When little Fanny Price arrives at Mansfield Park everything is so different that she can do little but be terrified and shy. We are told no one meant to be mean.
Nobody meant to be unkind, but nobody put themselves out of their way to secure her comfort.
Her aunts and uncle tried talking with her. Her cousins attempted to play with her. However, it’s not until a week into her stay that she feels a moment of reprieve from her distress. Edmund, at age sixteen, found Fanny crying and wishing she could write to her brother. He helped get her set up and started on a letter.
During their interaction, Edmund observed:
was convinced of her having an affectionate heart, and a strong desire of doing right; and he could perceive her to be farther entitled to attention by great sensibility of her situation, and great timidity. He had never knowingly given her pain, but he now felt that she required more positive kindness; and with that view endeavoured, in the first place, to lessen her fears of them all, and gave her especially a great deal of good advice as to playing with Maria and Julia, and being as merry as possible.
The effect was immediate. We are next told:
From this day Fanny grew more comfortable. She felt that she had a friend, and the kindness of her cousin Edmund gave her better spirits with everybody else. The place became less strange, and the people less formidable;
From there, Fanny began to adjust more to life at Mansfield and they all grew up. In those years, she did not see her family at Portsmouth again. No one ever seemed to consider her returning or visiting and no one there ever asked for her. She saw only one brother, the one she had wanted to write to, before he left for the sea.
Chapter Two closes telling us of Fanny’s continued friendship with Edmund:
Edmund’s friendship never failed her: his leaving Eton for Oxford made no change in his kind dispositions, and only afforded more frequent opportunities of proving them. Without any display of doing more than the rest, or any fear of doing too much, he was always true to her interests, and considerate of her feelings, trying to make her good qualities understood, and to conquer the diffidence which prevented their being more apparent; giving her advice, consolation, and encouragement.
Kept back as she was by everybody else, his single support could not bring her forward; but his attentions were otherwise of the highest importance in assisting the improvement of her mind, and extending its pleasures. He knew her to be clever, to have a quick apprehension as well as good sense, and a fondness for reading, which, properly directed, must be an education in itself. Miss Lee taught her French, and heard her read the daily portion of history; but he recommended the books which charmed her leisure hours, he encouraged her taste, and corrected her judgment: he made reading useful by talking to her of what she read, and heightened its attraction by judicious praise. In return for such services she loved him better than anybody in the world except William: her heart was divided between the two.
Fanny Price was given two families in life but in one found a true friend. Some think Fanny is the most down trodden Austen heroine, but compare this with Anne Elliot whose only friend, Lady Russell, was the means of separating her from her love. Emma’s best friend was her governess who marries at the beginning of the novel. She then has to find a new one and the question throughout the book is if the one she discovered was suitable. Catherine Morland’s first friend she makes outside of her family circle ends up being cunning and devious. Elinor and Marianne Dashwood have only each other. Elinor has the added injury of a false friendship with her rival, Lucy Steele. Elizabeth Bennet’s friendship with Charlotte Lucas is materially wounded when she marries Mr. Collins and moves fifty miles away.
Let us also consider how the friendships within families may alter after the sisters marry. Jane and Elizabeth Bennet are separated by marriage and distance. Elinor and Marianne manage to settle near one another. Emma loses the closeness of her friendship with Harriet due to the inequity of their marriages. Anne Elliot will at times have no female company at all as she will live aboard her husband’s ships. Nothing is said about where Eleanor Tilney’s husband lives. We can suppose Catherine and Eleanor do not get to meet often.
It seems, whether friendship comes from within family circles or without retaining one is rare indeed. It might have been harder on Fanny at the time, but given how Maria and Julia turn out, it was all for the best that Fanny found a closer friend in Edmund than she did in her female cousins.