Fanny's gaze and the construction of feminine space in Mansfield Park.
In 1975, when Laura Mulvey published her groundbreaking study of woman in film--her position as 'a signifier for the male other', as a projection of male fantasies, and, finally, as a 'bearer not maker of meaning' (1)--she gave new shape and direction to the interdisciplinary field of women's studies, motivating scholars in many subject areas to examine and, most interestingly, re-examine the political, cultural, social, and literary achievements of women through the ages. The controlling male gaze, as expounded by Mulvey, was principally incriminated for the objectification of womanhood not only in film but also in other areas where the advancement of women had been impeded or stifled: 'The determining male gaze projects its fantasy onto the female figure, which is styled accordingly' (p. 19). In the literary field, feminist scholars openly used Mulvey's work and, combining it with Foucault's theories about the empowered status of the spectator, often proved the biased stance of male writers (who are in the privileged position of the gazer) in their representation of female characters. In an effort to delve into female experience unadulterated by male interference, feminist criticism has lately stopped, in the words of Elaine Showalter, 'trying to fit women between the lines of the male tradition'. Instead, it focuses 'on the newly visible world of female culture', which Showalter defines as 'the occupations, interactions, and consciousness of women'. (2) While many feminist critics started from the premiss that the restriction of female experience led to their impotence in the political life of their societies and, as a result, to their general powerlessness to influence society in any productive way, others strove to show that women's relegation to the domestic realm is worth examining not as a sign of restriction but as an opportunity for understanding a unique 'female culture'. In other words, the domestic sphere gave women a power, unrecognizable by male standards, which constituted a femininity independent of male authorization.
The purpose of this paper is to trace and define this differentiating feminine power as it appears in Jane Austen's Mansfield Park, a novel which has often in the past been tainted by negative criticisms of the heroine's priggish insistence on rules of conventional morality. In this sense I agree with Sarah R. Morrison, in her article 'Of Woman Borne: Male Experience and Feminine Truth in Jane Austen's Novels', (3) in that Austen's persistence in the 'personal' at the expense of the public is no shortcoming but an affirmation of 'the centrality of women's experience'. 'Her art is feminine in its very assumption that personal relationships define one's being, and a traditional feminine vision of success informs her novels.' Morrison concludes that 'Paradoxically perhaps, the message conveyed is that this alternative vision can hold its own: it does not depend upon its tangential relationship to the world of men for its significance.' Fanny Price may initially seem an unlikely candidate for such a view of feminine success, given her timidity and ineffectuality even in the domestic realm of her uncle's and father's houses. And yet, a detailed analysis will show that Fanny's 'success' is much more significant and groundbreaking than that of Elizabeth Bennet, Emma, or other Austen heroines who assert more control over their households. Fanny is one of few women in Austen who define themselves independently of male expectancy and authority. In this sense my argument differs from Nancy Armstrong's, who, in juxtaposing Austen's subdued writing with the Brontes' more impassioned prose, formulates the generalization that 'Austen's heroines marry as soon as their desire has been correctly aimed and accurately communicated'. (4) My reading also differs from Lionel Trilling's celebrated defence of Austen's heroine against accusations of passivity, weakness, and uninteresting virtue. Trilling concentrates on Fanny's feeble spirit and sense of duty in order to elevate her character in a Christian sense, while criticizing Mary Crawford for being the 'first brilliant example of a distinctively modern type, the person who cultivates the style of sensitivity, virtue, and intelligence'. (5) However, by attributing Fanny's achievements to her Christian ethic, Trilling undermines the feminist force behind her rejection of the 'modern type' of woman, where modern means forfeiting 'the integrity of the self' not only as 'moral agent' (p. 192) but also as woman. Trilling is right to see in Mary the 'terror of secularized spirituality' (p. 202), but seeing Fanny as the exponent of merely its opposite makes her seem backward and in fact boring. Fanny Price's character indeed requires no correcting throughout the novel (to return to Armstrong), but not because of a strict moral code which limits her feelings. From her early childhood she builds a unique feminine space for herself which remains uncontaminated and uninterrupted by male involvement.
Paradoxically, in Mansfield Park the women who have official authority over domestic matters are treated with unrelenting irony. Lady Bertram and Mrs Norris are ridiculed for their indolence and insensitivity respectively. In their extreme ways, both women represent the type of authority that depends on male standards for its definition: Lady Bertram portrays the passive receptacle of patriarchal codes, rendered comatose by the strong will of her husband, and the widowed Mrs Norris, at the other end of the scale, has appropriated these male codes and applied them to both her own and Sir Thomas's households. Mrs Norris behaves like the man of the house, imposing her domineering and oppressive character on the weaker sex, the women of the family. Their hostile treatment by Austen suggests that the author did not believe that official household control necessarily empowered women. On the contrary, what seems to endow women with authority is the potentiality for a purely feminine self-development. Fanny is kept out of the politics of Mansfield Park, yet her discourse is highly political in the sense that it presents a stand for feminine differentiation. Her space is male-free. While not wielding any visible power in the household, she does, however, impose on the reader her gaze, which encompasses views, tastes, morality, and emotions. She powerfully withstands the male gaze of Sir Thomas, Henry Crawford, and even Edmund by consistently avoiding being looked at, a choice that renders her free of male influence. Her gaze, symbolic of her views and emotions, requires no confirmation or justification from the public world or the larger picture of politics, business, or publicity. Its self-sufficiency or domesticity is not a drawback, therefore, but a confirmation of the distinctive qualities of the female gender. In Mansfield Park Fanny's world is much more stable than that of the men, and with this heroine Austen seems to be presenting an alternative version to the male-defined woman of her time.
In order to explicate the female gaze employed by Fanny and to differentiate it from the male-oriented point of view of her foil, Mary Crawford, I shall employ aspects of the philosophy of Adam Smith as expounded in The Theory of Moral Sentiments--first published in 1790, twenty-four years before Mansfield Park--which argues for the existence of an innate moral sense that dictates our actions and judgements. Smith's examination of the human motives that lead to moral or immoral behaviour is based on his belief in an impartial spectator, an imaginary extension of oneself, which creates a figurative distance from the self that allows it to judge his/her actions or motives objectively:
We can never survey our own sentiments and motives, we can never form any judgment concerning them; unless we remove ourselves, as it were, from our own natural station, and endeavour to view them as at a certain distance from us. But we can do this in no other way than by endeavouring to view them with the eyes of other people, or as other people are likely to view them. (6)
Smith believes that submission to literal spectatorship, as opposed to the imaginary kind, leads to 'restraint' and 'loss of liberty'(I. III. 15), imposing on the viewed subject a need to be admired by the 'wandering eye', which is neither objective nor necessarily informed. The need, therefore, 'to be observed, to be attended to, to be taken notice of with sympathy, complacency, and approbation', the obsession of people to render themselves 'the object of observation' and to be the ones 'upon whom all direct their eyes', is the principal cause of man's loss of individuality and freedom (I. III. 16). While Smith's theory applies to both sexes, what may be derived from his analysis is that the male gaze bestowed on womanhood is doubly limiting as it imposes on women male aspirations and moral standards, resulting in the compromise of the female consciousness. This loss of self that Smith sees as the result of the subjection to the gaze of the partial spectator is what Austen's heroine in Mansfield Park tries to avoid by insisting on invisibility.
For Smith, there are two methods of looking, the second of which, in so far as it is distinct from the first (the imaginary gaze of the impartial spectator), imposes its fantasies, one might say, on its object, who fashions him/herself accordingly. The function of Mulvey's male gaze is similar, because, even though it does not necessarily influence the moral code of the woman gazed at, it undoubtedly controls and to a certain extent sways her code of conduct. The most prominent cause of this dependency of the subject on the look of the gazer, according to Smith, is the love of praise. Praise, the ostentatious applause of one's actions by literal spectators, is differentiated from praiseworthiness, the need to be considered right by the imagined spectator, the self in its most detached and unprejudiced state of being (III. I. 33). What, according to Smith, man must strive for is the love of praiseworthiness, which not only renders his actions moral, but also enables him to withstand the limiting and defining gaze of the crowd. Praise gratifies the spirit but by no means reflects the integrity of one's moral or social state. Gratuitous compliments, in particular, are held to be the most common form of praise, the pursuit of which fashions one's actions (Smith gives the example of an impressionable woman painter), without allowing one to develop independently: 'To be pleased with such groundless applause is a proof of the most superficial levity and weakness' (III. I. 11).
In her study of the emergence of the gaze in economic discourse, Vivienne Brown analyses Smith's use of the idea of spectatorship and labels the partial, unproductive look the 'social gaze' and the impartial, character-building one the 'moral gaze':
The social gaze of the mob is a superficial gaze; it represents an uncritical acceptance of the going point of view and it is a 'wandering eye' which passively receives the glittering images of 'proud ambition and ostentatious avidity' that are forced upon it, yet it is blind to the beauty of wisdom and goodness. The moral gaze, by contrast, is that of the studious and careful observer who can appreciate the 'humble modesty and equitable justice' that attracts the attention of so few. (7)
Brown concludes that Smith's impartial spectator employs the 'moral gaze', 'where looking involves an active process of imaginative and independent moral judgment' and where the subject builds his/her character in pursuit of praiseworthiness, while the 'social gaze' is the one that prompts the love of praise and implies the 'uncritical acceptance of common values' (p. 701). Borrowing Brown's terms, I would like to propose that what distinguishes Fanny Price from Mary Crawford is this different evocation of the impartial spectator by the former and of the partial one by the latter as conditions for the development of their character. Mary's love of praise suggests her need to attract the social gaze, which induces her to fashion herself accordingly, while Fanny's need for praiseworthiness is a result of her employing the moral gaze, one that exists in her mind and which allows independent development. As Smith puts it,
Two different models, two different pictures, are held out to us, according to which we may fashion our own character and behaviour; the one more gaudy and glittering in its colouring; the other more correct and more exquisitely beautiful in its outline: the one forcing itself upon the notice of every wandering eye; the other, attracting the attention of scarce any body but the most studious and careful observer. (I. III. 29)
The contrast between Fanny and Mary will be examined here in reference to their visibility, as it enacts this tension between imagined and literal spectatorship. It seems that Austen employs it in order to sensitize the reader to the centrality of female experience, as it is the feminine development that is mostly affected by the social/male gaze.
In Chapter 2 of Mansfield Park Fanny is introduced exhibiting qualities which immediately render her perspective moral rather than social. To look at, Austen insists, she is rather plain, 'with no glow of complexion, nor any other striking beauty'. (8) But while she is deemed imperfect in readily visible features, she is pleasant to listen to as 'her voice was sweet, and when she spoke, her countenance was pretty', and her manners are agreeable: 'her air, though awkward, was not vulgar.' In other words, Fanny is immediately defined as the girl who fits in without standing out in any ostentatious way, a characteristic, however, which is not a result of her plainness, as it is with other less visible female characters in Austen, but a matter of choice: Fanny, we are told, right from the start shrinks from every notice. Her tendency to hide from spectatorship--in her fear of riding a horse, which would bestow extra visibility upon her body, her refusal to act in the play, or even her reluctance to walk into the drawing room when she is expected--is on the surface interpreted as a result of her great timidity, a timidity that has led critics to describe her as priggish, stiff, and uninteresting. Yet, while she repeatedly avoids the gaze of others, her own gaze is self-assured, determined, and often categorical. Throughout the novel, Fanny withstands being the 'bearer of meaning' imposed by society and men in particular, and instead reveals her preference for making meaning by applying the gaze of the impartial spectator, the 'moral gaze', firstly to herself and subsequently to those surrounding her. Her stance as active maker of meaning is suggested early in the novel, when the first thing that gives her comfort in her new life at Mansfield Park, where she is constantly discussed as the new item of conversation, is the authorization she receives from Edmund to write a letter to her brother (p. 12). Her writing becomes a means of defining her own experience and is juxtaposed to the initial attempts of her uncle's family to impose their own meaning on her.
Fanny displays neither the covert eroticism craved by men nor those affected feminine accomplishments that merely confirm the suspicion that the female gender is a construct of the male gaze. The Miss Bertrams' early comment, '"Do you know, [Fanny] says she does not want to learn either music or drawing"' (p. 14), establishes Fanny's difference from the other female characters in the novel. In fact she dislikes those accomplishments that young girls are expected to acquire, but not out of stupidity, as her cousins and aunts presume. Throughout the novel she retreats from those qualifications that make women desirable to men, those marketable qualities that render them marriageable. Austen criticizes the superficiality of the trivial occupations of women when she writes that Lady Bertram was always engaged in 'doing some long piece of needlework, of little use and no beauty' (p. 15) and her daughters continually practised their talents for singing, playing, drawing, and citing by heart the principal rivers of Russia. Through Fanny, therefore, Jane Austen proposes an alternative form of character, whose femininity is not fashioned according to male standards but is self-defined. While 'the Miss Bertrams continued to exercise their memories, practise their duets, and grow tall and womanly; and their father saw them becoming in person, manner, and accomplishments, everything that could satisfy his anxiety' (p. 15), Fanny satisfies no one but herself in her pursuit of knowledge. Only Edmund recognizes her difference by noticing her 'strong desire of doing right' (p. 13) and her 'fondness for reading' (p. 16), qualities that endorse her position as moral and intellectual centre of the novel.
Throughout Mansfield Park Austen emphasizes Fanny's tendency to build her own character, not according to how others view her, but as she would like to view herself. She therefore conforms to Adam Smith's principle of the impartial spectator, by imagining how she would be judged with objectivity and behaving in the manner expected. From the moment of her arrival, Fanny is stricken by pangs of guilt for not feeling as gratified with her new living conditions as an unbiased observer would have expected: 'her consciousness of misery was therefore increased by the idea of its being a wicked thing for her not to be happy' (p. 10). Moreover, in relation to the behaviour of other characters, she often embodies the impartial spectator in order to apply the moral gaze to their decisions. For example, after the choice of play by the aspiring actors of Mansfield, she remarks that 'Agatha and Amelia appeared to her in their different ways so totally improper for home representation--the situation of one and the language of the other, so unfit to be expressed by any woman of modesty, that she could hardly suppose her cousins could be aware of what they were engaging in' (p. 100). Fanny expresses Smith's notion of the impartial spectator best when she refuses to give Crawford advice near the close of the novel: to Crawford's '"When you give me your opinion, I always know what is right"', she replies, '"Oh, no!--do not say so. We have all a better guide in ourselves, if we would attend to it, than any other person can be"' (p. 295). Fanny's belief in this imagined spectator as an extension of one's self is proof not only of her strict Christian ethic, but more significantly of her self-reliance, which makes her character appear strong and self-assured despite her physical infirmity.
The examples, numerous and indicative, of Fanny's employment of the moral gaze to judge either her own motives or those of the other characters suggest that what she mostly craves is praiseworthiness, not praise. After an observation by Edmund commending Fanny's amiable nature, Mary Crawford is right to notice that '"Miss Price has been more used to deserve praise than to hear it"' (p. 82). In fact, Fanny shrinks from praise whenever it is bestowed and often perceives its arbitrariness or injustice in relation to herself, her cousins, or the Crawfords. Conversely, her cousins build their confidence and inflate their egos on the basis of the constant flattery of their peers: 'the praises [...] secured, and brought round by their aunt, served to strengthen them in believing they had no faults' (p. 25). In this case, it is the ironic narrator who acts as Smith's impartial spectator, offering a detached gaze of the Miss Bertrams' imperfect personality: 'it is not very wonderful that with all their promising talents and early information, they should be entirely deficient in the less common acquirements of self-knowledge, generosity, and humility' (pp. 14-15), qualities that, if obtained, would have encouraged their desire to be praiseworthy, rather than praised. The Miss Bertrams, in other words, rely on literal spectatorship for assessing their character, and therefore, in Smith's words, can never turn their eyes inwards: 'They look upon themselves, not in that light in which, they know, they ought to appear to their companions, but in that in which they believe their companions actually look upon them' (III. ii. 11). This literal or social gaze, according to Smith, is restricting as it denies the person submitting to it independent development. Maria Bertram's only bold attempt at individuality--when she jumps over the fence to leave Rushworth's estate--is undermined by her promiscuity, a result of her need for compliments and flirtation from the opposite sex. Her adultery, while initially a revolt against Rushworth's territorial hold over her, is at the same time a submission to the seductive gaze of Crawford, who sees her as a sex object.
While Fanny fashions herself independently of the social gaze of the crowd, Mary Crawford submits to it totally for her character development and promotion in society, thus losing the opportunity of acquiring a female character uninfluenced by the male gaze. In this respect Mary is exactly the type of woman denounced by Mary Wollstonecraft in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. When Wollstonecraft writes, 'I do not wish [women] to have power over men; but over themselves', (9) she attacks those women who construct their outer and inner selves according to the male gaze, and who are preoccupied more with their social projection than their private education and improvement. Mary differs from Fanny in that she considers elegance superior to virtue (10) and therefore, not unlike the Bertram sisters, renders herself the object of the male gaze at every opportunity. Emphasizing her refinement rather than her musical talent, Austen describes Mary's posture while playing her harp as that of a woman in a painting: 'A young woman, pretty, lively, with a harp as elegant as herself; and both placed near a window, cut down to the ground, and opening on a little lawn, surrounded by shrubs in the rich foliage of summer, was enough to catch any man's heart' (p. 47). By placing her within the frame of the window, Austen is hinting at the inevitable portraiture of woman by men, as well as the former's frequent willingness to submit her graces to the scrutinizing male look, which is what has induced her to adopt the posture in the first place. In this sense, and in the words of Susan Gubar, 'Woman is not simply an object [...] she is an art object', (11) as the male gaze positions her within a culture she cannot define on her own but only decorate.
On the other hand, Fanny cowers from producing postures or performances that are pleasing to men. Before having Fanny enter the drawing room occupied by Henry Crawford, Austen comments that 'the idea of having such another to observe her, was a great increase of trepidation with which [Fanny] performed the very awful ceremony of walking into the drawing-room' (p. 159). Her bold defiance of Crawford and later of her uncle suggests that her frequent evasion of the male gaze is not due to coyness but to a reluctance to submit to the defining ability of the gaze. Crawford in particular does nothing else but apply his male gaze to Fanny, often noticing details of her external appearance which agree with his ideal of womanhood, and which make Fanny the object of an impersonal portrait or theatrical performance:
'Had you seen her this morning, Mary', he continued, 'attending with such ineffable sweetness and patience, to all the demands of her aunt's stupidity, working with her, and for her, her colour beautifully heightened as she leant over the work, then returning to her seat to finish a note which she was previously engaged to write for that stupid woman's service, and all this with such unpretending gentleness [...] her hair arranged as neatly as it always is, and one little curl falling forward as she wrote, which she now and then shook back.' (p. 212)
Henry interprets Fanny's actions as if they were part of an exhibition of feminine graces, while for Fanny they constitute her praiseworthiness. He is a literal spectator judging and praising his ephemeral beloved only on account of her looks, while Fanny detests being viewed as nothing but the embodiment of male-craved female accomplishments. Her incentives for serving her aunt are her sense of duty and willingness to offer assistance, motives inspired by her need to be approved by the imagined impartial spectator who frees womanhood of the restricting male gaze. Conversely, in descriptions of the motives of the Crawford siblings, Austen's text abounds in words related to seeing and looking, suggesting that the one applies and the other submits to the male gaze. Not even Edmund seems to be totally free of the male gaze. While he justly discerns Fanny's inner qualities, he cannot resist the temptation of also seeing her as 'an interesting object' (p. 13), often noticing her appearance and behaviour. In Mary's case, he oscillates between the moral and the social gaze, more often than not submitting to the latter, which is met by Mary's male-directed postures and actions.
Furthermore, Mary manifests what Wollstonecraft sees as the most deplorable female trait, cunning.
Women are, in fact, so much degraded by mistaken notions of female excellence, that I do not mean to add a paradox when I assert, that this artificial weakness produces a propensity to tyrannize, and gives birth to cunning, the natural opponent of strength, which leads them to play off those contemptible infantine airs that undermine esteem even whilst they excite desire. (p. 104, emphasis added)
The juxtaposition of strength and cunning captures the difference between Fanny and Mary respectively, as the former dares to withstand male authority and the latter employs feminine tactics in order to achieve her goal--marriage: '"I will stake my last like a woman of spirit. No cold prudence for me. I am not born to sit still and do nothing. If I lose the game, it shall not be from not striving for it"' (p. 174). For Mary the game consists of exhibitionist wit and stratagems that make her desirable, methods that for Wollstonecraft constitute her weakness and for Adam Smith her imprisonment within the confines of the social gaze. Marriage for Mary is a scheme, a result of successful performances from both sides while they try to adapt to the premarital expectations of the other: in Mary's words, '"Everybody is taken in at some period or other [...]. In marriage especially"' (p. 34). Mary thus unknowingly acknowledges the restricting power of the social gaze, without, however, grasping that her definition of a 'woman of spirit' is flawed: like the Bertram sisters, she strives to become an embodiment of the type of woman that is desirable to men. While seemingly liberal, in reality she abides by the reification imposed on womanhood, by adapting to the image that male expectation has constructed for marriageable women: namely, to be desirable.
Not only does Mary thrive when looked at, but she also judges others according to the frequency with which they are looked at. Her main reason for objecting to Edmund's choice of vocation is that the position of a clergyman denies both the man and also his potential wife opportunities for the desired visibility: '"men love to distinguish themselves, and in either of the other lines, distinction may be gained, but not in the church. A clergyman is nothing [...]. One does not see much of [his] influence and importance in society, and how can it be acquired where they are so seldom seen themselves?"' (p. 67). By equating visibility with importance, Mary raises doubts about the intrinsic character of both sexes and confirms the dependence of the subject on factors external and often irrelevant to its development. Thus, for Mary the subject is nothing unless it is seen, a notion which in the case of femininity consigns womanhood to passivity and a want of agency. Because of Fanny's lack of visibility, Mary, at the beginning of the novel, is unable to determine her significance or even her function: '"I begin now to understand you all, except Miss Price [...]. Pray, is she out, or is she not--I am puzzled"' (p. 36). Here Mary is reiterating the male cultural tendency to classify women just by scrutinizing their appearance. Being 'out', an expression denoting a woman's formal entry in society, becomes a factor of defining importance in the perception of a woman's looks, behaviour, and character, and one that emphasizes the significance placed on women's external projection. Mary illustrates the meaning of being out by stressing qualities that pertain only to the way girls appear to the public (their way of dress, their bearing, and manners) and ignores the subjectivity that renders them individuals. Wanting to confirm her theory, she applies to Tom Bertram for examples (p. 36), implying that it is to the male eye that the custom of being out is mostly relevant. When a woman is out, she finally embodies, comfortably and without reservation, the sexual stereotype, a reflection of men's desires, that makes her marriageable.
Coming out to be gazed at, however, for Fanny, is not a satisfactory practice, and even when she is assigned the visibility suited to her new status ('out'), she clings to her custom of fearing and ultimately defying the male gaze:
Miss Price, known only by name to half of the people invited, was now to make her first appearance, and must be regarded as the Queen of the evening. Who could be happier than Miss Price? But Miss Price had not been brought up to the trade of coming out; and had she known in what light this ball was, in general, considered respecting her, it would very much have lessened her comfort by increasing the fears she already had, of doing wrong and being looked at. (p. 191)
The ball began. [...] but she was a great deal too much frightened to have any enjoyment, till she could suppose herself no longer looked at. (p. 198)
Through the word 'trade', Austen stresses the businesslike nature of this social custom, which is meant to authorize women to employ their marketable accomplishments in order to capture a man. Yet Fanny, despite her initial gratification at being admired, is most contented when given the opportunity to define the new experience for herself, and most uncomfortable when praised or when Henry Crawford focuses his attentions on her. Unchanged by her new status, Fanny is happiest when, avoiding the necessary trivial conversation, she can enjoy a moment of unaffected silence while dancing with Edmund, and, after the ball, when she can return to her usual routine of applying the moral gaze without being scrutinized. By contrast, Mary Crawford, who exists only to be seen, suffers at the departure of the men after the ball, is bored by the absence of opportunities for visibility, and even regrets her behaviour, which brought about the opposite effect to the one intended:
What was tranquility and comfort to Fanny was tediousness and vexation to Mary [...]. To Fanny's mind Edmund's absence was really in its cause and its tendency a relief. To Mary it was every way painful. She felt the want of his society every day, almost every hour [...]. She wished she had not spoken so warmly in their last conversation. She was afraid she had used some strong--some contemptuous expressions in speaking of the clergy, and that should not have been. (p. 205)
At this point, Mary realizes that the feminine image she projected to Edmund did not correspond to his ideal of womanhood, as Edmund is more responsive to moral attributes than feminine talents. Her wish to cancel out what was done suggests once again the dependence of her character on the social gaze, the literal impression created on the partial spectator, and not on the disinterested gaze of the imagined spectator that enables the subject to act freely. Her desire therefore is malleable, dependent on the fantasy projected by the favoured male.
Fanny's most meaningful moments of agency take place when she is in the process of actively viewing her surroundings. Through her gaze she defines herself, her experience, and the actions of others and thus withstands the attempts of the male gaze to reify her. Her position as maker of meaning, while often undervalued by critics who attack Austen's lack of preoccupation with politics, business, or social issues, equates her with men on the plane of creativity and is viewed here as a stance that enables critics like Showalter to arm the existence of a 'female culture' in which 'feminine values penetrate and undermine the masculine systems that contain them' (p. 131). Even though Fanny does not participate in the public realm of her period's culture, in the private realm she posits the basis for a female subjectivity independent of male signification. Thus throughout the novel, Fanny is the only one who sees clearly the sexual rivalry among her cousins, the duplicity of the Crawfords, and the blindness of Edmund, and she presents her views boldly to the reader--and occasionally to her uncle and Edmund--establishing her superiority as the impartial spectator of the novel. Austen often emphasizes her passion for looking, thus offering the reader a feminine angle of vision. While the male gaze often reduces its object to a corporeal substance, Fanny's is more penetrating. On the occasion of the play,
Fanny looked on and listened, not unamused to observe the selfishness which more or less disguised, seemed to govern them all, and wondering how it would end. For her own gratification she could have wished that something might be acted, for she had never seen even half a play, but everything of higher consequence was against it. (p. 96)
Her eagerness to apply her gaze is repeated in the case of Mary Crawford: '"She entertains me; and she is so extremely pretty, that I have great pleasure in looking at her"' (p. 46). Her look, which constitutes the moral gaze, gradually reveals to her that Mary 'had only learnt to think nothing of consequence but money' (p. 314), a realization later shared by Edmund, who tacitly acknowledges Fanny's more penetrating gaze when he utters, '"but the charm is broken. My eyes are opened"' (p. 328). Moreover, Fanny's gaze is often directed by her desire. The most frequent object of her look is Edmund, to whose gaze, however, unlike Mary, she does not often submit. In Claudia L. Johnson's words, 'Fanny [...] is what no modest woman ought to be: erotically independent. Not conveniently malleable or safely asexual, as Sir Thomas could wish, her "ardours" smoulder secretly without solicitation or authorization--well under her own control.' (12)
Fanny's most forceful moments of defiance take place when she tries to withstand the male gaze. Her categorical refusal to act in the play is the result of her wish to retain her individuality and integrity, since she can discern that, in the case of the Crawfords, the Bertram sisters, and even Edmund, role-playing becomes an opportunity for expressing their underlying true emotions--emotions which, however, Fanny does not share. Therefore, while for the others acting legitimates flirtation and unreserved openness, which they had been craving all along, for Fanny it entails projecting a self that she does not possess. As Claudia Johnson has noted, the play is 'actually among the least deceptive instances of acting in the novel, for every major character is acting all the time [...]. Mrs Norris plays the self-sacrificing sister and aunt, Maria and Julia the parts of proper young ladies, and Edmund the highminded priest.' (13) Moreover, acting fulfils the young ladies' perpetual wish for visibility, as it provides them with the opportunity each to have the men focus their attention on them at least while they are reciting their parts. And whereas the female parts in Lovers' Vows initially seem to attack the conventional image of woman as moral centre of a marriage, in reality they perpetuate the stereotype of woman as a reflection of male sexual desire. Therefore, in this play, by fulfilling the male fantasy of the sexually active woman, Maria Bertram and Mary Crawford willingly, once again, become the objects of the male gaze. Fanny, on the other hand, refuses to forfeit her feminine individuality for the sake of becoming the product of the defining male gaze. Acting would entail double exposure: as the cottager's wife, she would be projecting a false image, and as Fanny on the stage, she would be offering her outer self to the scrutiny of the men, or, to paraphrase Laura Mulvey, subjecting her body to the controlling and curious male gaze (p. 16). Her dread of visibility is mostly illustrated in her response to the acting proposition: '"It is a nothing of a part [...] and it will not much signify if nobody hears a word you say [...] but we must have you to look at"', says Tom Bertram, to which Fanny replies, '"It is not that I am afraid of learning by heart", said Fanny, shocked to find herself at that moment the only speaker in the room, and to feel that almost every eye was upon her; "but I really cannot act"' (p. 106, emphases added). This dialogue exposes a conflict of perspectives between the male and the female gaze, the former engaged chiefly in the perusal of the external appearance of women and the latter in reading and learning. Tom Bertram is not interested in Fanny's potentially active role as a learner of lines, but as a passive presence on the stage. Acting, therefore, presents women with a paradoxical situation: while it seemingly offers them an active role (as actors), in reality it consigns them to passivity, requiring them to perform roles created and modelled by men and to function within the confines of patriarchally set codes (though in this case the male author Kotzebue's play is rendered through Elizabeth Inchbald's adaptation). In Mulvey's words, 'Woman then stands in patriarchal culture as a signifier for the male other, bound by a symbolic order in which man can live out his fantasies and obsessions through linguistic command by imposing them on the silent image of woman still tied to her place as bearer, not maker of meaning' (p.15).
Fanny's resistance to the play betrays her defiance of male authorship, which is often responsible for the overtly sexual view of women expressed in cultural symbols such as the theatre. In particular, she objects to the language and manners assigned to the roles of the two main female characters (p. 100), whose function is limited to a male-defined quest for sexual gratification. Fanny vehemently objects to the male expectancy and imposition of feminine feelings. Claudia Johnson has commented on Edmund's wish that Fanny should comply with her uncle's recommendation to marry Crawford by arguing that
Gender is being used here [...] to police a woman's behaviour by threatening her with disapproval on the score of unnaturalness. It is not feminine to resist, to make a fuss for one's own sake, to disappoint the desires of others by insisting on the primacy of one's own. ('Gender', p. 110)
However, Fanny, exasperated by Henry Crawford's intrusive and incessant flirtation, lashes out in defence of a woman's right to determine her own needs and preferences:
'I should have thought', said Fanny, after a pause of recollection and exertion, 'that every woman must have felt the possibility of a man's not being approved, not being loved by some one of her sex, at least, let him be ever so generally agreeable. Let him have all the perfections in the world, I think it ought not to be set down as certain, that a man must be acceptable to every woman he may happen to like himself [...]. How then was I to be--to be in love with him the moment he said he was with me? [...] we think very differently of the nature of women, if they can imagine a woman so very soon capable of returning an affection as this seems to imply.' (pp. 252-53, emphases added)
Fanny's definition of 'the nature of women', is one that suggests a similar 'feminist resistance' to the one that Patricia Johnson found in Middlemarch, and one that makes woman not complicit with the male gaze. Like George Eliot, Austen 'multipl[ies] angles of vision' (14) in order to question male authority in creativity and provide a feminine view of the female sensibility. The most indicative example of such a transferral of authority is during Crawford's book reading when
[her] eyes which had appeared so studiously to avoid him throughout the day, were turned and fixed on Crawford, fixed on him for minutes, fixed on him in short till the attraction drew Crawford's upon her, and the book was closed, and the charm was broken. (pp. 240-01)
In this scene, Fanny views Crawford as he habitually views her--as an art object. For an instant he becomes the embodiment of her fantasies, a reflection of her artistic sensibilities. But the moment he applies his erotic gaze on her, her aesthetic fantasy is dispelled and she 'was shrinking again into herself' (p. 241), trying to retain her individuality.
Edmund is the only character that perceives the conflict between Fanny's external appearance and her gaze, one praised by Sir Thomas and Crawford, and the other occasionally detected by himself: '"Ask your uncle what he thinks, and you will hear compliments enough; and though they may be chiefly on your person, you must put up with it, and trust to his seeing as much beauty of mind in time"' (p. 141). Fanny's beauty of mind is the product of her active gaze, which processes impressions from people, nature, and books. In this sense she fulfils Mary Wollstonecraft's dream of cultivation among women:
Women ought to endeavour to purify their heart; but can they do so when their uncultivated understandings make them entirely dependent on their senses for employment and amusement, when no noble pursuit sets them above the little vanities of the day, or enables them to curb the wild emotions that agitate a reed over which every passing breeze has power? (p. 112)
Throughout the novel Fanny exemplifies this purity of heart by upholding her moral gaze and learning not by imitation but by discovery. Austen often emphasizes Fanny's self-development through solitary reflection, observation of nature, and reading and contrasts her to Mary Crawford, who is unresponsive to solitude or nature: 'She had none of Fanny's delicacy of taste, of mind, of feeling; she saw nature, inanimate nature, with little observation; her attention was all for men and women' (p. 59). Mary's social gaze is juxtaposed to Fanny's gaze of nature, which fixes itself on items she can attach her own meaning to. At the sight of a beautiful evening, for example,
'Here's harmony!' said she, 'Here's repose! Here's what may leave all painting and all music behind, and what poetry only can attempt to describe, Here's what may tranquilize every care, and lift the heart to rapture! When I look out on such a night as this, I feel as if there could be neither wickedness nor sorrow in the world.' (p. 82)
Here Fanny is voicing the prominence of nature over the artificial codes that dominate human relationships, emphasizing spontaneity, creativity, and freedom of personal expression, all of which are usually forfeited by women for the sake of adapting to the male gaze. Fanny thirsts for anything that she can define with her look and learns from applying her imagination to empty scenery. At Sotherton, for example, she is delighted 'to warm her imagination with scenes of the past' (p. 62). Moreover, Fanny shows interest in acquiring knowledge about social issues usually discussed by men. But when she boldly asks her uncle about the slave trade, she is faced with 'dead silence' (p. 141), as she breaks the spell of being just a pretty face that decorates the drawing room. Edmund once again brings this conflict to the surface by noting that she 'should harden [herself] to the idea of being worth looking at' (p. 141). Her question about slavery contradicts the definition of her as being just an object of the male gaze and is thus met with silence.
One final means that Fanny employs to withstand her reification is reading. Apart from being a means for solitary occupation, reading offers Fanny the opportunity of stepping out of the traditional female role of performing shallow accomplishments and instead acquiring the function of an active maker of meaning. As during the instances of background observation, when reading, Fanny looks forward to the creative discussion that will follow with Edmund: 'he recommended the books which charmed her leisure hours, he encouraged her taste, and corrected her judgement; he made reading useful by talking to her of what she read, and heightened its attraction by judicious praise' (pp. 16-17). Reading, thus, allows her to be an active participant in experience as well as to voice her views and interpretations. Moreover, Fanny's favourite forms of literature are poetry and biography, a preference that indicates her love of free self-expression. Her cousins, on the other hand, are only interested in parroting knowledge dictated by men which does not require their own input. Similarly, Mary's opinions, more loudly voiced than the Miss Bertrams', are formed through imitation of people and social situations and not out of a subjective interpretation of books and nature. Fanny's individual growth is manifested best when on her return to Portsmouth, she demonstrates that she has surpassed Edmund's influence and replaces him in the education of Susan. Like Edmund in relation to herself, she recognizes Susan's 'natural light of the mind which could so early distinguish justly' (p. 283) and her inclination to learn, and she guides her in her studies: 'Susan had read nothing, and Fanny longed to give her a share in her own first pleasures, and inspire a taste for the biography and poetry which she delighted in herself' (pp. 285-86). Fanny's independence from male influence is suggested further in the Portsmouth episodes when she herself discovers that she has become a maker of meaning. Thrilled with her own initiative to subscribe to the circulating library, she is 'amazed at being any thing in propria persona, amazed at her own doings in every way; to be a renter, a chooser of books!' (p. 285).
An educator, a subscriber, a renter, and a chooser, at the end of the novel, Fanny exemplifies the agency that she has acquired through her defiant gaze. She has formed her own character not according to how others have viewed her, but as she would like to view herself. Free of male intrusion, her domestication constitutes a feminine space which is defined by independence of thought and feeling. Whereas the world of men is presented as unstable--prone to appearances and reliant on external justification--Fanny's world is strictly self-defined, firmly established on the conviction that female identity consists of those qualities that feminist critics have described as a feminine vision and consciousness. (15)
NATIONAL AND KAPODISTRIAN UNIVERSITY OF ATHENS
(1) Visual and Other Pleasures (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1989), p. 15. Mulvey's article 'Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema' was first published in Screen in 1975.
(2) The New Feminist Criticism (New York: Pantheon Books, 1985), p. 131.
(3) Studies in the Novel, 26 (1994), Literature Online, Harvard University Library <http://www.lib. Harvard.edu:2575/lion_ref_abell/> [6 March 2002].
(4) Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), p. 192.
(5) The Opposing Self (New York: Harcourt, 1955), p. 193.
(6) Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1790), Library of Economics and Liberty, ed. by A. Millar <http://wwwfleconlib.org/library/Smith/smMS1.html, http://www.econlib.org/ library/Smith/smMS3.html [6 March 2002], III. I. 2.
(7) 'Dialogism, the Gaze, and the Emergence of Economic Discourse', New Literary History, 28 (1997), 697-710 (p. 700).
(8) Jane Austen, Mansfield Park (1814), Wordsworth Classics (Ware: Wordsworth Editions, 2000), p. 9.
(9) 'From A Vindication of the Rights of Women' (1792), in The Norton Anthology of English Literature, ed. by M. H. Abrams and others, 2 vols (New York: Norton, 1993), II, 101-26 (p. 122).
(10) Wollstonecraft wrote: 'I wish to shew that elegance is inferior to virtue, that the first object of laudable ambition is to obtain a character as a human being, regardless of the distinction of sex' (p. 103).
(11) '"The Blank Page" and the Issues of Female Creativity', in The New Feminist Criticism, ed. by Elaine Showalter (New York: Pantheon Books, 1985), pp. 292-313 (p. 293). In her article, Gubar discusses the tendency of both male and female writers to present women as the creation, often literary, of men. Desdemona is described as a 'fair paper' and a 'goodly book' by Othello, Dorothea Brooke as a poem by Ladislaw etc. (p. 293). 'Clearly this tradition', Gubar writes, 'excludes woman from the creation of culture, even as it reifies her as an artifact within culture' (p. 295).
(12) 'Gender, Theory and Jane Austen Culture', in Mansfield Park, ed. by Nigel Wood (Buckingham: Open University Press, 1993), pp. 91-120 (p. 112).
(13) Jane Austen: Women, Politics, and the Novel (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), pp. 100-01.
(14) Patricia Johnson, 'The Gendered Politics of the Gaze: Henry James and George Eliot', Mosaic, 30 (1997), Literature Online, Harvard University Library <http://www.lib.harvard.edu:2575/ lion_ref_abell/> [6 March 2002].
(15) Making a claim for a feminist criticism that embraces and examines female domestication for the feminine truths it reveals, Showalter writes, 'The radical demand that would yoke women writers to feminist revolution and deny them the freedom to explore new subjects would obviously not provide a healthy direction for the female tradition to take. But the denigration of female experience, the insistence that women deal with "the real business of the world", is also destructive' (A Literature of their Own: British Women Novelists from Bronte to Lessing (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977), p. 318).
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|Title Annotation:||Fanny Price, Jane Austen|
|Publication:||The Modern Language Review|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2004|
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