Although Molly Gibson’s and Fanny Price’s stories have many similarities, and their characters are much alike, there is at least one major difference between them. Unlike Fanny Price, Molly Gibson (the heroine of Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel Wives and Daughters) had a very happy, secure childhood, with a loving father — her mother died when she was very young— a protective nurse (Betty), and a kind governess, as well as neighbours, Miss Browning and Miss Phoebe, who “would fain have taken a quasi-motherly interest” in her (Wives and Daughters, Ch. 3).
Fanny, in contrast, has a lazy, fretful mother who has no affection for her, and a rough, loud father who “scarcely ever noticed her, but to make her the object of a coarse joke” (Mansfield Park, Ch. XXXIX). She was given up to her uncle and aunt Bertram when she was only ten, sent away from her “brothers and sisters among whom she had always been important as playfellow, instructress, and nurse”, including her elder brother William, “her constant companion and friend; her advocate with her mother (of whom he was the darling) in every distress” (Mansfield Park, Ch. II).
When she arrives at Mansfield, it requires a great deal of time “to reconcile Fanny to the novelty of Mansfield Park, and the separation from everybody she had been used to. Her feelings were very acute, and too little understood to be properly attended to. Nobody meant to be unkind, but nobody put themselves out of their way to secure her comfort.”
Fanny, whether near or from her cousins, whether in the schoolroom, the drawing-room, or the shrubbery, was equally forlorn, finding something to fear in every person and place. She was disheartened by Lady Bertram’s silence, awed by Sir Thomas’s grave looks, and quite overcome by Mrs. Norris’s admonitions. Her elder cousins mortified her by reflections on her size, and abashed her by noticing her shyness: Miss Lee [the governess] wondered at her ignorance, and the maid-servants sneered at her clothes; and when to these sorrows was added the idea of the brothers and sisters among whom she had always been important as playfellow, instructress, and nurse, the despondence that sunk her little heart was severe. (Mansfield Park by Jane Austen, Ch. II)
Her uncle and aunt provide for Fanny’s material needs and comforts, but do little else for her. Her cousins tease and neglect her, and her Aunt Norris persecutes her as much as possible, mortifying and suppressing her. Only her cousin Edmund tries to make her feel comfortable and at home, and gives her affection.
The “anti-heroines” of the novels, Mary Crawford (Mansfield Park) and Cynthia Kirkpatrick (Wives and Daughters) also have less secure childhoods than Molly Gibson. Like Fanny, Mary Crawford is raised by an uncle and aunt. There she and her brother “found a kind home” (Mansfield Park, Ch. IV). Unlike Fanny, Mary is not sent away from her family, but lives with her uncle because of the deaths of her parents. Not only does she have a doting aunt, however, Mary also has an affectionate brother and a fond half-sister to care for her.
Cynthia’s childhood is less protected. Her father dies when she is very young, and her mother goes out to work as a governess/teacher, leaving Cynthia to grow up in various schools, never taking her to the great houses she visits during the holidays. Unlike Mary, Cynthia has no doting aunt, and no fond brother, to lean on and love, she has always had to stand on her own. She didn’t even have someone like Fanny’s cousin Edmund and absent brother William, to care for her. It wasn’t until she was about eighteen that her mother re-married, giving her a step-father and step-sister to love and protect her.
Illustrations (from top to bottom): Screencap of young Molly Gibson and her father (played by Anna Maguire and Bill Paterson respectively) in the 1999 version of ‘Wives and Daughters’ from desert sky; Screencap of young Fanny Price (played by Katy Durham-Matthews) in the 1983 version of ‘Mansfield Park’ from sns_red_curtain; Screencap of Henry and Mary Crawford (played by Robert Burbage and Jackie Smith-Wood respectively) in the 1983 version of ‘Mansfield Park’ from sns_red_curtain; and Screencap of Cynthia Kirkpatrick (played by Keeley Hawes) in the 1999 version of ‘Wives and Daughters’ from desert sky.