“Where is Fanny?”: Memory in Mansfield Park

Mansfield Park is, well, it’s over-looked for the more popular Austen novels. Shame on people who overlook this beautiful work of fiction because the heroine is not your typical heroine. She’s too quiet, reserved, an anti-feminist heroine, in a sense, because she is very submissive to her uncle and other people in general. But she is awesome. I think so anyway, and that’s really all that matters, isn’t it?

Fanny Price is taken from her home at the age of nine in the mistaken belief that it would do her good to be raised in a wealthier family, or so Mrs. Norris berates her with from the second she walks into the door. Mrs. Norris reminds her, without fail, without compunction, “of her wonderful good fortune, and the extraordinary degree of gratitude and good behaviour which it ought to produce,” so when Fanny cries and regrets having to leave her family, it’s now a big deal to her. She sees it as “a wicked thing for her not to be happy.” And that, dear Mrs. Norris, only brings more tears.

Memory is almost a palpable thing in Mansfield Park, and Fanny Price is set up to be the bearer of the brunt of it. She leaves her family at a young age and has only her memories to keep her going. Her cousin, Edmund, however, tells her she “must remember that [she is] with relations and friends.” He’s the cousin she’s closest to, the only one that doesn’t insult her, or in any way intentionally hurt her. When he tells her, though, to remember, it charges her to carry the memories of where she came from and where she is now. She does, and through her, her memories become a means of keeping everyone alive (that’s not the word I want, but I cannot for the life of me figure out which one I do want.).

Mrs. Norris tells Maria and Julia, Fanny’s cousins, “you are blessed with wonderful memories, and your poor cousin probably has none at all.” That’s not true, but she doesn’t know that because to Mrs. Norris growing up in poverty could never produce happy memories for a child. Fanny has happy memories, though, which is why being uprooted from the family and home she loves is so difficult for her to “get over.” While Fanny remembers her siblings with pain, she has another misery coming her way. Mrs. Norris’s husband dies and Sir Thomas expects Fanny to move in with Mrs. Norris now because she would be such a comfort in her widowhood. Fanny detests that idea, absolutely loathes it. When she and Edmund speak about it, she can’t help but say, “I shall remember your goodness, to the last moment of my life.” That’s finality, right there. Of course, living with Mrs. Norris probably would be the end of both her and Mrs. Norris because they hate each other.

Do you know what she will do? She’ll remember Edmund, as she’s remembered everyone else. Everyone wants to be remembered by somebody. It’s a lonely existence if no one remembers you, so Fanny Price remembers everyone and in doing so, keeps them “alive.” But she isn’t always remembered. In what I consider to be a rather melancholy scene, Fanny is waiting for her horse to come back from a ride with Miss Crawford, a ride Fanny never liked in the first place because Edmund was showing interest in Miss Crawford by teaching her how to ride. Miss Crawford’s ride takes too long, leaving Fanny to wait. When they finally come back, Fanny thinks, “If she were forgotten the poor mare should be remembered.” She knows that Edmund and Miss Crawford have forgotten her, but she thinks so little of herself that, though it might hurt her some, she would never admonish them. She will, however, remember the mare and not make her have double duty. It’s kind of sad, right?

But guess what?! Edmund realizes not six pages later that he was at fault. When Fanny is “knocked up” (extremely tired, exhausted, etc., not pregnant) from walking to and from Mrs. Norris’s house twice and picking roses for Edmund’s mother, Lady Bertram, Austen doesn’t let Edmund off the hook: “Vexed as Edmund was with his mother and aunt, he was still more angry with himself. His own forgetfulness of her was worse than anything which they had done.” He forgot her, and she suffered because of it. He knows he can’t forget her because everyone else in the house does. Someone needs to remember Fanny.

In a moment of eloquence and talkativeness for Fanny, she remarks to Miss Crawford that:

There seems something more speakingly incomprehensible in the powers, the failures, the inequalities of memory, than in any other of our intelligences. The memory is sometimes so retentive, so serviceable, so obedient—at others, so bewildered and so weak—and at others again, so tyrannic, so beyond controul!—We are to be sure a miracle every way—but our powers of recollecting and of forgetting, do seem peculiarly past finding out.

Our memory keeper is now commenting on memory. She has witnessed firsthand what memory can do. She, often enough, has the retentive and serviceable kind, but then again her memory is also tyrannic when she constantly remembers scenes between Edmund and Miss Crawford that cause her pain because she loves Edmund, but he loves another. This recalls to my mind a conversation between Elizabeth and Jane in Pride and Prejudice when Jane says that she remembers Elizabeth always disliking Darcy so how could she marry him now. Elizabeth’s response was, “But in such cases as these, a good memory is unpardonable.” Elizabeth chooses to forget their past in order to make sense of the present and the future.

Henry Crawford, Miss Crawford’s brother, falls in love with Fanny. He says that he will keep Fanny from being “dependent, helpless, friendless, neglected, forgotten” like she is now. But Mary disagrees, countering with, “Nay, Henry, not by all, not forgotten by all, not friendless or forgotten. Her cousin Edmund never forgets her.” Never forgets her. Maybe not after he did that first time. But he does remember Fanny, and for that, Fanny is grateful. I sometimes wonder if Miss Crawford says that to her brother with a hint of jealousy. Austen doesn’t say it, but maybe Miss Crawford is a little jealous of just how much Edmund remembers Fanny.

In the end, Fanny is remembered and valued by the one person who she wants to remember and value her. She remembered him throughout the length of the novel, and it finally paid off. When Edmund forgot her once, I believe it hurt her more than anything else could have done, and he knew it. Memory, for Fanny, is important, even in its usefulness, oppression, and weakness. All aspects of memory are what make it that interesting to her, and while she remembers, no one in the novel is forgotten, not even Mrs. Norris and her unreasonable demands.

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