Fanny Price and Jane Eyre: HSP’s
By Brenda S. Cox
“The tranquillity of such evenings, her perfect security in such a tête-à-tête from any sound of unkindness, was unspeakably welcome to a mind which had seldom known a pause in its alarms or embarrassments.”—Mansfield Park
Are you a “highly sensitive person” (HSP)? This doesn’t mean, exactly, that you are very understanding, a good listener, etc., though that might be true of you. It means that your nervous system responds to your environment strongly, more so than most people’s.
I first heard of HSPs when I read the book Reading People, which gives practical applications of various ways to classify personalities. It is a lesser-known, newer classification, but it really resonated with me.
The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overcomes You, by Elaine N. Aron, says that about 15-20% of people are HSPs. The trait is often inherited. You can go to her website, The Highly Sensitive Person, and take a brief test to see if you might be an HSP. (Personally, I got a 23 out of 27 on this test, which means I’m strongly an HSP.) Even if it doesn’t describe you, it might describe some of your family and friends.
There are advantages and disadvantages to being an HSP, like any other personality type. Aron’s goal is to help us understand and accept this part of ourselves and others. She says, “Having a sensitive nervous system is normal, a basically neutral trait.” However, she feels that HSPs are often treated as somehow defective. We often think we need to hide or overcome this trait. And yet it is valuable in many ways.
Fanny Price in Mansfield Park is a strong HSP. Some HSPs are extroverts, and very different from introverted Fanny. But let’s use Fanny to illustrate some of the characteristics of HSPs that Aron describes. (Characteristics are from her book and the website above.)
Unlike most personality type classifications, this one has strong scientific evidence. Researchers have been able to identify HSPs even as babies: they’re more fussy, more reactive to their environments. And they become shy children, who check out a situation carefully before moving into it. HSP children are often considered sensitive or fearful. Fanny Price, as a child, was “exceedingly timid and shy, and shrinking from notice.” She was “afraid of every body” and “ashamed of herself.”
Changes in life shake up HSPs, especially sudden changes they cannot control. Familiar places and people are comforting, though. Fanny goes through a huge upheaval when she first comes to Mansfield Park, and another when she goes back to Portsmouth. Cowper’s line rings in her mind, “With what intense desire she wants her home.” When she is threatened with moving to Mrs. Norris’s house, she says, “I love this house and every thing in it. I shall love nothing there.”
Sensitive to Sound
HSPs are easily overwhelmed by strong sensory input (loud noises, smells, activity, colors, bright lights, sirens, chaos, etc.). When Fanny returns to her family home in Portsmouth, the constant noise bothers her. It fatigues her and makes her head ache. “The living in incessant noise was to a frame and temper, delicate and nervous like Fanny’s, . . . the greatest misery of all.”
On the other hand, HSPs tend to be good at talking seriously, listening well, and allowing silence for deeper thoughts to develop. Fanny is a great listener, and her conversations with Edmund are serious and deep.
The HSP is aware of subtleties in her environment. Fanny notices the people around her, and comes “to know their ways, and to catch the best manner of conforming to them.” They also know to make an environment more comfortable for others; Fanny becomes indispensable to her Aunt Bertram, always knowing how to make her happy.
Deeply affected by others’ emotions
Angry words can easily bring Fanny to tears, but she can also feel deep joy. She is the only one who really notices and feels all the emotions swirling around the play “Lover’s Vows.” She sees Henry Crawford’s attentions to her engaged cousin Maria. She recognizes Julia’s feelings of rejection and Crawford’s shallowness. She notices Edmund and Mary’s growing attraction to each other. Her observations help her to understand the world around her, and give her the wisdom to reject Henry’s later proposal.
HSPs need to withdraw during busy or chaotic days into a private, quiet place. Fanny has the old schoolroom, which she has made into her quiet den where she can disappear when she is overwhelmed. Even as a child she often retreated to her little attic room.
Staying In Versus Going Out
Tiring, overstimulating situations are difficult for HSPs. We may know we need to stay home and have downtime, but we don’t want to miss out on anything. In fact, it’s difficult for HSPs to keep the right balance: not staying in too much, and not being out too much. Aron advises that the more we go out and do things (such as public speaking or travel), the less difficult and overwhelming those activities will become.
Fanny Price loves it when the rest of the family goes out and she stays home quietly with her Aunt Bertram: Fanny “talked to her [her aunt], listened to her, read to her; and the tranquillity of such evenings, her perfect security in such a tête-à-tête from any sound of unkindness, was unspeakably welcome to a mind which had seldom known a pause in its alarms or embarrassments.”
However, when there is an outing to the Rushworths’ estate at Sotherton, she does want to go. Mostly she hopes to see the avenue of trees, because of a poem she loves. She enjoys walking outside.
Appreciation of Beauty
HSPs are often deeply moved by the arts, music, and nature. They notice and enjoy fine scents, tastes, and sounds. Nature can soothe their jangling senses. Fanny rhapsodizes over the glories of the evergreen trees and the beauty of a starry night. She found that “all that was solemn and soothing, and lovely, appeared in the brilliancy of an unclouded night, and the contrast of the deep shade of the woods.” At Sotherton she says, “to sit in the shade on a fine day, and look upon verdure, is the most perfect refreshment.”
Fanny’s “own thoughts and reflections were habitually her best companions.” She is “delighted to connect any thing with history already known, or warm her imagination with scenes of the past.” Her private room is a good place for “walking about in, and thinking.” HSPs are able to process materials to deeper levels and often analyze their own thinking. It may, however, take them longer at first to understand new material. Fanny thinks deeply, often second-guessing herself, analyzing her own feelings and motives and those of others. HSPs tend to have a rich, complex inner life, as well as intuition and creativity.
HSPs are likely to see dangers and warn of possible difficulties. Those dangers may or may not happen, of course. Fanny Price sees the possible problems of putting on a play. She also recognizes the bad results that may come from Maria and Henry’s flirtation. No one listens to her, unfortunately. In contrast, Lady Bertram and Mrs. Norris, who should have been looking for those dangers, are totally oblivious. They are definitely not HSPs!
Even in small things, Fanny sees dangers. When Maria is climbing around a gate, Fanny tells her, “you will certainly hurt yourself against those spikes—you will tear your gown—you will be in danger of slipping into the Ha-Ha. You had better not go.” But Maria gets through unscathed.
HSPs tend to blame themselves for difficulties. Fanny is humble. Very aware of right and wrong, she easily thinks herself in the wrong.
The HSP tries hard to avoid making mistakes or forgetting things. HSPs are good at spotting errors and at tasks requiring vigilance, accuracy, speed, and the detection of minor differences. Fanny is the one who learns every line of the play and is able to coach the others when they forget. But she would not dream of standing up in front of them to be watched.
Potential Depression and Anxiety
Some HSPs struggle with depression and anxiety; Aron says these usually had troubled childhoods. Fanny Price’s childhood was difficult, as she was often ignored or neglected. However, Edmund’s loving care helps her avoid depression, though she still is often anxious.
Fanny tends to stay in the background. However, in the end her adopted family, especially Edmund and his father, come to appreciate her deeply for the very special person she is.
Jane Eyre, another HSP
Jane Eyre, of course, was written thirty years after Jane Austen’s death, by Charlotte Bronte. However, I happened to be reading it at the same time as I was reading The Highly Sensitive Person. And in Jane Eyre I saw another extreme HSP, Jane Eyre herself. Jane is a sensitive child, misunderstood and abused by the family who are bringing her up. Aron says such mistreatment strongly affects HSPs, of course.
HSPs may feel themselves to be very different from others: Jane feels herself “a discord” in the home where she grows up, a “heterogeneous thing.” No one else can sympathize with her or understand her. Even the servant who loves her calls her “such a queer, frightened, shy little thing.” As a baby she would whimper and moan all night.
Her aunt wants her “to acquire a more sociable and childlike disposition, a more attractive and sprightly manner—something lighter, franker, more natural, as it were.” Obviously she considers Jane’s sensitivity and desire to be alone as something wrong and unnatural. As a child Jane says her “habitual mood” was “humiliation, self-doubt, forlorn depression.” This no doubt was related to her miserable childhood, as an unwanted orphan, as much as to her being an HSP.
Jane Eyre shows she is an HSP in other ways, too. She likes to be alone with books, and has a rich inner life. Her powerful imagination makes her suffer when she is locked in a frightening room. Jane tries very hard to please the people around her, sensing their emotions. She observes her surroundings in great detail, including sights, sounds, and smells. She is refreshed by nature and beauty. Eventually she finds friends who appreciate her for who she is.
Since I read The Highly Sensitive Person, I am constantly recognizing HSP traits in myself as well as in characters I read about. What other literary characters do you think are HSPs?
Like any personality type, the HSP has many strengths as well as weaknesses. If you are an HSP, how might you use your strengths to bless other people? How do you need to be sensitive to your weaknesses and not get overwhelmed? If you are not an HSP, do you have friends who may be? How can you encourage them?
Personality Types in Jane Austen:
The Enneagram (coming next week)
- The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overcomes You, by Elaine N. Aron
- Reading People: How Seeing the World Through the Lens of Personality Changes Everything, by Anne Bogel. I love this book. The author explores many kinds of personality typing, and tells us how she’s used them and how they’ve helped her in her own life. Very practical. Her chapters include: Introverts/Extraverts; HSPs; love languages; Keirsey’s temperaments; Myers-Briggs; Strengthsfinder; and the Enneagram (which we’ll talk about next time).