2008 JASNA Essay Contest First Place Winner College/University Division
Missing the Point: How Mansfield Park Lost both Pleasure and Pain
In its transition from page to ITV screen, Mansfield Park undergoes a friendly transformation: friendly, that is, for the characters, if not for a disappointed audience. Careful readers, ready for cringe-worthy pain, find that a newly softened and nonjudgmental world has replaced Jane Austen’s acerbic reality. Our shrinking, judgmental heroine is gone, as are many of her reasons for agony, and with her goes much of the plot of Mansfield Park. These subtractions also do away with one of the best methods of connecting audience to character: Fanny’s near-constant distress annoys many critics, but it also helps them empathize with her character and generate opinions about the rest of the characters. The novel is packed with painful moments and the film elides almost every one. In an attempt to turn the novel into a romance, ITV reduces two central emotional reasons for distress, leaving the one kind of pain it appreciates: Fanny’s unrequited love for Edmund.
We could attribute much of Fanny’s and the reader’s distress to two emotional forces: her insignificance and her morality. In the novel, they overlap and compete for attention within Fanny’s mind and heart, often combining to maximize her agony. However, on screen, changes in character and plot diminish both. Our heroine is no longer shaped by an education that forces her to be grateful and intensely virtuous. Instead, she makes occasional gestures to her former self without feeling real oppression from her ill consequence or heightened morality.
In the original, Fanny is nothing before she arrives at Mansfield Park. Mrs. Norris and Sir Thomas consider how important it will be to maintain the “distinction proper” between this poor interloper and the real members of the family (9). She must always remember her place and Aunt Norris is ready to rid the shy child of any notions of personal worth (7). From entrance through departure, Mrs. Norris constantly cuts at Fanny, reminding her that she “must be the lowest and the last” (173). Her self-importance rests on hurting this “obstinate, ungrateful girl,” but Mrs. Norris is not the only one who disregards Fanny (116). Almost every character takes a turn ignoring her interests, whether it’s Tom yanking her up to dance, Sir Thomas insisting that she introduce the ball, Edmund and Mary leaving her alone in the wilderness at Sotherton, or Edmund forgetting her on his own. Even pleasure mixes with pain, but ill treatment is nothing new. It’s Fanny’s reaction which makes this cruelty beyond the pale.
This Cinderella treatment wouldn’t be intolerable if it weren’t for Fanny’s opinion of herself. She believes it all. From the age of nine, she is indoctrinated to be subservient and agrees that she deserves less than her spoiled cousins. When Edmund takes back her horse so that Mary Crawford might have a ride, she is “almost overpowered with gratitude that he should be asking her leave for it” (53). To ask suggests that she has the power to refuse and, whether or not she has real control, the gesture means the world to Fanny. Similarly, when Mrs. Norris reminds Fanny of her insignificance before dinner at the Grants’, Fanny is all compliance. In fact, she rates “her own claims to comfort as low as even Mrs. Norris could” (173). Avid Austenites are accustomed to main characters with limitations on their movement, but half the reader’s pain in Mansfield Park is in watching a heroine who can’t mentally rebel against her oppressors. She must bow her head and persevere. Fanny’s judgments are keen, but she hasn’t the consequence to do more than experience the wrongness around her.
FilmFanny1 doesn’t grow up under the same cloud of insignificance, either from other characters or from within. Mrs. Norris and the Bertrams speak in darkened tones about the little invader and the voice-over tells us that only Edmund cared for Fanny, but few actions speak to a life of emotional deprivation. Mrs. Norris, in particular, is a shadow of her tyrannical self. Obviously the filmmakers read the novel, because many of her lines remain. She still reproaches Fanny for “lolling about on a sofa” and not thinking of other people, but the lines hardly bear a twinge of their former pain. Part of the problem with this particular moment is the gutted plot.
In the novel, Mrs. Norris delivers her command after sending Fanny out to pick roses in the hot sun, thus giving Fanny a headache and leaving her daintily fatigued on the sofa. What is worse, Mrs. Norris only has this opportunity because of Edmund’s neglect. Since he leaves his cousin without a horse to ride, she must stay home to abide by her Aunts’ whims. The dialogue highlights Norris’s selfishness in thinking of Fanny like a servant and gives Edmund the chance to atone for his mistake, but the film sweeps all this away. Now, when Mrs. Norris nags, Fanny is sitting on the sofa, bright as ever, and Mrs. Norris hasn’t caused her any pain. In fact, the film only includes one instance when Mrs. Norris asks Fanny to do anything servile.2 Since Mrs. Norris’s line about caring for others doesn’t make sense within its given context, she appears less cruel and more addled. ITV de-claws Fanny's former terror, leaving her criticism harmless and comically incorrect.
The actor’s performance supports this picture of Norris as a dotty side character. With each line, she breathes and simpers, taking the fire out of dialogue straight from the novel. Mrs. Norris still insists that Sir Thomas couldn’t want to speak to Fanny and declares that opting out of the theatrical would be most “ungrateful,” but the actor doesn’t give her lines meaning or power. It’s as though the director and actors have agreed to turn Mrs. Norris into another Mr. Collins. He’s annoying and funny, but few take his influence seriously.
Although Mrs. Norris removes much of the sting from the new version, FilmFanny’s reactions take a larger toll. In that singular moment before the Grants’ dinner party when Norris reminds her of her place, FilmFanny answers back that she will stay low unless she is “enjoying [herself] too much to remember.” Who is this? Our heroine talking back, thinking highly of herself, and enjoying a social gathering, runs contrary to the original and presents a character who does not believe she is insignificant. She is still good and well behaved as in the novel; much of her behavior remains unchanged, but now she behaves for different reasons.
This oddly confident protagonist continues to appear in interactions with other characters. In the novel, Fanny regularly plays the “courteous listener,” particularly for Edmund and Mary Crawford, and this continues, to some extent, on screen (129). Edmund still confides in Fanny, but now she shares her mind and only restrains her opinions out of tact or love. Self-confidence isn’t at issue. When Edmund asks FilmFanny for her opinion on Miss. C, she asks, “Does she really think everything can be got with money?” This question doesn’t makes sense for a character who would say that she is “not competent” to give advice (211). However, it works perfectly for the spunky, self-assured woman the filmmaker wants her to be. Once the film's creators take an ax to the way characters see Fanny and the way she sees herself, they move on to how Fanny understands others, and nothing is safe.
The film establishes a similarly nonreverential regard for Fanny’s morals and judgments of other characters. In the novel, our heroine maintains the moral high ground through ill treatment and self-doubt, but because of her supposed insignificance she watches everyone misbehave in silence. Moral pain suffuses the novel even more than Fanny’s unimportance; as both judge and empathetic friend, she cringes at each moral failing. Fanny learns her moral compass from Edmund, but under real-life trials she’s the only one to stick to her own principles.
Often, critics have trouble loving what they see as a ‘priggish’ heroine, but her judgments provide a backbone for the novel and a reason for her choices. When she has to deal with Mr. and Miss Crawford, Fanny silently watches them degrade themselves and influence the people she cares about. On the Sotherton walk, Edmund and Mary leave her, Maria and Mr. Crawford ditch Mr. Rushworth, both Crawfords misbehave in the chapel, and Fanny feels “all this to be wrong” (79). She notes their thoughtlessness and judges them harshly but accurately, only increasing her severity when Mr. Crawford shows his weak morality and Mary displays her carelessness about social propriety. Fanny mentally condemns Mr. Crawford’s and Miss Crawford’s “corrupted,” “darkened” minds, and that condemnation colors the narrative (178, 288). Although she dares not speak, her silent disgust provides a context for the remainder of their interactions.
Her family offers as much moral distress as any London invader, and perhaps justifies more. When Edmund deserts Fanny to join the theatrical, her “heart and . . . judgment [are] equally against [his] decision” (125). She knows the play is wrong for a respectable family, hates to see Edmund deceive himself, and wishes there was some way to keep him from Miss Crawford. Insignificance, morality, and personal attachment twine together in a painful web, as they shall do again when she visits Portsmouth.
Her morality also hurts when it keeps her from acting in her own interest. When Sir Thomas asks why she has refused Mr. Crawford, she can’t tell him that she objects to the man’s principles. She must remain silent “for her cousins’ sake” (248). It would be a betrayal even with two so unworthy of protection. Instead, she sits as he accuses her of the very offenses she abhors. When decency and goodness force her to put up with Mr. Crawford’s attentions Fanny thinks of her situation as a “grievous imprisonment of body and mind,” but that description could apply to other similarly painful encounters she can’t morally escape (270). She is in a constant bind. Fanny’s principles are so central to any understanding of her original character that they seem indivisible from her behavior, that is, until we witness their division.
It isn’t that the filmmakers make FilmFanny amoral or bad; they do say that when she arrived at Mansfield she “had already been taught to be good.” However, as with her insignificance, it is mostly announced and not shown. She is always “good,” but the filmmakers, at pains to make her unpriggish, take every chance to find motivations that audiences won't find fussy. Social mores are too stuffy to move a modern heroine. When in doubt, her new motivation is probably Edmund. For example, she never criticizes the morality of the theatrical. Edmund does and FilmFanny opposes Edmund and Mary “making love” on stage, but she never suggests reasons for her own reticence except shyness and the fact that she hasn’t been asked. As soon as the players need her help, she takes less than a minute to get involved. In this film, social morality isn’t her fight. On the other hand, Fanny breaks character to ask about “slavery,” because modern viewers are comfortable with this sort of moralizing.
Moral judgment also drops away as a context for Fanny’s relationship with Mr. Crawford. FilmFanny walks and smiles with the man who just toyed with her cousins, showing no disgust at his shameless return. Then, when he proposes, the script presents three reasons to turn him down: it could be a joke, she loves Edmund, and, as she cries, “I’ve seen you do all this before.” That sounds like a moral denouncement, but it only suggests that Mr. Crawford is disingenuous. She doesn’t comment on his moral fiber so much as his genuine interest, making her appear more like a careful predictor of future events and less like a girl who doesn’t approve of flirting. This perspective on her refusal cuts out important character points that do not fit into FilmFanny’s personality. In the novel, she believes he’s kidding mostly because she thinks so little of her own merits. FilmFanny doesn’t, so the script glosses over this reason. It also portrays her directly accusing Mr. Crawford, something that a character in a “grievous” moral prison could hardly attempt.
Without the twin burdens of Fanny’s unimportance and moral superiority, the filmmakers focus on her love for Edmund, her keen eye, and her immovability. In other words, they turn her into the unflappable Fanny Price. FilmFanny bases her decisions on knowledge and general kindness, so the audience can agree with her stubbornness; isn’t prone to fear or crying jags, so the audience doesn’t see her as weak; and rises above the criticism of those around her, so she may declare “you must indulge me” and “you shall not tyrannize me,” in a full, proud voice. Moreover, ITV goes out of its way to show that their Fanny is not physically frail. She runs, rides, and plays badminton with the energy of an athlete, even chasing small children around the parlor with a gleeful smile. In the text, physical immobility mirrors Fanny’s mental prison, but both limitations are gone. The filmmakers do their best to remove the cruelty and pain from Fanny’s experience (excepting that which even the Lizzies and Emmas feel in love) and, in the process, remove most of the logic and feeling from the plot of Mansfield Park.
Mansfield Park isn’t a romance, as highlighted by the four deliberately vague paragraphs given to Edmund’s change of mind. However, it is about a good, selfless character who perseveres and grows through the worst pains, and it is about learning to appreciate such a character though her oppression. Mrs. Norris’s insults and Mr. Crawford’s insistence help us care about Fanny and see life through her eyes. Without either ill consequence or principles, Fanny’s behavior makes little sense. Edmund becomes her one remaining agony and there are reasons why Austen didn’t place their relationship at the center of her novel. For one, it’s boring. They agree on most everything and even FilmFanny loves him “as more than a cousin” for a very long time. The filmmakers try to spice up the romance with an illogical near-kiss with Crawford and an even worse near-proposal from Edmund while Fanny is washing her hair. Finally, at Edmund and Fanny’s fanciful wedding, two of Austen’s least adventurous characters unveil “a new dance.” I almost give the filmmakers credit for so thoroughly disregarding the original, but they only prove that when Mansfield Park isn’t focused on Fanny’s suffering mind, the audience leaves with little more than a tepid parlor drama, weak characterizations, and no moral at all.
1 Since ITV creates its own character, she shall be known as FilmFanny to maintain the proper distinctions.
2 In the walking scene (now at Mansfield instead of Sotherton) Norris sends her for Maria’s parasol, but does so because otherwise none of them “will hear the end of it.” In other words, Fanny also has an interest in keeping Maria happy.
Austen, Jane. Mansfield Park. Oxford University Press: Oxford, UK 2003.
Mansfield Park. Dir. Iain B. MacDonald. ITV, 2007.