Over the previous few decades, developing self esteem has been a guiding principle in child rearing. Only now are we realising that the downside to this ostensibly admirable philosophy is that we are not equipping our children with the tools to cope with adversity. This is where the term resilience, the need to accept life’s difficulties and then to adapt and change, has come into our lexicon. Fortunately many psychologists are now giving us insights into these old philosophies but it is illuminating that Jane Austen knew the value of resilience and her heroines and heroes actively practise its principles. Ironically, it is often the trouble, the difficulty or the problem that can lead to something new.
The epitome of ordinary is Nauseatingly-Nice-Fanny Price, in Mansfield Park. Recall she is a young “nobody”, taken in by her rich relatives. She exists somewhere between unpaid servant and poor relative. She struggles to maintain her spirits; her comfort is ignored by all but her cousin Edmund and, once he is captivated by the charming Mercenary-MaryCrawford, he too neglects her. Yet Fanny does not give into her feelings; instead she was “struggling against discontent, and envy”. In our modern world we are accustomed to justifying our feelings whilst in Austen’s world it is seen as necessary to master such feelings; not to deny them but to recognise and deal with them. (And hopefully our friends and family will not mouth platitudes but recognise that the going may be tough.) Such struggles are not easy nor are they always won.
Nauseatingly-Nice-Fanny is the least likely hero; one that we don’t all rush to be compared to; an everygirl struggling under the weight of others’ pettiness. Through persistence and integrity, Fanny finally breaks free in her own way and finds happiness. She stands up for herself and will not succumb to the pressure from her particularly patriarchal uncle. Her happiness is not found before having to suffer many nights struggling with feelings that may be common but are nevertheless difficult to control. Her triumph over adversity shows us the importance of resilience and working hard to overcome the everyday difficulties that we are all faced with. Fanny is at times our least likeable heroine; but maybe Austen’s insight is that we don’t all need to conform to the Hollywood-heroine-stereotypes. And that by creating a character we have at times trouble liking, Austen has been again remarkably modern. Again.