Unlike some of Austen’s other heroines, it might be argued that Fanny Price of Mansfield Park seems to the least driven by her self-education and desire for learning. Her values, once fixed by the opinions of her cousin, Edmund, do not change throughout the novel. Edmund gives her books to fuel her mind and intellect and her Uncle also takes great care in providing an education that is distinguishable from the one his children receive for it is important for Fanny to understand that her social status is below theirs. However, Sir Thomas realizes that though he has put a significant amount of energy into his daughter’s upbringing and education, he has still failed them for one elopes and another leaves her marriage to pursue an affair. Clearly, Fanny’s education, though limited and confined, proves to be more effective in refining her sense of conduct, propriety, and moral duty. The two individuals that signify moral highness are Edmund and his father, who Fanny mortifies in disappointing as she feel indebted to the former and as she is in love with the later. Thus, is it Fanny’s education that allows her to make the right choices in the novel or is it the product of continual monitoring by Edmund and Sir Thomas. I would like to suggest that it is a combination of the two. While Fanny fears disappointing her uncle and Edmund, she also maintains firm principles, and by the end of the novel, she is rewarded for her constancy and prudent steadiness.
Unlike Fanny, her female cousins Maria and Julia do not receive an education from individuals who are principled. As their mother is the most inert and passive creature in the novel, she neither has the desire nor will to guide them, and so Mrs. Norris is left with the job, which she happily performs. Mrs. Norris, as Austen states, fails them because she is not the disciplinarian Sir Thomas and Edmund are to Fanny. Moreover Sir Thomas treatment of his daughters is too severe – it has the effect distancing them and of making them want to escape his tyrannical grip. Edmund serves as a better model for a teacher as he instructs through dialogue and understanding rather than through fear but is little involved in his sister’s affairs. Austen narrates Sir Thomas’s reflections:
Too late he became aware of how unfavorable to the character of any young people, must be the totally opposite treatment which Maria and Julia had been always experiencing at home, where excessive indulgence and flattery of their aunt had been continually contrasted with his own severity. He saw how ill he had judged, in expecting to counteract what was wrong in Mrs. Norris, by its reverse in himself, clearly saw that he had but increased the evil, by teaching them to repress their spirits in his presence, as to make their real disposition unknown to him, and sending them for all their indulgences to a person who had been able to attach them only by the blindness of her affection, and the excess of her praise. (399)
It is not only Sir Thomas’s fault but also Mrs. Norris’s as he puts much of the blame on her. To Mrs. Norris, Maria and Julia are her social superiors and in flattering them, she is not only gratifying her affection for them but also her affection for wealth and status.
Miss Crawford’s education has failed her as well and it becomes one of the main reasons why she cannot marry Edmund. Like Maria and Julia, Miss Crawford is raised by her aunt. Austen defines her moral deficiency in terms of a lack of respect for the clergy and her inability to speak with propriety. Unlike Julia and Maria, Miss Crawford is influenced by London’s social circles, which prevents her from cultivating a higher sense of morality. She says many things to Edmund to disappoint him but what draws the line for him is the way she receives Maria’s fatal decision to run away with her brother. She spoke of it as mere “folly,” an imprudent act that has been detected. Edmund believes to display “no horror” at the act proves to be unfeminine and immodest. He tells Fanny,
I do not consider her as meaning to wound my feelings. The evil lies yet deeper; in her total ignorance, unsuspiciousness of there being such feelings, in a perversion of mind which made it natural to her to treat the subject as she did…Hers are faults of principle, Fanny, of blunted delicacy and a corrupted, vitiated mind. (394)
For women like Maria, Julia, and Miss Crawford, many are to blame for their misconduct but themselves. Sir Thomas and Mrs. Norris seem to fail Maria and Julia while Miss Crawford is found faultless because she does not know any better. Neither women have guiding mothers and neither are guided by individuals as influential as Edmund is to Fanny.
Education, particularly in the form of one received by a role model, is of prime importance for women in Austen’s novel. The story focuses on orphans, both literal and figurative, and the moral condition of parentless children. In this respect, many of the women are orphans whose expensive educations and wealthy backgrounds cannot become substitutes for proper parental guidance. Fanny, the more economically unfortunate woman, however, receives the most benefit from her education as it is properly guided by Edmund, a man of high principles but as it is also checked and tried in a difficult environment that is the Mansfield household. To learn from hardship – to be be poor, dependent, but well-educated proves to be far better than to be wealthy, idle, and morally ignorant.