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A Biracial Fanny Price

Certain challenges will always arise in the adaptation of any book to a film medium. Many of those challenges center around two central questions. First, what is necessary to convey the meaning, or the director’s interpretation, of the work? Second, what would make a good movie for the intended audience? Sometimes it seems that sacrifices of unjustifiable magnitude are made for the preservation of one question’s answer.

In Mansfield Park Fanny Price’s personality is one such sacrifice. Her personality may be one of the most important things to retain in adaptation yet the essence of Miss Price is often sacrificed for the sake of a more relatable, or interesting, protagonist. In the 2007 version, for example, she bounces around and even spends time playing sports, something quite out of character for the girl that “every sort of exercise fatigues” (Austen 97). Still, with nothing at all changed, the plot of Mansfield Park is not inherently suited to the screen. If I were to adapt Mansfield Park to screen, my version would, in fact, differ from the details of the book. Yet I hope it would stay true to the novel’s essence and the essential elements of Fanny Price’s character.

I would race-switch Fanny Price to be biracial. Fanny is never actually described as white, after all; the only descriptions provided of her physical appearance are “light eyes” (476) neat hair (300), and “soft skin” (231). In order to maintain familial relationships and the Bertrams as white, in my version Fanny’s father is black and her mother is white. This unexpected twist should be carefully scripted to heighten the effect on the audience. As the movie opens there could be a montage of portraits in the beginning with a narrator quoting from Austen’s opening descriptions of the Ward sisters’ marriages. This montage would end with the shock of a marriage meant to “disoblige” (1) and Mr. Price being black.

This race switch of Fanny Price will make her struggles easier to for a modern audience to understand. A major contributing factor to Fanny Price’s character is her social position. She has moved up to live with a Baronet, but she has no idea of “classing” (177) herself with the Bertram children. Even before the Fanny’s introduction at the Park, Sir Thomas and Mrs. Norris are discussing the “distinction proper” to exist between herself and the “Miss Bertrams” (9). In our day and age there isn’t such a clearly defined class system; while we can understand the implications it is hard to feel them. We are, however, familiar with racism. If Fanny is black, events driven by class will be more apparent due in part to the audience’s awareness of race struggles.  Under this adaptation class distinctions will be made clear, and Fanny’s race will heighten the audience’s discomfort with unjust class barriers.  In a sense this race switch is like Andrew Davies’ inclusion of the “Darcy’s shirt” scene in the 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice; it is an obvious manifestation of what is felt more subtly. The awkwardness of the meeting there might have been slightly lost to a modern audience, but we are capable of recognizing half-dressed-and-dripping as awkward, attractive, and romantic (On Story). 

Fanny’s silence is a key part of her personality but one of the most awkward parts of the Mansfield Park story to bring to film. It is the piece of Fanny’s personality that could be the single most often mangled in movie versions. It is simply harder to adapt an introverted character into one who is relatable on screen because they don’t show or tell loudly. Fanny is described as “too silent” (Austen 199). Silence is her favorite indulgence (225). A “quarter of an hour’s silent consideration” (289) leads to better appreciation of Fanny by other characters. The reason for her silence, in my version, is highlighted for modern audiences by her race. She is the disadvantaged and therefore more silent minority. In Fanny’s disadvantaged position she may feel that she must be even more careful than otherwise in order to avoid unfair condemnation.

We know that Fanny is otherwise “well principled and religious” (298) which could gain greater gradations of meaning from the race-switch as throughout the 19th century religion was associated with abolitionism; this puts an interesting twist on Mary’s opposition to the clergy.  Most movie versions of Mansfield Park that have been made to date do not stress religion, but it should certainly be kept. Perhaps the growing-up montage, often used as a way of pulling Edmund and Fanny closer, could be of Fanny attending church with Edmund.

Mansfield Park is sometimes interpreted as being about slavery, and this race switch could bring out those themes of slavery and repression that seem to underscore the novel, especially as they contribute to Fanny’s character. There are actually only two mentions of the word “slave” in Mansfield Park, which is behind even Emma’s five mentions. Slavery plays an important, though subverted, role in the novel. After all, Mansfield Park is maintained by money from Sir Thomas’s plantations in Antigua (29).

Some, like Anne Mellor and Alex Milsom, have forwarded the idea that Fanny Price is herself in Mansfield Park as an allegory for slavery.  At a young age she was taken from her home to live at the foreign Mansfield Park, and Sir Thomas almost attempts to marry Fanny off for money.  Mellor and Milsom argue Fanny is Cesar, the titular character of Maria Edgeworth’s The Grateful Negro. Edmund, Fanny’s mentor and the font of her opinions, has brought her up like the rest of Mansfield Park to believe that “ungrateful is a strong word” (69) and that she must be eternally grateful (Mellor and Milsom). The Bertrams have, in this train of logic, brought her out of her poor uncivilized squalor with “not half-cleaned knives” (419) and the young Price boys “tumbling about and hallooing” (387) like “untamable” (397) wild things, and to the civilized world (Ferguson). Now she must be grateful like Cesar. Indeed Fanny is almost defined by her gratitude to others (Mellor and Milsom). She is surrounded by people who are “trying to depress” (Austen 335) her, and who keep her out in the hot sun without care for her health (73). It is a “very ill-managed business” (74) but a business all the same.

The master of this business is then Sir Thomas, the “master at Mansfield Park” (375) and abroad. He “repress[es]” the spirits of his children when they are around him, and keeps a tight moral hand “from his plantation to his dressing-room” (219). Even Sir Thomas’s property at home is often referred to as a “plantation.”  The real Lord Mansfield was an abolitionist, which puts an ironic twist on Sir Thomas’s ownership of slaves. He is the wise slave-owner like the one presented in The Grateful Negro. He was benevolently “resolved to be the real . . . patron” (6) of Fanny Price, unlike the stereotypical master-slave relationship. Mrs. Norris is then the cruel overseer for Fanny, to whom Sir Thomas delegates control. She even lives in the “White House” (24) and banishes Fanny to only a small “white” (153) attic.  There is also a general sense of being trapped felt throughout the novel, as in Maria’s “I cannot get out” reference (101).

The name Norris calls to mind John Norris, the Liverpool slaver’s agent who seemed to switch sides from abolitionism to anti-abolitionism as recounted by Thomas Clarkson (Ferguson). This could be seen in the way that Mrs. Norris wanted to bring Fanny into the Mansfield community, but then turns turncoat and doesn’t want Fanny in her own house after all. Then there’s Fanny Price, Mr. Rushworth. Their names both seem to be involved in the cost of matrimony.

Following Sir Thomas’s return from the Antiguan voyage he begins to notice Fanny’s appearance for the first time (only her appearance). He plans the ball, in part, to show her off. The ball given in Fanny’s honor is associated with the balls of Antigua where slaves were sold and shown off (Austen 254; Mellor and Milsom). After the ball Henry Crawford really begins to show interest in Fanny. As Ferguson points out, Fanny’s choice leading up to the ball is literally what chain she should wear. Fanny’s chains are not the cruel chains of total oppression, though; they are also chains of affection. Each is a “token of . . . love” (264).

Thus, as seen through the chains of affection, Fanny’s oppression should not be entirely taken for granted. She does have power in the novel, though of an extremely limited sort. While Fanny’s silence could even be a physical manifestation of her powerlessness, that’s not all there is to it. One of the significant objects from The Grateful Negro is a knife given to Caesar that symbolizes “the way in which slaves become accustomed to doing without the necessities of life” (Mellor and Milsom). Mansfield Park also includes the gift of a knife, which could be seen to symbolize the same things for the Price family. However, Fanny is not on the receiving end. Instead she is able to buy the knife for her sister, thus highlighting both her lack of place and the small amount of power she does enjoy holding over Susan.

One of the pieces of the novel that can offer confusion is the Crawfords’ relationship with Fanny. They seem to be the only characters in the book who really appreciate Fanny, who see that she is not “treated as she ought to be” and undertake to be the ones “to give the consequence so justly her due” (301). Race switching Fanny Price could provide a way into understanding this. The Crawfords are modern townspeople with modern ideas. They have ideas that are, perhaps, especially modern on race relations. They could see Fanny without the blinders on because of this. Yet the quality of their attachments is questionable. Mr. Crawford says he loves Fanny, but then turns around and has an affair with Maria when he gets tired of waiting. Meanwhile Fanny rejects his charming perfection, because of his past actions, which tempts the audience to label her as prudish. Through the use of strategic casting, the race-switch could also be used to clarify this part as well. I would cast Maria as the blonde-haired blue-eyed archetypal beauty. She would be a clear contrast with Fanny’s mode of beauty and, in my version, Julia’s as well. I would use the casting to establish Henry’s “taste” in women as being different from Fanny’s appearance, thus making it more surprising to the viewer when he shows interest in her.  Yet again, it makes the class divide clearer, as she doesn’t know how to “class” (306) Mr. Crawford’s proposal.

This race switch is not simply built on a whim either. A clue could be derived from the title Mansfield Park itself, or rather, Lord Mansfield the anti-slavery judge and Member of Parliament. As others have noted before me (Jones; Bryne), the inspiration for Fanny Price could have been a real person: Lord Mansfield’s niece, Miss Dido Belle Lindsay. What is important about her here is that she was biracial. Dido’s father, a sailor like Mr. Price, brought her back to be raised by Lord Mansfield. Dido was the poor little girl sent to live with rich relations, just like Fanny Price was. Dido and Fanny both have an indistinct place in the house once they arrive. They also both have a more privileged cousin with a place in society who was at the house first; Fanny has the Miss Bertrams and Dido her cousin Elizabeth. They are part of the family in that they are related to it, but made to feel their lower station clearly. Fanny must remember that she is not a “Miss Bertram” (Austen 9). She must “remember, wherever [she is], [she] must be the lowest at last” (223). Outsiders to the households of both Fanny and Dido remark on their not dining out (Austen 51; Jones). Dido and Fanny both run little errands and perform duties related to the running of their homes. Fanny is often running errands that she should not be, prompting Edmund to ask if “nobody [could] be employed on such an errand but Fanny?” (Austen 74). Dido was, according to visitor Thomas Hutchinson, “called upon by my Lord every minute for this thing and that.”

Dido was exotic, as seen through the most prominent piece of surviving evidence that relates to her; the painting of Dido and her cousin Elizabeth. In this painting Dido appears in a feathered Turban and wearing large pearls that accentuate the exoticism of her skin tone (Byrne 3). She was different and that could give her a sort of fascination (Jones).   Henry almost feels this exotic appeal with Fanny, though in a different way. Quite contrary to Dido, Fanny dresses rather plainly. Much is made of “the new dress” (Austen 224) Sir Thomas gives her, even though there is “no finery” (224) in it. For Henry, however, she is a breath of fresh air after the city values that even he himself possesses. Fanny is “new and animating” (329).

Not only did Lord Mansfield have a biracial niece with similarities to Fanny Price, but Austen would have known about Dido’s story. Austen became acquainted with Dido’s cousin Lady Elizabeth later in that lady’s life. This provides a connection with the family of her inspiration (Byrne 224). (Austen found Lady Elizabeth incredibly dull.)  Dido’s story was told in the 2013 movie Belle, starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw in the titular role. I would want to cast Gugu as Fanny Price in my movie to allow for Meta bleeding of the sort found in Bridget Jones’s Diary where Colin Firth plays Mark Darcy.

Both Fanny and Dido lack a place in the family; being biracial makes it easier for the modern audience to understand the divide and placelessness more readily. The women are between the classes and, as I add, between the races without a major group to fit in with. Fanny Price doesn’t quite have a place in the Bertram “family in which she . . . [is] so humble” (Austen 206). When she is at Mansfield she is too low to fit in, but when she is at Portsmouth she is too high.  The ”young ladies” in Portsmouth notice her “airs,” and develop just as much desire to get to know her as she has for them: next to none (401). Being biracial means that one doesn’t quite “fit” into either race, not black and not white, therefore its inclusion plays up the placelessness that is so important to Fanny’s character.

Ultimately, I believe this race change of Fanny Price offers an improvement to the work by highlighting major ideas for the screen medium. It is also not an entirely unjustifiable change to make, given the existence of, and possible inspiration from, Dido Belle. And my biracial Fanny Price, I hope, serves to firmly extend Austen’s influence into our modern day.  She is not there for mere “political correctness,” a token person of color present in the work for no reason but so that there may be one.  Nor is she an attempt to pander to modern audience simply through the appeal of a black protagonist.  I hope she is not a product of revisionism.  Rather, Fanny Price should be biracial because it allows Austen’s text to shine through.  Miss Price’s biracial identity acts as an amplifier for the ideas that Austen has always spoken to including class, repression, merit, and even race. Austen’s voice and Fanny’s character just need a speaker to be understood on the silver screen.

Works Cited
  • Austen, Jane. Mansfield Park. 1814. Penguin Books, 1994.
  • Austin Film Festival. “Deconstructing Jane Austen.” On Story from NPR, February 11, 2017. https://player.fm/series/austin-film-festivals-on-story-podcast/on-story-episode-1706-deconstructing-jane-austen. Accessed 3 March. 2017.
  • Byrne, Paula. Bell: The Slave Daughter and the Lord Chief Justice. Harper Perennial, 2014.
  • Ferguson, Moira. “Mansfield Park: Slavery, Colonialism, and Gender.” Oxford Literary Review, Feb 2012, Vol. 13, No. 1: 118-139.
  • Jones, Christine K. “Ambiguous Cousinship: Mansfield Park and the Mansfield Family.” Persuasions On-Line 31.1 (2010). Accessed 20 Feb. 2017.
  • Mansfield Park. Directed by Patricia Rozema, performances by Frances O’Connor, Jonny Lee Miller, and Alessandro Nivola. BBC Films, 1995.
  • Mansfield Park. Directed by Iain B. MacDonald, performances by Billie Piper, Blake Ritson, and Hayley Atwell. BBC Films, 2007.
  • Mellor, Anne K., and Alex L. Milsom. “Austen's Fanny Price, Grateful Negroes, and the Stockholm Syndrome." The Free Library. 2012 Jane Austen Society of North America 20 Feb. 2017. First published in Persuasions 34 (2012): 222-235.
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