Fanny Price and Job

“But I cannot be satisfied without Fanny Price, without making a small hole in Fanny Price’s heart. You do not seem properly aware of her claims to notice. When we talked of her last night, you none of you seemed sensible of the wonderful improvement that has taken place in her looks within the last six weeks. You see her every day, and therefore do not notice it; but I assure you she is quite a different creature from what she was in the autumn. She was then merely a quiet, modest, not plain-looking girl, but she is now absolutely pretty. I used to think she had neither complexion nor countenance; but in that soft skin of hers, so frequently tinged with a blush as it was yesterday, there is decided beauty; and from what I observed of her eyes and mouth, I do not despair of their being capable of expression enough when she has anything to express. And then, her air, her manner, her tout ensemble, is so indescribably improved! She must be grown two inches, at least, since October.”

“Phoo! phoo! This is only because there were no tall women to compare her with, and because she has got a new gown, and you never saw her so well dressed before. She is just what she was in October, believe me. The truth is, that she was the only girl in company for you to notice, and you must have a somebody. I have always thought her pretty—not strikingly pretty—but ‘pretty enough,’ as people say; a sort of beauty that grows on one. Her eyes should be darker, but she has a sweet smile; but as for this wonderful degree of improvement, I am sure it may all be resolved into a better style of dress, and your having nobody else to look at; and therefore, if you do set about a flirtation with her, you never will persuade me that it is in compliment to her beauty, or that it proceeds from anything but your own idleness and folly.”

Her brother gave only a smile to this accusation, and soon afterwards said, “I do not quite know what to make of Miss Fanny. I do not understand her. I could not tell what she would be at yesterday. What is her character? Is she solemn? Is she queer? Is she prudish? Why did she draw back and look so grave at me? I could hardly get her to speak. I never was so long in company with a girl in my life, trying to entertain her, and succeed so ill! Never met with a girl who looked so grave on me! I must try to get the better of this. Her looks say, ‘I will not like you, I am determined not to like you’; and I say she shall.”

“Foolish fellow! And so this is her attraction after all! This it is, her not caring about you, which gives her such a soft skin, and makes her so much taller, and produces all these charms and graces! I do desire that you will not be making her really unhappy; a little love, perhaps, may animate and do her good, but I will not have you plunge her deep, for she is as good a little creature as ever lived, and has a great deal of feeling.”

“It can be but for a fortnight,” said Henry; “and if a fortnight can kill her, she must have a constitution which nothing could save. No, I will not do her any harm, dear little soul! only want her to look kindly on me, to give me smiles as well as blushes, to keep a chair for me by herself wherever we are, and be all animation when I take it and talk to her; to think as I think, be interested in all my possessions and pleasures, try to keep me longer at Mansfield, and feel when I go away that she shall be never happy again. I want nothing more.”

“Moderation itself!” said Mary. “I can have no scruples now. Well, you will have opportunities enough of endeavouring to recommend yourself, for we are a great deal together.”

And without attempting any farther remonstrance, she left Fanny to her fate, a fate which, had not Fanny’s heart been guarded in a way unsuspected by Miss Crawford, might have been a little harder than she deserved; for although there doubtless are such unconquerable young ladies of eighteen (or one should not read about them) as are never to be persuaded into love against their judgment by all that talent, manner, attention, and flattery can do, I have no inclination to believe Fanny one of them, or to think that with so much tenderness of disposition, and so much taste as belonged to her, she could have escaped heart-whole from the courtship (though the courtship only of a fortnight) of such a man as Crawford, in spite of there being some previous ill opinion of him to be overcome, had not her affection been engaged elsewhere. With all the security which love of another and disesteem of him could give to the peace of mind he was attacking, his continued attentions—continued, but not obtrusive, and adapting themselves more and more to the gentleness and delicacy of her character—obliged her very soon to dislike him less than formerly.

For those who haven’t read Jane Austen, the above passage is from “Mansfield Park”: Henry Crawford is announcing to his sister Mary that he has designs on Fanny Price, the heroine of the novel. Fanny is a bit controversial among Jane Austen’s heroines, probably because of her reticence and silence. She lives by good principles but rarely speaks her mind or openly give vent to her feelings. Yet to an uncommon degree she’s a pure-hearted person, as Mary Crawford recognizes.

So when Henry announces that he can break through this purity; and Mary chides him not to hurt Fanny too much because she is uncommonly good, but then leaves Fanny to her fate; it’s hard not to think of God and Satan knocking back and forth about poor Job.

6: Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan came also among them.

7: And the LORD said unto Satan, Whence comest thou? Then Satan answered the LORD, and said, From going to and fro in the earth, and from walking up and down in it.

8: And the LORD said unto Satan, Hast thou considered my servant Job, that there is none like him in the earth, a perfect and an upright man, one that feareth God, and escheweth evil?

9: Then Satan answered the LORD, and said, Doth Job fear God for nought?

10: Hast not thou made an hedge about him, and about his house, and about all that he hath on every side? thou hast blessed the work of his hands, and his substance is increased in the land.

11: But put forth thine hand now, and touch all that he hath, and he will curse thee to thy face.

12: And the LORD said unto Satan, Behold, all that he hath is in thy power; only upon himself put not forth thine hand. So Satan went forth from the presence of the LORD.

Book of Job, ch. 1 (KJV)

It’s an indelible scene: God says that his servant Job is pure of heart and the best of men; Satan denies that this is real purity and proposes to break Job; God acquiesces to the plan.

The context is cosmic rather than intimate ; the environment is supernatural; the stakes as large as myth will allow. A comparison with a quiet novel like “Mansfield Park” feels like too much, and in fact when I made this comparison in an older post, I laughed about how I had gone too far with my inter-textual comparisons this time.

But as I said then, if this comparison has validity — if the texts have a common joint — it’s the goodness of both Fanny and Job. Henry Crawford is a rake and a man, not the Satan of the Book of Job, whose purpose is to test humanity; and no one will think to compare Mary Crawford with any idea of God. But Fanny and Job bear a stronger resemblance, not because her story approximates his suffering, but because they’re both thought to be uncommonly good, but not by everyone, and not without controversy. Fanny has her critics both within her novel and among its readers, as I noted; and Job’s friends, of course, come to believe that he cannot be as good as he appears, or else God would not be punishing him, as they think.

The stereotype of Job is that he was an unfailingly patient saint, and that if anyone criticized him it was only due to the extraordinary circumstances of his suffering. But if I imagine Job without the suffering, merely as a good person living in modern times, I’m sure that many people would snicker at him for being a Goody Two Shoes. Some might say, “that goodness is not real; he’s human like the rest of us.” The author of the Book of Job, whoever he was, surely had observed how a certain level of goodness — not perfection, which doesn’t exist in humans, but genuine striving to be good — can very easily be seen as test-able, challenge-able, break-able. This kind of challenge would be issued to a Job, or to a Fanny, in any age.

But the stereotype of Job is not true. He is patient, but not in the face of everything; he is not quiet, and throughout most of his book he is heard heatedly protesting to his friends that he has not been wicked as they believe, has not deserved what befell him; and when he’s not debating his friends, he’s indicting God for allowing these things to happen to him.

That’s where the comparison with Fanny breaks down completely. Fanny is reticent and silent to a fault; Job, until almost the very end of his book, never stops arguing, protesting, bereaving, praying. He is under extraordinary suffering, and he expresses every movement in his brain and heart to plea his case, to self-comfort, and to seek God’s comfort, finally demanding that the Deity appear before him.

But maybe Job and Fanny are not so different here. I know, on the silence issue, they appear like complete opposites. But if Fanny suffered all that Job did, she might not stay silent — especially if she was, like Job, a well-respected and prosperous patriarch whose words would command attention.

Conversely, if Job was transported from the Bible into novels, into the 19th century, and was born a penniless woman with no wealth or power, I’m not so sure s/he would have been so free with his speech. His words in the Book of Job are thrilling because they’re so honest and human, on the one hand, but they’re also troubling, because he’s openly indicting God for things that the Deity has either made to happen or allowed to happen; it’s the sort of raging unpiety that would get people killed for blasphemy in almost any historical time period.

I highly recommend the new translation of Job that I’m reading now, by Edward L. Greenstein. He began studying the Book of Job decades ago at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York (where I took a course on Job myself in 1992-93). After years of studying the Hebrew original closely, he’s produced a translation that really clarifies and emphasizes Job’s defiant anger.

And “Mansfield Park” — I read it about a year ago and it is sticking with me. It’s not as popular as “Pride and Prejudice” but it might be my favorite of Jane Austen’s novels. All of her works are undergirded by a quiet faith and moral sensibility, but perhaps “Mansfield Park” more than any other.

2 thoughts on “Fanny Price and Job

  1. Whoever coined the expression, “the patience of Job,” had not read the book closely.

    The layers of authorship of the Book of Job are evident to an observant reader. I noticed that whoever wrote God’s famous, oft-quoted speech (“Where were you when…?) did not write God’s other response, the one from the prose epilogue. I prefer God’s message to one of the so-called friends in the epilogue: Job, unlike you, spoke truthfully about me.

    It is a story, of course. It is a timeless story.

    1. Indeed there seems to have been a few authors, not to mention scribes, who have shaped the text.

      And yes I tend to think that God’s last answer gets to the central theme, honest speech about God. Job was honest. Job has not described a God who, as the friends would have, always punishes the wicked and protects the innocent, an anthropocentric view of reality, and of God, that God is saying is not true. It is moreover a cruel view that ends up blaming the victim, and God rejects this: God does not regard Job as wicked.

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