the clergy backfires upon the realization that Edmund himself is bound for orders (Austen 78). Fanny’s naïve judgment – “How distressed she will be at what she said just now” (Austen 78) – is probably an understatement; Austen makes sure that Mary, although she never repents of her loose-tongued ways, is properly humiliated throughout the novel for her tendency to talk without fully knowing her listeners. Even Mary and Edmund’s eventual breakup is caused by misguided words, this time regarding Henry and Maria’s shocking elopement: “I cannot recall all her words,” Edmund explains to Fanny, “and I would not dwell on them if I could . . . She had been inflicting deeper wounds in almost every sentence” (Austen 395-398). Had Mary been better able to control her tongue, Austen implies, she and Edmund might have continued their relationship despite their siblings’ scandals.
Fanny’s stay at Portsmouth also demonstrates the pain that misguided words inflict on Austen’s characters. From her first welcome – “Mr. Price now received his daughter; and having . . . observed that she was grown into a woman, and he supposed would be wanting a husband soon, seemed very much inclined to forget her again” (Austen 330) – to her final relieved farewell, Fanny suffers under her family’s loudness and lack of true communication. The complete absence of silence in the home is something that Fanny “hardly . . . [knows] how to bear” (Austen 331); it is noteworthy that only with Susan, when she finally has “peace . . . [and is] quietly employed” (Austen 346), is she able to gain any enjoyment from her visit.
Perhaps the most direct example, however, of how words in Mansfield Park serve more to impede communication than to further it is Edmund’s fruitless attempt to comfort Fanny about Henry’s proposal. This conversation comes at an unpropitious time in the narrative: Fanny has recently been forced into the unwelcome position of disobeying Sir Thomas, whilst Edmund has inadvertently been tormenting her by his open admiration of Mary. Not surprisingly, relations between the two are unusually strained. The extent to which they have drawn apart from each other, however, is not evident until Edmund expresses his opinion that “If she did not need counsel, she must need the comfort of communication.” Fanny estranged from him, silent and reserved, was an unnatural state of things; a state which he must break through, and which he could easily learn to think she was wanting him to break through” (Austen 299). Corrupted by Mary’s influence, Edmund has ceased to appreciate and enjoy Fanny’s silent ways; instead, he sees them as “unnatural” (Austen 299). The forced conversation that follows demonstrates the uselessness of words in Mansfield Park’s world, as, after a difficult and awkward attempt to draw Fanny out, Edmund realizes that her worry cannot “be talked away” (Austen 308). His misguided attempt at conversation only serves to draw the two further apart: Edmund himself believes that he is “perfectly acquainted” with Fanny’s feelings on the subject, while Fanny is surprised and hurt that even her closest friend has ceased to understand her. Their former intimate relationship is not fully restored until their silent and emotional reunion after the revelation of family scandal, in which Edmund almost inarticulately (Austen 387) expresses his love for Fanny, after which “She could say nothing; nor for some minutes could he say more” (Austen 387).
Mansfield Park, Dwyer writes, is a story meant “to demonstrate that silence is often deeper than words, and that seriousness is finally deeper than humor” (177). In essence, it is Austen’s celebration of a side of human nature too often lost in her era and level of society: the side that is constant, quiet, humble, and enduring. Silence, throughout the novel, comes to represent these qualities, unique to Fanny and Edmund among all the varied characters of Mansfield, Sotherton, and Portsmouth. By the end of the story, thanks to Austen’s careful handling of the juxtaposed themes of silence, speech, communication, and confusion, even those readers to whom Henry and Mary will always remain attractive have gained a better understanding of the value inherent in mature, steadfast personalities like those of Austen’s least popular, but most meaningful pair of lovers.
Fanny, the Enigma: Two Levels of Love, Two of Silence, and Two of Penetration
By Deborah J. Longenecker
“I begin now to understand you all, except Miss Price,” Mary Crawford remarks to Edmund Bertram early in Mansfield Park, the novel by Jane Austen, summing up in one neat statement Fanny Price’s enigmatic nature in the microcosm of Mansfield Park (Austen 48). Quiet and shy, Fanny often seems to disappear beneath the exterior bustle of the Bertrams and the Crawfords, divulging herself only to those who endeavor to understand the emotions beneath her silences. For Fanny’s inner life exists on two planes: one that includes her innate timidity and fraternal affection for her brother William, and the other consisting of her romantic love for Edmund cloaked by strict secrecy. To comprehend the enigma of Fanny Price, one must penetrate her silence on both levels—a feat attempted by both Edmund and Mr. Crawford but ultimately accomplished by only one.
Fanny Price’s first degree of silence, her shyness, characterizes her from the beginning and gathers strength by the combined aspects of natural disposition, circumstances, and treatment from others. “Exceedingly timid and shy, and shrinking from notice” when she first comes to Mansfield, she had been duly stifled even before arrival by Mrs. Norris’ lecture on “gratitude and good behavior” (10, 11). Though Mrs. Norris’ ideas of excessive humility and class distinction contain a large amount of balderdash, nearly everyone in the Bertram household—Fanny included—internalizes them to some degree. Consciousness of the lavish favor bestowed on her by Sir Thomas Bertram keeps Fanny’s opinion of herself excessively modest, as do Maria’s and Julia’s disdain of her mediocre talents and scholastic ignorance. Indeed, even Lady Bertram, who holds a higher opinion of Fanny, appraises her merely as “‘very handy, and quick in carrying messages, and fetching what [Lady Bertram] wanted’” and never displays curiosity about Fanny’s inner personality. By exerting minimum effort to understand her, nearly everyone in Mansfield Park encourages, however involuntarily, Fanny’s silence—nearly everyone, except for her cousin Edmund.
Edmund Bertram represents the first person to break Fanny’s silence and uncover her true character beneath. Finding Fanny in tears one day, he took “great pains to overcome her shame in being so surprized, and persuade her to speak openly”—the exact opposite of Mrs. Norris’s preaching tactics (13). For the first time Fanny receives encouragement to speak her mind—and to speak her mind about the person she loves best, for “it was William whom she talked of most, and wanted most to see” (14). Eventually Edmund gathers that she wishes to write to William and provides her with the necessary materials—a kindness the neglected Fanny considers a tremendous favor. After this first encounter, Austen writes that “her cousin began to find her an interesting object. He talked to her more, and, from all that she said, was convinced of her having an affectionate heart, and a strong desire of doing right” (15). Understanding Fanny’s personality causes Edmund to realize her true worth. Moreover, once Edmund overcomes Fanny’s silence by attentively listening to her and discovering her affection for William, his kindness “gave her better spirits with everyone else,” not to mention securing her loyalty and affection (15). Edmund’s success in comprehending Fanny’s character spans the first level of silence—her inherent shyness.
Similarly successful, though not as welcome to Fanny, is Mr. Crawford’s penetration, whose approach approximates Edmund’s, though with a distinct difference of motivation. Captivated by her emerging beauty and intrigued by her inscrutability—“‘I do not quite know what to make of Miss Fanny’”—Mr. Crawford decides to “‘make Fanny Price in love with [him]’” (233, 232). His attempt to understand Fanny Price begins after she rather sharply rebukes him about his attitude toward Sir Thomas: “He was surprized; but after a few moments’ silent consideration of her, replied in a calmer, graver tone . . . And then turning the conversation, he would have engaged her on some other subject” (p 228). Like Edmund, Crawford displays genuine interest in Fanny’s opinions, which—although Fanny does not reward Crawford with her confidence as she did Edmund—raises him in her opinion. More fruitful is Crawford’s encounter with Fanny’s devotion to William. When Crawford appears bearing the news of William’s return to England, Fanny “was elevated beyond the common timidity of her mind by the flow of her love for William” as she thanks Crawford, who now “no longer [doubts] the capabilities of her heart. She had feeling, genuine feeling . . . She interested him more than he had foreseen” (235, 238). Although Fanny keeps him at a distance, Crawford’s endeavors to understand Fanny increase his regard for her, now that her silent exterior no longer completely hides her from him.
However successful Mr. Crawford has been in comprehending the true Fanny beneath the silence, he will fail in “‘making a small hole in Fanny Price’s heart’” (231). In a rare hypothetical, Austen tells us that Fanny very well may have succumbed to Mr. Crawford’s courtship “had not her affection been engaged elsewhere” (233). But although both Edmund and Mr. Crawford have penetrated Fanny’s natural shyness, neither of them—nor anyone in the novel—ever guesses the state of Fanny’s affections. Indeed, this is the first time that Austen herself explicitly mentions the romantic love Fanny has for Edmund—and, with concealment reminiscent of Fanny’s, Austen does not even disclose Edmund’s name. Fanny’s complete silence regarding her passion for Edmund—her second plane of silence—does not stem merely from her reserved disposition: she has deliberately imposed secrecy of the strictest sort upon herself. “She would rather die than own the truth” (319), probably, in part, because Aunt Norris’s inevitable castigation would wound Fanny too much even to consider, and Sir Thomas’ censure would surpass even his disapproval of her refusal of Mr. Crawford. But even supposing Fanny had not so feared her aunt’s and uncle’s displeasure, she would doubtless realize that if Edmund, who intends to marry Mary Crawford, knew of her secret, it would destroy their relationship—Fanny’s only true friendship—and injure them both. Although she has been in love with Edmund for some time, the subject has never before figured greatly into Fanny’s decisions until Mr. Crawford proposes to her. Now, in spite of her absolute silence, Fanny’s love seeps out through her actions, providing her primary motivation for refusing Mr. Crawford. In their ignorance of Fanny’s passion, Edmund and Mr. Crawford cannot properly understand her anymore, and Fanny, once more an enigma, sinks back into silence.
As soon as Fanny receives Mr. Crawford’s proposal, her love for Edmund raises a barrier of secrecy between the two cousins: “Fanny estranged from him, silent, and reserved, was an unnatural state of things” (349). Saddened by the change, Edmund determines to “know Fanny’s feelings,” but unfortunately, his endeavor to pierce her second level of silence does not produce nearly the success that his first attempt at penetration did years before (349). Although he specifically aims to learn her mind, a glance at the pages that cover their conversation reveals that Edmund instead pontificates in long paragraphs too reminiscent of Aunt Norris’ lectures, logically refuting Fanny’s objections to Mr. Crawford rather than trying to grasp the deeper issues behind them. Disregarding the validity of Fanny’s opinions, he maintains that Fanny will eventually “be persuaded into [proper feelings]” (355). Although Edmund could have better understood Fanny by coaxing her out of her silence rather than talking at her, he could not have avoided ignorance of Fanny’s true motivation—love. When Fanny energetically exclaims that Mr. Crawford “‘never will succeed with [her],’” Edmund references the discrepancy he perceives between Fanny’s personality and her decisions: “‘Never! Fanny!—so very determined and positive! This is not like yourself, your rational self’” (p 351). Lacking knowledge of the key factor that now guides Fanny’s actions, Edmund cannot integrate his two conflicting views of Fanny until she finally gives a particularly persuasive reason for her rejection of Mr. Crawford. After hearing the explanation Edmund naively exclaims, “‘My dear, dear Fanny, now I have the truth . . . I thought I could understand you’” (358). Edmund may think he understands Fanny, but in reality he knows no more of Fanny’s actual feelings, covered by her deeper silence, than he did before their conversation.
Comparable illusion awaits Mr. Crawford as he tries to plumb the depths of Fanny’s silence. After failing to gain her heart at Mansfield, Mr. Crawford—to Fanny’s infinite relief—leaves for London. Reappearing at Portsmouth, Mr. Crawford changes his passionate conduct into a manner more suited to Fanny’s demeanor, accomplishing the transformation by attentively observing her, divining her inclinations, and changing conversation accordingly: “He perceived that enough had been said of Everingham, and that it would be as well to talk of something else, and turned to Mansfield. He could not have chosen better; that was a topic to bring back her attention and her looks almost instantly” (411-412). Although by these tactics he gains knowledge of Fanny and rises in her estimation, Mr. Crawford can never fathom Fanny’s second silence. Because “he knew not that he had a pre-engaged heart to attack,” Mr. Crawford remains optimistic about the end result of his courtship: “Must it not follow of course, that, when he was understood, he should succeed? He believed it fully” (329). Based on an assumption that natural diffidence—instead of deep-seated passion—motivates Fanny to reject his advances, Mr. Crawford will not succeed in truly understanding her.
Thus Fanny, through the consummate concealment that characterizes her second level of silence, has trapped herself in an inevitable paradox. Her determined refusal of Mr. Crawford constitutes a riddle which no one can understand but those who already know the answer—in other words, nobody. Kept in silence on one side by her love for Edmund and on the other side by her fear of Sir Thomas and Aunt Norris, Fanny remains an enigma that both Edmund’s blundering efforts and even Mr. Crawford’s attentive attempts cannot probe. Even if Fanny had eventually accepted Mr. Crawford, her secrecy would probably continue to cast a shadow over her interactions with Edmund and Mary, perpetuating her inexplicability. The only person who could free Fanny from her self-imposed silence is Edmund Bertram, whose newly developed romantic love for Fanny finally enables him to comprehend both levels of her inner life. Ironically, as Austen describes the return of complete mutual understanding to the two cousins, she refuses to portray Fanny’s ecstasy in more detail than that which a simple silhouette affords: “But there was happiness elsewhere which no description can reach. Let no one presume to give the feelings of a young woman on receiving the assurance of that affection of which she has scarcely allowed herself to entertain a hope” (477). Austen treats the resolution of her heroine’s paradox with fitting reticence, providing a reminder of the silences that Fanny has sustained throughout the book.
In Mansfield Park, the character of Fanny irrevocably binds together silence, love, and understanding. Edmund and Mr. Crawford’s successes in comprehending Fanny demonstrate the type of consideration upon which Fanny thrives, while their failed attempts highlight Fanny’s dilemma of perpetual misunderstanding resulting from two planes of silence. Confusion destroys, but attentive observation and care rebuilds. To Austen’s characters in Mansfield Park, as in life itself, complete inscrutability begets pain and isolation, while human sympathy—along with fortunate coincidence in love—restores relationships and pierces the most impenetrable silence.