Fanny Price is the most overlooked heroine in the world of Jane Austen and, for many readers, her story – Mansfield Park – is the least loved Austen novel. Some believe the novel itself is at fault – it is dark in subject, the characters are unlikeable, and the narrative has a strong ‘moralistic’ tone.
Yet others argue that Fanny is at fault for not being a ‘modern heroine’. Some describe her as timid, shy, naïve, fragile – even priggish. An introvert, Fanny is quiet, and this is often seen as a failing. Yet her observations are extremely detailed and, when she does speak, her thoughts are considered, intelligent and compassionate. Readers follow Fanny’s story from the young age of ten to the tender age of eighteen – allowing a level of insight into the inner life of a young girl that had never been seen in novel form before.
So, what makes a ‘modern heroine’? And why can’t a shy or quiet girl be considered one, too?
Growing up, nearly every teacher I had would remark on my being ‘quiet’. ‘Rosalie is very quiet’ was a guaranteed statement in my yearly school reports, followed swiftly by ‘I would like to see her contribute to class discussions more’. I would diligently complete my homework, behave in class and creatively complete assignments, yet my quietness was viewed as a significant defect – something to be worked on, something to be fixed.
Like Fanny, I found it mortifying to be at the centre of attention – even if that attention was garnered by simply answering a question.
In the 21st century, we live in a world of noise. Being loud (in person or on social media) is seen as a good thing. Quietness often signals that something is wrong, and it means being underestimated time and again. Many assume that the fewer comments you make, the less thoughts you have. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
I argue that quietness is a strength: there is power in being a listener and absorber. Standing alongside the loud ones, the quiet ones work away, contributing their talents to the world without always shouting about them.
Girls who are confident will likely make their mark on society, but we tend to forget that those girls are supported by the quiet ones who may be too shy to step into the spotlight. Not everyone can be an Elizabeth Bennet or an Emma Woodhouse, but that doesn’t mean the Fanny Prices of the world cannot be modern heroines too. They’ll just do it quietly!
GIrl Museum Inc.