Contrasting Upbringings: Fanny Price & Molly Gibson

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.

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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.

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6 comments on “Contrasting Upbringings: Fanny Price & Molly Gibson

  1. […] Contrasting Upbringings: Fanny Price & Molly Gibson (austensmansfield.wordpress.com) […]

  2. drush76 says:

    Do you know what [really irritates me] about these complaints regarding Mary Crawford? One, many critics of the characters tend to be just as priggish as Fanny Price when it comes to Mary. And two, they also tend to be blind to both Fanny and Edmund’s faults as much as these two characters are blind to each other’s faults and their own.

    In my eyes, Mary is no better or worse than Fanny or Edmund. Just different.

  3. drush76 says:

    I was speaking in general.

  4. I don’t agree that Mrs. Price has no affection for Fanny. I believe that she has affection for all of her children, even if she is inclined to regard Betsey as her favorite.

    The problem, I believe, was Fanny’s ego. She seemed to believe that Mrs. Price should have paid a lot more attention to her during her visit to Portsmouth, considering Fanny had not been at home for nearly a decade.

    • Miss Sneyd says:

      Jane Austen as the narrator states that Mrs. Price has little affection for Fanny. Mrs. Price has an attachment to all of her children, but it is no more than the “instinct of nature”:

      Mrs. Price was not unkind; but, instead of gaining on her affection and confidence, and becoming more and more dear, her daughter never met with greater kindness from her than on the first day of her arrival. The instinct of nature was soon satisfied, and Mrs. Price’s attachment had no other source. Her heart and her time were already quite full; she had neither leisure nor affection to bestow on Fanny. Her daughters never had been much to her. She was fond of her sons, especially of William, but Betsey was the first of her girls whom she had ever much regarded. To her she was most injudiciously indulgent. William was her pride; Betsey her darling; and John, Richard, Sam, Tom, and Charles occupied all the rest of her maternal solicitude, alternately her worries and her comforts. These shared her heart… (Ch. XXXIX, emphasis added)

      I don’t think that it is too much to expect a mother who hasn’t seen her child for eight years (not since she was ten years old) to spend a little extra time with her when she is able to visit. Her parents gave her up of their own accord. While they may have thought it was best for her, that doesn’t change the fact that they hadn’t seen her for eight years and would only have her with them for a couple of months. They could have made an effort. However, very little attention is paid to her at all. On one occasion, Fanny accidentally refers to Mansfield as her home (she tried not to out of delicacy to her parents). “She reproached herself, coloured, and looked fearfully towards her father and mother. She need not have been uneasy. There was no sign of displeasure, or even of hearing her. They were perfectly free from any jealousy of Mansfield. She was as welcome to wish herself there as to be there.” (Ch. XLV).

      When it comes time for Fanny to leave, her parents joyfully consent to Susan (another of Mrs. Price’s disregarded daughters) going with her, and Fanny cannot help but notice “the general satisfaction with which the going of both seemed regarded” (Ch. XLVI).

      I don’t think that Fanny’s ego was the problem. She didn’t remember much fondness from her mother, but “she could easily suppose to have been her own fault or her own fancy. She had probably alienated 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.” (Ch. XXXVII). When she first arrived in Portsmouth and received very little greeting, she checked herself, thinking she is unreasonable to expect more. “What right had she to be of importance to her family? She could have none, so long lost sight of! William’s concerns must be dearest …. The destination of the Thrush must be now preeminently interesting. A day or two might shew the difference. She only was to blame.” (Ch. XXXVIII). Fanny is reluctantly forced to conclude that her mother does not care for her. “She might scruple to make use of the words, but she must and did feel that her mother … [had] no affection towards herself; no curiosity to know her better, no desire of her friendship, and no inclination for her company that could lessen her sense of such feelings.” (Ch. XXXIX).

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