Google+ Followers

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Life Imitates Art: Hillary Clinton as Fanny Price

I saw Michael Moore in Trumpland last night and thought about Jane Austen.

Moore's one-man filmed show was an appreciation of Hillary Clinton, and by extension, all women. Moore showed more charisma than I have seen before by speaking with passion and conviction, and he managed to get beyond his worst flaw (and no doubt what has made him a "safe" liberal icon), the tendency to mourn what has already passed ... This film, instead, looks with hope to the future. 

I found an Austenian quality in the way he empathized with the underdog. He imagined how it might feel to be Hillary Clinton, human being, and in doing, he, to my mind, evoked Clinton as Fanny Price. While Moore never mentions Austen or Fanny, he shows us a Clinton who, if she has not suffered the pains of tyranny (and perhaps she has, giving up her last name and chased back as First Lady to the tea parties), and neglect, has been ridiculed, scorned, and misunderstood, and he casts shame too on her mockers, doing it all, ala Austen, in a comic vein. 

Fanny Price is the poor relation, the person who enters the Great House (White House?) the wrong way, through a none-too-charitable charity. She is Sonya in War and Peace, another poor relation, but unlike Sonya in the later novel, Fanny comes to us with a full interiority: Austen, in fact, tells the story of Mansfield Park from this minor character's point of view. 

To the Bertrams, the wealthy heirs of Mansfield Park, and Aunt Norris, Fanny registers as little more than the secretive creepmouse of Mrs. Norris's fancy. One of Mrs. Norris's descriptions of Fanny has more than an echo of criticisms often flung at Clinton:

she certainly has ... a spirit of secrecy, and independence .... about her, which I would advise her to get the better of. 
Having suffered "the pains of tyranny, of ridicule and neglect" is it any wonder that Fanny--or Clinton--might become secretive and self-protective?

Moore's Clinton has suffered the humiliation of having her health care proposals rejected and scorned, even as they would have, in his estimation, saved a million lives during the past 20 years. While she has worked tirelessly for women, children and the downtrodden, she has been attacked as a murderer (she has, Moore says, 46 murders to her name, according to conspiracy websites: that's the kick-ass woman I want as Commander-in-Chief, Moore declares to laughter); in addition, she has had her accomplishments, second perhaps only to FDR's in the run-up to a presidency, belittled and scorned, and this most scrutinized and almost squeaky clean woman has been called "liar" and "crooked" by perhaps the biggest serial liar(s) ever to run for president. One cannot help but think of Fanny, always doing for others, yet labeled mercilessly by Mrs. Norris as selfish and thoughtless.

Moore, like Austen, shows us a human being behind a type, be it a powerful woman or a poor relation, who is often seen as not quite human. (Sonya's treatment in War and Peace, and this from the "good" Mrs. Rostov, underscores the grim life of the poor relation.)

In Moore's telling, Clinton has been waiting and remembering ... always remembering ... and biding her time, playing the long game. This too is Fanny Price. We see Fanny in her room without a fire (denied by Mrs. Norris, and bringing to mind, in one of her letters, Austen's delight at a fire in the library at Godmersham) amid the cheap cast offs and kitsch her cousins have carelessly given her: visceral memories of her treatment. She nevertheless builds a life for herself, as Clinton has.

Fanny triumphs because her suffering has built character. She has learned to be strong, to think of others, to understand that the world does not revolve around her, that she is not entitled to even a fire on a cold day. As the spoiled Bertrams and Crawfords implode around her, unable to comprehend that the world is not theirs for the having, Fanny listens, learns and makes herself useful: when the crisis comes she is indispensable because she has an ethical core. As the spoiled, entitled Donald Trump implodes, Clinton's strength becomes all the more apparent, and she too becomes our indispensable center. We have no one else to turn to: who knew?

Clinton, you may protest, has been much more privileged than Fanny Price, but I would argue their situations are more alike than not: both "lucked into" a move up the class ladder; both function/ed on the peripheries of power (Fanny ended up in the bosom of very wealthy family). Neither Fanny nor Clinton has been considered quite legitimate in their roles (how dare a First Lady presume to escape the rigid confines of garden parties? how dare a poor relation ... dare anything?), and each has experienced privilege far beyond the average person, but also deep and unfair scorn. Both have maintained an ethical outlook through it all.

Fanny wins the prize she wants: Edmund, and a "legitimate" place in the Bertram family through marriage to him, and probably--or so I suspect--becomes mistress of Mansfield Park (Tom, the presumptive heir, is over-determined to die childless one way or another). Clinton is close to her own prize: she doesn't have it yet, but it looks in this instance, like character and competence just might be rewarded.

(As an aside, one of the film's unintentional ironies is that Wilmington, where it's set, is home to a Quaker college, aptly named Wilmington. Much of the audience looked not like the stereotypical ex-factory worker Moore sought, but like college students and faculty.)


  1. Shared on FB. I do not know enough about Clinton to fully appreciate your arguments. But a number of my democrat US friends will. And I ike the way you compare Sonia and Fanny.

  2. I was not able to watch the movie (as you know) but have now been told by other people that it focuses on Hillary Clinton. Hoorah! Moore is aware of the importance of getting people to want Clinton not just be terrified of Trump. I love the comparison of Hillary Clinton to both Fanny Price and Sonya (I don't know her last name unless I look it up -- as she is hardly ever given a second name) from War and Peace, and especially the line from Mansfield Park; "she certainly has ... a spirit of secrecy, and independence .... about her, which I would advise her to get the better of."

    That captures the deep iron bed of resentment: how dare this woman be independent, how dare she keep her own counsel.

    I also like Fanny especially because she is so virtuous, and both she and Sonya utterly conventional, trying so hard, good girls, and until near the end of MP Fanny whacked in the face. Sonya is never given her due: providential and upbeat as W&P is on the surface, Tolstoy knows better than to think this servant-individual, hanger-on with no money, no status, will ever get an individual reward beyond sufferance: allowed not to starve or freeze to death as long as she accepts her limited life.

    There have been many attempts to get people to pay attention to Clinton's work and achievements in the area of social justice. But people simply will not pay attention. They don't care; they remember where she failed and needle her -- as Fanny is needled.

    Fanny has ever been an important Austen heroine for me. Margaret Ann Doody has argued her position, how she is treated, and her stances are in some ways the most subversive of all Austen's heroines. She after all rejects the rich man saying in effect her heart and integrity matter.

    Great Austen political blog.