Mansfield Park – the most unromantic romance ever written

Jane Austen: Mansfield Park (Miramax Books, movie tie-in edition, 1999, ISBN: 9780786885244)
Despite enticing film tie-in cover, the actual romance between our heroine and the hero starts and ends with the last chapter of the novel, and without much fuss. It seemed as if Jane Austen got tired of the story when it at last came to its conclusion, after 400 pages of meticulous descriptions of seductions and refusals. I often wondered how on Earth Austen managed to write so much… about what exactly? The story may be put in two sentences – Fanny Price got lifted from her poor plebeian background to the wealth and noble dignity of her uncle’s family where she gradually fell in love with her cousin. (Don’t even start that topic – at Austen’s time it didn’t seem so big deal, and although I still got the creeps over that issue, I had to get over it.) She secretly (of course) desired (and did manage) to marry him at last, but in meantime she had to endure the advances of a man whose consistency along with her own she would firmly test and finally (dis)prove.

The main storyline however wasn’t what really interested Austen – at least that’s my take on it – the relationships and the clashes of different character types were what delighted her along with the issues women of her time were dealing with, such as peer and parental pressures, marital decisions and its consequences. I loved all those details, and the way all those depictions of different marriages, different lifestyles and different classes were interwoven. One could acutely feel the atmosphere of that time and the state of Fanny’s mind in every turmoil of her life. At first glance, for an example, the situation of Fanny Price’s mother did not appear relevant, but related to Bertram’s family and wealthy Mr Crawford’s proposal, it held an important leverage, along with Mr Crawford’s kindness and attention in other fields during that wooing time. Interesting though, it’s difficult from those descriptions to figure out Austen’s personal thoughts on marriages. It doesn’t appear that she disapproves marriages for love in general, after all, Fanny marries for love, but those that lack everything else – like that of Fanny Price’s mother. She believed I guess in prudent liaisons, where the partners in love can offer to each other not only love but also respect and security of some kind.

Fanny Price isn’t quite appealing character. Reportedly, even Austen didn’t like her very much, but rather challenged herself to invent such a main character. Young Fanny Price resembles a lot Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, and the older one seems equally… virtuous and equally difficult to care about. Her opinions are so firm and her lifestyle so rigid, almost as if every hour of her life had to be strictly regulated and defined or she would lose her wits. BUT – very big but – I really liked how she stood up firmly against all persuasions to marry Crawford. I really liked how Austen transformed Fanny from insecure child to fully grown woman with her own mind and stand, despite my own opinions of them. I was appalled by all those speeches made to her – she was barely eighteen and it was really expected of her to jump on that chance to marry even if she doesn’t love the groom in question, because she was mere woman and supposed not to think at all, certainly not with her own head and especially not with her own heart. They almost convinced me she was making mistake! Although that might be due the hard time I had swallowing the fact she was in love with her own first cousin.

The problem remains also, that Austen did never fail to make us understand, women of her time and class were considered merely as beautiful and fragile ornaments – it’s enough to observe the way Lady Bertram was treated by her own family – and that makes their decision-making more difficult. Every decision that would be beyond social expectations was met with terrible resistance in their inner circles and even with abandon if thoroughly conducted.

Maybe that’s why Austen didn’t elaborate much Edmund’s feelings towards Fanny. This wasn’t romance story at all. This was Fanny’s story, and the story of all women (and men in some cases!) that have to fight argumentatively for the right to make their own choices. Charlotte Lucas from Pride and Prejudice might be an example of Austen’s contemporaries that bowed to such pressures from their peers and relatives. Austen did not try to sweeten these women’s deals, analyzing and even (perhaps) condemning them in more detail in this novel.

From all the adaptations, I was able to see Mansfield Park (1983), Mansfield Park (1999) and Mansfield Park (2007). The bonus was Metropolitan (1990), that did some direct (and honorable) references to this novel.

Mansfield Park (1983)

Mansfield Park (BBC, 1983)

This six episode long BBC adaptation of the novel followed the book the most faithfully, leaving out maybe two or three scenes from the whole book, and let me remind you, it is 400+ pages long one. Unfortunately, this version is also the dullest one, way too long and way too stiff. It wasn’t so theatrical as BBC’s Pride and Prejudice from 1980, but still was weird. There wasn’t even a hint of attraction between anybody! Maybe that’s mostly the fault of the costume and make-up department – the most frightful was Adam Ant hairstyle of poor Mr Yates and so obviously fake tan smeared over Tom Bertram upon his return from Antigua – but not a single person from the younger cast was worth attention, not enough to see beyond their pompous manners. Especially Fanny Price, who was depicted more as dim-witted old aunt than as timid, introverted late bloomer.

In this adaptation Fanny Price didn’t blossom at all. In the book, she is actually strong character that just happens to prefer backstage to the stage itself. She is more observer than performer, and her virtuous presence meant a lot to the integrity of the whole family in the quiet, positive manner. This Fanny Price is so impossible to like. There was no refinement and gentleness from her character in the book – when she did express herself, she seemed just demure as an old grumpy teacher we all used to know at one point in our lives. Although her personality does get more pronounced in the last two episodes, this Fanny Price lacks firmness and spirit – there was no spark in her eyes that her relatives seem to discover later in the novel.

And what a pair of creepy pomposities were Crawfords! It was impossible to see the appeal of them, unlike with Hayley Atwell from 2007 version and with Alessandro Nivola from 1999 version (I like the other two actors as well, but chose still those I prefer the most). It was more delight to see quite unrecognizable Gorden Kaye in the role different from René Artois (‘Allo, ‘Allo) and young Samantha Bond (Downtown Abbey, Miss Moneypenny from James Bond movies). Supposedly Jonny Lee Miller was Fanny Price’s younger brother in this series years before he would become her lover in the newer Mansfield Park adaptation, but if that was him, in those last two episodes, I caught only unrecognizable glimpses of him. The greatest delight though I found in watching marvelous Anna Massey’s performance as Mrs Norris and Angela Pleasance’s as Lady Bertram. Mr Yates was also fun to look at, acting so very differently from the others, as if he regretted being in this series so much he did the mockingly best of it.

Mansfield Park (1999)

Mansfield Park (1999)

While first adaptation harmed itself by following the book too closely, the second ruined its chances by taking too many liberties with it. Although I found myself liking Frances O’Connor’s interpretation of Austen’s Fanny Price, even that Fanny wasn’t the person described in the book, let alone the other characters, particularly Sir Thomas and Mr Crawford. Sir Thomas was made into awful slave rapist, while Mr Crawford had nothing substantial to offer to Fanny beside his looks and wealth. Why messing with the original novel? Why completely omitting William, why simplifying Fanny’s issue with Crawford that was in the book everything but simple, why adding some intricacies to Fanny’s character as if she wasn’t character good enough to portray faithfully on the screen? It must be dully noted though, for the additions to Fanny’s character, that the sources for the script were also Jane Austen’s letters and Juvenilia, which I haven’t read.

Movie as itself is perfectly all right, and would be for anyone who has not read the book. Even if Austen did not admire Fanny Price very much, she would probably feel this adaptation unfair to her… Now, the casting was great, especially Lindsay Duncan, successfully starring in two different roles. It was interesting to see some actors that were at time (almost) unknown outside UK, like James Purefoy, Sophia Miles, Justine Waddell, Amelia Warner etc.

Story is troublesome. In effort to depict Fanny’s constant nature, the other characters’ consistency suffered. I haven’t even for a moment thought this Fanny would ever like Crawford, as his portrayal on screen for better didn’t go beyond few easily dismissible words. In the book the doubt concerning her (and our!) decisiveness lingered quite a while before the end – this was portrayed better in earlier adaptation, but that one had issues with the unsympathetic actor having the role of Mr Crawford from whom I would run away without hesitation.

In short, this was solid movie, but not compelling enough… Considering even apart from Austen’s novel, it didn’t have enough spirit to care about it.

Mansfield Park (2007)

Mansfield Park (2007)

Oh what a horrid adaptation. Everything seemed so… anachronistic, to say the least. I couldn’t figure out the period of time it was set in – everything was in such disarray – odd, too modern dialogues, general looks of the characters, manners, clothing, dances, activities… I am so ashamed that the lack of funds for this film was so obvious. It hacked whole portions of the book just to remain within budget – I mean, to have a picnic instead of the ball that is anyway almost inseparable element of every period piece British TV and cinema produced? Really? And decision to portray already aloof Fanny secluded in Mansfield instead of sending her off to Portsmouth as punishment for not taking Mr Crawford’s offer at once – it was disastrous that much it completely wrecked the rest of the movie. That Portsmouth section of the book was important for her perception of different statures in life that might come out of different marriage decisions.

The only thing I was absolutely fascinated by, was gorgeous Hayley Atwell, who captured Mary Crawford’s character immaculately. Billie Piper seems good actress, but not really fit for this role – that is probably producers’ fault that wanted not Austen’s Fanny, but postmodern, feminist version of her. Blake Ritson was handsome Edmund, but his over-the-top falling in love performance measured in mere seconds of the end of the movie was too much for my already wrecked nerves. It insulted my intelligence much to see him so suddenly discovering her outer beauty, as if he were blind until now. For someone who’s been whole life with that other person, I think it would have been better if they had shown how he became enticed by her inner beauty, after all, the want of it was what disappointed him in Mary Crawford. The kiss was enchanting though.

I think the script, budget shortcomings and some unfortunate casting choices did great disservice to this novel. I fear because of this one, and the previous 1999 failure, we might not see proper adaptation for a while, and that’s a shame.

This novel deserves better treatment and I hope it will get it one day. We still have to find perfect Fanny Price and fair treatment of her relationship with Edmund. It is not required to follow every single scene from the book – some might be trimmed down without harming the heart of it indeed – just leave the crucial ones unscathed and please remain truthful to all the characters.

Metropolitan (1990)

Metropolitan (1990)

This movie actually has nothing to do with Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park except for discussing it (as films go) quite extensively and directly. Audrey and Tom’s personalities even echo a bit Fanny Price and Edmund Bertram. Even a couple of other characters might be linked to the book too – the most interesting one, Nick, might be older Bertram brother, Rick might be a portrait of Mr Crawford and Serena of his sister. All right, that is a bit going too far.

The movie had an interesting take on the novel, as it being centered around one forbidden play, which it isn’t  of course. Nevertheless, that play had an important role in the book, as a reflection of each character’s values and opinions. I did wonder at first why Austen, better said, the main characters of the book, were so stiff about theatre in the house, but I think I got the reason behind it. I doubt Austen was against all the plays, but rather those that didn’t have any added value beyond the controversy. It was a period where conceit and pomposity were so often on the menu it was nothing out of ordinary, and despite Austen’s tendency to laugh about it, she was aware of importance of eloquence and proper manners for acceptance in social circles. Therefore, nobody would be against Shakespeare’s play, but would be against one that was a bit inappropriate having being performed by people who weren’t related to each other.

As movie itself, Metropolitan has something what many movies today do not have, a magnificent screenplay. On-screen presences and dialogues were remarkable, despite theirs depicting a world I am total stranger to, nor wish particularly to know more about. This whole debutante season in New York is so strange concept to me, I am not even sure about the period of time in which the story is situated. I felt also more as an observer than as a real participant to it. The conversations and the characters were anyway delightful. They were unconventional, certainly, but amusing, wholly shaped, and well, intelligent characters.