|Sylvestra Le Touzel as Fanny Price in the 1983 TV adaptation|
I've a piece in The Saturday Age, 'Enraptured by a world less petty'.
It's the two hundredth anniversary of the publication of Jane Austen's Mansfield Park. I'm reflecting on Fanny Price's character, and why I love this wallflower heroine.
This is an extract from my forthcoming essay in Island magazine, which is an edited transcript of a lecture I gave at the Jane Austen Society of Australia in July.
What Fanny finds through her window is completeness: the feeling that things are of a piece. But behind this contrived elegance is a more profound one: the world itself. This is why, for Fanny, it is greater than Turner's oils or Handel on the harp strings – even out of poetry's reach. Austen is describing the world's divine order.
Austen herself enjoyed this vision of the universe. It is neither cruel nor random – overall, it is as perfect and as good as can be. Poetry cannot quite grasp this truth, but, as Austen suggests, it can gesture at it. In a letter to her sister, the author quoted one of her favourite poets, Alexander Pope: "Whatever is, is right". The line is from Pope's famous An Essay on Man, which argues in favour of a kind of Enlightenment deism. To Pope, God is somewhere between artist and engineer, fabricating this delicate machine we call the world.
The Mansfield Park gardens hint at this, what must be. They exemplify a greater harmony: existence itself. And a reminder of this existence consoles Fanny Price as it did her creator. For a few moments, our heroine is taken away from the pettiness, malice and egotism of her family and neighbours, and shown a reality more noble, altruistic and expansive.