Rereading (and Re-watching): ‘Mansfield Park’ by Jane Austen
Join me as I rant about Jane Austen’s classic morality tale for probably far longer than necessary (seriously: buckle in, Janeites, it’s going to be a bumpy ride) in this week’s edition of “Rereadings.”
For a long time, I irrevocably tied together Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park with its 1999 film adaptation. Indeed, I believe I saw the movie first and then tackled the book. Consequently, perhaps, I enjoyed the book rather more than I would have under other circumstances.
The film’s version of protagonist Fanny Price bears almost no resemblance to the book version, although both generally make the same decisions for generally the same reasons. However, film-Fanny did these things with a fiery spunk and thoroughly modern attitude that would be utterly anathema to book-Fanny. Film-Fanny was given literary pretensions (she’s an aspiring writer, like young Austen herself, and reads voraciously) as an explanation for occasional social awkwardness while book-Fanny is your garden variety introvert, no further explanation required.
Film-Fanny was, in short, an utter anachronism, but one that aligned nicely with late-nineties pop feminism. The film reimagined Fanny Price to fit within 1990s female empowerment and, at the time, I ate it up. I loved her frustration with society’s confinements. I loved her dreams of writerly success. (Something film-Fanny shared with another of my favorite literarily-inclined firebrands, Jo March.) And I loved her slow-burn love affair with cousin Edmund.
So, when I read the book shortly after seeing the film, I overlayed the film’s version of the story on top of the actual book. In consequence, I loved the book, too. I felt closer to Fanny Price than I did to any other Austen heroine. I knew I was no Elizabeth Bennett or either Dashwood sister. I was an introvert, quiet and bookish myself, and reveled in the mixture of film- and book-Fanny provided in Mansfield Park.
For some reason or other, I was lately inspired to revisit both versions of Mansfield Park. I started reading the book and, midway, paused to watch the 1999 film and then finished the book a couple of weeks later. In these revisits, I was shocked at how little either compared to my memory of them.
I found the film stuffed with melodrama and anachronism. The costumes of each character hardly seemed to come from the same century as the others (some were too racy and others too much like dress at a Renaissance Faire — they enacted something vaguely accurate, but without any actual accuracy). Fanny’s willfulness and “feminism” seemed entirely out of place. The themes of social injustice and racism were casually brushed, but in the end rather pointlessly introduced since they served no real function in the narrative. And Fanny’s incessant breaking of the third wall had me about ready to claw my eyes out. At least Jonny Lee Miller was still a great Edmund, I consoled myself.
Meanwhile, rereading Mansfield Park was also an exercise in rediscovery. I felt like I had never actually read the book. It was all entirely new to me, but not terribly exciting. I found I could only read the book in short snatches as it moved at its glacial pace towards its moral, but not-terribly-revelatory conclusion.
While other criticisms I have read of Mansfield Park center on Fanny’s inappropriateness as heroine (she’s too mousy or too quiet or some variation), I actually found her to be a rather refreshing literary portrayal of a true introvert. Usually our heroes and heroines are extroverts so, even if they feel awkward sometimes, their natural inclination to speak up and out serves them well in the end. The introvert (as has been pointed out by Susan Cain) gets pretty short shrift typically and his or her natural talents (patience, thoughtfulness, deepness) are most often left unexplored in literature. Mansfield Park provides quite possibly the finest portrayal of true introvertism I’ve ever read. And I can certainly appreciate and applaud Fanny for that.
Additionally, I think Fanny is a product of her circumstances. She has been reared by pretty much everyone to believe herself less-than and her reticence to be a bother or to speak up for herself is a result of that.
Which brings me to Mr. Edmund Bertram. Based mostly on film-Edmund, I used to like Edmund a lot. He was always there for Fanny, even when she wouldn’t/couldn’t/didn’t speak up for herself, and was generally the only person who was nice to her. He encouraged her active intellectual life, nurtured her, and generally appreciated her when no one else did. Very good qualities in a hero, I thought.
However, in rereading Mansfield, I came to find Edmund the most irritating character in a bushel already full of rather irritating people. He was sanctimonious; he was easily persuaded into almost anything despite moral, logical, or even practical considerations; and he was utterly incapable of accurately judging people in the face of obvious physical charms (see: the Crawfords both).
Added to those qualities was his only semi-considerate treatment of Fanny. Yes, he was sometimes there for her, but he just as often left her to the wolves if he was remotely distracted by his own thoughts or problems. And on top of all this, he had the audacity to frequently lecture Fanny on her character and her decision-making, as if he were some kind of paragon in either regard. (Fanny clearly thought him so, but she was also brainwashed from an early age to think that way by Edmund himself.)
Edmund’s relative worthlessness as a catch for Fanny is born out by their “love story” being relegated to the summing up at the end of the book where Austen ties up loose ends in the last three pages or so. It is about two paragraphs worth of narrative for anyone sticking around to see if things work out for ole Fanny Price. With this placement and brevity, Austen seems to say that Mansfield Park is entirely about the Bertrams relations with the Crawfords — once the Crawfords exit stage left in disgrace, Fanny and Edmund’s happy ending together hardly even worth relating. They already have their actual happy endings in avoiding connection with the immoral Crawfords. The fact that they love and marry each other is presented as almost inconsequential.
Mansfield Park, and Fanny particularly, has also been criticized for its casual attitude towards slavery. Sir Thomas’ source of wealth — he owns a plantation in Antigua — is readily identified and he eventually travels there on business, disappearing for much of the middle of the book along with his elder son, Tom. Beyond that, however, no comment is provided. In response, critics have claimed that Fanny (and Austen herself) tacitly approves of the slave trade with her silence.
This seems a bit of a leap for me, particularly since Fanny is only person in the entire book to try and discuss the situation with her uncle. While the rest of the characters seem content to never think too deeply on where their money and comfort comes from, Fanny purposefully brings it up with Sir Thomas.
“Your uncle is disposed to be pleased with you in every respect; and I only wish you would talk to him more. You are one of those who are too silent in the evening circle.”
“But I do talk to him more than I used. I am sure I do. Did not you hear me ask him about the slave-trade last night?”
“I did — and was in hopes the question would be followed up by others. It would have pleased your uncle to be inquired of farther.”
“And I longed to do it — but there was such a dead silence! And while my cousins were sitting by without speaking a word, or seeming at all interested in the subject, I did not like — I thought it would appear as if I wanted to set myself off at their expense, by shewing a curiosity and pleasure in his information which he must wish his own daughters to feel.” [my emphasis in all cases]
Not only has Fanny asked her uncle about his business in Antigua, she specifically inquires about the slave trade, bringing attention to the least socially acceptable and most troublesome aspect of Sir Thomas’ business. The slave trade was outlawed in England in 1808, six years before Mansfield Park takes place. Contrary to criticism that she is either approving or willfully ignorant of Sir Thomas’ business, Fanny shows perspicacity in questioning her uncle as she does, even if it doesn’t go very far due to her own innate shyness.
Also, I think Austen herself deserves props for even bringing it up. Sir Thomas’ wealth could have been left entirely out of the narrative — there are plenty of unexplained wealthy characters in her novels — but she chose to raise the topic and make it fairly central, in that she dispatches two of her main characters to Antigua for a length of time. While she doesn’t focus on slavery deeply, she raises awareness of the situation and suggests the question of its morality in a society where the slave trade has been outlawed at home, but not throughout the Empire. These are two very important places to begin a discussion.
I’ve likely ranted about this book long enough, so where does that leave my rereading? I certainly got much more out of the book than I did the first time around. It was a leisurely reread over the course of many weeks (in keeping with my vow to stop pressuring myself to read at a clip if I don’t want to!), which gave me the opportunity to think about it more seriously than I usually would.
In the end, even though I went into this revisit liking the film version more, I think I probably won’t watch the movie again. But I will almost certainly reread the book someday. Fanny is not Austen’s finest heroine, but she feels the most like a real person. And Edmund is no dreamy hero, but he also behaves like a person, with foibles and blindspots, and shows as much improvement over the course of the book as any Darcy out there. At least he eventually recognizes his own flaws and notices how great his own “dear Fanny” is. He should get points for that, right?
So, if anyone has made it this far in my ramblings, tell me what you think of Mansfield Park. Part of the fun in rereading classics, or just reading them for the first time, is the discussion they seem to spark every single time!