By Margaux Williamson
(I was having a great leisurely day and I went to the video store wanting something familiar and expensive. I picked out Mansfield Park, a movie by Patricia Rozema based on the Jane Austen book of the same name. The characters in Jane Austen’s work spend most of their time having complicated thoughts about intellect, about how to judge others and about their own emotions (how to have them, how to control them). I didn’t read a Jane Austen novel till I was 21. Prior to that I had always figured that most people have virtues and flaws in equal measure, even if the specifics of those virtues and flaws are very different. I figured the good and the bad are just highlighted or more deeply shadowed in different contexts. So from that logic, it seemed reasonable for people to move around a bit, till they find the best place to stand. Somehow it really had never occurred to me how much value or worthlessness one can ascribe to another human being until Jane Austen came along. The books are always a bit foreign to me, but they are always a complicated pleasure.
There was something wrong with the DVD or my DVD player and near the end of the movie – the top of the image went askew. So for about 15 crucial minutes of the movie, people’s heads were pretty far away from their bodies. It was pretty distracting.)
Fanny Price is sent off at the age of ten on a horse-drawn carriage, away from poverty and towards a mansion. When she arrives at the mansion, she starts a new life as a half relative/ half servant to her mother’s extended family, the Bertrams. The only person who is kind to her is her cousin Edmund Bertram, a virtuous young man who will eventually become a clergyman.
Fanny Price, and her four Bertram cousins all grow up together at Mansfield Park. In the day-to-day Fanny is often overlooked and disrespected (because of her different class background and unremarkable looks). It is easy to feel for her and the injustice of her specific situation, and easy to see that, though overlooked, she is intelligent and is watching everything. The bulk of the action takes place in 1808 when Fanny and her cousins are young adults. The narrative primarily involves other people in and around the household taking action and making mistakes. Fanny Price, however, takes no action and makes no mistakes. Fanny Price’s greatest virtue, in the end, is that she is the last one standing, having made no grave mistakes at all. Like a pay-off from a Hollywood movie, all of Fanny Price’s judgments and suspicions regarding the failings of others’ characters are proven to be sound.
Needless to say, she is difficult to fall in love with. In this movie, she continues to be difficult to fall in love with. In the book, Fanny Price is a bit dull, morbidly shy, pious and reserved with her compliments. Here in the movie, Fanny Price is stronger, more modern, less dull and more confident. I can imagine Rozema wanting to make Fanny Price more of a contemporary feminist hero, but the new qualities placed in the same frame create some weird side effects.
Now that she is more confident (and so therefore, more like the other young adults around) Fanny Price’s judgments (regarding love-choices, the worthiness of the arts, the vanity of women, the faults of people’s pasts) seem more harsh and also more confusing. Here, when we see her reserved pleasure at the eventual misfortune of others (valueless characters who were once cruel to her) we think: fair enough. Though now that here we can see her smile, and the modern glint in her eye, it all looks a little bit more like revenge.
To complicate matters, this Fanny Price comes into contact with damning information regarding her uncle’s involvement in the slave trade (in the book, it is more of a cryptic and passing reference). Now, the small protest Fanny Price musters for this occasion seems so inadequate and out of proportion to the clever judgments she formed against an adulterer, a snob, a cynical woman and a lovesick idiot.
Her uncle switches his business to the tobacco industry, and life at Mansfield Park pretty much continues as normal. I’m not sure if it’s the early 19th century time period or the jarring of two different time periods that make this forgiving and forgetting feel so morally confusing and foreign.
These criticisms made me think of Jane Austen in a new way. It made me think more about what resources are possible if one’s mobility is taken away by societal restraints or by one’s own fear of displacement. Suddenly it seemed as though trees would be the most judgmental but forgiving, and the ocean the most generous but fleeting. If you are not free to go, maybe the ability to judge is one of your rare weapons – and forgiveness, a necessity.
Fanny Price marries the soon-to-be clergyman Edmund Bertam, the only person she seems to like. In the last scene of the movie, they walk arm in arm across the garden and into a house – still contained within the boundaries of Mansfield Park. Edmund suggests to Fanny a title for the book she has been working on (in this movie, Fanny Price is a writer). After he suggests a title, Fanny Price laughs, “That’s a terrible title” she says as they get smaller on the screen and the credits start to rise. Good luck Edmund! I think to myself.