I’ve been amazed at the success of the Jane Austen industry in recent years. Fan though I am, I never could have predicted the hunger for movie and television versions of her novels, movie biographies of the author, sequels to Pride and Prejudice, horror versions of her novels, novels where characters from different novels interact, a novel and movie about a Jane Austen book club, Jane Austen conduct manuals, and on and on.
Although, as a cultural historian, I’m fascinated by the phenomenon, I’m disappointed that no one seems to properly appreciate the historical situations of the novels. The quandaries faced by Austen’s heroines are far more complex, and far more foreign to us, than these modern adaptations realize. If we were just to watch the movies of Austen’s novels, we would underestimate just how heroic her young women are.
Patricia Rozema sells Fanny Price short in Mansfield Park (1999) and Ang Lee does the same with Elinor Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility (1994). As I’m teaching Mansfield Park at the moment, I’ll discuss it today and save Lee’s Sense and Sensibility for a future Film Friday.
Jane Austen takes a real chance in Mansfield Park: she creates a heroine that seems rather dull. Fanny is no Elizabeth Bennett, no Elinor or Marianne Dashwood. Rather, she is a poor relation who, at ten, is thrust into the Bertram household and then all but ignored. In contrast to her cousins Maria and Julia, who are beautiful and accomplished, Fanny comes across as a bit of a mouse and a bit of a prude. Everyone around her is so absorbed in his or her own affairs that only her cousin Edmund pays attention to her, and even he at times forgets about her. The only one who never forgets her is her dreadful aunt Norris, herself in an insecure position, who bullies her whenever the opportunity arises.
And yet Fanny proves to be one of Austen’s most remarkable heroines. While (not surprisingly) she has little self-confidence and no reason to believe her opinions should be respected, she refuses a marriage proposal from the engaging rake Henry Crawford. By the standards of the time and in the view of all around her, the proposal is a spectacular accomplishment. Despite having no money of her own, she attracts the book’s most eligible bachelor, the man that Maria and Julia both want. But she has seen him toy with her cousins and has no faith in his character.
The pressure to accept Henry’s proposal is intense, especially from Sir Thomas, the grim patriarch who has always terrified Fanny. Nor is she helped by her beloved cousin Edmund, who is determined that she fit into his fantasy of a double marriage with the Crawfords (he is in love with Henry’s sister). Sir Thomas even tries to soften her up by sending her home to her impoverished family, and the tactic almost works. Yet she sticks to her guns
So how does Rozema handle her? Hollywood today, just like Austen’s society, wants a glamorous heroine and won’t settle for anything less. The Fanny that Jane Austen depicts would be too moralistic and uninteresting to attract a mass audience. One has to be attuned to subtlety of character to appreciate her. Rozema therefore turns her into a woman far more like Elizabeth Bennett and has her played by the vivacious actor Frances O’Connor.
The plot, as a result, becomes a modern feminist drama about a quasi-orphan who rebels against the oppressive circumstances and rigid social conventions in which she has been placed. (In this respect the movie reminds me of the Australian film My Brilliant Career.) This creates problems towards the end of the movie since, when propriety is violated, the previously unconventional Fanny appears to suddenly become conventional. Mary Crawford, by contrast, seems the real rebel. Movie viewers who do not know the book leave the theater confused.
What Rozema misses is that Austen is not against social conventions. In fact, she’s fairly conservative. But she’s conservative in the deepest and best way. We need social conventions, she feels, because, without them, unscrupulous people victimize others. While Henry and Mary Crawford, with their charm and money, seem to be free spirits, they are actually shallow and narcissistic. All the others, and the director as well, seem taken in.
Fanny is an admirable character because she is the only one who can see through them. Her stand in favor of propriety is a stand, not in favor of mere conformity, but of integrity. She maintains that stand even when all the world is against her. This takes tremendous courage, and the fact that Austen makes her quiet and shy causes us to admire her all the more. This dynamic is missing in the movie.