What They Say

This article originally appeared in the Times Literary Supplement
December 31, 1999

-Claudia L. Johnson is Professor of English Literature at Princeton University and is the author of Jane Austen: Women, Politics and the Novel (University of Chicago Press, 1988); Equivocal Beings (University of Chicago Press, 1995) and the Editor of The Norton Critical Edition of Mansfield Park (WW Norton, 1998). She has published and lectured widely on film adaptations of Austen's novels and her forthcoming book, Jane Austen: Cults and Cultures, is about Austen's place in the public imagination.

Mark Twain was so sick of Jane Austen that he wanted to dig her up and hit her over the head with her shinbone. Most people probably don’t want to clobber Austen, but even the gentlest soul might worry whether he or she can endure another precious Austenian movie without committing some indecorum – gagging, perhaps, or smashing a tea-set.

Twain, of course, was impatient with the prettified Austen purveyed in the marketplace of middlebrow culture since the late nineteenth century, when deluxe editions and magazine articles represented her nostalgically as a serenely domestic figure, whose wit ran the gamut from arch to barbed, and whose work excluded every form of unmannerliness and complication, sex and politics most of all. Today, though bookbags, postcards, and paperweights do their share, it is largely t.v. and movie adaptations that produce and circulate fantasies about Austenian elegance. As these productions have become a phenomenon, they’ve inflated coziness into opulence: costumes have become too lavish, gentlemen too strapping, country houses too grandiose, and all too idealized, too much. No one really likes costumers, and an honest curiosity about the texture of daily life in the past is one of the few pleasures they indulge. But while we make a fetish of furniture and dress in these adaptations, it’s wise to remember that Austen’s novels are indifferent to this kind of specificity.

Besides, there has always been another, less conspicuous, vision of Austen and her work. This other Austen is seen as alienated from the world that prettifies her, an Austen D.W. Harding celebrated for her “regulated hatred” and for her refusal to help “make her society what it was, or ours what it is.” The iconoclastic Austen could disarm Twain in an instant, and is beloved not for the primness, propriety, or romantic conventionality imputed to her, but for the energy of her satire, for the irreverence and to some even the bitchiness of her wit, for the trenchancy of her social criticism, and the complexity of her characters’ passions, passions sharpened by intelligence and intensified by good manners.

Readers attached to the dissenting Austen will enjoy the new Miramax Mansfield Park, directed and written by Patricia Rozema (I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing, When Night is Falling). Many Austenian adaptations have been impressive: the Ang Lee/ Emma Thompson Sense and Sensibility splendidly evokes the suffering of love; Roger Mitchell’s Persuasion bravely foreswears glamor for understated yearning, and Amy Heckerling’s Clueless, having cut loose from demands for authenticity, brilliantly elicits Austen’s toleration for Emma’s egotism.

Rozema's Mansfield Park is a stunning revisionist reading of Austen’s darkest novel. Adaptations cannot replicate the novel on which they are based, and Rozema’s movie, more of an intervention than an adaptation, departs radically and frequently. Despite lip service to civility, Janeites tend to be the grumpiest of fans, and many have taken umbrage at Rozema’s deviations. More than simple purism is at issue here: Austen’s own narrative method makes us feel so uniquely privileged in our closeness to her that we readily believe that no one could possibly understand or visualize a character as perfectly as we alone can, and in all decency – decency, mind you -- should not even try. For true believers, adaptations will not only disappoint but scandalize. Yet Rozema’s “unfaithfulness” obliges us to think responsibly about what we want a director to be faithful to. I am unfazed by changes to the plot or gaffes in costuming and manners–the antebellum gowns of the 1940 Pride and Prejudice, for example, Mr. Collins’s metamorphosis into a librarian, even Lady Catherine’s into a swell old gal. But when free indirect discourse is changed into voice-over I cringe in agony, and when the first sentence of Pride and Prejudice becomes a piece of dialogue I stop watching. On these counts, Rozema’s film is faithful, for it gives us what many of us love about Austen in the first place, what other movies never deliver: Austen’s presence as a narrator.

Rozema accomplishes this fidelity by unapologetic infidelity in another respect. Instead of the frail, self-denying, inhibited girl of the novel, Rozema's Fanny Price is sturdy, energetic, and self-possessed. In her abjection, Austen’s heroine is fascinating. It was jolting to encounter Rozema’s change, and hard to stop regretting it. But once I did, I found the innovation ingenious and rewarding, conducing towards the last thing we expect from Austeniana nowadays, alas: freshness and surprise. Here, Fanny retreats to her room not to struggle with feelings of injury, but to engage in the sweetest revenge, writing well. She scribbles the raucous stories Austen wrote when she was a girl -- “Henry and Eliza,” for example, where the heroine finds herself imprisoned, her two fingers bitten off and devoured by her hungry children; and “The History of England,” where Fanny (thinking of her snooty relations?) observes of the “row” Joan of Arc caused among the English, “They should not have burnt her but they did.” By weaving in Austen’s uproarious early writings, Rozema transforms Fanny into a version of the Austenian narrator we love. In the process, she gets across the novel’s funniness–no small feat-- for as a writing-heroine, Fanny, likeably played by Frances O’Connor, takes over the narrator’s acerbic lines, as when she describes Maria Bertram’s wedding with the quip “her mother stood with salts in her hand, expecting to be agitated, and her aunt tried to cry.”

But this spirited heroine with a flair for comedy encounters a history of England that is not funny. Small wonder no one has been standing in line to film Mansfield Park: the earnest clergyman, the dignified father, the vivacious young lady, the dashing young man, even the good girl are all benighted, and their country house tainted. To discover why, we must address what some read Austen to avoid: politics. In a haunting early scene, torn from her family to be treated as a semi-menial among affluent relations, Fanny hears a wailing song from a ship off the coast. "Black cargo," the coachman says. The comforts of Fanny’s new home, we learn, come from slave labor on plantations owned by Fanny’s uncle Sir Thomas. Drawing on Austen’s attachment to abolitionist writers, Rozema doesn’t glamorize the country estate, and this is one of her most transgressive moves. Her cinematographer is Michael Coulter, who also shot Lee’s Sense and Sensibility, with its lustrous blues and its penchant for the spectacularly sumptuous. Filmed at Kirby Hall, which is not inhabited, the country house in Mansfield Park, by contrast, is shot mostly in cream and yellow tones, and it looks cold, at times scarcely furnished, and in disrepair, corrupted by the moral crime on which it subsists and on which account it cannot thrive. In a climactic scene of Rozema’s invention, Fanny discovers sketches depicting the torture and rape of Sir Thomas’s slaves. These are not the pretty pictures we associate with Austen, and on their account the movie almost got an R-rating--a mind-boggling yet satisfying thought. But Austen, and most writers at the time, would have concurred in the moral if not the manner: Sir Thomas's misrule abroad sullies his authority and leads to the moral turpitude at home. Spurred on by the searing power of Harold Pinter’s Sir Thomas, Rozema is unrelenting on this point. Austen’s Mansfield Park is a seductive place, and her Sir Thomas believes in his own show of benevolence. Pinter’s Sir Thomas, depraved by unchecked power, makes no attempt even to appear right-thinking. Likewise, while it was a stroke of genius to cast Lindsay Duncan as both Mrs. Price and Lady Bertram, temperamentally similar sisters separated by the gulf of class, it wasn’t necessary to provide Lady Bertram, who exists in a stupor of native apathy shocking enough, with laudanum to boot. Set on a course of critique, Rozema foregrounds and augments the unseemliness unquestionably present in the novel, and only at the end of the film does she let up.

Rozema's movie is most arresting in its evocations of sexuality. On this subject, many readers and viewers who are usually intelligent become stupid and priggish, as if it is indecent -- indecent, mind you -- to discover sexuality in Austen’s novels, and as if the sexuality that is clearly there cannot possibly be sexuality. Scores of viewers who gasp with pleasure at a glimpse of Colin Firth’s extratextual derriere in the A&E Pride and Prejudice denounce Rozema’s movie on the grounds that there’s no sex in Jane Austen, a conviction egregiously inapt with respect to Mansfield Park, which is suffused with frustrated, illicit, wayward, or polymorphous sexuality.

Ballroom scenes are a staple of Austenian movies, and they’ve become starchy productions in which one senses dance coaches and etiquette advisors off-camera, badgering actors into the appearance of historically correct merry-making. But the ball here is not a set-piece of Regency manners, but is shot as a semi-private scene to bring out Fanny's awakening to the pleasure of her body and the circulation of erotic interest between and among the principal couples. Thrilled and confused, Fanny stands by her window after the ball is over, and as she spies her admirer Henry, played with allure by Alessandro Nivola, looking up and bowing gallantly, she composes. "Run mad as often as you chuse," she whispers, snuffing out the candle so she cannot be seen from below, "but do not faint." Fanny is determined not to lose her head. But though she carries a torch for her dim cousin Edmund–whose touch takes her breath away--he is smitten by Henry's kinky, amoral, and trite sister Mary, and as a result Fanny is vulnerable to Henry's ardors. Passion here is bewildering, not the easy stuff of Harlequin romances. Grafting the Bigg-Wither episode of Austen's life onto the plot, Rozema even has Fanny accept Henry's proposal, only to retract the next morning -- a nice touch, for the novel avers that Fanny would indeed have accepted Henry, eventually. The effect is to bring Fanny under the influence of the moral and erotic confusion elsewhere, without sacrificing our sympathy for her struggle to do and feel as she ought.

Rozema’s other movies are striking for their integration of the sublime and the amiable, and like them Mansfield Park is about vision and flight. The movie opens with wondrously defamiliarizing closeups of paper, and as these cream-colored sheets fall, they seem as mobile and as full of passion and meaning as the dancers we later see at the ball. "'I can't get out, I can't get out ,' the starling says.” Austen's allusion to Sterne is used here to protest and to connect the institution of slavery and the confinement of women. But towards the end of the film, as swarms of starlings take wing outdoors, Fanny matures as a narrator, and the camera soars rapturously over the hillside. Fanny narrates a conclusion in which most of the others never get free: the wicked are confined to the hell of each other's company; the rakish brother-and-sister pair return to London, constrained by their worldliness; and the chastened Sir Thomas, reforming his ways, grows tobacco instead of sugar! “It could have turned out differently, I suppose,” Fanny narrates repeatedly in superb scenes that freeze the action and break the illusion of realism to call attention to the intervention of her art. Fanny happily gets her man, of course, but our happiness comes from knowing that in becoming the author of Mansfield Park she has gotten out at last.

Finally a director has taken risks with Austen, treating her work not as a museum piece or as a sacred text but as a living presence whose power inspires flight. Mansfield Park is an audaciously perceptive cinematic evocation of Austen's unblinking yet forgiving vision, and its own accomplishment of dazzling imagination and originality.