2003 Jane Austen Society of North America
Topic: The Importance of Home and Family in Jane Austen’s Life and Works
In all of Jane Austen’s fiction, home and family play a significant though complex role, sometimes providing nurture, sometimes (even simultaneously) a sense of constriction. Explore the importance of home and/or family in Austen’s novels or juvenilia. Possible angles might include:
- How Austen uses siblings to further plot, character development, and theme;
- How the needs of courting couples might conflict with the demands of their families;
- Austen’s response to the images of home and family portrayed by other writers; or
- Her representation of vexed social, economic, legal, or political issues through her images of home and family.
Fanny Price: A Journey to Discover Home
By Talia Goldman
“They were a remarkably fine family … and all of them well-grown and forward of their age, which produced as striking a difference between the cousins in person, as education had given to their address.” (Austen, 49) Within the first few pages of Mansfield Park, Jane Austen implants in the minds of her readers the idea that contrasting and conflicting environments are the forces that will decide the heroine’s fate. Austen’s own home and family influenced her life, writing, and the creation of the homes in her novels, and in turn, shaped her heroines.
But Fanny Price is unique among Jane Austen’s heroines, having much more with which to contend than simply the influence of one family. In fact, it is the differences between her two homes and families that cause Fanny and the novel to turn out the way they do. Yet the heroine finds herself in this situation only because of the influence of the Austen family on the characters in Mansfield Park. Not only can parallels easily be drawn between lively, theatrical, handsome Henry Crawford and Henry Austen, reputedly Jane’s favorite brother1, but the imprint of Jane’s siblings also shows in Fanny herself. Sent to live as a young child with wealthy cousins, Fanny’s situation much resembles that of Jane’s elder brother Edward. As her nephew wrote in A Memoir of Jane Austen, Edward Austen “had been a good deal separated from the rest of the family, as he was early adopted by his cousin, Mr. Knight, of Godmersham Park.” (Austen-Leigh, 280) Just like Edward, Fanny “finally came into possession both of the property and the name.” (Austen-Leigh, 280) But this conclusion is not inevitable, and is only accomplished after a great inner struggle—before Fanny becomes mistress of Mansfield Park, she must resolve the conflict between her two homes and families.
Upon first arrival at Mansfield, the shy little girl, “longing for the home she had left,” (Austen, 50) is indeed pitiable. But she is soon befriended by her cousin Edmund, who from the start strikes Fanny as a gentleman “with all the gentleness of an excellent nature.” (Austen, 51) With his guidance and friendship, Fanny flourishes in the genteel country society, and “learning to transfer in its favour much of her attachment to her former home, grew up there not unhappily among her cousins.” (Austen, 56) As her uncle later suspects, Fanny grows so accustomed to the refined company of her cousins that she fails to fully appreciate Mansfield Park. Fondly remembering the home she had left behind at the tender age of ten, Fanny is overjoyed to return to Portsmouth for a visit, even with the knowledge of Sir Thomas’ true intentions—to convince her to marry Henry Crawford. While Fanny entertains no such views, she hopes to return to and rediscover her true family and home.
The shock she receives at perceiving the differences between Mansfield and Portsmouth was the first contribution to the downward spiral into which her health and spirits fell. With her usual thorough goodness, Fanny at first tries to give reason to the lack of civility and manners in her parents’ house. But even as she justifies her family’s behavior in her own mind, she is conscious that “the peace and tranquility of Mansfield were brought to her remembrance,” (Austen, 384) notwithstanding the fact that Portsmouth was “the home which was to put Mansfield out of her head.” (Austen, 384) Austen’s own displeasure with living in the city of Bath2 is reflected in Fanny’s discovery that “though Mansfield Park might have some pains, Portsmouth could have no pleasures.” (Austen, 385) Everything in Portsmouth “was in full contrast to [Mansfield]” (Austen, 384) and only served to remind her of the estate she had left. “She soon learnt to think with respect of her own little attic at Mansfield Park, in that house reckoned too small for anybody’s comfort.” (Austen, 380)
As she struggles to be useful and to make the best of her situation, Fanny inevitably compares her two homes, even unwillingly, thinking that “in her uncle’s house there would have been a consideration of times and seasons, a regulation of subject, a propriety, an attention towards everybody which there was not here.” (Austen, 376) All Fanny wished for was a family to love who would love her unconditionally, but all she finds is a father whose “habits were worse, and his manners coarser than she had been prepared for,” (Austen, 381) and a mother upon whom she looks with affection simply because her features “brought her Aunt Bertram’s before her.” (Austen, 371) Fanny discovers that “she could not respect her parents,” (Austen, 381) a great contrast to the awe she felt for her uncle.
Yet Portsmouth is not hopeless, despite it being “the abode of noise, disorder, and impropriety.” (Austen, 381) It had produced a William, a Susan, and of course, a Fanny. But only Mansfield could cultivate what was natural in them. From the beginning the reader knows that William was Fanny’s favorite brother, and it is no surprise that he succeeds after leaving his family to join the navy. Jane Austen’s own “two youngest brothers, Francis and Charles, were sailors” who “both rose to the rank of Admiral.” (Austen-Leigh, 281) Her pride in them is manifested on paper in William Price. Susan Price, who “had an open sensible countenance…like William,” (Austen, 377) seems to have a natural taste and good judgment, but Portsmouth did not provide the environment necessary for her to grow. It is under Fanny’s influence and at Mansfield Park that Susan polishes her manners. Even Fanny, the heroine, admits that she “was nice only from natural delicacy” (Austen, 399) and acknowledges the differences between a Price and a Bertram that Jane Austen so pointedly describes at the start of her novel.
Spending an extended period of time in her parents’ home in Portsmouth begins to take its toll on Fanny. “The living in incessant noise was to a frame and temper, delicate and nervous like Fanny’s, an evil…” (Austen, 384). Just like her creator, whose creativity flowed in her peaceful country home, Fanny was much more suited to the countryside than the city, and to quiet and tranquility than noise and constant bustle. “After being nursed up at Mansfield, it was too late in the day to be hardened at Portsmouth.” (Austen, 404) Her ill-mannered family and the tiny rooms of the crowded Portsmouth house prolong Fanny’s physical decline. Even Henry Crawford notices that “her face was less blooming than it ought to be” (Austen, 401) and expresses a wish that he left her “in stronger health.” (Austen, 403)
Despite Crawford’s visit and genuine concern for her, her uncle’s intentions regarding their marriage were not honored. But Fanny’s hopes, shattered by the pains of Portsmouth, turn towards Mansfield for comfort and revival. When news of Tom’s illness reaches her, she longs even more to return to Mansfield and realizes that there is no chance for Portsmouth to be her home, or for the Prices to be her family. “When she had been coming to Portsmouth, she … had been fond of saying she was going home; the word had been very dear to her; and so it still was, but it must be applied to Mansfield … Portsmouth was Portsmouth; Mansfield was home.” (Austen, 420) This definitive sentiment concludes the struggle within Fanny’s mind, but it is only when she at last returns home that she truly becomes a part of Mansfield. The realization that Fanny is a necessity to Mansfield comes with Fanny’s return, and her aunt’s exclamation of “Dear Fanny! Now I shall be comfortable!” (Austen, 434) Edmund, to whom she was always important, discovers that “Fanny’s friendship was all he had to cling to,” (Austen, 445) and Sir Thomas recognizes that “Fanny was indeed the daughter that he wanted.” (Austen, 456) When Fanny finally becomes mistress of the estate, the transition is complete—to herself and to the Bertrams, Mansfield truly is her home.
By the end of the novel, Fanny has emerged triumphant—the conflict in which Jane Austen placed her changed and formed her self-identity. She returns to the country, the pleasures of springtime, and the warmth of a loving family that her creator would have enjoyed as well. The reader is convinced that in such a home, “with so much true merit and true love … the happiness of the married cousins must appear as secure as earthly happiness can be.” (Austen, 456)