What Is the Point of Susan Price? by Guest Author Lona Manning

What Is the Point of Susan Price? by Guest Author Lona Manning

We are delighted to once again welcome to the blog one of our favorite Austenesque authors, the incredible LONA MANNING. As she has in her previous four guest blogs on Austen Authors (links below), Lona always uncovers a unique topic to share with our lucky readers. Today, a study of Susan Price, the younger sister of Fanny Price. Thanks so much, Lona!

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LONA MANNING is the author of the Mansfield Trilogy, a variation on Mansfield Park. Her most recent publication is Shelley and the Unknown Lady, a carefully researched imagining of a mystery in the life of the romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. In the Mansfield Trilogy, Fanny tries to be more assertive and self-reliant. Lona’s blog, “Clutching My Pearls,” looks at Jane Austen and her times. Currently, Lona is posting about Mansfield Park and the theme of education.

Lona lives in the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia, Canada. For more information about Lona, visit her website and follow her social media platforms.

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What Is the Point of Susan Price? by Lona Manning

 

Susan Price, the younger sister of heroine Fanny Price, is not mentioned by name until Chapter 38 of Mansfield Park. By introducing Susan so late in the novel, Austen comes close to flouting “the rules of composition [which] forbid the introduction of a character not connected” with her story, as she says in Northanger Abbey.

But the character of Susan serves both Austen’s plot and her themes.

Susan enters the story when Fanny goes home to Portsmouth and re-encounters the family she has not seen in years. Of all the loud and unmanageable Price brood, the only sibling with which she makes a real connection is her teen-aged sister Susan.

We get to know Susan as she wrangles and argues with her mother–which “startles” Fanny, who has strict notions about submission and obedience. Even though Fanny soon admits to herself that she doesn’t respect or even like her mother, this doesn’t change her conviction that it is wrong to talk back to a parent.

Once Fanny comes to understand Susan, who has “a disposition so totally different from her own,” she views her younger sister more charitably: She’s “a girl of fourteen, acting only on her own unassisted reason,” trying to push back against her mother’s favoritism and slovenly ways. Susan longs desperately for a better life, and Fanny can’t resist indulging Susan’s desire to hear all about “the people, the manners, the amusements, the ways of Mansfield Park.”

Susan is a sympathetic figure, but if you took her sub-plot out of the story, would it make a difference? Austen is not the kind of writer to include characters in a novel without having a good reason for them. To start with, Fanny’s desire to help Susan gives our heroine something to do as the weeks drag on in Portsmouth during the portion of the book where all the dramatic events occur offstage. (In fact, some critics have found fault with Austen for structuring the book so that we only hear of Edmund’s vacillation over proposing to Mary Crawford, Tom Bertram’s illness, and Maria leaving her husband, through letters.)

Fanny takes Susan on as a project while she takes some tiny baby steps toward adult decision-making She purchases a penknife for little Betsey and takes out a subscription to a circulating library.

As well, Susan is the third wheel when Henry Crawford and Fanny Price go for walks during his visit to Portsmouth. Her presence restrains Henry: “there was no introducing the main point before her.” Henry comes and goes without the family suspecting that he is courting their daughter; they see him only as William’s friend and benefactor.

This visit from Henry has a parallel in Clarentine, 1796 novel by Sarah Burney. Scholar Mary Waldron explains that Clarentine is like Fanny—she is a dependent niece brought up in a wealthy family. Her cousin Edgar falls in love with her. This brings down the wrath of her aunt Harrington (a Mrs. Norris-type figure). Clarentine goes to live in Sidmouth (by the sea) with a widowed relative. A young man about town, Mr. Eltham, follows her there. The widow is busy with her children, so Clarentine spends a lot of time alone with Mr. Eltham. When I was reading this section, I thought to myself, “Hey girl, is this wise?” Sure enough, Clarentine’s reputation is brought into question.

I don’t know if Austen borrowed Clarentine’s plot structure, but if she did, she gave the virtuous Fanny a chaperone in Susan.

Susan’s capacity for inhibiting frank discussions proves most essential to Austen’s narrative when Edmund Bertram comes to Portsmouth to take Fanny back to Mansfield. He has just come from his final interview with Mary Crawford and he is heart-broken, devastated. Fanny and Edmund are going home by post, that is, by a private carriage and not in a public mail coach. Being alone together for one-and-a-half days on the road would logically be “the very time of all others when, if a friend is at hand, the heart must be opened, and everything told.” But, as we already know, Susan is a “quick-looking” girl, “the very worst third in the world” for anyone hoping to have a serious conversation.

Susan—or someone—is necessary to Austen’s story arc. Austen wants to postpone Edmund’s recounting of his final interview with Mary Crawford until they are back at Mansfield and she has cleared away some other details of the plot. “Had [Edmund] been alone with [Fanny], his heart must have opened in spite of every resolution; but Susan’s presence drove him quite into himself.”

Perhaps, as well, Austen didn’t want her hero and heroine, who are not brother and sister and who are not married, to make an overnight trip by private carriage.

Austen needed to place a third person in that carriage to be with Fanny when she and Edmund stayed overnight in an inn. Who could plausibly be in that carriage with Edmund and Fanny? William has already gone to sea. Mrs. Norris had thought about making the trip down to Portsmouth, but decided against it, so she is not there for the return journey.

What circumstance could put one of Fanny’s siblings into the carriage? Austen develops the motive during the Portsmouth section: Susan craves a better life. She would make the most of a chance to get away from her parents’ home. Fanny’s mention of Susan in her letters home to Mansfield leads to an invitation from Sir Thomas. As Edmund tells Fanny, “I am sure you will feel such an instance of his kindness at such a moment!”

Yes, and what a moment it is! Sir Thomas is “overpowered” with shock and grief, his son Tom is lying upstairs, possibly dying, his house is under a cloud of sexual scandal, “a disgrace never to be wiped off,” and his wife, the nominal hostess, is even more prostrate than usual.

Austen does address the fact that this is not a great time to have a house guest. She lets us know that Susan handles herself well: “Lady Bertram could not give her much time, or many words…  and Susan… came perfectly aware that nothing but ill-humour was to be expected from aunt Norris… She was now left a good deal to herself, to get acquainted with the house and grounds as she could, and spent her days very happily in so doing, while those who might otherwise have attended to her were shut up, or wholly occupied…”

Austen puts Susan to use in one final way. When Fanny married Edmund, I didn’t say to myself, “Oh no! what about poor Lady Bertram? She’ll have no companion.” But maybe some of Austen’s readers did worry about her. Fortunately, “Susan remained to supply [Fanny’s] place… Susan became the stationary niece, delighted to be so!… she was soon welcome and useful to all.”

Beyond the Mechanics of the Story

Having dropped Susan into the final section of the story, Austen twines her in more firmly by including her thematically: she uses the theme of education –that is, Susan’s education as taken up by Fanny. We are told that Susan was “a most attentive, profitable, thankful pupil.” Fanny is powerless and ignored through most of the book, but she makes a difference in Susan’s life. Then there is what Austen says about Susan’s temperament as compared to Fanny’s. Throughout Mansfield Park, we are told that Fanny is timid. (“Fanny, with all her faults of ignorance and timidity, was fixed at Mansfield Park.”) This trait has exasperated many of Fanny’s critics, and it can hardly be held up as a virtue. In fact, Austen has Fanny reflect that she “had probably alienated [her mother’s] love by the helplessness and fretfulness of a fearful temper, or been unreasonable in wanting a larger share than any one among so many could deserve.”

This passage has always stood out for me: “Susan was only acting on the same truths, and pursuing the same system, which [Fanny’s] own judgment acknowledged, but which her more supine and yielding temper would have shrunk from asserting. Susan tried to be useful, where she could only have gone away and cried.”

Susan has “happier nerves” while Fanny “could only have gone away and cried.” Susan handles Aunt Norris’s hostility far better than Fanny ever did. Austen is not blaming Fanny for being naturally timid, or praising Susan for being naturally assertive, but she does point out the difference that it makes for the sisters.

Meeting Susan has led Fanny to engage in some useful self-reflection. And Fanny has taught Susan the moral principle of being polite and forbearing to one’s elders, which she is going to need if she’s stuck with Lady Bertram!

Please leave a comment for Lona!
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10 COMMENTS
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DarcyBennett
DarcyBennett
March 9, 2022 7:10 PM

Enjoyed your post.

Glynis
Glynis
February 23, 2022 3:34 PM

I must admit that MP is my least favourite of Jane’s novels. I’ve seen two different televised series but can’t say either of them improved my opinion. However I do see your point re Susan, she definitely seemed to help the situation between Fanny and Edmund and Lady Bertram. A most agreeable alternative!

Kirstin Odegaard
AuAu
February 23, 2022 1:14 PM

Thanks for this insightful analysis.

It’s been a while since I’ve revisited Mansfield Park, but Susan seems to be a nice blend of Fanny and Mary Crawford. If she’d visited instead of Fanny, would Edmund have gone for her?

(Sorry, Jane. We’re all so relentlessly hard on Fanny, aren’t we? And Mary and Henry are just so much fun!)

Trudy Brasure
February 23, 2022 11:19 AM

How handy it is that a younger sibling can be inserted to suit the plot and give contrast to the main character.
It’s also refreshing to see another young girl taken out of suffocating circumstances and placed where she can contentedly be useful and appreciated.

cindie snyder
cindie snyder
February 23, 2022 10:35 AM

Susan seems an important chsracter! Being a younger sister myself I try to help my family too! I like Susan.

Regina Jeffers
Admin
February 23, 2022 10:29 AM

I always imagine Austen reaching the middle of the book and thinking, “How do I clean up this mess?” Susan was the answer.

Jean Stillman
Jean Stillman
February 23, 2022 10:24 AM

I really enjoyed your take on Susan’s role in “Mansfield Park.” I always felt that Fanny loved her sister so much that she wanted to take her away from the dreadful environment in which she was living.

Lona Manning
February 23, 2022 11:05 AM
Reply to  Jean Stillman

Thank you, Jean! Yes, we cheer for Fanny when she steps up to help broaden Susan’s horizons…

Riana Everly
AuAu
February 23, 2022 9:55 AM

Interesting thoughts.
I don’t know how often I’ve scrounged up some maid to play chaperone for a couple together in a carriage. A sister is even better. I found the contrast between Susan and Fanny interesting. I wonder if MP would have been more interesting if Susan played a larger role and helped Fanny assert herself more.

Lona Manning
February 23, 2022 11:04 AM
Reply to  Riana Everly

Hi Riana, when I started thinking about this, I wondered if Austen even reverse-engineered Susan into the novel when she realized she needed somebody to put in that carriage! It’s complicated for us Regency authors to get our unmarried ladies from point A to point B, isn’t it?

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