Book Synopsis: ‘We have all been more or less to blame … every one of us, excepting Fanny’ Taken from the poverty of her parents’ home, Fanny Price is brought up with her rich cousins at Mansfield Park, acutely aware of her humble rank and with only her cousin Edmund as an ally. When Fanny’s uncle is absent in Antigua, Mary Crawford and her brother Henry arrive in the neighborhood, bringing with them London glamour and a reckless taste for flirtation. As her female cousins vie for Henry’s attention, and even Edmund falls for Mary’s dazzling charms, only Fanny remains doubtful about the Crawfords’ influence and finds herself more isolated than ever. (Adapted from Goodreads)
2007 Movie Synopsis: At age 10, Fanny Price is sent by her destitute mother to live with her aunt and uncle, Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram. As a child she was often made to feel that she was the poor relation but by the time she reaches 18, and in the absence of her uncle who leaves on a business trip for an extended period, she begins to enjoy herself. When Henry Crawford and his sister Mary become neighbors to the Bertrams, opportunities abound. Edmond Bertram falls in love with Mary but she wants to marry a man with money, not someone destined to life as a clergyman. Meanwhile, Fanny’s love for her cousin Edmond prevents her from accepting Mr. Crawford’s proposal of marriage. (From IMDB)
Themes Explored: death, destitution, family relationships, romance, comedy of manners, classic novels, social mobility, primogeniture, town versus country, rags to riches
Review: First published in 1814, Mansfield Park is Jane Austen’s third published novel. The novel focuses on the story of Fanny Price, beginning with her impoverished family sending her off to live with her wealthy aunt and uncle at the age of 10. Several screen adaptations of the novel exists; however, only the 1983 version truly captures the tone of the novel. Part of the problem with adapting Mansfield Park to the screen lies with the iconic notion of an Austen heroine. Lizzy Bennet from Pride & Prejudice, Emma Woodhouse from Emma, and Elinor Dashwood from Sense and Sensibility all possess a strong independence streak coupled with a deep conviction about their places in the world. Anne Elliot from Persuasion and Catherine Morland from Northanger Abbey, while not as fiery, eventually come into their own. However, Fanny Price does not fit with this model of fierce independence fitting for the period and social structure. Fanny represents a significantly meeker and rather bland heroine. Nearly all movie or television adaptations of the novel try to make Fanny into a slightly less independent version of Lizzy Bennet and this character change does not work within the confines of the narrative. The 2007 ITV adaptation is, by the far, the most egregious adaptation.
Mansfield Park follows the life of Fanny Price after she comes to live with her wealthy uncle and aunt, Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram. Fanny’s mother, Lady Bertram’s sister, married down, socially speaking. Mr. Price, a sailor, drinks excessively and can no longer work due to a disability. Desperate to make ends meet, Fanny’s mom convinces her sister to raise Fanny. Once at Mansfield, Fanny endures continual abuse from by other aunt, Mrs. Norris, a busybody who runs the estate. While Fanny is shy and unassuming, the Bertram daughters, Maria and Julia, are obsessed with marrying above their rank and wearing the latest fashions. Tom Bertram, the heir, spoiled by wealth spends most of his time drinking. Edmund Bertram, the younger son, plans to enter the clergy. Due to her impoverished state, Fanny grows up shy and deferential with only Edmund as a real friend.
Like other Austen novels, Mansfield Park examines a young woman trying to find her place in the social order. Fanny eventually determines her social status through marriage. As women could not enter a profession, only marriage could raise them or lower them down on the social ladder. Fanny’s mother fell downwards, her aunt Lady Bertram and her cousin Maria do fairly well by marrying. While the marriages of others have been formulated based on beauty and family connections, Fanny “earns” her marriage based upon her pure character. Virtue is Fanny’s defining feature and the one factor that determines her fate.
Austen makes the point in this novel that country life can also have an element of corruption, which makes this her most socially aware narrative. Sir Thomas Bertram leaves the narrative for nearly a third of the story in order to tend to business interests in the Caribbean. The Bertram’s own a sugar plantation, which, given the time, uses slave labor. This fact comes up when Fanny asks Sir Thomas about the slave trade. As the man of the house, Sir Thomas serves as the moral compass, more or less. When he leaves, the family goes astray.
In a highly mobile world, like the one that existed in 1814, where people move from Bath to London to the country every few months, it becomes nearly impossible to know anyone’s character since most of their lives occur out of your view. As such, sincerity becomes a crucial quantity. The possibility that someone might be acting is a sincere paranoia when deciding upon a marriage partner. Fanny’s withdrawn nature and shyness makes her proper young woman, but also provides an excellent defense against dishonest suitors. This behavior also serves to highlight the differences between Fanny and the Bertram sisters. While Fanny does her best to stay consistent with her values and upbringing, Maria and Julia change their personalities based upon whom they are trying to impress. Unsurprisingly, Fanny ends up living a more fulfilled life than the ones her cousins chose. In a world where virtue mattered, Fanny reigns supreme.
Part of the problem with Mansfield Park lies in Fanny’s relationship with Edmund. They live in the same house and are, essentially, “siblings”. Once they reach adulthood, Edmund begins looking for a wife, as befits his station in life. Fanny does not attract many suitors due to her impoverished state. Indeed, if she cannot find a decently well off husband, Fanny faces a life of uncertainty as her social station rests solely on the good intentions of her uncle and cousin. Fanny and Edmund eventually end marrying each other and this outcome is supposed to make the reader to feel uncomfortable. Edmund chooses Fanny after his first choice turned out to be lacking in character. Given Fanny’s virtue, their shared history, and her devotion to him, Edmund marries her instead. Unlike Pride & Prejudice, Mansfield Park is not a romantic novel. Instead, it is more an expose on society’s views on home life, virtue, marriage, and sincerity. Fanny never really had an option in life due to her station and Edmund wanted a respectable wife. By society’s standards, they made a perfect pair.
Now, onto the movie. Billie Piper, mostly famous for being in Doctor Who and Secret Diary of a Call Girl, plays Fanny Price. Jenna Redgrave and Douglas Hodge portray Lady and Sir Bertram. James D’Arcy and Blake Ritson (most famous for playing Mr. Elton in the 2009 version of Emma) portray Tom and Edmund Bertram, with Michelle Ryan and Catherine Steadman as Maria and Julia. All in all, this is a fairly solid cast with enough talent to make a compelling adaptation. However, the screenwriter seemed to have forgotten to read the novel when writing the 2007 adaptation. Given the short run time of 90 minutes, a majority of the narrative was cut due to time constraints. Unfortunately, some of these changes hurts the underlying integrity of the story.
Nearly all of the action take place on the grounds of Mansfield Park. None of the other locations explored in the book make an appearance in the movie. This includes the neighboring Rectory of Mrs. Grant where the Crawford’s reside, the cottage of Mrs. Norris, the estate of Mr. Rushworth, Sotherton Court, and the Price family residence in Portsmouth. While these deletions shortened the run time, cutting out the action that occurred there really hampered the development of all the characters.
Billie Piper played Fanny too modern and tomboyish. The Fanny depicted in the novel would never run through her Uncle’s house or look like her hair had never met a comb. Part of the problems lays with the script, which cut out ninety percent of Fanny’s dialogue. This version of Fanny did not have a lot to say and was relegated to background with a stone-faced expression or simpering on cue when needed to show “emotion”. During the climactic scene where Fanny opposes her Uncle Thomas’ wish for her to accept Henry Crawford’s proposal, the character was so marginalized I could not believe this version of the character was capable of pleading her case so passionately. Edmund Bertram’s best scenes, unfortunately, did not occur with the heroine, but with Mary Crawford. His best scene occurred when ending his infatuation with Mary.
Of all the performances, Michelle Ryan’s portrayal of Maria Bertram came the closest to the character’s depiction in the novel. When on screen, Ryan dominated the scene and demanded the viewer’s complete attention. Unfortunately she did not have nearly enough to do in this version.
In this version of Mansfield Park, most of the young women tend to display a rather out of period amount of cleavage. Billie Piper, who plays Fanny, has bleached blonde hair that grew during production. Towards the latter half of the film, the roots do not match the rest of her hair. Given the time, a lady from a respectable household would not possess multi-colored hair. In addition, Fanny always wears her hair down, which is a style only appropriate for young girls. A young woman who participates in social events containing non-family members would wear her hair up. Henry Crawford and Edmund Bertram both sported rather unsightly mops of hair more appropriate for members of a boyband than members of the British aristocracy.
Perhaps the most egregious decision was to cut out Fanny’s trip to Portsmouth, where her parents and siblings live. Sir Thomas sent Fanny back to Portsmouth in order to induce her to marry Henry. This scene plays a pivotal role in the novel since it solidified exactly what Fanny would be giving up if Sir Thomas kicked her out of the family. Instead of being sent away from Mansfield to Portsmouth and witnessing poverty firsthand, in this version the Bertram’s merely leave her behind when they go to London. Being left behind at a huge estate, with servants at her beck and call, did not have the same power as the trip to Portsmouth. After years of waiting on everyone hand and foot, having an estate all to oneself would seem more like a break from responsibility than a lesson on poverty. This change that does a disservice to Fanny’s characterization and robs her of a critical moment of development.
Other than the name and the characters, this version of Mansfield Park bears little resemblance to the novel. As long as you are not expecting an adaptation of the novel and merely want to watch a decent semi-accurate costume drama, this version is okay.
Mansfield Park, Penguin Classics, 2003 reprint, ISBN: 9780141439808
Mansfield Park 2007 Movie
Musings on Books and movies
Musings on Books and movies