Sunday, August 31, 2014

Austen in August: Mansfield Park

I know that many, many people in the blogosphere are writing about Mansfield Park this year, mostly because it's the bicentenary of its publication.  This is my second reading of the book, though technically, it's a listen, since I have the wonderful Naxos audiobook version narrated by the brilliant Juliet Stevenson (who played Mrs. Elton in the 1996 version of Emma).

If you don't know the set up, here's the short version:  Fanny Price is the poor cousin of the wealthy Bertrams who live in Mansfield Park.  She's the daughter of one of the three Ward sisters -- the one who made a crap marriage and is living in Portsmouth with a drunkard and a passel of kids.  One of her aunts married a wealthy landowner, Sir Thomas Bertram, and the other married a clergyman who got the living at the local parish.  This sister, known as Aunt Norris, gets the bright idea to take one of her sister's kids off her parents hands, though she actually pawns her off to her sister and wealthy brother in law -- brilliant!

So young Fanny comes to live in a strange house at the age of ten, and every one pretty much treats her like crap, except the second brother, Edmund, who's actually nice to her.  Things get interesting when Fanny turns 18 and Aunt Norris' husband dies.  The living is assigned to another clergyman, Dr. Grant, who brings his wife and is shortly followed by Mrs. Grant's half-sister and half-brother, Mary and Henry Crawford, who proceed to stir up all kinds of trouble with the Bertrams.  Henry flirts with both the daughters, Julia and Maria (who is engaged to a wealthy but boring guy), and Mary sets her sights on Edmund, to the chagrin of Fanny, who's secretly in love with him.  So, lots of love triangles in sight.

I hadn't actually read this in several years -- I actually tried listening to the audio last year, but I got so disgusted by the dishrag personality of Fanny Price I got bored and gave up halfway through.  I only gave it another go because I'm gearing up for the upcoming Annual General Meeting of the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA), which I'm attending in October.  This year the theme is Mansfield Park, so I though I'd better give Fanny and company another chance.  And I was very glad I did, because I liked it so much better this time around.

Frances O'Connor as Fanny and Alessandro Nivola as Henry Crawford.  

I was really inspired to try it again after reading this wonderful essay by Paula Byrne, author of Jane Austen:  A Life in Small Things.  Byrne points out that instead of an innocent girl going from the country to the big city and being corrupted, the Crawfords come to the country and corrupt everyone around them.  It's also Austen's sexiest novel.  Mary Crawford makes her infamous quip about "rears and vices;" also, there's a lot of symbolism when Henry is trying to corrupt cousin Maria.  So, I gave it another try, and was very glad that I did.  Yes, Fanny's a little wimpy, but she's really a product of her environment.  Nobody except Edmund has paid much attention to her, other than to treat her as a de facto servant, like Aunt Bertram or Aunt Norris, or to constantly put her in her place, like Julia and Maria -- and Aunt Norris, who spends the entire book trying to beat her down.

The lovely Penguin clothbound classic.  Those are the gold chains that Fanny wears to her first ball -- will she choose the one given to her by her cousin Edmund, or by Mary Crawford?

This time, I really enjoyed Austen's dry wit as she describes Aunt Norris' hypocrisy, the self-absorption of Aunt Bertram, and Edmund's starry-eyed adoration of Mary Crawford.  All the faults and foibles of the Bertram clan are filtered through the eyes of Fanny, the novel's moral center. Sure, sometimes she's a bit too wimpy for my taste, but all the other characters are so well developed I can give her a pass.  Lord Bertram is a lot nicer than I remembered, and Aunt Norris is by far one of the most delicious villains in English literature.  Henry Crawford is kind of charming yet sleazy, and I kept wanting to shake some sense into both Fanny and Edmund.  If I liked Fanny's character better, it would be one of my top novels by Austen.

And now I'm going to have to watch one or both of the Mansfield Park adaptations available on DVD.  Years ago, I fell in love with the story after watching Patricia Rozema's 1999 film adaptation (before I'd actually read the book).  After becoming a devout Janeite, I discovered that many people pooh-pooh this version though I can't see that the more recent 2007 version is any better.  I still think the casting in the 1999 version is spot-on, though Frances O'Connor plays Fanny as a little spunkier than she is in the book.  The casting of Billie Piper as Fanny in the 2007 BBC miniseries is just wrong, though Blake Ritson is pretty dishy as Edmund.   There's also a 1983 version which I've heard is just awful, though it stars Anna Massey, which intrigues me.  I actually own an entire box set of 1980s BBC adaptations of Jane Austen novels, but I've never gotten around to watching it.

So -- how does everyone else feel about Mansfield Park?  Like me, can you put up with Fanny because the rest of the novel is just great?  Do you love Mary Crawford and wish she was the heroine?    And has anyone seen the 1983 BBC version of Mansfield Park?


  1. I disliked very much the 2007 version of Mansfield Park and from what I've heard from others and from my mother who did watch it, I don't think I'd like the 1999 version because of how much they change Fanny and other parts of the story.
    I thought the 1983 version was okay though. Great in comparison to the other versions. The acting isn't as great but it is quite true to the book and that is normally what I look for in a book to movie adaptation.
    I have a film review of the 2007 version and the 1983 version on my blog where you can get a more complete idea of my thoughts from them.
    -Lois @

  2. I've never been that bothered by Fanny. She's strong when it really matters, which is when people are telling her to do something she knows is wrong. I admire her for that.

  3. I definitely had the same experience - I liked the novel much more the second time round. Like you said, Fanny is a product of her environment, and Austen makes that clear. Even though she's not the most endearing heroine, I did sympathise with her much more the second time I read the novel, though I still liked the Crawfords, Lady Bertram, and Mrs Norris much better than anyone else. :D

    As for the movie versions, it's been a long time since I saw the 1999 one, and I'm actually quite curious to see it again, even though it seems to be pretty disliked. I don't like the 2007 version; the problem seems to be that nobody thinks a character like Fanny will make for compelling viewing, so they feel obliged to re-write the story. They really need to make a new version! :)

  4. I re-read/listened it this year for the anniversary and found it surprising -- Fanny was a much more complex character than I remembered. The Naxos reading was great! Thanks for mentioning the Paula Byrne article - I hope you'll tell us more about the meeting.

  5. I love that Penguin cover--so appropriate on various levels. Interestingly, I liked Fanny less on my reading of MP this year, although I chalk it mostly up to the audio version. I also listened to Juliet Stevenson and I thought she made Fanny whinier than I did in my head.

    I have watched all the versions of MP and there really isn't a good version. The older BBC is tedious (I fall asleep during it), the Rozema one isn't true to who Fanny really is (although I like a lot about it), and the Billie Piper version is egregious.

    Personally, I think Henry Crawford is the most interesting character in the book. I used to like Mary more, but this time around I found her too artful and too arch.

    MP has its issues but it's still a great novel. I laugh out loud every time I read it.

    1. Oh, yes, and enjoy the AGM. I can't make it this year again, but it's on the books for next year.

  6. I'm not crazy about Fanny (though I do understand that she's a product of her difficult upbringing), but I think I like Mansfield Park more than a lot of people do. I like it better than Sense and Sensibility by a comfortable margin, and -- I should reread both before making this pronouncement final -- I think I like it better than Persuasion as well. Mansfield Park is underrated!

  7. I have never seen either of the film adaptations. MP is probably my least favorite Austen because I also found Fanny too prim and proper when I read it. But maybe I should also re-read it and try to understand her from a different perspective and not expect her to be Elizabeth Bennet or Emma Woodhouse.

  8. I´ve never had a problem with Fanny, maybe because I´m also a more timid character who likes to stay in the background, I identified with her. Mansfield Park may not be my favourite Austen, but it definitely isn´t my least favourite!

    I don´t think the 1983 adaptation of MP is awful. It is rather longwinded and sometimes boring, but it is very true to the novel. I think many of the older Austen adaptations feel longwinded now that we´re used to a different (faster?) way of storytelling.

  9. I've often thought that I should reread this one. Mansfield Park and Emma are my least favorite of Austen's novels and I don't know that Emma will ever redeem herself. Fannie might.

  10. I have not read this book since I was a Freshman in college taking upper division classes. While I came to love Jane Austen, I can't say that I ever came to love Mansfield Park.

  11. Ooh I love a Mansfield Park post. I don't mind Fanny - like her better than Emma - and I kind help being rather fond of the charming Henry Crawford!