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Fanny Price in Her Own Words: A Reality Television Adaptation

Film adaptations of Jane Austen’s novels often favor plot over the rich interiority of the characters. “If film were to reproduce that interiority,” writes John Wiltshire in Recreating Jane Austen, “it must adopt its own distinct means” (88). One means of reproducing the interiority, realism, and the formal daring of Jane Austen might be to adapt Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park as an English period costume drama using reality television techniques. Jane Austen’s enduring popularity suggests that fans are willing to visit and revisit her work. Incorporating a modern genre—reality television—emphasizes a film’s interpretation of a novel. A new reality television adaptation (emulating The Bachelor, Survivor, etc.) dramatizes personal conflict in lifelike situations, emphasizes setting, uses a host in the role of a narrator, and invites characters to speak for themselves. On screen, confessional clips imitate the close psychological representation of Mansfield Park’s characters. Incorporating stylistic daring, an episodic representation of Mansfield Park—part reality television, part costume drama—faithfully reinterprets Jane Austen’s novel and offers insight into the characters’ internal conflicts. 

Adding elements of reality television to a costume drama plays with realism, but also recognizes Jane Austen’s stylistic daring. As John Mullan has argued in What Matters in Jane Austen, her “technical audacity . . . introduced free indirect style to English fiction” (3). Austen filtered “her plots through the consciousness of her characters” and perfected “fictional idiolect” (Mullan 3). Film emulates free indirect style through point-of-view shots; the reality television confessional mirrors the psychological insight of Mansfield Park by filtering information through the characters’ voices. When combined, these techniques present a method of preserving Austen’s “formal daring” and “psychological insight” (Mullan 3). The adaptation reimagines a beloved novel for an audience familiar with Austen and invites new audiences.

Today Jane Austen’s audience has exposure to new art forms, such as television. Adopting techniques from reality television emphasizes the difference between Austen’s work and today’s interpretations. As an American, any adaption I attempt might be considered an infringement on a national English treasure. If, as Henry Crawford claims, Shakespeare “is part of an Englishman’s constitution,” then Austen is probably part of an Englishwoman’s constitution (338). Viewers expect the setting, cast, and music of an Austen adaptation to be English in order to preserve the integrity of the work. In Jane Austen’s Cults and Cultures, Claudia L. Johnson notes how Jane Austen’s works typify English culture: they are inextricable from their cultural context. The costume drama mimics the novel’s cultural context, but reality television underscores cultural and temporal differences. Although modern elements diverge from Austen’s literariness, the traditions of the costume drama, such as the period settings, costumes, and music, satisfy the visual aesthetics and the English cultural expectations of Austen’s work.

New techniques freshly dramatize a lasting artwork. Through scripted reality television voice-overs, a host adopts the role of Austen’s narrator. Functioning as a moderator, this cast member comments ironically on the proceedings, as Austen’s narrator does. For example, over a montage of Maria Bertram’s wedding to Mr. Rushworth, the narrator conveys the dry wit and the ironic touch for which Jane Austen is known. The host’s description acknowledges that delay in preparations “would have been an evil” because Maria had already prepared for marriage with a “hatred of home, restraint, and tranquility” as well as “misery” (202). The host emulates Jane Austen’s narrator to replicate Austen’s humorous commentary, often absent from cinematic adaptations, but crucial to her literary style.

If a host faithfully transposes the narrator, the content lengthens the adaptation’s runtime. The 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice exemplifies how fidelity benefits from length. When adapting Mansfield Park, a writer might be tempted to delete backstory, such as the story of Fanny’s arrival at Mansfield Park, in order to preserve integral scenes, such as those from Lovers’ Vows or William’s visit to Mansfield Park, and maintain the integrity of the work. Television and film have been ineffective at highlighting a novel’s interiority, especially for complex works, such as Mansfield Park. Though never a perfect copy of the novel, a hybrid of reality television and costume drama techniques especially suits a serialized production and preserves the novel’s drama, irony, and tension.

Through thoughtful mimicry, reality television techniques augment Austen’s free indirect style for her characters. Camera work, lighting, and staging designed around the characters’ perception of events reflect Austen’s free indirect style. The format allows Fanny Price, Mary Crawford, Maria Bertram, Henry Crawford, and others to voice internal thoughts and report on their interactions and on each other. For example, when Sir Thomas pressures Fanny to accept Henry Crawford, the scene is largely written from Sir Thomas Bertram’s perspective and describes Fanny crying bitterly when Sir Thomas accuses her of “ingratitude” (319). Mirroring the novel’s free indirect style, the camera focuses on Fanny, trapped in a powerful silence and struggling to articulate an apology in response. Additionally, a reality television confessional allows, as Austen did, Sir Thomas Bertram to speak for himself and realize his own errors in judgment: for example, his moment of parental anagnorisis, when he vocalizes “how ill he had judged” (463). Shot in a style of intimate reflection staged with a map of Antigua as the backdrop, Sir Thomas’s confessional presents both subtext and interiority. Techniques borrowed from reality television offer a unique means of reproducing “fictional idiolect” (Mullan 3).

The loss of interiority presents a unique challenge in the transfer between a novel and a screen. Adaptations of Mansfield Park have altered Fanny Price’s character in order to make her heroic to current audiences, but if the integrity of the work is to be preserved, then her authentic character should be presented. In the novel’s text, Fanny’s confessionals make the book her story, and her strength lies in her ability to elicit both sympathy and frustration. When, after much disapproval, Edmund expresses his decision to act in Lovers’ Vows, Fanny explains in confessional:

To be acting! After all his objections—objections so just and so public! . . . Could it be possible? Edmund so inconsistent. Was he not deceiving himself? Was he not wrong? Alas! It was all Miss Crawford’s doing . . . her influence in every speech . . . Her cousins might attack . . . and if at last obliged to yield—no matter—it was all misery now. (156-7)

The camera’s interview with Fanny captures her soliloquy, and her private outburst counteracts her submissive behavior in other scenes. Both sides of Fanny’s character get screen time. Where previous adaptations (1999, 2007) have tended to treat Fanny as the Bertrams or Miss Norris would—asking Fanny to act as they should like her to be—the model of a confessional encourages her to speak for herself. “By temperament and training self-effacing,” writes John Wiltshire in The Hidden Jane Austen, Fanny “does rarely assert herself: but that – in contrast to her intense inner life – is the point” (102). If Fanny’s character lives in the contrast between expectations of behavior and the inner workings of her desires, then pairing her self-sacrificing conduct with passionate asides becomes a way to critique the demands placed on her character. A screenplay written with reality television confessionals portrays Fanny as a sympathetic character by portraying Fanny’s passionate inner life. The cinematic narrative stays faithful to the conflict in Fanny’s character in order to represent the subversion of Fanny’s repression.

Additionally, private character interviews allow a greater range of interior and exterior renditions than previous Austen adaptations. Films of Mansfield Park (1999, 2007) dramatize the matchmaking of Fanny Price, but reality television confessionals offer a unique means to portray Fanny Price’s crucial psychological growth. This approach complements academic analyses. In The Hidden Jane Austen, John Wiltshire describes Austen’s narrative as “devoted to the gradual disclosure of that selfhood’s natural insurgency and of the ways, or techniques, Fanny uses to manage her own unacceptable, and even rebellious emotions” (98). Fanny’s repressed selfhood undermines her self-confidence and yet equips her with remarkable resilience. For example, Sir Thomas notes her self-assertion disapprovingly when he attempts to scold her into accepting matrimony with Henry Crawford:

I had thought you peculiarly free from willfulness of temper, self-conceit, and every tendency to that independence of spirit, which prevails so much in modern days, even in young women, and in which in young women is offensive and disgusting beyond all common offense. But you have shewn me that you can be willful and perverse, that you can and will decide for yourself . . . (318)

The Bertrams have long perceived Fanny’s strength as her selflessness and gratitude, but when she demonstrates self-sovereignty, her uncle derides her as “willful” and “modern.” By denying Sir Thomas control of her choice, Fanny models resistance in a setting where she has been expected to forgo her independence in order to please others. Sir Thomas criticizes her refusal as “self-conceited,” a hypocritical insult coming from a man with Sir Thomas’s pride. In contrast, when his own daughter Maria Bertram accepted matrimony with Mr. Rushworth, Sir Thomas cautioned her that the connection should be “entirely given up, if she felt herself unhappy in the prospect of it” (200). A cinematic recreation would benefit from depicting how Fanny, formed by others’ expectations of her and desirous of pleasing her uncle, becomes motivated to resist Sir Thomas’s counsels. The scene has a rich subtext; it acts as a subversive critique of the demands placed on Fanny. Confessional interviews modeled on reality television portray Fanny Price’s psychological growth, the conflict between her interior thoughts and her outward action, and her “natural insurgency” (Wiltshire, Hidden 98).

By incorporating reality television’s techniques into a costume drama, a new adaptation of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park embraces formal daring to reproduce the novel’s interiority, subversion, and free indirect speech. The style preserves Fanny Price’s inner and outer duality and brings the artful irony in Mansfield Park to the surface. Characters in both reality television and Mansfield Park assume that anyone at the center of attention is valuable, that is, specifically worthy of attention. Fanny Price destabilizes this superficial assumption. A sympathetic Fanny Price in a modern movie undermines the notion that anyone loud enough to demand attention deserves it. Using costume drama to highlight the scripted roles of reality television also subverts the modern artifice of reality television. In other words, dressing reality television in the guise of a costume drama emphasizes its unrealistic nature and encourages self-reflexivity in “realistic” genres. By integrating character confessionals, narrations, and the drama of reality television, a hybrid adaptation of Mansfield Park pays tribute to Jane Austen’s lasting influence.

Works Cited
  • Austen, Jane.  Mansfield Park. Oxford U Pr., 1982.
  • Mullan, John. What Matters in Jane Austen?: Twenty Crucial Puzzles Solved. Bloomsbury, 2013.
  • Johnson, Claudia L. Jane Austen's Cults and Cultures. U of Chicago, 2012.
  • Wiltshire, John. The Hidden Jane Austen. Cambridge UP, 2014.
  • Wiltshire, John. Recreating Jane Austen. Cambridge UP, 2001.
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