Saturday, March 24, 2007

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Fanny Price? Thoughts on Mansfield Park, Novel and Films

ITV kicked off its "Jane Austen Season" on Sunday with Mansfield Park, an indifferent adaptation starring a good but woefully miscast Billie Piper. Mansfield Park is probably Austen's most problematic novel, and possibly her most divisive (the other contender for that title is Northanger Abbey, about which there seem to be nothing but extreme opinions. Personally, I am at a loss to understand how I can be expected to enjoy a parody of a genre that no longer exists, and which I have never read in), and most of those problems can be traced back to its main character--the dull, timid, deferential, passive, self-abnegating goodie-two-shoes, Miss Fanny Price.

In Austen fan circles, one is often made to feel a little guilty for not liking Fanny. The very point of Mansfield Park, after all, is to stress the importance of character by pitting a heroine who has it--and almost no other virtue--against a romantic rival who possesses everything but. To dislike Fanny, we're told, is to put a higher premium on the surface of things--on stylishness, cleverness, wittiness--than on what lies beneath it. Fanny's victory over Mary Crawford, with whom she competes for the heart of her cousin Edmund Bertram, is the victory of substance over style.

On the other side of the debate, we have those who, like Alison, here writing in response to the ITV adaptation, feel that
The Crawfords are more fun than anyone else, and while they are cruel and destructive, they are redeemable, and it is part of the tension of the story that Edmund and Fanny could redeem them, but choose not to. It's very problematic to the reader. You do find the two goodies to be priggish. You do want to say to them - get together with the baddies, you'll give them a bit of depth, and they'll give you a bit of fun for the first time in your dull self-sacrificing lives.
I have problems with both approaches, but most particularly with the latter. The Crawfords--Mary and her brother Henry, who flirts shamelessly with Edmund's sisters, one of whom is engaged, and then turns his attentions to Fanny--are redeemable, of course--what would be the point of the novel if they were mustache-twirling villains (and I disagree with Alison's assertion that they are cruel--destructive, to be certain, and quite thoughtless, but one never sees them take real pleasure in the pain of others, or pursue that pain as an end in its own right)? And how much lesser would the glory of Fanny's victory over Mary be if Mary did not have good qualities as well as bad? The problem is that they do not wish to be redeemed. Mary in particular is almost beyond hope--unlike Henry, who realizes that to win Fanny's heart he will have to change and make sacrifices, Mary expects those changes and sacrifices to come from Edmund, whose career as a clergyman and life in a modest country parish she finds completely unacceptable.

Throughout the novel, Mary shows herself to be shallow and mercenary, her moral compass warped out of true, and even her deepening feelings for Edmund do not change her fundamental character. She begins to wonder whether she might not be able to tolerate a life of relative poverty for Edmund's sake, but she never learns to appreciate the value of that life for its own sake. Just about the only thing Mary does to recommend herself to the reader is strike up a friendship with Fanny (although Austen goes to some lengths to point out that she does so out of boredom, and only after the Bertram sisters leave the neighborhood), to whom she is very kind, but in her last letter to Fanny, Mary callously expresses hope for the death of Edmund's older brother, then grievously ill, as a baronetcy and a fortune might go some way towards making marriage to a clergyman tolerable. There can be no doubt--this is a completely shallow, completely hollow person.

Henry is a more problematic character. As previously noted, he changes--or at least tries to--to please Fanny, and I've more than once come across the opinion that, in having him run off with Edmund's by-then-married sister Maria just as Fanny starts to soften towards him, Austen is performing something along the lines of character assassination, getting rid of a what is by that point a worthy suitor because she wants Fanny and Edmund together at the end of the book. It's a persuasive argument, but for me it falls flat because the novel makes it quite obvious that Henry only ever tries to change to please Fanny. He never learns to love goodness for itself, although it's possible that, at the time of his slip with Maria, he was on the path to doing so. And a slip, albeit a disastrous one, is precisely how Austen describes the rekindling of the affair:
Had he done as he intended, and as he knew he ought, by going down to Everingham after his return from Portsmouth, he might have been deciding his own happy destiny. But he was pressed to stay for Mrs. Fraser's party; his staying was made of flattering consequence, and he was to meet Mrs. Rushworth there. Curiosity and vanity were both too strong for a mind unused to make any sacrifice to right; he resolved to defer his Norfolk journey, resolved that writing should answer the purpose of it, or that its purpose was unimportant--and stayed. He saw Mrs. Rushworth, was received by her with a coldness which ought to have been repulsive, and have established apparent indifference between them forever; but he was mortified, he could not bear to be thrown off by the woman whose smiles had been so wholly at his command; he must exert himself to subdue so proud a display of resentment; it was anger on Fanny's account; he must get the better of it, and make Mrs. Rushworth Maria Bertram again in her treatment of himself.
As we know that Henry's infatuation with Fanny is directly attributable to the fact that she didn't swoon at his advances, it doesn't strain credibility to imagine him, halfway between roguishness and respectability as he is at that point in the novel, falling victim to the same impulse where Maria is involved. Taken on its own, it is a trivial setback, but its consequences destroy his chances for redemption.

Most importantly, Austen doesn't really go in for redemption by proxy. A young person's character and ideas can be shaped by the guiding hand of a parent or a mentor, although one more often encounters examples of the opposite, of parents spoiling and ruining their children, in her novels, and Mansfield Park in particular is littered with victims of such bad education--the Crawfords, all of the Bertram siblings but Edmund, even Fanny's sister Susan is nearly overcome by her parents' coarseness and inattention--but once they reach adulthood, her characters are expected to better themselves. "We all have a better guide in ourselves, if we would attend to it, than any other person can be," is Fanny's response when Henry calls her his moral guide. All of the redeemed characters in Austen's novels--Elizabeth Bennet, Mr. Darcy, Marianne Dashwood, Emma Woodhouse--achieve redemption on their own, and they seek it because they want to be good people and have had it pointed out to them that, in a certain respect, they fall short of that goal, not as a way of securing a lover. The notion that one might fix or elevate one's spouse is rarely given any credence in Austen's novels--one more frequently encounters examples of good people dragged down into ridiculousness or intellectual stagnation through the poor choice of a mate, and I can only imagine that this is what would have happened to Edmund if he'd persisted in his pursuit of Mary.

All of which is not to say that the anti-Fanny viewpoint is completely without merit. Fanny may possess an adamantium core of moral conviction, but it is surrounded by nothingness. Relentlessly beaten down by her more-or-less well-meaning aunt and uncle Bertram, who never fail to remind her of the debt of gratitude she owes them for taking her in, and who stop short of making her feel like a member of their family, and even further down by her inexpressibly evil aunt Norris, Fanny is almost bereft of personality. She is a keen observer of humanity--which is part of her protection against the Crawfords' charm, as she sees them as they are instead of as they pretend to be and as others wish to see them--but that keenness is only achieved through complete self-abnegation, a total absence of any opinions, interests, or desires of her own, of any identity not inextricably bound with the people around her. It is only through paying so little attention to herself--and thus ensuring that there is very little to pay attention to--that Fanny can manage to pay so much attention to others, and the end result is that, instead of opposing style and substance, the juxtaposition of Fanny and Mary ends up being a competition between two different kinds of substanceless-ness. While I would certainly agree that, when choosing a lifelong mate, one would be better off with Fanny's strength than Mary's capacity to amuse, it is hard to imagine how one could love a person who loves herself as little as Fanny Price does.

Even worse, in her dealings with the Crawfords, Fanny's deference and meekness soon become indistinguishable from hypocrisy. She allows Mary to make a friend of her even though she despises the other woman. She allows Henry to pursue her even though she despises him and is in love with another man. When Edmund and Sir Thomas mistake Fanny's unwillingness to accept Henry's proposal for a virginal panic which might be worn away at with time and kindness, we're expected to pity her, but the entire ordeal might have been over with in an instant if Fanny had only spoken out, and the longer she refrains from doing so the more she appears to be standing in silent, priggish judgement of those around her. One is reminded of Jane Eyre, another morally staunch, downtrodden young woman, but with a willingness to speak out when asked for her honest opinion. As the novel progresses, Fanny's lack of a similar courage begins to seem less and less like a pitiable character trait, and more like a moral failing.

As one of the commenters on Alison's post points out, the problem of representing Fanny in adaptations of Mansfield Park is usually dealt with by "turning her into someone else." The ITV version (with a script by Maggie Wadey) gives us a Fanny who is something of a tomboy, a girl amidst elegant females, either incapable of or unwilling to play the game of courtship, to flirt and bat her eyelashes and gently seduce. There is an argument to be made for reading Mansfield Park as a novel about Fanny's coming of age--coming to womanhood. Very soon after the novel's beginning, there is a lengthy discussion about whether or not Fanny is 'out'--a woman, and eligible for courtship and marriage--with the ultimate conclusion being that she isn't. After Maria marries and takes Julia with her on her honeymoon, Fanny becomes Mansfield Park's only young lady. She begins going out into company, starts wearing jewelry, has a ball thrown in her honor (essentially a coming-out), and eventually receives the attentions of a man. In Wadey's version, the experience of being courted by Henry prepares Fanny for Edmund's attentions, to which she responds with a gentle, teasing coquetry--a happy medium between her previous girlishness and Maria, Julia and Mary's artifice. As Edmund's falling in love with Fanny is, in the novel, done away with in a single line, this is one of the few places in which Wadey's version is superior to Austen's--she manages to persuade us, as Austen doesn't, that Edmund's choice of Fanny is more than a convenient one, that he longs for her as completely as she does for him, which goes some way toward justifying the anachronistic waltz at the end of the movie (am I the only one who had flashbacks to the Torchwood episode "Captain Jack Harkness" at that point?).

Patricia Rozema's 1999 adaptation went even farther than Wadey's in transforming Fanny's personality. Rozema's scoops Austen's Fanny out of the story entirely and substitutes her with Austen herself. Rozema's Fanny is an aspiring author, and examples of her fiction are in fact taken from Austen's juvenilia. Her letters to Susan are meant to recall Austen's close relationship and correspondence with her own sister Cassandra. The result is an enjoyable, well-made period romantic comedy with little but basic plot and character names in common with the novel. The only thing actually wrong with it, however, is its unspoken but ever-present underlying assumption, that this is the life Jane Austen ought to have lived--that a person who wrote so well about romance should have lived a romantic life herself--which rather trivializes both the author and her novels. Of course, nowadays Rozema's liberties with Austen seem almost quaint. There is a level of meta-fictionality--along the lines of the Stratford-upon-Avon souvenir mug placed prominently in the foreground of one of the opening shots of Shakespeare in Love--that cushions her Mansfield Park, and prevents us from taking her version of Austen's life as gospel truth. In spite of their softly-whispered acknowledgment that their film takes great liberties with the facts, the producers of the upcoming Becoming Jane seem interested in eliciting the opposite response.

There is a 1983 BBC version of Mansfield Park of which I've seen only a few scenes--it seemed faithful enough, and had horrible, horrible production values. Apart from these three adaptations, I'm not aware of any other attempts to solve the problem of Fanny Price. Wadey's version, in spite of the missing Portsmouth section, is more faithful to the novel. Rozema's is more enjoyable. Neither one of them captures the essence of the novel, which, upon a rereading, turns out to be sharper and great deal more cynical than I had remembered. None of the characters--not even Fanny and Edmund--escape the narrator's barbed tongue, and even the readers receive a lashing or two for their romantic expectations ("exactly at the time when it was quite natural that it should be so, and not a week earlier, Edmund did cease to care about Miss Crawford, and became as anxious to marry Fanny, as Fanny herself could desire," is her only concession to readers eager for a romantic climax between Edmund and Fanny). I can't escape the impression that Mansfield Park was written with tongue firmly in cheek, that Austen was very much aware of how ridiculously saintly she was making her main character, and almost daring the readers to put up with her. Or perhaps I'm reading too much into the matter. What is certain, however, is that neither Rozema nor Wadey, nor, I suspect, any writer on the face of the earth but Jane Austen herself, could ever do justice to that being of pure, unadulterated evil that is Mrs. Norris.

11 comments:

Twothirds said...

>the other contender for that title is Northanger Abbey, about which there seem to be nothing but extreme opinions.

Is there any correlation between liking one and liking the other? I just listened to Northanger...have Mansfield on request now.

>Personally, I am at a loss to understand how I can be expected to enjoy a parody of a genre that no longer exists, and which I have never read in

Because it's hi-larious!

Surliminal said...

Yes, certainly of all Austen's works, of which I am not a great fan, I liked Northanger Abbey best (yes, it's funny!) and Mansgfield Park least.

Sherwood said...

I agree with almost everything you say--how delightful it is to find such a close reading--though i do think Fanny has personality, it's just exceedingly sub=fusc. Look how she nearly laughs out loud when Tom is bitching about the rector--then turns around to find the man at his elbow, and pours out loud compliments --"I always come to you when I want to know about the war in America" or something similar. Also, we're told, though we don't see, that Fanny and her brother have wonderful time in the carriage traveling down to Portsmouth. If she were all that boring, would she be much of a companion for William, who has seen the world and fought in action?

I do feel that Fanny is a problem during that last, say, fifth of what is otherwise a brilliant book. This is because the direction of the story is a problem. Setting aside modern expectations, which don't taken into account that Austen probably coudn't put on stage Maria's and Crawford's affair--a mixture of anger and attraction, but not one speck of love--on every reading I get the sense that Austen knew where the novel was heading, and unlike her others, wrenched it willfully into the direction it ought to go. There's a key sentence in that ending somewhere where she informs the reader that the Crawfords are irretrievably morally tainted. It's a shame, because even in her what-if there is more believable "life": the picture of Fanny finally winning over the incorrigible Admiral. I would have loved to see that spun out, rather than to be told at a distance that "At the right time" Edmund safely fell in love with his stainless cousin.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I find the what-if scenario in which Fanny marries a reformed Henry appealing only so long as I ignore the fact that it is predicated upon Edmund marrying Mary. As I say in my post, Mary doesn't even try to redeem herself - she's as shallow and conceited at the end of the novel as she was at its beginning, and I can't believe that she and Edmund would have made each other happy. Edmund would have realized, as he does in the novel, that the person he believed her to be was a figment of his imagination, but in this case the realization would come too late. Eventually, Mary would probably have managed to harangue Edmund into compromising his principles, for which he would have hated himself. If she didn't, I'm fairly certain her affection for him wouldn't long have survived her resentment of the lifestyle he'd forced on her.

One of the greatest surprises of rereading Mansfield Park was discovering just how objectionable Mary is. I can't understand the prevailing attitude that she's an extreme version of Elizabeth Bennet - she's closer to Miss Bingley.

KAS said...

I very much enjoyed this. I love Austen, and I think many of the interpretative problems stem from the fact that it isn't as easy as people think it is to read them as gentle romances - despite the fact the plots usually revolve around people falling in love (if they're lucky) and getting married - Austen's satire is so biting it hardly allows it. I have always struggled with Mansfield Park, and I have to confess I ducked this latest attempt. It's true Mary Crawford is utterly objectionable but I think Fanny's spiritless virtue tends to make modern readers cleave desperately to Mary because she's witty and feisty. The line that always struck me from the book comes right near the end, I don't have the exact quotation to hand and nothing on earth will induce me to pick up Mansfield Park again lightly but it goes something like "Susan’s more fearless disposition and happier nerves made everything easy to her [and she became] perhaps the most beloved of the two." Although Austen has deliberately fashioned Fanny to be what seems to be the embodiement of a 19th century conduct book women, does this reference to Susan carry with it her criticism of Fanny ... and by extension a world that could find her an ideal heroine? I like to think Austen finds her an insipid milksop too :)

Foxessa said...

I have watched the 1983 BBC Mansfield Park three times now. It is highly recommended.

Though you are correct that the production values look poor due to the age of the video from which the dvds transferred, the mise en scene and decor are clear and work vigorously for both story and character development.

Seeing Fanny and the others visualized in their behaviors within the context reveals a great deal more about them all. They all receive the same amount of time on screen as they did in the text, so you can see how faithful to the Austen novel it is. Some people don't like that in adapting books to a visual medium and some do. In the case of this book, it works very well.

What is perhaps most interesting is that Fanny as grown has a heavy jaw that makes her nearly the twin of Edward and his heavy jaw. Additionally, he has a very red face, as do nearly all the men in the cast, good country people that they are. Which makes the Crawford sibs stand out even more so as the exotics they are in this world.

The other surprise is how well the actress manages to show Fanny as not quite so passive and meek as she so often is taken for -- without changing a single thing. It's all accomplished via the actress's timing.

The entire cast is splendid. Especially the many-times BBC employed actress, Alison Fiske, as Mrs. Norris.

Constance

Anonymous said...

Really interesting comments! I didn't like this novel when I first read it, but warmed up to it greatly the second time. I think this is Austen at her most subtle, showing us a version of nastiness without the moustache twirling, and a version of virtue that was more realistic given the circumstances, than would be someone more aggressive. I wanted to bring your attention to the movie Metropolitan, which is a modern retelling of Mansfield Park, taking place in New York City.

Penny said...

Thanks for this (found via communicator). I enjoyed seeing where the production failed the book - and then re-read the book to find the inherent difficulties.

I posted my thoughts on the 1983 production on my live journal (pennksi) - feel free to have a look and comment.

Jed said...

Just happened across this entry of yours from last year. Good stuff.

I agree with nearly everything you wrote here about Mansfield Park. I've been particularly startled to hear various people say that Mary is Elizabeth-Bennet-like or Austen-like or otherwise a fun, witty, enjoyable character; I always thought she was pretty awful.

But I also found Fanny insufferable throughout the book. Even though I share a fair bit of Fanny's capacity for judging others on moral grounds, I found her really annoying to read about.

Which left me without much interest in the book. I found the whole book dull and slow and overlong.

So for me, I don't think it's possible to solve the problem of Fanny in a movie except by turning her into someone else; the truer she is to the character in the book, the less interesting I'm likely to find her.

...And add me to the list of those who adored Northanger Abbey. I read it right after Mansfield Park, and found it a delightful breath of fresh air. (And short!) I didn't care about the specifics of the genre she was discussing; to me, Catherine (in N.A.) is recognizably fannish, regardless of what exactly her fandom is. The fact that her genre of choice is so easily parodied only added to my enjoyment.

The Rush Blog said...

As I say in my post, Mary doesn't even try to redeem herself - she's as shallow and conceited at the end of the novel as she was at its beginning, and I can't believe that she and Edmund would have made each other happy.


Yes, Mary is shallow and conceited. She can also be a very nice and shrewd person. Why can't Mary or Henry have both good and bad qualities? This is normal for human beings. Why do they have to be one or the other?

This is why I find it increasingly difficult to like both Fanny and Edmund. Because they are "virtuous" and "brave" and "pure", I'm supposed to swoon over their goodness. Well, screw that. I'm no where near that good. And I certainly don't want to cheer for a fictional character who is supposed to be that ridiculously good.

Juanita's Journal said...

No one in "MANSFIELD PARK" is redeemable. That's why it's my least favorite Austen novel. That's why I find Fanny's triumph over Mary a joke. I'm not saying that Mary is a heroine and Fanny is not. As far as I'm concerned, neither of them are. Fanny remained the same self-righteous and judgmental person that allows her personal prejudices to dictate her decisions and actions. Mary is the same charming, yet calculating and manipulative woman on the lookout for advantageous marriage. Neither of them has really changed.

Why can't filmmakers of a future "MANSFIELD PARK" portray ALL of the characters as flawed people that seem incapable of acknowledging their flaws and making any future improvement. It would be a more honest portrayal, instead of labeling one as "good" and the other as "bad".

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