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  • Form and Generic Interrelation in the Romantic Period: Walter Scott’s Poetic Influence on Jane Austen
  • Nick Bujak (bio)

The Poetic Pre-History of Narrative Impersonality

Fanny Price, the ostensible protagonist of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park (1814), is unique in the tradition of Austenian main characters, in that she begins the novel in a psychological posture that seems designed to avoid both being “main,” and being a “character.” When she first arrives at Mansfield Park as a very young girl, for example, the narrator describes her as such: “Afraid of everybody, ashamed of herself, and longing for the home she had left, she knew not how to look up, and could scarcely speak to be heard, or without crying” (11). After a week of crying herself to sleep every night, and trying at all costs not to attract any form of attention, she is finally joined by her kind-hearted cousin Edmund, who attempts to console her. But when he tries to persuade her to “speak openly” about her unhappiness, “for a long while no answer could be obtained beyond a ‘no, no—not at all—no, thank you’” (12). When she does eventually speak to him, however, the way that her speech is represented suggests that the narrator is sympathetic with Fanny’s desire to avoid direct observation, and intentionally does what she can to protect her from it: [End Page 45]

It was [her brother] William whom she talked of most and wanted most to see. . . . “William did not like she should come away—he had told her he should miss her very much indeed.” “But William will write to you, I dare say.” “Yes, he had promised he would, but he had told her to write first.” “And when shall you do it?” She hung her head and answered, hesitatingly, “she did not know; she had not any paper.”

(13; my emphasis)

I’ve added emphasis to mark the difference between the representation of Fanny’s speech and Edmund’s speech, but the distinction should be fairly obvious even without it—Edmund’s speech is directly reported, whereas Fanny’s speech is folded into the protective third-person distance of the narrator’s position. Thus, as Gérard Genette writes of free indirect style, there is in this scene a “confusion between the speech . . . of the character and that of the narrator” (172). But, the stylistic confusion between character and narrator does not envelop the whole scene—rather, Austen’s narrator intrudes to create a calculated diversion of direct attention to just one character.

Fanny’s speech does, in this same conversation, eventually rise to the level of direct reportage. But her brief, fragmentary sentences—“Yes, very”; “But cousin—will it go to the post?”; “My uncle!”—and the narrator’s claim that “from this day Fanny grew more comfortable,” prove to be mistaken indicators of Fanny’s psychological accessibility as a protagonist (13). For example, when Fanny has an opportunity to see William for the first time in many years—a time when surely the content of her consciousness would be especially interesting—her thoughts, feelings, actions, and words evade, or are protected from, detailed narrative representation: “Their eager affection in meeting, their exquisite delight in being together, their hours of happy mirth, and moments of serious conference, may be imagined . . .” (17; my emphasis). Her experience is marked as a particularly rich one, but the content of it is cordoned off from narrative representation. Instead, the narrator permits the reader only to “imagine” how she felt.1

As Frances Ferguson has argued, the significance of Austen’s deployment of free indirect style is that she uses it to analyze individual consciousness as the product both of its susceptibility to, and resistance of, the standards of the community. Thus, in Austen’s fiction, “individuals can be described as having temporal extension and a traceable history only from the standpoint of the constant comparison of their current situations to a projected communal stance, but individuals would cease to be individuals (would become indistinguishable from one another) if they ever actually coincided with the communal stance” (165). Ferguson’s primary goal is to work against the Foucauldian critical...


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pp. 45-67
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