Fanny Price: Love Her Or Hate Her?

Nothing divides Austen fans more than Fanny Price. Here’s why we should learn to love the poor, put-upon heroine of Mansfield Park.

Fanny Price - Mansfield Park

Jane Austen was always a dab hand at creating sparkling, witty, exciting female characters. Think of Emma Woodhouse, matchmaker extraordinaire. Or the amazing Elizabeth Bennet, who was more likely to be found delivering witty put-downs and running across fields than sitting around sewing in some drawing room.

And yet... Jane Austen also gave us Fanny Price, the prudish killjoy at the heart of Mansfield Park. Played in a suitably mousy manner by Sylvestra Le Touzel in our TV adaptation, Fanny is everything a Jane Austen heroine shouldn't be.

For one thing, she's a wallflower who literally goes unnoticed when she enters rooms. She doesn't speak up or voice her opinions, except to occasionally disapprove of her cousins having fun. And she's such a goody-goody, you want to yell at her to just get drunk and kick some furniture around.

Even Jane Austen's own mother, on reading the first draft of the novel, called Fanny Price "insipid", and generations of Austen fans, including famous ones like CS Lewis, have agreed. But the fact is: they're wrong.

Fanny Price (Sylvestra Le Touzel) from Mansfield Park.

Fanny Price (Sylvestra Le Touzel) from Mansfield Park.

We've all been wrong.

Far from being dull, Fanny is actually... fascinating. In fact, she should be especially fascinating to proper Austen fans who are passionate about the likes of Pride and Prejudice and Emma. Watch the TV version and you'll see what we mean.

Let's accept the truth: Fanny is the anti-Lizzy Bennet. In fact, the character in Mansfield Park who is most like how we imagine the "typical" Austen heroine is the witty and charismatic Mary Crawford. She should be the main character, but is more like... well, not a villain exactly, but definitely far from someone we're rooting for.

It's almost as if Jane Austen decided to show us what a Lizzy-type character might seem like from an outside perspective - from the point of view of the "boring" girl in the room you wouldn't usually notice. Keep this in mind while you watch the TV version of Mansfield Park, and you'll realise what a brilliantly bold move this is.

Especially if you also bear in mind that Fanny comes from a humble background. Unlike her wealthy cousins, she's in a low social position so she quite literally doesn't have the luxury of being playful and carefree. Emma Woodhouse was rich, Lizzy Bennet had a tight protective family around her, but Fanny is a bit like Cinderella: sidelined and ignored by her relatives, and deeply aware that she's relying on the charity of people who don't much like her.

This is why Fanny is the way she is. Being a wary wallflower is the whole point of her. And those Austen fans who dearly wish she were more like Lizzy Bennet (or Mansfield Park's own Mary Crawford) are actually falling into the trap of being on the side of Fanny's shallow cousins.

By having Fanny as the heroine, Mansfield Park is challenging us to look at Austen's society in a sharper way. Because at its heart, this is a saga of style versus substance, and outward charm versus inner virtue. So remember to keep that in mind when you're being seduced by the Crawfords, or wondering why Fanny can't just loosen up and have a good time once in a while.

And the great thing about this particular adaptation is - unlike other versions - it doesn't try to re-jig Fanny and make her more of a proper "heroine". This is the Fanny that Jane Austen wanted us to know. And to know her is - yes - to love her.