Because I Say So: My Literary Criticism Homepage

and the 1999 film adaptation as a wilful failure to either imagine or sympathise

by Fiona Clements

Everyone agrees that Mansfield Park is Jane Austen’s dullest book, and that the heroine Fanny Price is insufferably priggish. When I first read the book twenty-five years ago, approaching it with expectations formed by the obvious delights of Pride and Prejudice and Emma, I thought, “Good grief! What was she thinking?” In the next twenty years I re-read Pride and Prejudice, Emma and Sense and Sensibility about once a year, but felt no urge to pick up Mansfield Park again.

Five years ago, however, I was discussing Jane Austen’s work with a friend, and she pointed out that Fanny actually shows considerable courage in the way that she refuses to take part in the play that the other young people of the household have been discussing with passion for days. So she is a prig, but she’s a brave prig. This got me interested, and I re-read the book on the lookout for Fanny being brave, and not looking at all for her being witty or feisty or charming or entertainingly over-confident. I did see her being brave, and I also saw her fighting to live her life according to deeply-held beliefs about the importance of self-control, respect and decorum; and with this perspective Mansfield Park became a riveting read, and may now be my favourite Austen novel. No, it isn’t gratifying and entertaining, but it is skillful and relentless in teaching a valuable and difficult lesson.

The lesson is: that someone can be a prig, can be very tedious company, and can still have admirable qualities that make that person entirely worthy of attention. In other words, in judging something or in choosing a course of action, you should be able to give the question “Does this tend to make the world a better place?” at least as much weight as the question “Does this give me pleasure?” Fanny herself judges almost everything by the first question whereas most of the other characters in the book consider only the second, and the novel is constructed to demonstrate why we need more people like Fanny, and fewer like the Crawfords and the Bertram sisters.

Many of Austen’s novels have a similar theme, usually dealing with the fact that a person’s social skills can not be taken as an indicator of the person’s moral worth. In Pride and Prejudice we have the charming and immoral Wickham versus the awkward and worthy Darcy; and Emma, Persuasion and Sense and Sensibility all contain men who have charm and few scruples. But in these novels Austen is kind enough to us to present us with at least one character (usually the heroine) who is both excellent company and honourable. In Mansfield Park there are no such characters, and we must deal head-on with the unfortunate fact that what we enjoy and what we need do not always come in the same package.

The opposition between pleasure and worth is expressed in the strict divisions between the characters, all on the side of pleasure except for the tedious, humourless Fanny and Edmund (the nightmare couple of any dinner party) and the gruff, unapproachable Sir Thomas. But it’s also expressed throughout the plot, as the charming characters risk emotional and social disorder in the pursuit of pleasure, while Fanny and Edmund stand shaking their heads and warning about decorum. I don’t think either Fanny or Edmund quite has the imagination to understand what might happen if decorum were breached; they think “people like us don’t behave like this” rather than “this situation is already unstable, and the sensible, adult approach would be to avoid introducing any disturbance”; but as the instabilities increase Fanny observes them all, and we come to suspect that the rules of decorum evolved from experience of exactly this kind of mess, and in order to protect people who have neither the imagination nor the self-control to protect themselves. [Puritanical? Me? What makes you say that?]

The most obvious example is the play in which Fanny refuses to take part. She refuses mainly because she is shy and she’s terrified of the idea of acting, but she also thinks that Sir Thomas Bertram (the head of the household, away on business) would be appalled at the idea of his young daughters making a spectacle of themselves by acting out scenes of strong emotion, especially when one of them (Maria) is engaged to be married and should be particularly concerned about behaving with decorum in front of her financé. By this stage in the novel it is clear that both Maria and her sister Julia are attracted to Henry Crawford, and that Henry has no scruples about flirting with both of them, and enjoys playing them off against one another. The last thing these people should be doing (given that Maria is engaged) is putting on a racy play and casting Henry and Maria to play against one another, while Maria’s financé and Julia are also in the play.

A year or so after I’d come to recognise Fanny’s virtues and enjoy Mansfield Park on those terms, I read Claire Tomalin’s biography of Jane Austen, and learned that the Austen family regularly performed plays for their own entertainment. Of course, the context makes all the difference, but this did make me wonder about Austen’s choice of the play as such a focus of disruption, and also for Fanny’s first demonstration of courage in her refusal and for her increasingly acute observations. It made me wonder if Austen deliberately created Fanny as someone who was not like herself, as someone she could not identify with socially. I think it’s important that there should be no self-interest at all involved in appreciating Fanny’s virtues: you admire them entirely on their own hard terms, not because you like Fanny or she’s made you laugh or she’s how you’d like to see yourself. And I suspect that Austen created her as the anti-Jane, so that she wouldn’t be tempted into trying to make Fanny likeable for the sake of her own ego. She admires Fanny, she sympathises with her, but she can’t make herself (or us) care whether Fanny marries Edmund or not; the sight of Fanny saying “no” is interesting and instructive, but no one needs to see her saying “yes”. The biography also reminded me that Mansfield Park was written between Pride and Prejudice and Emma - so Fanny is not dull because Austen had “lost her touch”. Fanny is dull because Austen had chosen to make a dull person the focus for the novel.

So… A novel about the importance of distrusting what gives us pleasure and gratifies our ego, about being willing to acknowledge the worth in other people, even when they are not entertaining and are not like ourselves. And what type of film did they make under the name of Mansfield Park in 1999?

They made a film that missed the point in every way. They could not see any worth in Fanny or accept her on her own terms, they could not take the time to ask themselves what Jane Austen might have been doing when she created Fanny like that. They thought Austen had made a terrible mistake in writing such a dull novel with such a dull heroine. But they still wanted to cash in on the Austen-mania by calling their film Mansfield Park, and so they started the process of junking the novel by making Fanny into the-type-of-Jane-Austen-they-liked (i.e. when the heroines sparkled and didn’t get all stuffy about plays). I’m not kidding: they had Fanny as a budding writer, observing the household with detached irreverence, writing Austen’s callous, racy juvenalia (which delights in disorder), and reading the pieces with glee to Edmund. The Fanny and Edmund in the novel would have been horrified by the lack of respect and standards shown in this behaviour; they disapprove of people, but they take people’s faults far too seriously to be able to laugh at them.

With this “entertaining” version of Fanny, the story as written by Austen makes no sense and the film is a ghastly, random mess, with some scenes taken fairly-faithfully from the book, some changed radically from the book, and others added from nowhere. The scenes from the book seem pointless in the film, do nothing to involve us as they do in the book - and this is inevitable because the film-makers do not understand what is really happening in these scenes: that the lively and charming characters are recklessly risking disorder, and that Fanny is observing and disapproving for very good reasons. Their Fanny has none of the necessary scruples, and they don’t see that there’s anything so very wrong anyway with the behaviour of the charming characters.

But they still want Mansfield Park to be about the overlooked girl who is better than her rich, spoiled relatives and who is vindicated in the end (because this is always satisfying and gives us entertainment and worth in one easy package so we don’t have to think or choose); and they don’t like the subtle, dull ways in which Austen made her Fanny better, so they decide to make the Bertrams worse than Fanny, and they do this in several very unsubtle ways, all of which involve brutal departures from the account in the book.

Their main way of making the Bertrams into irredeemable villains is to put enormous emphasis on their involvement in slavery. The Bertrams do have plantations in the West Indies (it’s in the book, and Sir Thomas plays a long visit to his Antigua plantations in the course of the book), and these plantations would certainly have been worked by slaves. Slavery is mentioned in the book, not in direct connection with their Angituan holdings, but as a live issue that Fanny and Sir Thomas would both be interested in discussing (they don’t, because other members of the group are openly bored by the topic, so Fanny lets it drop). In other words, the issue is dealt with in a realistic manner for those people, at that time: as something unsettling, far-from-closed; but out of sight, and far-enough away that they don’t have to deal directly with the knowledge of the cost that other people are paying for their wealth and comfort. No, they’re not heroic, anti-slavery crusaders, giving up their wealth because of a life-changing conviction that launches them decades outside their time. But they’re not villains either - they are not the ones holding the whips. They’re ordinary people, selfish enough and lazy enough to maintain their ignorance while they still can. [How much do you want to know about the conditions in which your clothes were made? How much more would you be prepared to pay for clothes that were made in conditions in which you’d be happy to work?] Mansfield Park doesn’t offer us pure-villainy in one package, any more that it offers us the perfect, all-purpose heroine.

But that was Mansfield Park the novel, and the film was made by people with a much firmer grasp than Jane Austen on what makes a worthwhile story so they give the Bertrams the villain treatment, changing whatever-the-hell they feel like. They changed so much, I’m going to limit myself to three examples:

The Manner of Fanny’s Arrival at Mansfield Park

In the film, when Fanny arrives at Mansfield Park for the first time, it is long after dark and no one has waited up to meet her; although the elder son does happen to be sitting in a window, helplessly drunk. In the novel, Mrs Norris goes to Northampton to meet Fanny off the coach and conduct her on the last stage of the journey, and the family are all there ready at Mansfield Park to meet her, and are all kind to her, though without the imagination to make allowances for how shy and frightened she might be (except, amazingly, for Mrs Norris, who is otherwise foul to Fanny).

The Behaviour of Sir Thomas in Antigua

The novel tells us nothing whatever of this. In the film they made the drunken older son into an artist and sent him to Antigua with his father, specifically so that he could make sketches of his father raping a black woman, and so that Fanny could find these sketches towards the end of the film. I did say “unsubtle”, didn’t I?

Sir Thomas’ Next Choice of Business Venture

The film ends with a voice-over saying that Sir Thomas sold his sugar plantations and went into tobacco instead, and it’s said in such a knowing tone, obviously expecting a laugh at this last proof that Sir Thomas is unable to hide his evil nature. [Do I need to say that this has no basis in the novel?] This infuriated me for its smug assumption that we are all agreed on the issue of the morality of profiting from the tobacco trade, as we are all now agreed on the morality of profiting on the slave trade. Now, I’m not a fan of smoking whereas I am an admirer of alcohol, but it seems to me that alcohol causes far more social misery than tobacco: tobacco does not make people violent, or produce catastrophic failure of their judgement or motor skills. Tobacco generally kills only the people who use it, whereas alcohol can ruin so many more lives, and in so many more ways. Yet how much outcry do you hear about “Big Alcohol”, about the iniquity of profiting from this trade? Very little, because people do remember that Prohibition didn’t work, and so we have found ways of keeping ourselves comfortable with this glaring double-standard, as people of Jane Austen’s time found ways of keeping themselves comfortable with the idea of slavery.

Now, I chose the last example not only because it gave me an excuse to deliver my tobacco/alcohol rant, but also because I think it illustrates most of the reasons why these people were totally unsuited to the task of adapting this novel:

Reason 1: Excessive Eagerness to Conform Socially

In this attitude towards tobacco, they are just as smug and priggish as Fanny is in the novel - but Fanny is brave and consistent and takes her stand against the accepted ideas and behaviour of her social set, whereas they are taking great care to show that they are in the centre of the stream of popular opinion, which just happens, at the moment, to be smug and priggish (and inconsistent) on the issue of tobacco.

Consider also the enormous effort that they took to establish their disapproval of slavery - an issue that has been closed for a century. There’s raw moral courage for you. Next time try taking a stand on an issue that is still open, whose resolution could have a direct effect on your quality of life - we’ll see how well you come out of that. In real life people don’t have labels on their foreheads saying “heroine” or “villain”, and we have to make our choices without the luxury of knowing how the story will end.

Which leads on to:

Reason 2: A Refusal to Try to Understand People on their own Terms

Given my theory that the novel is a deliberate exercise in imaginative sympathy, this refusal is the saddest of all their failures. You should come away from Mansfield Park with the sobering, demanding realisation that you cannot dismiss someone just because that person is not like you (or not like your cherished idea of yourself); you should put in the work to understand them, to give them the benefit of every doubt that you would give yourself (and, yes, it is work, and I have certainly been known to avoid the effort myself).

We’ve seen how the film-makers dismissed Fanny-as-written, wouldn’t allow her into the film; and then in their search for a new point for the film, they chose to make it an exercise in despising and deriding these people of 1814 (say) for not having exactly the same tastes, attitudes and prejudices as we had in 1999. The issues looked different then, as tobacco/alcohol looked different in the 1920s and will look different again in 2020. Life was more brutal, for almost everyone, and with the Atlantic in-between it might not have been immediately obvious that there was an absolute difference between the conditions of a slave in Antigua and those of a rag-picker in Deptford (or a factory-hand in Oldham or a farm-labourer in Dorset or a press-ganged sailor). Yes, it would be comforting to be able to dismiss these people of 1814, to be sure that they were stupid and wicked and deluded in ways that are unknown to us here and now, that we could not possibly be making comparable mistakes - no, no, when the people of (say) 2200 take the time to judge the choices that we are currently making, they will wish that they could travel back in time to congratulate us all, and they will not need to exercise sympathy or imagination in order to understand us, because we are so transparently reasonable and likeable.

Enough. Finally. Mansfield Park was a chance for these film-makers to learn (and then teach) something truly valuable, but they refused because it did not give them the easy entertainment that they wanted - and I find this tragic because it is the exact opposite of the point made by the novel.